SIDNEY HERBERT, Mary, Countess of Pembroke

SIDNEY HERBERT, Mary, Countess of Pembroke
The sister of Sir Philip Sidney,* Mary Sidney Herbert, countess of Pembroke, was a proficient poet, translator, editor, and patron of the arts. Mary Sidney's birth in 1561 made her the fourth child born of the powerful Sidney/Dudley alliance. Her father, Henry Sidney, was raised with Edward VI and was knighted by him; her mother, Mary Dudley, was of a family of considerable fortune. She spent most of her youth at the family's estates of Ludlow and Penshurst. She was well educated and was raised in a strongly Protestant home; she attended Queen Elizabeth I's* court in 1575. In less than two years she was married to Henry Herbert, earl of Pembroke. Even after her marriage, the countess of Pem­broke aligned herself with the Sidney family, maintaining the Sidney coat of arms. She remained active at court until the birth of her first child, William, in 1580. William was followed by Katherine in 1581, Anne in 1583, and Philip in 1584. Philip's birth coincided with the death of three-year-old Katherine. This was the start of a most tragic period for Pembroke. Her father died in May 1586, and her mother in August of that year. In September her brother Philip Sidney was mortally wounded in the Netherlands, where he was fighting Spanish control in the name of the Protestant cause.
When Pembroke returned to court in 1588, she did so with tremendous pomp. Her mission was to garner honor for her brother. Sidney's memory was exalted by his sister; she depicted him as a virtuous martyr of the Protestant cause. A significant part of Pembroke's glorification of her brother involved the publi­cation of various Sidney texts, including The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (written by the hero for his sister), Defense of Poesy, and the Astrophel and Stella sonnet sequence. Pembroke also applied herself to her brother's projects and principles. She continued his practice of translating works advocating reli­gious and political aspects of Protestantism. She is most acclaimed for finishing Sidney's translations of the Psalms, though "finishing" is an understatement. Of the 150 psalm translations, only 43 were completed by her brother. The psalm translations reveal Pembroke to be a virtuoso of poetic voice and form. They were presented to Elizabeth I in 1599. Though the queen is named in the ded­ication of the collection, Pembroke's dedicatory poems present the work in rev­erence to her brother. The collection was so revered that verses were composed to honor its creators.
Pembroke's pen was not the only one employed on her brother's behalf. Much of her reputation is founded on her tremendous patronage of the arts. The Pem­broke home at Wilton became the cultural hub of the "Sidney circle," consisting of writers, courtiers, philosophers, and educators who had gathered around Sid­ney and, subsequently, his sister. Poets who sought Pembroke's patronage often attracted her attention by honoring the memory of her brother. Of course, Pem­broke herself is a frequent subject of praise, and always she is identified by her relationship to Sidney, a designation she assigned herself in the role of author, authorizer, editor, or general promoter of the Sidney family.
Pembroke produced the majority of her own translations and writings in the 1590s. This decade was also her most active period of patronage, when she and the earl of Pembroke fostered the creation of a plethora of poetry, music, and devotional treatises. Pembroke's power as patron diminished with the death of her husband in 1601. With his loss came other losses: Pembroke's title, much of her wealth, and many court connections. Her son William became the third earl of Pembroke. As a widow, she occupied herself by attending to friends and family and occasionally appearing at court. She died in London on 25 September 1621.
Pembroke's success manifests itself in the fame conferred upon her brother. From her we inherit the literary achievements of Sidney and her own impressive contributions to the Sidney family legacy. This legacy was most readily accepted by Pembroke's niece and goddaughter, Mary Sidney Wroth,* author of The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania. Pembroke's patronage benefited Samuel Daniel,* Edmund Spenser,* Fulke Greville, Nicholas Breton, and other writers of her day.
M. P. Hannay, Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, 1990.
G. F. Waller, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke: A Critical Study ofHer Writings and Literary Milieu, 1979.
Michele Osherow

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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