Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (27 October 1561–1621), was one of the first English women to achieve a major reputation for her literary works, translations and literary patronage.
Born at Tickenhill, Bewdley, in 1561, she was one of the three daughters of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley. Her mother came from the highest nobility, being the daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland High Protector of England under Edward VI and was the eldest sister of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, favourite of Elizabeth I. Mary Dudley is known to have written poetry. A year after her daughter Mary's birth, Mary Sidney (nee Dudley) nursed Queen Elizabeth Ist through smallpox and she was severely disfigured. Though her husband, Sir Henry Sidney never repudiated her, she often lived separately from her family.
After the death of her sister, Ambrosia, at Ludlow Castle in 1576, fifteen year old Mary Sidney, as the only surviving Sidney daughter, was summoned to London by the Queen to be one of her noble attendants. In 1577, the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley arranged his niece's marriage to close ally, Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, then in his mid forties. At seventeen, Mary became the mistress of Wilton House near Salisbury and Baynards Castle in London. Mary had four children, the first of whom, William Herbert (1580-1630), is probably the young man described in Shakespeare's Sonnets. The other surviving child, Philip, became the 4th Earl of Pembroke, on his brother's death in 1630. Mary Sidney's sons are the "Incomparable Pair," to whom William Shakespeare's First Folio is dedicated. At different times, both were patrons of the King's Men, Shakespeare's acting troupe.
Mary Sidney was highly educated. Like her learned aunt Jane Grey, she was educated in the Reformed humanist tradition. In the 16th century, noblewomen needed a good understanding of theological issues and were taught to read original texts. Mary was schooled by private tutors at home in poetry, music, French and Italian language and literature, the Classics, possibly in Hebrew and rhetoric, in needlework and practical medicine. She was taught Italian literature by a female Italian tutor. She later translated Petrarch's "Triumph of Death" and many other European works. She had a keen interest in chemistry and set up a chemistry laboratory at Wilton House, run by Walter Raleigh's half-brother. She turned Wilton into a "paradise for poets", known as "The Wilton Circle" which included Edmund Spenser,Michael Drayton, Sir John Davies and Samuel Daniel, a salon-type literary group sustained by the Countess's hospitality. Her aim was to banish barbarism (an aim she shared with John Florio), by strengthening and classicising the English language and also by practising "true religion", which, in her view, combined Calvinism, devotion to Christ and acts of charity. She was herself a Calvinist theologian. Her public persona (at least) was pious, virtuous and learned. She was celebrated for her singing of the psalms, her warmth, charm and beauty. In private, she was witty and, some reported, flirtatious. She ran safe houses for French reformed refugees.
Mary Sidney was younger sister and disciple to the poet, courtier and soldier Sir Philip Sidney who was for some time, the heir of both Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, brothers to Guildford Dudley, husband of the Lady Jane Grey, who were regarded as Reformed martyrs, not just by the Dudley family, but by the reformed Protestant party. Philip Sidney was being prepared to be leader of the Protestant party at Court and supported the founding of a Protestant 'empire' to counterbalance the threat of Catholic and Spanish domination. Mary Sidney financially supported the explorations of Frobisher. Her son William Herbert was a funder and supporter of New World explorations: there is a river in America named after the Pembrokes.
After the death of her sister Ambrosia, the Countess appears to have been devoted to her brother Sir Philip Sidney. Mary was a catalyst or touchstone: she had a gift of inspiring creativity in all those around her, including her circle, relatives and servants. Philip wrote much of his "Arcadia" in her presence. Philip Sidney was engaged in preparing a new English version of the Book of Psalms (because the translations under Edward VI were deficient). 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.
Mary Sidney took on the task of amplifying and editing his "Arcadia" which was published as The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia, one of the most widely read books for the next 300 years. She also finished Philip's work of the Psalms, composing Psalms 44-150 on her own poetry, using the 1560 Geneva Bible and commentaries by John Calvin and Theodore Beza. As a competent theologian, she was unafraid to disagree with Calvin on minor points. A copy of the completed book was presented to Elizabeth I of England in 1599. This work is usually referred to as "The Sidney Psalms" or "The Sidneian Psalms" and is regarded as an important influence on the development of English poetry in the late 16th and early 17th century. John Donne wrote a poem in celebration of them. The Psalms were drawn from previous English translations rather than original Hebrew texts and are therefore properly called "metaphrases" rather than translations. Like Philip's, Mary Sidney's versions use a wide variety of poetic forms and display a vivid imagination and vigorous phrasing.
