Figures in History: Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Mary_Sydney_HerbertLady Mary Herbert, nee Sidney, was one of the foremost minds of Elizabethan England. More literary works in the period are dedicated to her than to any other woman, save only the Queen. She wrote and translated herself, and was perhaps the first female playwright in England; though her plays were never performed, one likely served as inspiration for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. When her brother, Philip Sidney, a famous courtier and poet, died in the war in the Netherlands, Oxford and Cambridge published elegies to him and refused to let her contribute — so she basically thumbed her nose at them, marched herself to a printer, and published them herself — in addition to completing Philip’s last great work and publishing it as “The Countress of Pembroke’s Arcadia”.

Lady Mary was part of a family of extraordinary women. Her mother, Mary Sidney, was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth during her early reign, and in fact nursed the queen through smallpox in 1562. The queen survived, but Mary Sidney was badly scarred and never really appeared in public again. (The queen was less than gracious about this). Mary Herbert was also the aunt of the later English poet Lady Mary Wroth.

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Me at Ludlow, geeking out over imagining my heroine running around this castle as a little girl

Mary grew up at Ludlow Castle (the ruins of which I was lucky enough to visit this summer), most often inseparably in the company of her sister Ambrosia. Their mother reportedly dressed them alike, and when Ambrosia died young, Mary was very greatly affected by the loss. To help her in her grief (and perhaps finally feeling a bit of pity for her erstwhile friend Mary Sidney), Queen Elizabeth suggested that young Mary come to court. Not long afterwards, her uncle Leicester (yes, that Leicester) arranged a marriage for Lady Mary with the much-older Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. He probably had about thirty years on her, but this actually seemed to work out quite well for them. His first two wives had left him with no children, and then Mary popped out four in five years. He was so delighted with her over this that thereafter, he pretty much gave her whatever she wanted. Invite over poets and writers for readings? Sure. Write your own play and want your friends to come over and read it? No problem. Custom-made laboratory so that you can have botanists and chemists come work and study just because it interests you? Go right ahead.

We don’t have any letters or diaries that speak to the personal nature of their relationship, but those details suggest to me that Henry Herbert was utterly besotted with his clever young wife. When he died, his will left her a truly enormous sum of money on the stipulation that she not remarry — and she never did.

That brings me to really the only scandal anyone ever came up with surrounding the Countess of Pembroke. Truly, she was beloved at just an absurd level. The royal court of Elizabethan England was, at best, a petty and back-biting place, and at worst, downright cutthroat. Yet almost no one has anything bad to say about Mary. She was considered beautiful, gracious, talented, witty, and virtuous. The only teensy tiny little blot on that near perfect record is an implication that she might have started having an affair with a doctor sometime after 1600 — by which point she would have been in her 40s, past childbearing, and probably she would’ve married him if it hadn’t been for the loss of income that would’ve entailed. It’s also possible that the scandal-lite was being pushed by one of her own sons (who did not live up to their mother’s virtuous reputation) who wanted to force her to remarry so that they’d have more cash on hand.

Ultimately, her reputation in her own day is summed up in her epitaph:

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.

If a female English-speaking writer were looking for a patron saint, you could do far worse than Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

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