Mary Sidney: Life Story

Chapter 2 : Countess of Pembroke

For the twenty-four years of her married life, during which she bore four children, Mary lived mainly at Wilton, occasionally visiting other Pembroke properties in Wiltshire, and sometimes the family’s town house, Baynard’s Castle.  At times, she may have returned to the Welsh Marches, as Pembroke took over the role of Lord President of the Council for Wales on Sir Henry’s death.

Lord Pembroke was a cultured man, a collector of manuscripts and books, with a particular interest in heraldry and genealogy. Mary had either already developed her scholarly tastes through her education, or soon began to take an interest in writing and translating. In this, her closest companion was her brother, Philip.

In 1580, when Mary was nineteen, Philip, then aged twenty-five, made a protracted stay at Wilton. He was in disgrace with the queen for objecting to her proposed marriage to the Duke of Anjou. Whilst there, Philip began the first version of his poem The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. He wrote it, as he told her ‘on loose sheets, mainly in your presence.’  The finished article was dedicated it to her with the words ‘most dear. and most worthy to be most dear, lady.’

It was probably during this visit that Mary made the acquaintance of Philip’s literary friends, who included Edmund Spenser, Gabriel Harvey, Fulke Greville, Edward Dyer and others.

Mary had just had her first child, William, who had the honour of having the queen as his godmother. Lord Leicester was one godfather, represented by Philip, and Lord Warwick the other, visiting his niece and new great-nephew in person. The proud father wrote to a friend that he hoped the friend would soon experience the same ‘joy and comfort’ as he and Mary had. The queen gave a present of £100 to the nurse and midwife, and sent one of her gentlemen ushers, together with his two attendants to the christening, with her gift. The festivities lasted ten days.

Her second child, Katherine, born in October 1581, had Mary’s aunt Katherine Dudley, Countess of Huntingdon, as one godmother, and Sir Henry as godfather. The little girl died a day after her third birthday.

At around this time, Philip’s sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella was circulated amongst Mary’s friends at Wilton. Mary herself also had a series of poems dedicated to her by Thomas Howell, entitled ‘Devises’. Howell was a member of the household of Lady Anne Talbot, née Herbert, the daughter-in-law of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and Mary’s sister-in-law.

Mary bore a third child, Anne, in spring of 1583, who lived into her early twenties, but did not marry. Mary’s final child, Philip was born in October 1584, on the same day as Katherine died. His Sidney uncles, Philip and Robert, were godfathers, with his grandmother, Lady Mary, his godmother.

Whilst Mary was living the life of a great lady, tending to her children and her estates, her father was sinking deeper into financial hardship, and poor health. He had never been properly paid for his costs in Ireland, and, additionally, had lost money when the ship carrying the family goods to Dublin had been sunk, and all the clothes, jewels, plate and horses lost.

Whilst Elizabeth was miserly with her ministers, she appreciated young men, and Philip Sidney was soon forgiven his offence of criticising the queen’s proposed marriage – which she probably had never intended should take place anyway. She valued him too much to allow him to take a proposed expedition to America, but instead gave him the position of Lord Governor of Flushing (Vlissingen) in the Netherlands.

England was supporting the attempts of the Netherlands, ruled by Philip II of Spain through regents, to throw off their foreign masters and establish an independent Protestant nation. What became known as the Eighty Years’ War began in 1568, and by 1585, England had entered the Treaty of Nonsuch, to give assistance to the Dutch. Flushing was one of the towns pledged to England as security for loans. Philip left England to take up his post in November 1585.

As well as anxiety for her brother, Mary soon had to contend with the grief of losing her father, who died in May 1586, having caught a chill sailing from Bewdley down to Worcester. Within two months, a further blow fell when her mother died. Both Mary’s parents were interred at Penshurst, which now became the property of Philip, and his wife of three years, Frances Walsingham. Philip was already becoming known in court circles for his sonnets, in particular, the cycle of Astrophel and Stella, for which Lady Penelope Devereux was his muse.

Mary fell ill herself. The Pembrokes’ physician, Thomas Moffet, wrote to Philip, still serving in the Netherlands, that she was likely to die. Philip was deeply distressed, and shortly after was himself badly wounded at the Battle of Zutphen. Mary lived, but Philip died on 17th October of gangrene. The story of his courage has been told many times, and his sacrifice in giving water offered to him to another soldier in greater need.

Philip was widely mourned, both at home and in the Netherlands. It was not customary for women to attend men’s funerals, so Mary remained at Wilton whilst one of the most extravagant funerals for a private individual in British history was held, paid for by his father-in-law, Sir Francis Walsingham.

In his will, Philip left ‘to my dear sister, the Countess of Pembroke, my best jewel, beset with diamonds’. Although he had a daughter, Elizabeth, Penshurst passed to Mary’s other brother, Robert.  Robert had married an heiress, Barbara Gamage, without the queen’s consent, apparently aided and abetted by Mary and her husband.

Moffet was later to write a panegyric on Philip’s death – 'Lessus Legubris' -  and one on his life ‘Nobilis’, which he dedicated to Mary’s eldest son, William, presumably to encourage the boy to emulate his uncle. As well as being a physician, Moffet was an entomologist and dedicated a natural history work to Mary  - ‘The Silke Wormes and their flies’ with the words ‘To the most renowned Patronesse and noble Nurse of learning Marie, Countesse of Penbrooke’. The work was not a detailed examination of the lives of silkworms, but parodies more serious works, whilst retelling myths about the origins of silk.

Following her father’s death, Mary’s husband became Lord President of the Council of Wales. Whilst there is little direct evidence of Mary’s whereabouts, letters from Pembroke are dated variously from Ludlow and Tickenhill, as well as Wilton. Mary probably accompanied him for at least some of the time in the Marches. Just as Sir Henry Sidney had found maintaining the office of President expensive, so too did Pembroke, and he wrote several letters to Lord Burghley, requesting extra funds, or for Elizabeth to extend him her ‘princely bounty’.

Lady Mary Sidney

Lady Mary Sidney

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