Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke


Collected Works

The Collected Works of Mary Sidney Herbert Countess of Pembroke, ed. Margaret P. Hannay, Noel J. Kinnamon and Michael G. Brennan, 2 vols (Oxford, 1998)


June Schlueter and Paul Schleuter, ‘Half maim'd? Five unknown poems by Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke’, TLS, 23 July 2010, pp. 14-15.


Mary Herbert (née Sidney), Countess of Pembroke, has a traditional place in literary history as the sister of Sir Philip Sidney and who sanctioned the posthumous publication of his Arcadia (his magnum opus dedicated to her) in 1593 and 1598 (following the edition of 1590 chiefly engineered by Fulke Greville). She was also generally known as a literary patron, the recipient of dedications by many aspiring writers of her time, whom she encouraged, although this reputation may perhaps have been somewhat exaggerated (see Mary Ellen Lamb's discussions in ‘The Myth of the Countess of Pembroke: The Dramatic Circle’, Yearbook of English Studies, 11 (1981), 194-202, and ‘The Countess of Pembroke's Patronage’, English Literary Renaissance, 12/2 (Spring 1982), 162-79). More recently, however, Lady Pembroke has attracted considerable attention by scholars as an author in her own right.

The Canon

Two thirds of the verse rendition of the Psalms,which in manuscripts was almost invariably attributed to Philip Sidney alone, were written by her (Psalms 44-150), probably after his death. She was responsible for other writings, notably translations of Robert Garnier's verse play Antonius (thus producing the first English dramatization of the Antony and Cleopatra story), of Petrarch's verse Trionfo della morte, and of the prose Excellant discours de la vie et de la mort by Philippe de Mornay, seigneur du Plessis-Marly, as well as producing a few original poems of her own. The translations of works by Mornay and Garnier were published by her in 1592 and 1595 respectively. Other works remained unpublished until long after her death.

Clearly the work most widely circulated and copied in manuscript was the complete Sidney/Pembroke psalter, eighteen extant contemporary or near-contemporary manuscripts of which are recorded below in the Philip Sidney section (SiP 72-88), in addition to copies of a few individual psalms. Two of the Countess's poems preface a manuscript of the Psalms possibly made for presentation to Queen Elizabeth (PeM 1, PeM 2), although an early draft of one of these, ‘To the Angell spirit of the most excellent Sir Philip Sidney’, is known to have been among Samuel Daniel's papers. The Triumph of Death survives in a single manuscript (PeM 3) associated with Sir John Harington, who is known to have collected various works by the Sidneys. There would otherwise seem to be no surviving evidence of any notable manuscript circulation of the Countess's own writings, although she may well have written more than what is known today.

Five other poems possibly by the Countess have been discovered in a verse miscellany of the 1640s by June and Paul Schleuter (PeM 4-8). A case is made for this attribution, but it will no doubt remain open to discussion.


The only other manuscript remains of the Countess are her original letters. Some nineteen of them are known to date (PeM 10-27). These are supplemented in the Collected Edition (II, 298-301) by a reference to a lost, possibly genuine, letter to her son, and the texts of three undated letters supposedly written by her to Sir Tobie Matthew, published by John Donne Jr in A Collection of Letters made by Sir Tobie Matthew, Knight (London, 1660). The authorship of these letters is rendered doubtful, not only by the unreliable editorship of the younger Donne (who was not above changing the names of writers and recipients in other publications by him), but also by the style of the letters, which does not resemble the Countess's and would seem to belong to a later generation.


One other uncertain item relating to the Countess is a printed exemplum of the Arcadia (London, 1613) now at Harvard (HEW 7.10.3). It is inscribed ‘This was the Countess of pembrokes owne booke given me by the Countess of montgomery her daughter 1625. Ancram’, and the later red morocco binding of the volume bears a lozenge in gilt with the letter M surrounded by four examples of the S-fermé. The authenticity of this inscription has been questioned (e.g.. see Bent Juel-Jensen in The Book Collector, 11 (Winter 1962), 474). It is possible, however, that the title-page has been transplanted into this volume from another exemplum of the work.

Peter Beal