Chapter 1: Early Years
Mary Sidney, although only the daughter of a knight, came from a family that, on both sides, was high in the esteem of Elizabeth I. Her mother, Lady Mary Dudley, had been one of Elizabeth’s closest friends, and had nursed the queen through smallpox. Lady Mary caught the sickness herself, and was badly scarred by it, leading her to retire from court. Mary’s uncle, Lord Robert Dudley, was Elizabeth’s nearest male companion, and for many years it was anticipated that Elizabeth would eventually marry him. Mary’s father, Sir Henry Sidney, had held the young Edward VI as he died.
The Sidneys were part of the evangelical circles that surrounded Edward VI, and had been involved in the attempt to place Lady Jane Grey (Lady Mary Dudley’s sister-in-law) on the throne rather than Queen Mary. Nevertheless, the Sidneys had been accepted back into royal favour by Mary I, and their eldest son, Philip Sidney, was the god-son of King Philip II of Spain (Queen Mary’s husband).
Not long after the accession of Elizabeth, Sir Henry was appointed as Lord President of the Council for the Marches of Wales, and the family left their manor of Penshurst, Kent, which they had been granted in 1552, for the old palace of Tickenhill, at Bewdley in Worcestershire. It was here that Mary was born, in 1561. Her godmothers were Lady Chandos and Lady Jobson, and her godfather was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (brother-in-law to Queen Katherine Parr).
In 1564, Sir Henry was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland, and Mary and her siblings spent some of their childhood in Dublin Castle. Whilst Elizabeth favoured the Sidneys, she was never generous with money, and Sir Henry struggled to maintain his position. He was obliged to refuse an offer of a barony, as he did not have sufficient income to support it.
During the period 1571 – 1575, Mary and her siblings were mainly in the Marches, at Penshurst, or at court - with the exception of Philip, who had received the queen’s licence to travel abroad. No specific details are recorded of Mary’s education, but it can be inferred from later information that she learnt French, Italian and Latin, studied the Church Fathers, and may have had a grounding in Greek and Hebrew. The Dudleys and Sidneys were at the Puritan end of the religious scale, which laid heavy emphasis on Bible study. The purchase of prayer-books and books of martyrs (probably Foxe’s Acts and Monuments) is recorded for Mary and her brother, Robert.
In February 1575, Mary’s sister, Ambrosia, died, aged about fifteen. The queen wrote a letter of condolence to Sir Henry, and offered Mary a place at court, to remove her from any possible infection. Elizabeth assured Sir Henry that she would have a ‘special care’ of his daughter.
The family took up the offer, and Mary and her mother went to court, where they were joined by Mary’s brother, Philip, on his return from Europe. During that summer, the queen made a progress to Kenilworth, where she was sumptuously entertained by Mary’s uncle, Robert, Earl of Leicester. Mary was probably in attendance. She was certainly with the queen at her subsequent sojourn at Woodstock, where she was the dedicatee of a short verse (spelling modernised):
‘Though young in years, yet old in wit, a guest due to your race
If you hold on as you’ve begun, who ist you’ll not deface?’
The following year, negotiations were opened for the marriage of Mary to Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (son of the Earl of Pembroke who had been Mary’s godfather). It seems likely, from Sir Henry Sidney’s correspondence, that the match was made because Pembroke wished to promote ties with Mary’s uncle, the Earl of Leicester. Leicester had no children of his own at that time, so any alliances with him had to be made through his siblings’ children.
Sir Henry wrote to his brother-in-law of his delight in the proposed match, but bewailing his own poverty. He could only gather the required dowry of £2,000 by borrowing. Lord Pembroke was around 38 years old, to Mary’s fifteen. He had once been married to the queen’s cousin, Lady Katherine Grey, but the match had been annulled when the attempt to put Lady Katherine’s sister, Jane, on the throne failed. He had then married the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, but had no children before being widowed in 1575.
The wedding took place on place on 21st April 1577. Following her marriage, Mary, together with her mother and her two surviving siblings, Philip and Robert, travelled to Wilton House, Pembroke’s main seat, where they all remained for some time. It was not until six months later – 7th December 1577 - that a down payment of £1,000 of her dowry was made. It was paid over during a visit by Mary’s father, Sir Henry, and her two Dudley uncles, Lord Leicester and Lord Warwick.
Sir Henry’s poverty was a constant source of worry. He wrote to the queen the following February of his distress at her refusal to pay £3,000 that he was claiming for his expenses as Lord Deputy of Ireland and as Lord President of the Council for Wales. Without it, he would be unable to pay the remainder of Mary’s dowry, which was a dishonourable position.