In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

  • Introduction
  • Biographical Studies
  • Overviews of Early Modern Women’s Writing in England
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Modern Editions of Herbert’s Works
  • Negotiations with Print Culture
  • Sidney’s Sister, Sidney’s Creator
  • Herbert’s Influence on Later Writers
  • Herbert’s Patronage

Renaissance and Reformation Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke
Elizabeth Mazzola
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0382


It seems impossible to overstate the significance of Mary Sidney Herbert (b. 27 October 1561–d. 25 September 1621) and yet, until recently, her place in early modern English literary culture was insufficiently grasped by many readers who minimized the importance, skill, and deliberate nature of her contributions. Valuable efforts by recent critics have dramatically expanded our ideas about Herbert’s reach and talents, however, and increasingly Herbert is appreciated as a key figure in English literary history. Poet, patron, Protestant polemicist, translator, and executor of her brother Sir Philip Sidney’s literary estate, Herbert was the fourth child of Henry Sidney and Mary Dudley. Her 1577 marriage to Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, vastly improved her family’s fortunes and endowed Herbert with an influence second only to that of Queen Elizabeth. Life at Pembroke’s estate at Wilton was described by John Aubrey as “like a College,” where Herbert presided as “the greatest Patronesse of witt and learning of any Lady in her time “and supported writers such as Samuel Daniel, Nicholas Breton, Abraham Fraunce, and Edmund Spenser, among others. Herbert also enjoyed a close and fruitful collaboration with her brother Philip, and their tie provides a crucial thread for understanding the work of both writers. Sidney’s forced retirement to Wilton in 1580 supplied both siblings with a chance to pursue shared interests: not only was Sidney’s Arcadia drafted there and dedicated to Herbert, but probably at this time too their joint translation of the psalms was undertaken. After Sidney’s death in 1586, Herbert not only revised and published his works, but also published several works under her own name. Although there are references to continued writing up until her death in 1621, the bulk of Herbert’s writings belong to the 1590s, a decade when anxieties about royal succession and the status of Protestant reform ran especially high. Later works may have been lost after fires at both of Herbert’s primary residences, although evidence suggests that she continued to write and exchange manuscripts. Many early critics viewed Herbert’s work, which includes translations, an elegy, a pastoral entertainment, and a rich body of poetry, as inspired by grief for her martyred brother. More recent readers have overturned this image of Herbert’s passive suffering and attendant picture of dutiful ventriloquism. Herbert’s writings are increasingly viewed as bold efforts to reach the queen, alter the nature of English dramatic entertainments, claim the psalmist’s prophetic instruments, and untangle the poetic legacy of a brother better known to his contemporaries as a courtier and soldier. In acknowledging the steps Herbert took to fashion Sidney as a successor to Chaucer and Petrarch, one can also register the ways she presented herself as an author in her own right, a writer whose works advance and advertise her own considerable abilities, learning, and clout.

Biographical Studies

A famous portrait of Herbert gazing directly at her audience and holding (rather than reading or copying) the Hebrew psalms emphasizes her piety rather than her many occupations as translator, editor, mourner, mother, wife, and executor of Sidney’s estate Biographers likewise sometimes similarly privilege one role over another, diminishing Herbert’s influence or breaking up the circle of writers and activities surrounding her. Still, Young 1912 remains a helpful general introduction, making use of many primary materials. Hannay 1990a has become a basic, crucial tool for grasping the arc of Herbert’s life and career; and, until Hannay’s death, her research continued to gather together Herbert’s many activities in a persuasive account of her personal and political life. Hannay 1990b, Beilin 1987, and Clarke 2000 attend to Herbert’s political positioning and negotiations with print and manuscript culture as well as her role at court and obvious influence upon later writers both male and female. Studies of the development of Herbert’s authority as a writer have also undergone significant change. Earlier treatments provided by critics such as Waller (Waller 1979, Waller 1985, and Waller 1993) and Lamb 1990 sometimes present her efforts as self-effacing or secretarial, making Herbert part of a supporting cast surrounding authors such as Spenser and Sidney rather than a poet in her own right. Miller 2001 takes Herbert’s story in new directions, enlarging the picture we have of Herbert’s life and expanding literary ambitions with reference to other women writers as well as Herbert’s growing awareness of multiple audiences and different means of reaching them. These later discussions represent Herbert’s career as something she understands and self-consciously fashions, a project with a clearer beginning, middle, and end.

