Open main menu

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (née Sidney; 27 October 1561 – 25 September 1621) was one of the first English women to achieve a major reputation for her poetry and literary patronage. By the age of 39, she was listed with her brother Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare as one of the notable authors of her time in the verse miscellany, Belvedere, by John Bodenham. The influence of her play Antonius is widely recognized; it stimulated a revived interest in the soliloquy based on classical models and was a likely source, among others, for both the closet drama Cleopatra (1594) by Samuel Daniel and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1607).[1] Sidney was also known for her translation of Petrarch's "Triumph of Death," from the poetry anthology Triumphs, but it is her lyric translation of the Psalms that has secured her poetic reputation.

Mary Sidney Herbert
Mary Sydney Herbert.jpg
Portrait of Mary Herbert née Sidney, by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1590
Born27 October 1561
Tickenhill Palace, Bewdely, United Kingdom
Died21 September 1621
Aldersgate Street, London, United Kingdom
Resting placeSalisbury Cathedral
Known forLiterary patron, author
TitleCountess of Pembroke
Spouse(s)Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke
ChildrenWilliam Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke
Lady Katherine Herbert
Lady Anne Herbert
Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke
Parent(s)Henry Sidney and Mary Dudley


Early lifeEdit

Mary Sidney was born on 27 October 1561 at Tickenhill Palace in the parish of Bewdley in Worcestershire.[2] She was one of the four daughters of Sir Henry Sidney and wife Mary Dudley. Her brother was the poet Philip Sidney (1554–1586).[3] As a child, she spent much time at court where her mother was a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber and a close confidante of Queen Elizabeth I.[4] Like her brother Philip, she received a humanist education which included music, needlework, and classical languages like French, Italian. Following the death of Sidney's youngest sister, Ambrosia, in 1575, the queen requested that Mary to return to court to join the royal entourage.[2]

Marriage and childrenEdit

In 1577, Mary Sidney married Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (1538-1601), a close ally of the family. The marriage was arranged by her father and uncle, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. As countess of Pembroke, Mary was responsible for a number of estates including Ramsbury, Ivychurch,[5] Wilton House, and Baynard's Castle in London, where it is known that they entertained Queen Elizabeth to dinner. She had four children with her husband:

Mary Sidney was also aunt to the poet Mary Wroth, the daughter of her brother, Robert Sidney.

Later lifeEdit

Sidney's husband died in 1601. His death left her with less financial support than she might have expected, though views on its adequacy vary.

In addition to the arts, Sidney had a range of interests. She had a chemistry laboratory at Wilton House, where she developed medicines and invisible ink.[7] From 1609 to 1615, Mary Sidney probably spent most of her time at Crosby Hall in London which is now relocated as a private residence in Chelsea, London. She traveled with her doctor, Sir Matthew Lister, to the Continent in Spa, Belgium, where she relaxed by shooting pistols and playing cards. There is conjecture that she married Lister, but there is no evidence.[8]

She died of smallpox on 21 September 1621, age 59, at her townhouse in Aldersgate Street in London, shortly after King James I had visited her at the newly completed Houghton House in Bedfordshire.[2] After a grand funeral in St Paul's Cathedral, her body was buried in Salisbury Cathedral, under the steps leading to the choir stalls, where she has a mural monument. She was buried next to her late husband in the Herbert family vault.[2]

Literary careerEdit

Wilton HouseEdit

The title page of Sidney's The Tragedy of Antony, her interpretation of the story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

Mary Sidney turned Wilton House into a "paradise for poets", known as the "Wilton Circle," a salon-type literary group sustained by the Countess's hospitality, which included Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, and Sir John Davies. John Aubrey wrote that "Wilton House was like a college, there were so many learned and ingenious persons. She was the greatest patroness of wit and learning of any lady in her time."[9] Sidney received more dedications than any other woman of non-royal status.[10] By some accounts, King James I visited Wilton on his way to his coronation in 1603 and stayed again at Wilton following the coronation to avoid the plague. She was regarded as a muse by Daniel in his poem "Delia," an anagram for ideal.[11]

Her brother, Philip Sidney, wrote much of his Arcadia in her presence, at Wilton House. He also likely began preparing his English lyric version of the Book of Psalms at Wilton as well.

