Friday, September 28, 2012

Elizabethan Power Couple: The 2nd Earl and Countess of Pembroke

Two of the most fascinating and accomplished people of the Elizabethan age also happened to be married to one another; Henry Herbert, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke and his wife, Mary Sidney-Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Both husband and wife were born into distinguished pedigree's, yet they contributed to, rather than relied on their names, leaving their unique mark on history.
Henry Herbert was the eldest son of the 1st Earl of Pembroke, William, and his wife Anne Parr, the younger sister of Henry VIII's last wife, Katherine Parr. Henry was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge under the instruction of John Whitgift; Whitgift would later become Queen Elizabeth I's Archbishop of Canterbury from 1583-1603, vigorously upholding Elizabeth's Church Settlement and drawing up articles against ministers who did not uphold religious uniformity (Palmer, 32)

A portrait of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, circa 1565. In the Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
A sketch by Hans Holbein thought to be of Anne Parr; Henry Herbert was her only surviving child. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Before he inherited his earldom, Henry Herbert was married to Lady Katherine Grey in 1553. Katherine's family were the cousins of the royal Tudor's through Frances Brandon; Frances was one of the daughter's of Henry VIII's sister, Mary Tudor and her second husband, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Katherine was in line for the throne of England, and thus Henry Herbert's marriage to her was an incredibly prestigious match. It was orchestrated by John Dudley, the Earl of Northumberland in an attempt to strengthen his position in his plot to put his son Guildford and his daughter-in-law Jane Grey (Katherine's sister) on the throne. Nothumberland's plot succeeded, if only briefly. The coup resulted in the execution of Queen Jane, Guildford, and Northumberland himself. The disgrace was significant for anyone even peripherally associated with the plot, and Henry Herbert's father Earl William was now outraged that his son was joined in marriage to the sister of a convicted traitor. Earl William petitioned the new Queen Mary I to assist in the dissolution of the marriage, since it had allegedly never been consummated. Queen Mary granted the request, and the marriage was annulled in 1554. We do not know how Henry or Katherine felt about the dissolution of their marriage.

A miniature portrait of Katherine Grey, circa 1555-1560 by Leevina Teerlinc. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Herbert next married Lady Katherine Talbot, who was the daughter of George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury and his first wife, Gertrude Manners. Shrewsbury was a prominent statesman, and later became the husband of the wealthiest woman in England, next to the queen herself, 16th century real-estate mogul Bess of Hardwick.

A portrait of Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury by Rowland Lockley, 1592. Hardwick Hall. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
  Upon the death of his father in 1570, Henry Herbert succeeded to the title of Earl of Pembroke, making him one of the most powerful members of the peerage. That same year, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire. Through his mother he became Lord Parr, along with a variety of other distinguished titles.

While the Earl's star rose at court, his wife's health was failing. Katherine Talbot-Herbert was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, and when she took to her sickbed, the Queen visited her twice at the Herbert family's Baynards Castle (DNB, 189-90). Katherine Talbot-Herbert died in 1575, having had no children by her husband.

Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke had now been married twice, and both of his marriages and ended in sadness. Luckily, his third wife would be his equal in every way, and they would enjoy a long partnership, only ending with his death in 1601.

On April 21st, 1577 Herbert married his third wife, the fifteen-year old, highly educated Mary Sidney. Mary was the third daughter of Sir Henry Sidney and his wife, Mary Dudley. Mary Dudley was the daughter of the executed John Dudley, the Earl of Northumberland. Thus, Mary Sidney was the niece of Queen Elizabeth I's favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and Henry Hastings and his wife Katherine Dudley Hastings, Earl and Countess of Huntingdon. Ironically, Henry would once again be marrying into the same circle that his father had wanted the family distanced from. Henry Herbert must have first encountered his future wife around the time of his second wife's death in 1575, when Mary Sidney had come to court to take her sister Ambrosia's place in the Queen's service.

