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date: 25 February 2020

Herbert [née Sidney], Mary, countess of Pembrokefree

  • Margaret Patterson Hannay

Mary Herbert, countess of Pembroke (1561–1621)

by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1590

Herbert [née Sidney], Mary, countess of Pembroke (1561–1621), writer and literary patron, was born on 27 October 1561 at Tickenhall, near Bewdley, Worcestershire, the third daughter of Sir Henry Sidney (1529–1586) and Lady Mary Sidney (1530x35–1586), who was the daughter of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and his wife, Jane Dudley [see under Dudley, John]. Her eldest brother was Philip Sidney (1554–1586); her two younger brothers were Robert Sidney, later earl of Leicester (1563–1626), and Thomas (1569–1595). She had three sisters: Mary (Margaret), who died in infancy at Penshurst in 1558; an elder sister, Elizabeth, who died at Dublin in 1567; and a younger sister, Ambrosia, who died at Ludlow in 1575.

Sidney's father was lord president of the council in the marches of Wales (1559–86); he also served as lord deputy of Ireland from 1565 to 1571 and from 1575 to 1578. Because Henry Sidney's father had been chamberlain to young Edward, he himself had been educated with the prince, and Edward died in his arms. Her mother was a close friend of Queen Elizabeth and took an active role in court politics until she contracted smallpox after nursing the queen; she was badly scarred by the disease and thereafter rarely appeared at court. The Dudley connections established Mary Sidney's social position: she was the niece of Guildford Dudley, who was executed with his wife, Lady Jane Grey; 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.

Education and marriage

At home Sidney received an education in the humanist curriculum analogous to that of Queen Elizabeth, the learned Cooke sisters, and her own mother. 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. She was well trained in the conventional female skills of music (both as singer and as lute player), and in needlework, so that her name was later used as a celebratory endorsement for needlework patterns and for books of music. John Taylor, the water poet, for example, says that her needlework will make her fame live for ever, and puns:

A Patterne, and a Patronesse she wasOf vertuous industry, and studious learning.

J. Taylor, The Needles Excellency, 1634, sig. A3vSimilarly Thomas Morley says that she is famous for her singing (Canzonets, BL, Add. MS 23625). Like other aristocratic women she was also trained in household medicine and administration.

After the death of her sister Ambrosia, Sidney was invited to court by Elizabeth in 1575. That summer she was present at the magnificent entertainment for the queen at Kenilworth and was praised in a posy presented to her at Woodstock. Her uncle Leicester arranged her marriage, on 21 April 1577, to the recently widowed Henry Herbert, second earl of Pembroke (b. in or after 1538, d. 1601), one of the wealthiest landowners in Britain. Leicester arranged a dowry of £3000, a serious financial problem for the Sidneys. Henry Sidney asked Leicester to 'bear with my poverty for if I had it, lyttell would I regard any sum of money' to achieve this match for young Mary (De L'Isle MS U1475 C7/3). Mary Sidney was Pembroke's third wife. In 1553 his father and the duke of Northumberland had arranged his marriage to Lady Katherine Grey, as part of their effort to put Lady Jane on the throne; he harshly repudiated that marriage. In 1563 he had married Katherine Talbot, who died childless in 1576.

Mary Herbert bore four recorded children between 1580 and 1584: William Herbert (1580), later third earl of Pembroke; Katherine (1581); Anne (1583); and Philip Herbert (1584), later earl of Montgomery and fourth earl of Pembroke. At William's birth Pembroke was so elated by finally having an heir that he put up a celebratory tablet in St Mary's Church in Wilton. Katherine died on the day that Philip was born; Anne died, unmarried, in her early twenties. In addition there was at least one child who was stillborn or died in infancy.

The Pembrokes lived primarily at Wilton, their country estate near Salisbury, and at Baynards Castle, their London home; their other residences included the smaller estates of Ramsbury and Ivychurch, both in Wiltshire. When Mary was a young bride her parents, her brother Philip, and other family members frequently visited Wilton. Philip Sidney began to write The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1593) there, saying in his dedication that he wrote because 'you desired me to doo it' and that it was written 'in loose sheetes of paper, most of it in your presence' (sig. A3). His sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella was also circulated at Wilton, and he may have begun paraphrasing the Psalms there as well. Sidney seems to have entrusted several of his manuscripts to his sister, including those of Certain Sonnets, Astrophil and Stella, and the Lady of May, which she later had printed in the 1598 edition of the Arcadia, which served almost as Sidney's collected secular works.