Mary's husband, Henry 2nd Earl of Pembroke, died in 1600. Thereafter she played a large part in managing Wilton and the other Pembroke estates, on behalf of her son, William, who entirely took over her role of literary patronage. After James I visited her at Wilton in 1603 and was entertained by Shakespare's company "The King's Men", Mary moved out of Wilton and rented a house in London. Thought it is certain that the King's Men attended Wilton, whether William Shakespeare was with them is uncertain. However, it is reported that there was at Wilton at one time, a letter in which the Mary Sidney urges her son to attend Wilton, as "we have the man Shakespeare with us". From 1609-15 she lived at Crosby Hall, now a private residence relocated to Chelsea, London, but then located in the City of London. She may have secretly married her doctor, Sir Matthew Lister and she famously travelled to Spa on the Continent, where she relaxed by shooting pistols and played cards. She employed Italian architects to build a country home with fine vistas, Houghton (now in ruins, near Milton Keynes), which John Bunyan refers to in his works as the "House Beautiful". She died of smallpox at her house in Aldersgate Street, London on 25 September 1621, shortly after King James I visited her at Houghton. After a grand funeral which celebrated her widely recognised literary achievements in St Paul's Cathedral, London, her body was buried next to that of the Earl, under the steps leading to the choirstalls in Salisbury Cathedral.
Mary Sidney's imaginative, lively and warm style is filled with "Sidneian fire", transparency and holy ardour, both in matters of the heart e.g. in the death scenes in her closet drama "Mark Antonie", translated from Garnier, which is used as source material by William Shakespeare in his "Antony and Cleopatra" and in her poetic masterpiece, "The Psalms of David" which describe the pain of an earthly existence, in the light of the divine comfort of "grace". Her Psalms, which she considered her memorial, lack the weighty dignity of the Psalms of the Authorised Version which was the crown of thirty years effort to forge English into a vehicle, fit for theology, but her versions have delightful and felicitous poetic forms and expressions. Her influence, through literary patronage, through her brother's works, through her own her poetry, drama, translations and theology (e.g. she translated Philippe De Mornay's "Discourse of Life and Death" to strengthen the international reformed community) cannot be easily quantified, but she clearly had a strong influence on some of the finest literary fruits of the English Renaissance.
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 William Herbert, Mary's son, sums up how she was regarded in her own day:
"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."
A theory has been proposed by American author Robin Williams(female scholar), that Mary Sidney wrote the sonnets and some of the poetry and plays attributed to William Shakespeare. According to Williams, Mary Sidney had the motive, means and opportunity to write the plays. This is one among many 'alternative authorship theories' which some say were originally fuelled in the 19th century, by a lack of knowledge about the curriculum in Elizabethan grammar schools. Mary's erudite brother, Sir Philip Sidney, attended Shrewsbury Grammar School and recently, scholars have demonstrated that Elizabethan grammar schools, like Stratford-upon-Avon's, provided a high level of classical education. The Sidney children were offered an extensive education at home. Computer analysis of Shakepearean words in Sidney and an in-depth analysis of imagery (which in Shakespeare is concrete and homespun) will be part of interesting research. In the Sonnets, the author may be heard as lamenting the use of the same poetic form. Mary Sidney's natural taste is for a very extensive variety of verse forms.
Mary Sidney has been called a predominantly lyric poet, translator and religious writer interested in morality and divine learning, filled with "Sidneian fire" as mentioned above. The writer's focus can be said to be on dramatic, psychoanalytical and poetic representations of the twists of human personality, with a focus on evil, violence, love, murder, bonding, sexual passion and on "the concrete surface of the earth". Some have said Shakespeare's main inspiration was Ovid. There is respect for the Bible, for poetry, beauty and the Classics. William Shakespeare and Mary Sidney may have known one another.
Mary, Countess of Pembroke was the most gifted woman writer of the English Renaissance, much praised, on her death, by many including poetess Aemilia Lanier. She was the aunt of poetess Lady Mary Wroth, the daughter of her brother, Henry Sidney, Earl of Leicester. She also influenced the religious writing of the divine and poet George Herbert, her sons' first cousin. There are many other connections of interest.
Introduction to The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, Vols 1 & 2, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998
- Mary Sidney and Sir Philip Sidney, The Sidney Psalms. Edited by R. E. Pritchard. Carcanet, Manchester, 1992.
- Underwood, Anne, "Was the Bard a woman?". Newsweek, 2005.
- Williams, Robin P., "Sweet Swan of Avon: did a woman write Shakespeare?". Wilton Press, 2006. Illustrated by John Tollett.
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