Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621)

By Margaret P. Hannay


Mary Sidney Herbert, the first English woman to achieve a significant literary reputation, is celebrated for her patronage, for her translations, for her original poems praising Queen Elizabeth and her brother Philip, and especially for her metrical paraphrase of the biblical Psalms.

The third daughter of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley Sidney, she was born on 27 October 1561 at Tickenhall near Bewdley, one of her father's official residences as Lord President of the Council in the Marches of Wales; he served as Lord President from 1559 to 1586 and concurrently as Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1565 to 1571 and 1575 to 1578. The fortunes of the Sidneys and the Dudleys were closely tied to the favour of the monarch. Henry Sidney's father had been Prince Edward's chamberlain, so the boys grew up together. When Edward became king, the Sidneys were honoured; when Edward died their fortunes took a downward turn. Lady Sidney was the daughter of Jane Guildford Dudley and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who was executed for his attempts to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne. Under Queen Mary the Dudley brothers were imprisoned and their properties were confiscated, but after Elizabeth came to the throne she gave particular favour to them. Lady Sidney served Elizabeth at court until she caught smallpox nursing the queen; badly scarred by the disease, Lady Sidney spent the rest of her life largely hidden from public sight, yet her wise advice and her family connections were essential to her daughter's social position. Mary Sidney Herbert was the niece of Henry Hastings and Katherine Dudley Hastings, Earl and Countess of Huntingdon; of Ambrose Dudley and Anne Russell Dudley, Earl and Countess of Warwick; and of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Queen Elizabeth's favourite.

Mary Sidney's brothers were Philip (1554-86); Robert (1563-1626), later Earl of Leicester, and Thomas (1569-95). She also had three sisters: Margaret, who died in infancy; Elizabeth, who died in Dublin at 1567; and a younger sister, Ambrosia, who died at Ludlow in 1575. She and her sisters were given a superb education, analogous to that of Queen Elizabeth and the learned Cooke sisters. She was schooled in scripture and the classics, trained in rhetoric, and was fluent in French, Italian, and Latin; she may also have known some Greek and Hebrew. Like other aristocratic women, she was also trained in household medicine and administration, and she excelled in the feminine accomplishments of music (voice and lute) and needlework.

After Ambrosia's death Queen Elizabeth invited young Mary to court. Her uncle Leicester subsequently arranged her marriage on 21 April 1577 to the wealthy Earl of Pembroke, Leicester's friend and contemporary. Mary Sidney thereby became, at age 15, Countess of Pembroke and mistress of Wilton, the primary Pembroke estate, as well as Baynards Castle in London and many smaller properties. They had four children in rapid succession: William (1580), later third Earl of Pembroke; Katherine (1581); Anne (1583); and Philip (1584), later Earl of Montgomery and fourth Earl of Pembroke. These early years of her marriage were a time of great joy--and great tragedy. Little Katherine died the same day that Philip was born in October 1584. In 1586 Mary Sidney's father died in May and her mother in August. And then, in that same year, her brother Philip died on 17 October from wounds received in Zutphen, where he was fighting with the English forces that hoped to rescue the Netherlands from the rule of Catholic Spain. As a woman she was barred from participating in his elaborate funeral and from publishing in any of the volumes of elegies put out by the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Leiden. Overcome by illness and grief, and then fearing invasion by the Spanish Armada, Mary Sidney remained at the Pembroke country estates in Wiltshire for two years.

She returned to London in November 1588 in a procession that marked her reentry into public life. All of her surviving writings were completed between that date and the death of her husband in 1601. She began her public literary activities to honour her brother Philip by serving as patron to those who wrote in his praise, including Edmund Spenser, Thomas Moffet, and Abraham Fraunce; by supervising the publication of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia that he had originally written for her (1593 and, with additional works, 1598); by translating A Discourse of Life and Death written by his friend Philippe de Mornay; by writing two poems in his praise, an early elegy mentioned in her 1594 letter to Sir Edward Wotton, probably "The Dolefull Lay of Clorinda," and her 1599 dedicatory poem "To the Angell Spirit of the Most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney"; and by completing the metrical Psalm paraphrase that he had begun.

The extent of her literary patronage has sometimes been exaggerated, but she did encourage those in her family and household to write, including her brothers Philip and Robert; her children's tutor Samuel Daniel; her physician Thomas Moffet; her son William; and her niece and namesake Mary Sidney, later Lady Wroth, author of The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, and Love's Victory. The lengthy list of dedications to her indicates that many other writers sought her favour and that of her wealthy husband.

Her own literary works fit approved categories for women elegy, encomium, and translation thereby allowing her to stretch the boundaries for women even while she appeared to remain within them. Unlike most early modern women writers, she never apologises for, or even mentions, her role as a woman writer, instead presenting her own works as part of the English and Continental literary tradition. She modeled her work primarily on that of her brother Philip, including a similar choice of rhetorical devices (particularly alliteration, polyptoton, chiasmus, and compound epithets), numerous scattered allusions to his verse, and the recasting of Astrophil and Stella 5 in her paraphrase of Psalm 73. She is also particularly indebted to Spenser, as signaled by her diction and poetic style, her use of Spenserian characters in "Astrea," and specific allusions to The Faerie Queene in Psalms 77, 104, and 107.