Philip Sidney died on 17 October 1586, 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 Mary 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. Her father (on 5 May) and her mother (on 9 August) had both died that same year. In her grief Mary retired to Wilton for two years of mourning. There, during the attack of the Spanish Armada, she provided a safe haven for her sister-in-law Barbara Sidney (née Gamage) and her infant daughter Mary, later Mary Wroth. After the armada was dispersed Mary returned to London, in November 1588, for the accession day celebrations. That return marked the beginning of her public literary activities.

Literary patronage

Mary Herbert honoured her brother's memory by serving as a literary patron to those who honoured him, by supervising the 1593 and 1598 editions of his Arcadia, by translating works that he would have approved, by completing the metric paraphrase of the Psalms that he had begun, and by writing poems to praise him. These efforts on his behalf also permitted her to achieve a literary career herself, despite cultural injunctions to female silence. Her self-description as 'Sister of Sir Philip Sidney' appears self-abnegating but it is part of an autograph postscript on a business letter that also asserts her own worth: 'it is the Sister of Sir Philip Sidney who yow ar to right and who will worthely deserve the same' (BL, Add. MS 12503, fol. 151). Similarly her deference to her brother in 'To the Angell Spirit of the most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney' needs to be placed in the context of other elegies of Sidney that praise him in extravagant terms. Sir Walter Ralegh, for example, called him the 'Scipio, Cicero, and Petrarch of our time' (E. Spenser, Astrophel, 1595, sig. K2). All the poets, Edmund Spenser said:

did weep and waile, and mone,And meanes deviz'd to shew his sorrow best.

ibid., F4

Poets who had sought Philip Sidney's patronage now sought Mary's, making her the first non-royal woman in England to receive a significant number of dedications (F. Williams, The literary patronesses of Renaissance England, N&Q, 207, 1962, 364–6). She particularly encouraged writers in her own family and household. Not only did Philip Sidney dedicate his Arcadia to her but also their younger brother Robert wrote a manuscript of poems and addressed it 'For the Countess of Pembroke' (BL, Add. MS 58435). Except for her husband, who provided the financial and political backing that constituted her patronage, most of the family wrote poetry: her son William; possibly her daughter Anne; and, most importantly, Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth, her niece, namesake, and goddaughter. But it seems that everyone at Wilton was writing, including her children's tutors, the secretaries, the family physician, and even old family retainers like Thomas Howell, so that Nicholas Breton can claim that she has more 'servants' writing poetry to her than did Elizabetta Gonzaga, celebrated in Castiglione's Courtier (N. Breton, Pilgrimage to Paradise, 1592, sig. A2). Samuel Daniel credits her with encouraging his poetry, saying that he had received 'the first notion for the formall ordering of those compositions at Wilton, which I must ever acknowledge to have beene my best Schoole' (S. Daniel, A Panegyrike … with a Defence of Ryme, 1603, sig. G3). Thomas Churchyard, in A Pleasant Conceite, says that she 'sets to schoole, our Poets ev'ry where' (sig. B1v) and John Aubrey later describes Wilton as a 'College' (Brief Lives, 138). The inevitable squabbling among those who sought her patronage is evident in the works of Nicholas Breton, Thomas Nashe, and even Abraham Fraunce (M. Lamb, Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle, 1990, 28–71), who incorporated her name into the titles of several works that he presented to her, including The Countesse of Pembrodkes Emmanuel (1591) and the three parts of The Countesse of Pembrokes Ivychurch (1591–2). Nicholas Breton similarly entitled poems 'The Countesse of Penbrookes Love' and 'The Countess of Pembrokes Passion'.

Mary Herbert seems to have participated in the exchange of poems at Wilton. An early draft of her 'Angell Spirit' was found among Daniel's papers, and Thomas Moffet mentions her Petrarch translation and her Psalmes before they were complete. Learned aristocratic women had usually confined their work to the family circle but Mary's works also circulated outside the household, since she asks Edward Wotton to return a poem that she had sent him about 1594 (Collected Works, 1.286–7), and Spenser, in 'The Ruines of Time', claims to have read an unpublished elegy that she had written, probably 'The Dolefull Lay of Clorinda', later published in his Astrophel (1595). She achieved public recognition as a literary figure, demonstrated not only by the eagerness with which poets sought to be members of her literary coterie but also by the extent of the circulation of her works. Daniel, instead of promising his patron that he would immortalize her through his verse, prophesied that she would achieve fame through her own metric psalms:

Those Hymnes that thou doost consecrate to heaven …Unto thy voyce eternitie hath given.