  • Beilin, Elaine V. “The Divine Poet: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke.” In Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance. By Elaine V. Beilin, 121–150. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    Beilin situates Herbert alongside Mary Wroth, but also traces Herbert’s evolution as a poet and reads the psalm translations as the culmination of her talents and purposes. Excellent introduction to the ways early modern women writers understood and utilized connections to each other. Extremely useful for general readers, but the close readings and careful analysis of historical context make this an equally important resource for scholars, too.

  • Clarke, Danielle. “Introduction.” In Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney, Aemilia Lanyer: Renaissance Women Poets. By Danielle Clarke, x–xl. New York: Penguin, 2000.

    This collection includes a representative sample of the works of all three poets, combined with excellent introductory materials. Clarke’s interpretations are sharp, elegant, and informed, and her reading of Herbert, whose “dependency,” Clarke argues, is “textual, familial, and devotional,” is particularly incisive.

  • Hannay, Margaret P. Philip’s Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990a.

    A meticulously detailed and researched account, the basic starting point for any study of Herbert’s life. Especially useful in considering the changing roles Herbert occupied as daughter, wife, sister, and mother, and equally attentive to her piety and learning.

  • Hannay, Margaret P. “‘This Moses and This Miriam’: The Countess of Pembroke’s Role in the Legend of Sir Philip Sidney.” In Sir Philip Sidney’s Achievements. Edited by M. J. B. Allen, Dominic Baker-Smith, and Arthur F. Kinney, 217–226. New York: AMS, 1990b.

    Investigates Herbert’s assumption of the role of premier Protestant patron after Leicester’s death and before her son William comes to occupy this position. Philip Sidney’s growing importance to this cause is attributed to Herbert, and Hannay explores how other members of the Sidney circle came to view Herbert as her brother’s chief mourner.

  • Lamb, Mary Ellen. Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

    Lamb discusses female members of the Sidney circle and their habits of reading and mourning, and comments on the ways male members of this group responded to Herbert’s authority and patronage, often by minimizing her writing and emphasizing her piety. Lamb argues that the work of mourning allows Herbert to cross boundaries at a time when women’s speech and publication were limited, and she links Herbert to her niece Mary Wroth with the claim that both employ a “heroics of constancy.”

  • Miller, Shannon. “Mary Sidney and the Gendered Strategies for the Writing of Poetry.” In Write or Be Written: Early Modern Women Poets and Cultural Constraints. Edited by Barbara Smith and Ursula Appelt, 155–176. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.

    Miller investigates Herbert’s fashioning of herself as a female courtier, using her poetry to instruct her queen and rework the patron-client system. Miller urges readers to balance a focus on biographical details with concerns for Herbert’s literary techniques and strategies.

  • Waller, Gary F. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke: A Critical Study of Her Writings and Literary Milieu. Salzburg, Austria: Institüt fur Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg, 1979.

    Including excerpts from many of Herbert’s writings, Waller’s is a serious treatment of her work and cultural importance that engagingly explores the strands of religion and courtliness informing her writings as well as those of her brother.

  • Waller, Gary F. “Struggling into Discourse: The Emergence of Renaissance Women’s Writing.” In Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works. Edited by Margaret Patterson Hannay, 238–256. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1985.

    An early, interesting, but sometimes questionable discussion of women writers as conflicted and stunted figures, which proposes that her brother’s example was at the center of Herbert’s personal and literary life.

  • Waller, Gary F. The Sidney Family Romance: Mary Wroth, William Herbert and the Early Modern Construction of Gender. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993.

    Waller’s discussion of the “little court” at Wilton mostly emphasizes Herbert’s role as the dominant figure in her son William’s upbringing, and emphasizes Herbert’s fixation on her brother with a brief reference to her “revision” of Sidney’s psalms. More interesting is the treatment of Mary Wroth, and Waller also provides a useful discussion of the patronage of Herbert’s husband the Earl of Pembroke.

  • Young, Frances B. Mary Sidney: Countess of Pembroke. London: David Nutt, 1912.

    Young’s biography, now supplanted by the work of Hannay (Hannay 1990a, Hannay 1990b) and others, offers extensive background information about Herbert’s education and marriage and makes regular reference to Herbert’s correspondence. But Young also concludes that Herbert’s editing of Sidney’s work “added practically nothing and left out things of value.”

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