Sidney psalterEdit

He had completed 43 of the 150 Psalms at the time of his death during a military campaign, against the Spanish in the Netherlands in 1586. She finished his translation of the psalms, composing Psalms 44 through 150 in a dazzling array of verse forms, using the 1560 Geneva Bible and commentaries by John Calvin and Theodore Beza. Hallett Smith has called the psalter a "School of English Versification"[12] of 171 poems (Psalm 119 is a gathering of twenty-two separate poems). A copy of the completed psalter was prepared for Queen Elizabeth I in 1599, in anticipation of a royal visit to Wilton, but Elizabeth canceled her planned visit. This work is usually referred to as "The Sidney Psalms" or "The Sidney-Pembroke Psalter" and is regarded as an important influence on the development of English religious lyric poetry in the late 16th and early 17th century.[13] John Donne wrote a poem celebrating the verse psalter and claiming that he could "scarce" call the English Church reformed until its psalter had been modeled after the poetic transcriptions of Philip Sidney and Mary Herbert.[14]

Although the psalms were not printed during in her lifetime, they had an extensive manuscript publication. There are 17 extant manuscripts today—a considerable number. A later engraving of Herbert shows her holding them.[15] Her literary influence can be seen through literary patronage, through publishing her brother's works and through her own verse forms, dramas, and translations. Contemporary poets who commended Herbert's verse psalms include Samuel Daniel, Sir John Davies, John Donne, Micheal Drayton, Sir John Harington, Ben Jonson, Emilia Lanier, and Thomas Moffet.[10] The importance and influence of the Psalter translation is evident in the devotional lyric poems of Barnabe Barnes, Nicholas Breton, Henry Constable, Francis Davison, Giles Fletcher, and Abraham Fraunce—and its influence upon the later religious poetry of Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and John Milton has been critically recognized since Louis Martz placed it at the start of a developing tradition of seventeenth-century devotional lyric.[13]

Sidney was instrumental in having her brother's An Apology for Poetry, or Defence of Poesy, put into print, and she circulated the "Sidney-Pembroke Psalter" in manuscript at about the same time. The simultaneous circulation of the two works suggests a proximate relationship in their design: both the Defence and the psalter translation argued, in formally different ways, for the ethical recuperation of poetry as an instrument for moral instruction—and particularly for religious instruction.[16] Sidney also took on the task of editing and publishing her brother's "Arcadia" which he claims to have written in her presence as The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia.[17]

Other worksEdit

Sydney's closet drama Antonius is a translation of the French play Marc-Antoine (1578) by Robert Garnier. Mary is known to have translated two other works: A discourse of life and death by Philippe de Mornay, which was published with Antonius in 1592; and Petrarch's The triumph of death, which was circulated in manuscript. Her original poems include the pastoral, “A dialogue betweene two shepheards, Thenot and Piers, in praise of Astrea,” and the two dedicatory addresses, one to Elizabeth I and one to her brother Philip, contained in the Tixall manuscript copy of her verse psalter. An elegy for Philip, “The dolefull lay of Clorinda,” which was published in Colin Clouts come home againe (1595), has been attributed to both Spenser and to Mary Herbert, but Pamela Coren is probably right to attach the work to Spenser, and certainly right to assert that Mary's poetic reputation does not suffer from the loss of the attribution.[18]

By at least 1591, the Pembrokes were providing patronage to the Pembroke's Men playing company, one of the early companies to perform the works of Shakespeare. According to one account Shakespeare's company "The King's Men" performed at Wilton at this time.[19]

June and Paul Schlueter published an article in The Times Literary Supplement of 23 July 2010, in which they described a manuscript of newly discovered works by Mary Sidney Herbert.[20]

Connection to ShakespeareEdit

There has been speculation that she wrote Shakespeare's sonnets. Robin P. Williams presents a circumstantial case that Mary Sidney might have written the sonnets attributed to Shakespeare, seventeen of them urging her brother to marry, and most of the others to her lover Doctor Mathew Lister. Williams also sees the Lister relationship behind the play All’s Well That Ends Well. Williams acknowledges that there is no documented evidence for the case, but notes that the detailed knowledge in the plays of sailing, archery, falconry, alchemy, astronomy, cooking, medicine and travel correlate well with what is known of Mary Sidney's life and interests.[7]

Her poetic epitaph, which is ascribed to Ben Jonson but which is more likely to have been written in an earlier form by poets William Browne and her son William, summarizes how she was regarded in her own day:[2]

Underneath this sable hearse,
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Fair and learned and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