S. Daniel, Delia & Cleopatra, 1594, sig. H6

Mary Herbert's duties included assisting her husband with some political correspondence (in which she attempted to smooth over problems caused by his tactless remarks), supporting public works, seeking justice for her servants, and interceding for friends and family at court, particularly her brother Robert, in his repeated efforts to obtain leave to return home from his position in Flushing. Like other aristocratic women she oversaw household administration for the family estates; because of the scale of the Pembroke wealth she served primarily as hostess and as titular head of an organization of servants with its own hierarchical bureaucratic structure. After her husband succeeded her father as lord president of the council in the marches of Wales in 1586 she also performed the tasks that had been her mother's at Ludlow Castle and other official residences. Her duties also included encouraging the spiritual instruction of her family and retainers. Gervase Babington, chaplain at Wilton, praises her support of religious education even as he admonishes her to persevere in 'the studie of his worde, and all other good learning' (G. Babington, A brief conference betwixt Mans frailtie and faith, 1584, sig. A5). Nicholas Breton goes even farther when he asks her to turn from the classics to patronize only religious works: 'thinke not of the ruines of Troie, but helpe to builde up the walles of Jerusalem' (N. Breton, Pilgrimage, sig. A2). So identified had she become with devout learning that in an epitaph William Browne declares that there was 'so much divinity' in her that her loss would injure 'Our Age, too prone to Irreligion' (BL, Lansdowne MS 777, fol. 44).


Such praise has led some scholars to portray Mary Herbert as a dour religious figure; however, her niece Mary Wroth shadows her in Urania and Love's Victory as a lover and as a writer of secular verse. Undoubtedly some of her writing has been lost but the works that have survived appear to 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. She never apologizes for, or even mentions, her role as a woman writer, unlike the many early modern women writers who strewed their work with apology. Her surviving works demonstrate not only her protestant faith but also her erudition, her skill with rhetorical figures, and her witty wordplay. Her primary literary debt is to the works 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 sonnet 5 of Astrophil and Stella in her paraphrase of Psalm 73. She is also indebted to Spenser, as signalled 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.

Mary Herbert's psalm paraphrases are based on extensive scholarship in the multiple versions and commentaries available to her in English, French, and Latin. She is so indebted to the phrasing of the Book of Common Prayer, the Geneva Bible of 1560, the Psaumes of Clément Marot and Theodore Beza, and the psalm translations and commentaries of John Calvin and of Beza (both in Latin and in English translation) that she must frequently have worked with them open before her. She consulted many additional sources, including the commentaries of Victorinus Strigelius, Franciscus Vatablus, George Buchanan, and Immanuel Tremellius. Where these sources differ she typically chooses the version closest to the Hebrew, so she may have had some access to the Hebrew text and scholarship (T. Steinberg, The Sidneys and the Psalms, Studies in Philology, 92, 1995, 1–17). She also occasionally echoes phrases from earlier English metric psalms, including those by Anne Lock, Matthew Parker, Robert Crowley, Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, and George Gascoigne. Her phrasing sometimes derives from her own experience, with expansions of metaphors that allude to life at court, to the experiences of an aristocratic wife, and to motherhood. She employed a dazzling array of some 126 different verse forms, including ottava rima, rime royal, terza rima, two sonnet forms, and some highly original stanzaic forms. Samuel Woodforde's transcription of her working papers (Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. poet. 25) gives a glimpse of her process of poetic composition. She typically began with a paraphrase of the Book of Common Prayer or the Geneva Bible, and then consulted other psalters and scholarly commentaries, expanded metaphors, added rhetorical flourishes, and improved the rhyme, metre, and phrasing.

The Psalmes, Mary Herbert's most significant achievement, were widely circulated in manuscript; eighteen manuscripts are now known to be extant, only one of which includes her two dedicatory poems, 'To the Angell Spirit of the most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney' and 'Even now that care', addressed to Queen Elizabeth. Two manuscripts (BL, Add. MSS 12047 and 46372) were rubricated for morning and evening prayer, indicating that they were thought suitable for worship. Others of her psalms were set to music; two penitential psalms (51 and 130) were set for treble voice and lute (in the fragmentary BL, Add. MS 15117), and portions of Psalm 97 (ll. 10, 15, 32, 38) in All the French Psalm Tunes with English Words (1632). Individual psalms also circulated in private correspondence, including three (51, 104, and 137) included with The Triumph of Death in transcriptions that John Harington of Kelston sent to Lucy, countess of Bedford (Library of the Inner Temple, Petyt MS 538.43.14, fols. 284–6).

