Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke née Mary Sidney (Bewdley, 27 October 1561 – London, 25 September 1621), was one of the first English women to achieve a major reputation for her literary works, translations and literary patronage.
Mary Sidney was born at Tickenhill Palace, Bewdley in Worcestershire in 1561. She was one of three daughters of Sir Henry Sidney and his wife, the former Lady Mary Dudley, the daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Lady Sidney is known to have written poetry. A year after Mary's birth, Lady Sidney nursed Queen Elizabeth I through smallpox and caught the disease from her, becoming severely disfigured in the process. Though her husband never repudiated her, she often lived separately from her family.
In 1576 Mary, who was by then her parents' only surviving daughter, was summoned to London by the Queen to be one of her noble attendants. In 1577, her mother's brother, Robert Dudley, arranged his niece's marriage to his 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 Baynard's Castle in London. Mary had four children, the first of whom, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (1580–1630), is possibly 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 by her tutors, who included a female Italian teacher. Like her learned aunt Jane Grey she was educated in the Reformed humanist tradition. In the 16th century, noblewomen required a good understanding of theological issues and were taught to read original texts. Mary was also schooled in poetry, music, French, the Classics, possibly in Hebrew and rhetoric, in needlework and practical medicine. 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 propagated Italian culture and literature. 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 safehouses 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, 3rd Earl of Warwick and Robert Dudley, 1st 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" which would include the New World (North America) 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 the US named after Pembroke.
After the death of her sister Ambrosia, the Countess appears to have been devoted to her brother Sir Philip Sidney. Mary was a natural cultural catalyst. 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 translation of the Psalms (which are sung unaccompanied in Calvinist worship), 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 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 Shakespeare's company "The King's Men", Mary moved out of Wilton and rented a house in London. Though 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 to 1615 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 Bedfordshire country home with fine vistas, Houghton Hall, 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 near the French Protestant Church and in the same street in which John Wesley was later converted in 1621, shortly after King James I visited her at Houghton Hall. After a grand funeral which celebrated her widely recognised literary achievements in St Paul's Cathedral, 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. This ardour is apparent in 'matters of the heart', for example in the death scenes in her closet drama The Tragedy of Antonie (1592), which William Shakespeare may have used as source material for his Antony and Cleopatra (1607), as well as in her poetic masterpiece "The Psalms of David", which describes the pain of an earthly existence in the light of the divine comfort of 'grace'. The 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). Mary's versions, though, 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; it is clear that she 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), summarizes 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.
Mary, Countess of Pembroke was the most gifted woman writer of the English Renaissance, much praised on her death by many, including the poetess Aemilia Lanier. She was the aunt of the poetess Lady Mary Wroth (the daughter of her brother, Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester). She also influenced the religious writing of the divine and poet George Herbert (her sons' first cousin). Her literary talents and aforementioned family connections to Shakespeare has caused her to be nominated as one of the many claimants named as the true author of the works of William Shakespeare in the Shakespeare authorship question.