Mary Sidney: Life Story

Chapter 5 : The Triumph of Death

Two completely original works are attributed to Mary. The first, over which there has been some speculation as to authorship, but which is now believed to have been written by her, was ‘The Doleful Lay of Clorinda’. It was published in 1595, in a volume entitled ‘Colin Clouts come home again’, which included Edmund Spenser’s Astrophel. The two poems are related, in that Clorinda is the name of the sister of Spenser’s Astrophel, which by a literary analogy (Astrophel being Sir Philip Sidney) made the Doleful Lay an autobiographical work by Mary.

Further slight confirmation of her authorship is in a letter of Mary’s to Sir Edward Wootten, asking if he still had a copy of an ‘Idle Passion’ she had left in his hands. She wished to review the ‘image of those sad times’ ie the period after the death of Sir Philip.

The second original work, ‘A Dialogue between two shepherds, Thenot and Piers in praise of Astrea’, is a pastoral dialogue in the fashion of 'Arcadia' or Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’. It was written in honour of Queen Elizabeth, who was to visit Wilton in the summer of 1599, although, in fact, the Pembrokes were spared that expensive honour.

In November 1595, Mary was dangerously sick from a swelling in the throat – probably a quinsy. A physician was sent from London to Wilton to ‘lawnch’ it. Even nowadays the main treatment for a quinsy is lancing, and with the total lack of knowledge of antisepsis in the sixteenth century, Mary was lucky to recover.   

In 1595, a plan was mooted for a marriage between Mary’s son, William, and Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir George Carey. Carey was the son of Lord Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth’s maternal first cousin. According to Carey, the reason the marriage did not go forward was that Carey would not confirm the £1,000 per annum that was due to his daughter as ‘next of kin to Queen Anne Bullen’.

Sir George may have been annoyed by Pembroke’s failure to agree the match, but the queen was not, and the earl left the court carrying a jewel as a present from Elizabeth to Mary.

In June 1596, Mary was undertaking the role expected of her as a noblewoman – the protection of her friends and servants. She wrote a letter from Wilton to Sir Julius Caesar, a London lawyer, and later judge, thanking him for acting on behalf of her servant in a ‘long and troublesome suit’. Unfortunately, there is no information as to the details of the case.

The following year, a potential wife for Mary’s second son, Philip was mooted. A distant cousin, Lady Herbert of St Julian’s, had died, leaving a daughter, Mary Herbert, as heiress. Philip had a rival in the shape of the son of the Earl of Worcester, but the young lady was only interested in Philip. Pembroke obviously wished to further the match, as he was willing to grant Philip an estate worth £500 per annum, contiguous with Miss Herbert’s lands.

According to a letter from Robert’s steward, Rowland Whyte, the young couple were married soon after, but later events suggest that Whyte’s information was faulty. 

Meanwhile, Mary was using her friendship with Lord Burghley to influence the queen to allow Robert Sidney back to court, he having been sent away for some unknown reason. Mary wrote a letter on his behalf to Burghley, which Burghley promised to draw to the attention of the queen. Confident that her request would be granted, Mary arranged for Baynard’s Castle to be lent to Robert and his wife. Whilst Robert wanted to attend court, Pembroke was anxious for leave to be absent from court on St George’s Day.

Mary’s friendship with Lord Burghley was perhaps the starting point for negotiations about another match – that of her eldest son, William to Burghley’s grand-daughter, Lady Bridget de Vere, daughter of the Earl of Oxford. The marriage is hinted at in a letter of 16th August 1597, from Mary to Burghley. He had sent Mary a present, which appears to have been a precious stone, believed to cure disorders of the spleen.  After thanking him, she wrote that

so far forth, I find my son’s best liking affection and resolution to answer my desire herein, as if the late interview have mutually, it is sufficient.’

This letter was backed up by a more explicit note from Pembroke to Burghley, saying he had heard from Mary that their son liked Burghley’s grand-daughter, and Pembroke would be happy with whatever Burghley wished to do in the matter. Another letter from Pembroke gives more details, He noted that since Lady Bridget was 13, she was old enough, according to law, to marry, but that if Burghley preferred, she need not live with her husband until she was older. William would go abroad to complete his education and Bridget would stay in England with Mary. Other matters of business about the contract and the jointure were to be handled by the two men’s representatives.

Burghley died in early 1598, and whilst Mary was careful to remain on good terms with his son, Sir Robert Cecil, the friendship was not so warm, and on one occasion she was obliged to write to Cecil, explaining that some insulting words alleged to have been pronounced by Pembroke about him had never been uttered.

Lady Mary Sidney

Lady Mary Sidney

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