Two of Mary Herbert's translations from French, A Discourse of Life and Death, dated 'The 13 of May 1590. At Wilton', and Antonius, dated 'At Ramsburie. 26. of November 1590', were published together by William Ponsonby in 1592. Both works include Senecan themes, emphasizing reason over emotion and public duty over private relationships. A Discourse of Life and Death, her translation from the French of Philippe de Mornay, attracted little attention in print but was widely read; it was reprinted three times and reissued once. An example of how the work was reshaped for individual use is seen in Elizabeth Richardson's early-seventeenth-century précis of, and meditation on, Mary Herbert's translation (Washington, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.511).

Antonius, Mary Herbert's translation of Robert Garnier's Marc Antoine, was far more influential. Such neo-Senecan drama, widely popular in France, deliberately emphasizes rhetoric and didacticism, and develops characters through soliloquy rather than dramatic action. The first dramatization of the story of Antony and Cleopatra in England, and one of the first English dramas in blank verse, it also helped to introduce the continental vogue for using historical drama to comment on contemporary politics. Daniel wrote Cleopatra as a companion to her play, and Shakespeare borrows elements of her phrasing and characterization in Antony and Cleopatra. Antonius also seems to have inspired a vogue for drama primarily intended to be read or performed in private.

Two other works printed in Mary Herbert's lifetime are her pastoral dialogue praising Elizabeth, 'A dialogue between two shepherds, Thenot and Piers, in praise of Astrea', evidently written for the queen's intended visit to Wilton in 1599 and printed in Francis Davison's Poetical Rapsody (1602); and, almost certainly, 'A Dolefull Lay of Clorinda', an elegy for Sidney published with Spenser's Astrophel (1595), although it is sometimes attributed to Spenser himself (Collected Works, 1.119–32).

Mary Herbert's husband died on 19 January 1601, after a long illness, leaving her some £3000 in plate, jewels, and household goods, and life interest in numerous properties so long as she remained 'solo and unmaryed'. She subsequently helped to arrange the marriages of her children, continued her literary patronage on a much reduced scale, travelled on the continent, brought lawsuits against jewel thieves, pirates, and murderers, and built a country home, Houghton House, in Bedfordshire. King James visited her there in July 1621. The letters of Dudley Carleton and John Chamberlain describe her life in Spa, where she conducted a literary salon, wrote, danced, played cards, took tobacco, shot pistols, and carried on a flirtation with her handsome and learned doctor, Matthew Lister. Correspondence printed as hers by John Donne the younger in A Collection of Letters Made by Sir Tobie Matthew, Knight (1660) mentions additional writings and translations from this period but none written after 1600 are known to be extant.

Death and reputation

Mary Herbert died, of smallpox, at her home in Aldersgate Street, London, on 25 September 1621. After a magnificent torchlight procession and a funeral befitting her rank she was buried next to her husband under the choir steps of Salisbury Cathedral. She died without having made a will; her son Philip was given responsibility for her estate on 3 October 1621 (TNA: PRO, PROB 6/10, fol. 140r).

Mary Herbert had a reputation for beauty and was said to resemble her brother Philip, particularly by those who wrote poems honouring him in order to attract her patronage and that of her wealthy husband. A miniature by Nicholas Hilliard is now at the National Portrait Gallery; two oil portraits, not yet fully verified, include one in private hands in Geneva and another in private hands, now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. The most famous portrait is the 1618 engraving by Simon de Passe, which appears to be her self-presentation. Dressed in embroidered silk, lace, ermine, and extravagant ropes of pearls, she holds out to the viewer a volume clearly labelled 'Davids Psalms'—that is, the Sidneian psalm paraphrase. The cartouche identifies her as 'Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke', asserts her rank by a coronet, includes the Sidney pheon, and establishes her position as a writer by a laurel wreath and a design of quill pens in ink wells.

Mary Herbert was renowned as a writer in her own day. Contemporaries who celebrated her works and / or borrowed from them include Samuel Daniel, John Davies, John Donne, Michael Drayton, Gabriel Harvey, George Herbert, Aemilia Lanyer, Henry Parry, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Mary Wroth. Although Sir Edward Denny praised her translation of 'the holly psalmes of David' in order to rebuke her niece for her secular works (The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth, ed. J. A. Roberts, 1983; repr. 1992, 239), in the semi-autobiographical fiction of Urania Wroth shadows Mary Herbert as the queen of Naples, who writes secular verse and is described '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' (M. Wroth, Urania, 1621, sig. R3v).