Queen Elizabeth I required the women around her to be highly educated and able to have intelligent conversation on diverse subjects. Mary Sidney fulfilled these requirements, being considered the most educated woman in England, next to the Queen herself and the Cooke sisters, daughter's of Anthony Cooke (Hannay). Mary studied the scriptures, ancient classics, poetry and verse. Mary became fluent in Latin, French and Italian, and probably had some understanding of Greek and Hebrew (Hannay). In addition to studying academia, Mary, like all aristocratic girls, was expected to learn how to manage a household. She learned how to balance the household accounts, manage servants, and trained in making and administering medicine. Mary also excelled at singing and playing the lute.

A portrait of the Earl of Leicester by an unknown artist, circa 1575-80. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke had long been allied with Mary Sidney's uncle, the Earl of Leicester. Leicester had arranged the marriage between his niece and his close friend. Both earls enjoyed special favor from the Queen. This was to be especially apparent for Pembroke when Queen Elizabeth entrusted him, along with a few others, to represent her interests at the treason trials of Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, (1571-72, executed in June of '72) Mary Queen of Scots in 1586, and the son of the Duke of Norfolk, Philip Arundel in 1589.

Grafitti in the Tower of London done by Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel in 1587. Picture acquired through Flickr courtesy of Lisby1.

Like the Herbert's, the Sidney's had long enjoyed royal favor. William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke had served Mary I and her husband Philip II of Spain; Sir Henry Sidney had been Prince Edward's chamberlain, and his sons and daughters grew up alongside the Tudor Prince. When Edward became King, the Sidney's were rewarded for their service, yet they were punished along with the Dudley family following Northumberland's coup (Hannay). Given the intertwined fates of the families, it should be of no surprise that the earls of Leicester and Pembroke got along famously, and that Henry and Mary eventually became husband and wife.

Both the Herbert's and the Sidney's had been welcomed at court upon Elizabeth Tudor's accession to the throne in 1558. The Countess of Pembroke's mother, Mary Dudley, had become especially close to the Queen. When Elizabeth I fell gravely ill with smallpox, it was Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney who nursed her back to health. As a result of her exposure to the disease, Lady Sidney fell ill herself, and was disfigured. Queen Elizabeth I never forgot her friend's sacrifice, granting her a pension for her service.

A detail from a portrait of Sir Henry Sidney, circa 1573. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

A portrait of Mary Dudley, Lady Sidney, by Hans Eworth. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
  At 15, Mary had become Countess of Pembroke, making her in charge of Wilton House, the primary Herbert family estate, which had been built on the grounds of the former Wilton Abbey by her husband's parents in the 1540's. Wilton would also become the center of the Countess's literary salon, the "Wilton Circle". The Countess of Pembroke would also eventually entertain Queen Elizabeth I there. Mary also managed several other Herbert properties, among them Baynards Castle in London (Hannay)

The East front view of Wilton House. After a devastating fire in 1647, Wilton had to be largely rebuilt. Sadly, much of Wilton as the 2nd Earl and Countess of Pembroke knew it is gone. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Mike Searle.
  Mary would give birth to four children rather quickly. In 1580, three years after Henry and Mary's wedding, a son was born, William, later the controversial 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Katherine was born in 1581, Anne in 1583, and Philip in 1584. Philip, likely named after Mary's beloved brother Philip Sidney, the acclaimed soldier-poet, would become 4rth Earl of Pembroke after his brother's death and the Earl of Montgomery. Sadly, neither daughter would live into adulthood. The Countess of Pembroke's biographer, Margaret P. Hannay observes that these early years of the Pembroke's marriage were equally happy and tragic. While Henry and Mary grew to love one another, many of their immediate relatives died during this period, including their eldest daughter:

"Little Katherine died the same day that Philip was born in October 1584. In 1586 Mary Sidney's father died in May and her mother in August. And then, in that same year, her brother Philip died on 17 October from wounds received in Zutphen, where he was fighting with the English forces that hoped to rescue the Netherlands from the rule of Catholic Spain. As a woman she was barred from participating in his elaborate funeral and from publishing in any of the volumes of elegies put out by the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Leiden. Overcome by illness and grief, and then fearing invasion by the Spanish Armada, Mary Sidney remained at the Pembroke country estates in Wiltshire for two years."(Hannay)