Four of her works appeared in print during her life. She first published two translations: A Discourse of Life and Death. Written in French by Ph[ilippe de] Mornay. Antonius, A Tragœdie written also in French by Ro[bert] Garnier. Both done in English by the Countesse of Pembroke (London: William Ponsonby, 1592). Both works, in the Christian Stoical tradition, emphasise reason over emotion and public duty over private relationships. A Discourse was reprinted three times and reissued once during her life; its popularity is also seen in Elizabeth Ashburnham Richardson's meditation on that text (Folger MS V.a.511). Antonius helped to introduce the vogue for closet drama, inspiring subsequent works such as Elizabeth Cary's Mariam; it also introduced the Continental custom of using Roman history to comment on contemporary politics; and it was among the first English dramas to use blank verse. Three years later "The Doleful Lay of Clorinda" was published with other elegies for Sidney in Spenser's Astrophel (1595). "A Dialogue between Two Shepherds, Thenot and Piers, in Praise of Astrea," a pastoral dialogue evidently written for the Queen's intended visit to Wilton in 1599, was printed in Francis Davison's collection A Poetical Rapsody (1602).

Other works circulated in manuscript. Her translation of Petrarch's "The Triumph of Death" is preserved only in a transcription of a copy that John Harington of Kelston sent to Lucy, Countess of Bedford (Library of the Inner Temple, Petyt MS 538.43.14, ff. 284-86). She is the first English translator to use Petrarch's terza rima form. Equally important is her emphasis of Laura's voice, thereby giving women an active role in the English Petrarchan tradition.

Two dedicatory poems are included in just one of the eighteen surviving manuscripts of the Sidneian Psalmes: "To the Angell Spirit of the most excellent Sir Philip Sidney," which is as much a meditation on her role as writer as it is elegy for Sidney; and "Even now that care," which dedicates the Sidneys' poetic paraphrase of the Psalms to Queen Elizabeth (1599). Philip Sidney had begun translating the Psalms into English verse, completing just Psalms 1-43. Pembroke completed the 150 Psalms, including the 22 poems of Psalm 119, using a dazzling array of 126 different verse forms. Psalm discourse was a recognized form of writing for women. For example, Anne Lock's twenty-six sonnets meditating on Psalm 51 were published with her translation of Calvin, Laura Battiferra composed metrical Psalms in Italian to great acclaim, and Thomas Bentley's Monument of Matrones included Psalm versions and meditations by such "godly" women as Catherine Parr, Anne Askew, Elizabeth Tyrwhit, and Dorcas Martin. Mary Sidney's Psalmes are notable for their metrical complexity, inspired by the elegant French Psaumes of Clément Marot and Theodore Beza; for their witty word play and use of rhetorical figures; for their expansion of metaphors to reflect her own experience at court and as an aristocratic wife and mother; and for their careful scholarship in the many Psalm versions and commentaries that she consulted in English, Latin, and French. Her Psalmes are a significant artistic achievement in their own right, and they also influenced seventeenth-century devotional verse by writers including George Herbert, Aemilia Lanyer, and John Donne. Donne calls Philip and Mary Sidney "this Moses and this Miriam" and says that "They shew us Ilanders our joy, our King,/ They tell us why, and teach us how to sing"; that is, they provided a model for English religious verse. Now that God "hath translated those translators," Donne says, "We thy Sydnean Psalms shall celebrate" (Divine Poems, ed. Helen Gardner (1978), 34-35).

Except for some correspondence, nothing else survives that she may have written. After her husband's death in 1601 she helped to secure her children's future by arranging marriages and positions at court. But after Queen Elizabeth died two years later, her influence at court waned; as her sons achieved positions of prominence under King James VI and I they took over her role as literary patron. In her twenty years as a widow she attempted to put down insurrections in Cardiff, administered her properties, continued writing and translating, built herself the architecturally innovative Houghton House in Bedfordshire (identified by local tradition as John Bunyan's House Beautiful), carried on a flirtation with her handsome and learned young doctor Sir Matthew Lister, and took the waters for her health in the fashionable Continental town of Spa. She died from smallpox on 25 September 1621 at her home in London. After a funeral "according to her quality" in St. Paul's Cathedral, a magnificent torchlight procession took her to Wiltshire for burial in Salisbury Cathedral.

During her life she was celebrated as a writer. Among the male contemporaries who praised her works and/or borrowed from them are Samuel Daniel, John Davies, John Donne, Michael Drayton, Gabriel Harvey, George Herbert, Henry Parry, William Shakespeare, and Edmund Spenser. Her importance as a role model for younger women writers is seen in Aemilia Lanyer's dedicatory poem in Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), and in her niece Mary Wroth's affectionate portrayals of her in Urania (1621) as the Queen of Naples. She is "as perfect in Poetry and all other Princely vertues as any woman that ever liv'd, to bee esteemed excellent in any one, [but] shee was stor'd with all, and so the more admirable" (The First Part of The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania by Lady Mary Wroth, ed. Josephine A. Roberts (Binghamton, NY: MRTS / RETS, 1995), 371). Her reputation is also reflected in the portrait engraved by Simon van de Passe in 1618. Dressed in the clothing that signifies her rank--embroidered silk, lace, ermine, and extravagant ropes of pearls--she holds out to the viewer a volume clearly labeled "Davids Psalms," i.e., the Sidneian Psalm paraphrase. The cartouche around the portrait is a design of quill pens in ink wells, surmounted by a laurel wreath. In this portrait she is thus crowned with the laurel wreath of the poet, as Michael Drayton and others had described her. She was the first English woman to achieve such recognition as a poet.



The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, ed. Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinnamon, and Michael G. Brennan. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.


Hannay, Margaret P. Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Waller, Gary. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke: A Critical Study of Her Writings and Literary Milieu. Salzburg: University of Salzburg Press, 1979.

Young, Frances B. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. London: David Nutt, 1912.


© Margaret P. Hannay, 2000


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