Mary Herbert was also praised by John Donne for her joint authorship of the Sidneian psalm paraphrases. Calling Philip and Mary Sidney 'this Moses and this Mariam' he says that, while once the Psalms were 'So well attyr'd abroad, so ill at home', the Sidneys have equalled continental psalters such as that by Marot and Beza:

They shew us Ilanders our joy, our King,They tell us why, and teach us how to sing

thus providing a model for English religious verse. Now that God 'hath translated those translators', Donne says, 'We thy Sydnean Psalms shall celebrate' (J. Donne, Divine Poems, ed. H. Gardner, 1978, 34–5). Daniel had promised her that her Psalmes would keep her 'fresh in fame' even after 'Wilton lyes low levell'd with the ground', and that is exactly what happened (S. Daniel, Delia & Cleopatra, sig. H6v). Wilton burnt in 1647; only the east front and the Holbein porch survive from her time.

Mary Herbert's most famous epitaph is William Browne's description of her as 'Sidneys sister, Pembroke's mother' (BL, Lansdowne MS 777, fol. 43v) but Thomas Archer reverses that identification in 1760, calling Sidney 'Brother to the Countesse of Pembroke' (BL, MS Add. 5830, fol. 179v). The most notorious posthumous account is John Aubrey's entirely unsubstantiated statement, a century after Philip Sidney's death, that a royalist friend had told him that he had heard old men say that 'there was so great love' between Sir Philip Sidney and 'his fair sister that … they lay together, and it was thought the first Philip Earl of Pembroke was begot by him' (Brief Lives, 139). Though Aubrey wrote in the middle of a political battle with the Herberts and though there is no evidence to support his assertion it has continued to intrigue readers, provoking several Freudian readings of Mary's works. Like most other early modern women writers her reputation was eclipsed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; relegated to the margins in accounts of Philip Sidney, she was accused of bowdlerizing his Arcadia and of attacking the popular stage. Her own writing was largely ignored, yet large sections of Antony and Cleopatra were improbably attributed to her (G. Slater, Seven Shakespeares, 1931).

No longer in her brother's shadow, Mary Herbert is currently recognized as one of the first significant women writers in English. The influence of Antonius on English drama and of Psalmes on seventeenth-century religious verse is widely acknowledged. She is frequently portrayed as a role model for subsequent women writers, including Aemilia Lanyer, Elizabeth Cary, and, most notably, her niece Mary Wroth. The literary merit of her writings has gained increasing attention, so that she is now accepted as a canonical writer; her works have been collected in a modern edition and individual writings are routinely included in anthologies.


  • M. P. Hannay, Philip's phoenix: Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke (1990)
  • The collected works of Mary Sidney Herbert, ed. M. P. Hannay, N. J. Kinnamon, and M. G. Brennan, 2 vols. (1998)
  • Sidney family psalter, Trinity Cam., R.17.2
  • esp. corresp. of Robert Sidney, priv. coll., De L'Isle and Dudley papers, De L'Isle and Dudley MS U1475, ser. C12, C81 [property of the Viscount de L'Isle]
  • G. F. Waller, Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke: a critical study of her writings and literary milieu (1979)
  • F. Young, Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke (1912)
  • Aubrey's Brief lives, ed. O. L. Dick (1949)
  • K. Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: courtier poet (New Haven, 1991)


  • BL, corresp.
  • Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, corresp.
  • Longleat House, Wiltshire, corresp.
  • LPL, corresp.
  • Princeton University, New Jersey, corresp.
  • TNA: PRO, corresp.
  • priv. coll., De L'Isle and Dudley papers, esp. corresp. of Robert Sidney, De L'Isle and Dudley MS U1475 ser. C12 and C81


  • N. Hilliard, miniature, 1590, NPG [see illus.]
  • S. de Passe, engraving, 1618, NPG
  • Bocquet, stipple, pubd 1806, NPG
  • J. de Courbet, line engraving, BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

considerable; Houghton House, Bedfordshire, and properties: ‘Lands for the ioynture of Marye nowe Comtess of Pembroke …’, Harvard U., Houghton L., fMS 725

contents of husband's will, incl. plate, jewels, and household goods worth £3000; plus series of rents from property: will of Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke, TNA: PRO, PROB 6/10, fol. 140r, 1621

private collection
British Library, London
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Lambeth Palace London
Trinity College, Cambridge
National Portrait Gallery, London
British Museum, London