Mary Sidney: Life Story

Chapter 3 : Translator

During the summer of 1588, England was alert for the anticipated Spanish invasion. Mary remained at Wilton, together with her sister-in-law, Robert’s wife, Barbara, and Barbara’s first child, Mary. Pembroke was in Wales, organising coastal defences, and Robert was at Tilbury, where the English army was mustering.  Following the defeat of the Armada, through a combination of seaman-ship and fortunate weather, the country rejoiced. 

Mary returned to Baynard’s Castle, London to celebrate Accession Day – 17th November. She entered London in a grand process of some 100 of her household, dressed in her livery of blue, and sporting gold chains.  Despite the general rejoicing, Mary, like the queen, was also mourning another loss - that of her uncle Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester had kept Philip’s memory alive but now Mary took on the role of guardian of the literary fame of her brother. She encouraged elegies by Thomas Moffet, Abraham Fraunce, and Edmund Spenser.

Mary herself was beginning her own literary career with the publication in 1592 by William Ponsonby of two translations from French. The first was a rendition of du Mornay’s 1576 ‘Discours de la vie et de la Mort’, translated at Wilton and dated 13th May 1590.  Philippe du Plessis-Mornay was a French Huguenot aristocrat, who had fought with the Prince de Condé in the French Wars of Religion. Having evaded the Massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572, he spent a short period in England before joining Henri of Navarre, the leader of the Huguenot party.

Returning to London on Henri’s behalf in 1577, du Mornay became acquainted with Philip Sidney. There is no evidence as to whether he met Mary in person, but he was again in London in 1591 – 1592 and it seems likely he would have met the sister of his former friend, who had translated his work. The ‘Discours’ was reissued several times during Mary’s lifetime.  

The second translation published in 1592 was of Robert Garnier’s ‘Marc Antoine’; completed at Ramsbury on 26 November 1590. ‘Marc Antoine’, rendered ‘Antonius’ by Mary was a French blank verse tragedy about the Roman general Mark Anthony.  Her translation is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s sources for ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. It was also a model for Samuel Daniel’s ‘Cleopatra’. It was the first secular play to be published in English by a woman and was amongst the first to use blank verse. It was also an early harbinger of the fashion for using Roman and Greek history as a way to comment on current political events.

The action is set, as we know from Shakespeare’s version, in the tumultuous period between the end of the Roman Republic, and the rise of the Roman Empire. Critics have argued over whether Mary chose to translate it from political motives – Garnier was writing against the back-drop of the French Religious Wars, whilst England was still at war with Spain, and Mary had, of course, lost her brother in the war between Spain and the Netherlands.

Analogies can be drawn from the overthrow of the Roman Republic, to the hoped-for overthrow of the Roman church, and its replacement with a Godly, Protestant world. Another of the current philosophical debates that might have informed Mary’s interest in the play was the question of whether it was acceptable for people to rise up against tyrants, and even kill them.  The competing theories were that rulers had a responsibility to their people, and that, if they proved tyrannical they should be overthrown, versus the idea that monarchs were divinely appointed, and if they were tyrannical, that was a punishment being meted out by God to a sinful people.

The former view was more widespread amongst followers of the Reformed faith, and the latter more prevalent with Catholics. In the sixteenth century, tyranny was often perceived where the ruler was of a different religious persuasion – thus John Knox was certain that Mary, Queen of Scots should be overthrown, because, as a Catholic, she was almost by definition, a tyrant.

The political situation in England was complex – Elizabeth, believing in the divinely appointed nature of kingship, tried as hard as she could to avoid assisting those whom she saw as rebels – the Dutch, and the Huguenots, but she was pushed into involvement by the more vehemently Protestant amongst her councillors (as well as by the short-sighted action of Pope Pius V in inciting rebellion against her). Mary’s friends and family were strong supporters of the Protestant cause in the Netherlands and France, and we can, perhaps, infer that she too would have approved the overthrow of tyrants.

Other critics suggest that her interest was in the character of the grieving Cleopatra and the depiction of a powerful woman, with a sexual nature, rather than the usual portrayal of women as obedient wives and mothers.

It was probably during the early 1590s that the Earl of Pembroke’s players were formed, suggesting that Mary and her husband shared an interest in theatre. Shakespeare may have been one of the players. He was certainly known to the family, and it was to Mary’s sons, William and Philip, that the First Folio was dedicated in 1623 with the words:

‘To the most Noble and Incomparable pair of Brethren,
William Earle of Pembroke &c;. Lord Chamberlain to the King’s most Excellent Majesty.
AND PHILIP Earl of Montgomery,&c;. Gentleman of his Majesties Bed-Chamber. Both Knights of the most Noble Order of the Garter, and our singular good Lords. 

Lady Mary Sidney

Lady Mary Sidney

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