Related pagesEdit


  1. ^ 1564-1616., Shakespeare, William, (1990). Antony and Cleopatra. Bevington, David M.,. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521252563. OCLC 19623640.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  2. ^ a b c d e "Herbert [née Sidney], Mary, countess of Pembroke (1561–1621), writer and literary patron | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/13040. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  3. ^ "Sidney, Sir Philip (1554–1586) | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-1012577. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  4. ^ "Sidney [née Dudley], Mary, Lady Sidney (1530x35–1586), courtier | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/69749. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  5. ^ "Houses of Augustinian canons: Priory of Ivychurch | British History Online". Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  6. ^ a b Hannay, Margaret (1998). The collected works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Kinnamon, Noel J., Brennan, Michael G. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 1–93. ISBN 0198112807. OCLC 37213729.
  7. ^ a b Williams, Robin (2006). Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a woman write Shakespeare?. Berkeley, CA: Wilton Circle Press. ISBN 0321426401. OCLC 67979128.
  8. ^ Magazine, Britain (15 September 2017). "Mary Sidney: Countess of Pembroke and literary trailblazer". Britain Magazine | The official magazine of Visit Britain | Best of British History, Royal Family,Travel and Culture. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  9. ^ Aubrey, John (1982). Brief lives: A Modern English Version. Barber, Richard W. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. ISBN 0851152066. OCLC 9927344.
  10. ^ a b Williams, Franklin B. "The literary patronesses of Renaissance England" Notes and Queries 9 (1962), pp. 364–366.
  11. ^ "Poets' Corner - Samuel Daniel - Delia". Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  12. ^ Smith, Hallett. "English metrical psalms in the sixteenth century and their literary significance," Huntington Library Quarterly 9 (1946), 249–271.
  13. ^ a b Martz, Louis L. (1962). The poetry of meditation: a study in English religious literature of the seventeenth century (Rev. ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300001657. OCLC 17701003.
  14. ^ "Upon the Translation of the Psalms by Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke, His Sister. Divine Poems. John Donne. 1896. The Poems of John Donne". Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  15. ^ Mary Herbert as illustrated in Horace Walpole, A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1806).
  16. ^ Kimberly Anne Coles (2012). "Mary (Sidney) Herbert, countess of Pembroke". The Encyclopedia of English Renaissance Literature, Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. and Alan Stewart (eds). Blackwell Publishing.
  17. ^ Bear, Risa. "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia".
  18. ^ Pamela Coren, "Edmund Spenser, Mary Sidney, and the doleful lay" SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 42 (2002), 25–41.
  19. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 531.
  20. ^ "June and Paul Schlueter Discover Unknown Poems by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke". Lafayette College.

Further readingEdit

  1. Danielle Clarke, "'Lover's songs shall turne to holy psalmes’: Mary Sidney and the transformation of Petrarch," Modern Language Review 92 (1997), 282–294.
  2. Kimberly Anne Coles, Religion, reform, and women's writing in early modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). ISBN 9780521880671.
  3. Jaime Goodrich, Faithful Translators: Authorship, Gender, and Religion in Early Modern England (Evanston, IL. Northwestern University Press, 2013). ISBN 9780810129634.
  4. Hannibal Hamlin, Psalm culture and early modern English literature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). ISBN 9780521037068.
  5. Margaret P. Hannay, Philip's phoenix: Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). ISBN 9780195057799.
  6. Mary Ellen Lamb, Gender and authorship in the Sidney circle, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). ISBN 9780299126940.
  7. Anne Lake Prescott, "Mary Sidney's Antonius and the ambiguities of French history" Yearbook of English Studies 38 (2002), 216–233.
  8. Beth Quitslund, "Teaching us how to sing? The peculiarity of the Sidney psalter," Sidney Journal 23 (2005), 83–110.
  9. J. C. A. Rathmell (ed.), The psalms of Sir Philip Sidney and the countess of Pembroke, (New York: New York University Press, 1963). ISBN 9780814703861.
  10. Debra Rienstra and Noel Kinnamon, "Circulating the Sidney–Pembroke psalter," in George L. Justice and Nathan Tinker (eds.), Women's writing and the circulation of ideas: manuscript publication in England, 1550–1800, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 50–72. ISBN 9780521808569.
  11. Suzanne Trill, "'In poesie the mirrois of our age': the countess of Pembroke's ‘Sydnean’ poetics," in Kent Cartwright (ed.), A companion to Tudor literature, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 428–443. ISBN 9781405154772.
  12. Micheline White, "Protestant women's writing and congregational psalm singing: from the song of the exiled 'Handmaid' (1555) to the countess of Pembroke's psalmes (1599)," Sidney Journal 23 (2005), 61–82.

External linksEdit