Mary Sidney: Life Story

Chapter 8 : Later Life

Mary was now taken up with the administration of her dower lands. In 1602, she was troubled by an attack on her property at Cardiff. Fences had been torn down, some of her men arrested, and her servants assaulted. Cecil took the matter very seriously, and she thanked him for consulting her about the appropriate punishments.

In March 1603, Elizabeth died, to be succeeded by James VI of Scotland, as James I of England. The new king made a long and stately procession to London, stopping at numerous house along the way, and followed a short time later by his queen, Anne of Denmark, and children. This was the first royal family, as opposed to a single monarch, seen in England since the death of Henry VIII, nearly sixty years before. The nobility were eager to take part in the invigorated court, and James and Anne were equally eager to put on a good show.

James announced a Garter feast, and a knighthood of the Garter was conferred on William, whilst Mary, with her daughter Anne, still unmarried, were invited to wait upon to Queen Anne in a splendid ceremony at which all the ladies were ‘most sumptuous in apparel and exceeding rich and glorious in jewels…’. Mary’s cousin, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, mentioned previously, became Queen Anne’s chief lady.

Philip, too, was honoured, being created a Knight of the Bath for the coronation, which took place during July 1603. It was a subdued affair, owing to the severe outbreak of plague which had swept through London that summer. To avoid it, the king and queen began a summer progress that took them to Wilton for 29th - 30th August.

We can suppose that James and Anne enjoyed their visit to Wilton, as they returned there for much of September and October of 1603.  Whilst there is no absolute certainty that Mary was present, it is highly likely, as William was not yet married, and a hostess would be required for the court, which was there in force.  Such visits put an enormous financial burden on the hosts. James was more sensitive to this than Elizabeth had been, and had given orders for wood and coal from his own estates in the New Forest and at Dunswood to be supplied to Wilton.

During the visit, Mary’s brother, Robert (who had been granted a barony and was now Lord Sidney), was appointed to several posts in Queen Anne’s household. It has been postulated that the Lord Chamberlain’s Company, which included Shakespeare, performed ‘As You Like It’ at Wilton for the king and queen.

William, having declined to marry Mary Fitton, became betrothed to another Mary – Lady Mary Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and grand-daughter of Bess of Hardwick. The Shrewsburys had only daughters, so she was co-heir to a great fortune, although the earldom was to pass to Shrewsbury’s brother. 

The projected marriage between Philip and Miss Herbert of St Julian’s had never eventuated, and nor had the match between either brother and Lady Bridget de Vere. In October 1604, however, Philip betrothed himself to Lady Bridget’s younger sister, Lady Susan de Vere, without the consent of either family. William wrote to his prospective father-in-law, saying that he was delighted with his brother’s news. Cecil was not pleased, initially, at this delinquent behaviour of his niece, but the king himself intervened to smooth the way and agreed to settle lands worth £1,000 per annum on Philip, who was rapidly becoming one of his favourites.  

There is no record of Mary’s thoughts on the topic, but, fortunately for the honour of her family, it did not reflect badly enough on them for the Shrewsbury match to be damaged and on 4th November 1604, the marriage of William and Lady Mary Talbot took place at Wilton, with extensive pageantry to mark the occasion. As Mary and her daughter-in-law had the same initial, Mary took to signing herself ‘Pembroke’ as a man would do, differentiating her signature from William’s by incorporating the Sidney emblem of an arrow head.

The following month, Philip and Lady Susan’s marriage took place at Whitehall, in the presence of the king and queen, with James himself giving her away.  According to the essayist, Francis Osborne (1593 – 1659) who was William’s master of horse, Mary was deeply ashamed of Philip, not for engaging himself without the consent of his family, but for a cowardly refusal to retaliate when another gentleman of the court ‘switched’ him across the face. Osborne thought that any man of honour would immediately have challenged the offender to a duel. Mary herself, Osborne wrote, was the equal of her brother, Sir Philip, lacking only the good luck that had made him a man rather than a woman – although her beauty compensated for her gender. Philip’s cowardice, if such it was, did him no harm with the king, who created him Earl of Montgomery in spring 1605, with Robert Sidney receiving the title of Viscount Lisle (which had been the inherited title of Mary’s grandfather, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland).

At New Year 1605, Mary’s daughter Anne took part in the Masque of Blackness but probably died later that year or the next.

In 1606, Pembroke took part in a pageant at Greenwich, to entertain Queen Anne’s brother, the King of Denmark. He wife was one of the ladies in attendance. Mary’s daughter-in-law was considered a most accomplished dancer, and had the honour of dancing with the Prince of Wales, during a visit paid by the French ambassador to the prince and queen at Richmond in October 1606.

With Pembroke now married and in possession of Wilton and Baynard’s Castle, Mary lived largely at her dower properties, or at Crosby Place in London, which she rented from the Earl of Northampton in 1609.  In 1613, however, she went to the Continent for her health, spending most of her time at Spa, in modern Belgium. She returned in October 1616, ‘much amended’. During her period abroad, she became friendly with a physician named Matthew Lister, who, according to John Aubrey, she married – but there is no corroborating evidence of any wedding.  Lister became physician to Anne of Denmark, Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and died in 1656, perhaps as old as 92.

There are three extant letters from Mary from the period after her return from France – written to Sir Toby Matthew and Sir Francis Bacon. They are in the same convoluted style as her letter to Queen Elizabeth:

‘In the mean time you are, and shall for ever be, sure of nothing more than that, if (as you tell me) you be to be undone by the infiniteness of good-will, and by such affection, as shall never do less, than aspire to your contentment, in the most effectual manner, to which, by any possibility, I may arrive and reach, you are then likely enough to be undone indeed.’

At the time, they were considered models of literary style, and were published not long after Mary’s death in letter collections.

On 1615, King James granted Mary the estate of Houghton, near Ampthill, where she built Houghton House. According to the account of Samuel Lyson (Keeper of His Majesty’s Records in the Tower of London in the early nineteenth century) Sir Matthew, as well as being a physician, acted as Mary’s surveyor-general and supervised construction. In 1619, Queen Anne died. Mary participated in her funeral on 13th May.

It is possible that James visited Mary at Houghton in 1621, although the records are not absolute – only recording that he was at Ampthill – Houghton being then known as Ampthill House.

Mary died of small pox on 25th September 1621, in her house in Aldersgate, London. She left no will, but William gave all her personal possessions to Philip. Matthew Lister received a life income of £140 per annum.

Mary’s reputation as a woman of letters and a literary inspiration was high during her own life-time. As well as Donne, other poets praised her and acknowledge a literary debt to her – Drayton, George Herbert and Spenser amongst others.  Her influence on the next generation of women writers – her niece, Mary, Lady Wroth; Elizabeth, Lady Carey and Aemilila Lanyon (daughter and mistress of Lord Hunsdon respectively) was profound.

Mary was buried in front of the high altar at Salisbury Cathedral; memorialised by either Ben Johnson or William Browne:

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.  

Lady Mary Sidney

Lady Mary Sidney

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