Mary Sidney

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For other people named Mary Sidney, see Mary Sidney (disambiguation).
Portrait of Mary Herbert née Sidney, by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1590

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (née Sidney; 27 October 1561 – 25 September 1621), was one of the first English women to achieve a major reputation for her literary works, poetry, poetic translations and literary patronage.


Mary Sidney was born at Tickenhill Palace, Bewdley, Worcestershire on 27 October 1561. She was one of four daughters of Sir Henry Sidney and Mary Dudley, the daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Mary was mainly brought up at Ludlow Castle, the seat of the President of the Welsh Marches, a role her father held until 1586. Like her brother, Sir Philip Sidney, she received a Calvinist education, which included classics, French, Italian, Hebrew, music and needlework.

Following the death of her youngest sister, Ambrosia, in 1575, Mary was summoned to London to attend Queen Elizabeth I. In 1577, her mother's brother, Robert Dudley, helped Sir Henry Sidney to arrange her marriage to their close ally, Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, then in his mid-forties. As Countess of Pembroke, Mary was responsible for a number of estates including Ramsbury, Ivychurch (Alderbury, Wilts),[1] Wilton House and Baynard's Castle, London, where it is known that they entertained Queen Elizabeth to dinner. She bore Pembroke four children, the first of whom, William (1580–1630) may be the young man described in Shakespeare's Sonnets. Their other surviving child, Philip, became the 4th Earl of Pembroke on his brother's death in 1630. These 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. Mary had two daughters, Katherine (1581-1584) and Anne.

Life and work[edit]

Mary Sidney was highly educated in the humanist tradition. In the 16th century, noblewomen were educated to enable them to have a good understanding of theological issues and the classics, to interpret original texts and, if necessary, to deputize for their husbands. Her education enabled her to translate Petrarch's "Triumph of Death" and several 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 also had an interest in making medicines. She was interested in musical codes and invisible ink. 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 shared with her brother Sir Philip Sidney was to strengthen and classicise the English language and to support "true" religion, which, in their view, combined Calvinism, the principles of Castiglione, and acts of charity. She was herself a Calvinist theologian and her public persona (at least) was pious, virtuous and learned. She was regarded as a muse by Samuel Daniel in his poem "Delia" (an anagram for ideal).[citation needed]

Mary Sidney was said to inspire creativity in all those around her, including her circle, relatives and servants. Philip Sidney wrote much of his "Arcadia" for her, and in her presence, at Wilton House. Before his death, 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. She finished Philip's translation of the Psalms, composing Psalms 44-150 in a dazzling array of verse forms, 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 Psalms was presented to Elizabeth I of England in 1599.[citation needed] 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 celebrating them. The Psalms were drawn from previous English translations rather than original Hebrew texts and are therefore properly called "metaphrases" rather than translations. She took on the task of editing and publishing Philip Sidney's "Arcadia" as The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia, one of the most widely read books in English for the next 200 years.[citation needed]

Mary's husband died in 1600 leaving her, John Aubrey reported, with less financial support than she might have expected (through views on its adequacy vary). Her husband's will required that she did not remarry. Thereafter, her time was spent managing Wilton and the other Pembroke estates, on behalf of her son, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, 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 as Dowager Countess and rented homes in London. Though it is certain that the King's Men attended Wilton, whether William Shakespeare was with them remains unconfirmed. However, it is reported that he was at Wilton at one time, a letter in which the Mary Sidney urged her son to attend Wilton, as "we have the man Shakespeare with us".[2]

From 1609–15 she was probably based at Crosby Hall, now relocated as a private residence relocated to Chelsea, London. She may have secretly married her doctor, Sir Matthew Lister, and she travelled to Spa on the Continent with him, where she relaxed by shooting pistols and played cards. She built a Bedfordshire hunting lodge with fine vistas, Houghton House, now ruined near Milton Keynes), which John Bunyan refers to in his works, as the "House Beautiful".


She died of smallpox, aged 59, at her house in Aldersgate Street, London, shortly after King James I visited her at Houghton Hall. After a grand funeral in St Paul's Cathedral, her body was buried next to that of the Earl, in the family vault, under the steps leading to the choirstalls in Salisbury Cathedral. A plaque on the wall nearby remembers her.


Sidney's style emphasises ardour. An example is the death scenes in her closet drama The Tragedy of Antonie (1592), a translation of the French play Marc-Antoine (1578) by Robert Garnier; it was completed in 1590 and first published in 1592. William Shakespeare may have used it as source material for his Antony and Cleopatra (1607).[3]

In "The Psalms of David", she describes the pain of an earthly existence in the light of the divine grace. She probably considered the Psalms her literary legacy, although they were not published during in her lifetime. An engraving of her in later years shows her holding them. Her influence—through literary patronage, through publishing her brother's works and through her own verse forms, dramas, translations and theology (e.g. she translated Philippe de Mornay's Discourse of Life and Death —cannot be easily quantified. 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 Sidney was aunt to the poet Lady Mary Wroth (the daughter of her brother, Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester).[citation needed]

2010 discovery of additional work[edit]

June and Paul Schlueter published an article in The Times Literary Supplement of July 23, 2010, in which they described a manuscript of newly discovered work by Mary Sidney.[4]

Speculation on Sidney as Shakespeare[edit]

The 1931 book by Gilbert Slater, Seven Shakespeares, discusses the feminine attributes in Shakespeare's plays, especially the later plays, as well as the connections to Wales and the Welsh in the plays and in Mary Sidney's life, and the depth of knowledge that was equal with her education. Slater believed that Mary Sidney was the literary executor of the Earl of Oxford's work as author of Shakespeare's writing, and that she added to and completed his unfinished work.[5]

In Who Wrote Shakespeare, published in 1996, John Michell has written one paragraph on the possibility of Mary Sidney as the author of Shakespeare's writing.[5]

Both Slater and Michell included Mary Sidney in possible groups of authorship of Shakespeare's writing, and both found Ben Jonson's allusion to “Sweet Swan of Avon” to apply most appropriately to Mary Sidney.[5]

In 2006, Robin P. Williams published Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?, which was the first comprehensive look at the documented evidence that suggests Mary Sidney wrote Shakespeare's writing.[5]


  1. ^ R.B. Pugh & E. Crittall (eds), "Houses of Augustinian canons: Priory of Ivychurch", A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3 (1956), pp. 289-295 Read here.
  2. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 531.
  3. ^ Samuel Daniel also wrote a closet drama on the same subject shortly afterwards, The Tragedy of Cleopatra (1594). Both dramas portray the lovers as "heroic victims of their own passionate excesses and remorseless destiny" (David Bevington, Introduction to Antony and Cleopatra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) p. 7; ISBN 0-521-27250-5).
  4. ^ June and Paul Schlueter Discover Unknown Poems by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke
  5. ^ a b c d "Mary Sidney". The Shakesperean Authorship Trust. 


  • 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.
  • Margaret P. Hannay, Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Margaret Patterson Hannay, Mary Sidney profile (1561–1621), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; accessed 8 April 2007.
  • Robin, Diana Maury, Larsen, Anne R. and Levin, Carole (2007). Encyclopedia of women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. ABC-CLIO, Inc. 
  • Gary Waller, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke: A Critical Study of Her Writings and Literary Milieu. Salzburg: University of Salzburg Press, 1979.
  • Gilbert Slater, Seven Shakespeares (UK: Cecil Palmer), 1931.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? Robin Williams, Peachpit Press, (2006)
  • Tiger's Heart in Woman's Hide: Volume 1 Fred Faulkes, Trafford Publishing, (2007)