Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Mary Sidney Herbert (1561-1621)

Sierra Club


My fellow, my companion, help most dear, My soul, my other self, my inward friend.


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Born on October 27, 1561, Mary Sidney, sister to Sir Philip Sidney, was the fourth child and third daughter born to Sir Henry Sidney, president of Wales and Lord Governor of Ireland, and Mary Dudley, daughter of the duke of Northumberland. Both families, the Sidneys and the Dudleys, had risen to prominence under Henry VIII, and excepting the reign of Queen Mary, maintained their positions through Elizabeth's reign. "During Mary's childhood," says Margaret P. Hanney, in Philip's Phoenix," her father was firmly established as one of the most influential men under Elizabeth, the third Tudor monarch who had favored him" (Hannay 20-21). When Mary was one year old, her mother nursed Queen Elizabeth through smallpox, contracting it herself. Mary Dudley Sidney never fully recovered from the disease and remained disfigured, "reduced from one of the most beautiful women at court to a deformity," appearing at court only in veil or mask (Hannay 17-18).

Residing at Ludlow Castle during the outbreak of smallpox in the English court, Mary Sidney was spared the the scars her mother and her brother Philip, who had survived the disease a year before his mother, were to bear for the rest of their lives. She spent most of her childhoood at the castle in Wales, where she was carefully schooled, in an age when most women were illiterate, in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, as well as needlework, the lute, and archery (Hannay 27). Her father, meanwhile, travelling between Ludlow Castle in Wales, Dublin Castle in Ireland, and Penshurst in England, became a champion of the Protestants in the low countries.

By the time Mary Sidney was eleven, the Dudley's and the Sidneys controlled two thirds of the lands under Elizabeth's rule, owning property in Ireland, Wales, Warwickshire, and England. Until 1570 it was widely believed that the Queen might marry Robert Dudley, Mary Sidney's uncle (Hannay 22).

Mary's three sisters died before she was fourteen. In 1575 Queen Elizabeth persuaded Sir Henry that Mary should leave Wales before she too succumbed to its "unpleasan ayer" urging that she take up residence in the royal household. Young Mary's arrival coincided with nineteen days of festivity organized for the queen at Kenilworth Castle, which included "'accidental' encounters with allegorical personages on bridges or in holly bushes that made it seem as though the queen and her court were vacationing in Spenser's realm of Faerie" (Hannay 34).

Two years later, in the spring of 1577, Mary Sidney wed Henry Herbert, the second earl of Pembroke. She was sixteen. He was 43--twenty-seven years her senior--and had been married twice before. Although a powerful personage in Elizabeth's court, Herbert's finances were then in such disarray (in part from his support of Elizabeth's Spanish campaigns) that he asked and received an advance from her father on her dowry of three thousand pounds. His future father in law, also cash poor (because of his costly service in Ireland), borrowed money to pay Sir Henry in installments, several of which were paid after the marriage.

Fortunately, Mary's marriage settlement, negotiated by the Earl of Leicester, summarized her contribution to the marriage--property in Dorset, Wiltshire, Devon, Glamorgan, Monmouth, Sussex, Kent, and Surrey--and guaranteed her life interest in her properties, as "the earl [when he died in 1601] left her 'as bare as he could, and bestowing all on the young lord, even to her jewels" (Hannay 657).

Their first child, and Sir Henry's long awaited heir, William, was born in April of 1580, when Lady Mary was nineteen years old and Sir Henry was forty-six. Sir Philip Sidney spent the spring and summer of 1980 with his sister at Wilton, Wiltshire, where together they worked on a metrical translation of the Psalms, and where Sir Philip Sidney began work on "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia," dedicated to his sister, in which he tells the story of Parthenia, whose facial disfigurement is cured, and which Mary Sidney edited several times.

In 1586, Lady Mary Sidney Herbert's mother, father, and brother Philip died. She mourned for two years, after which she undertook to finish the literary tasks her brother had intended: she assumed the patronage of Sir Philip's clients, edited Arcadia, and completed the Psalms.


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

Stephen, Sir Leslie and Lee, Sir Sidney, Eds. The Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XI. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921-1923). [Adapted from University of Massachusetts Amherst]

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1 comment:

Walker said...

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