1586 had brought so much tragedy, yet that same year Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke succeeded his father-in-law as Lord President of Wales. He made Ludlow Castle, the traditional seat of the President of Wales, the new primary residence of his family. Cardiff still has a strong association with the Pembroke family,  and both the 1st and 2nd Earl of Pembroke's portraits reside in the National Museum in Wales. In 1588, Pembroke was responsible for the defense of Wales as the Spanish Armada approached England (Wagner, 152).

After England's great victory over the Spanish, the Countess of Herbert had rejoined public life. The coming years would be a period of immense productivity for her; Mary Herbert was to become a literary powerhouse. Mary was the first English women to have a successful literary career, publishing the first play written by a woman in English (a closet drama), original poetry with complex structures, literary translations, and the edited works of her brother, Sir Philip Sidney. The Countess of Pembroke also notably never apologized for her 'feminine condition' in her writing, as was typical for other female writers of the time (Hannay).
A portrait of Sir Philip Sidney. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Hannay asserts that the Countess began her public literary career to honor her departed brother, by becoming a patron specifically to writers who praised his memory through their art, such as Edmund Spenser and Thomas Moffet. Meanwhile, the Earl was keeping up appearances with the Queen, and like many of his station, he was experiencing money troubles. In a letter to William Cecil, Lord Burghley dated June 20th, 1590, Pembroke complained that he had spent his entire fortune in the Queen's service, and petitioned for some recompense. Yet Pembroke was mindful not to bite the hand that fed him and his family, and in 1592 he went with the Queen on one of her many visits to Oxford University (DNB, 189-190).

A portrait by an unknown artist by of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1590. Jesus College, Oxford. Note the unique cherry cluster-shaped earring that Elizabeth is wearing! Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The Countess's first contribution to English literature was supervising the publication of her brother Philip Sidney's masterpiece, Arcadia, which he had written for her at her literary salon at Wilton House, the aforementioned "Wilton Circle". The Countess, in collaboration with Fulke Greville, published The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. If it were not for the Countess's dedication to her brother, the literary world might never have known the gift of Philip Sidney. 

A portrait miniature of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke by Hilliard, circa 1590. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In addition to her brother, the Wilton Circle included Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queen, and the poets Michael Drayton and Sir John Davies, among others. The members of the Wilton Circle not only discussed literature and writing methods, but discussed theology, specifically Calvinism, and philosophy. The sole woman in the group, the Countess was respected by her associates, and praised by many of them in their own works, either outwardly, or in the guise of a character, as was the custom in the 16th century. Among the literary figures that praised her and/or borrowed from her were William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Samuel Daniel, John Davies, Michael Drayton, and Gabriel Harvey (Hannay)

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke also inspired other female English writers; "Her importance as a role model for younger women writers is seen in Aemilia Lanyer's dedicatory poem in 'Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum' (1611), and in her niece Mary Wroth's affectionate portrayals of her in 'Urania' (1621) as the Queen of Naples." (Hannay)

A portrait miniature of Amelia Bassano Lanyer/Lanier. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The Countess's sons were referenced in literature, as well; William may be the young man alluded to in Shakespeare's Sonnets, and Ben Jonson also dedicated a collection of epigrams to him. William, together with his younger brother Philip made up the "incomparable pair of bretheren" to whom Shakespeare's First Folio (1623) is dedicated, because, according to the Folio editors, the Herbert brothers had "prosecuted both them and their author living with so much favor". Other parts of the dedication imply Shakespeare was close to the Pembroke family. Shakespeare's sonnets are dedicated to "the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets, "Mr. W.H."-William Herbert (DNB, 227-228). But 'W.H' could just as well be an scripted reference to Henry Wriothesly, the Earl of Southampton.

A portrait of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke by Daniel Mytens, 1625. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In 1590, the Countess  finished translating and adapting Seneca's tragedy,
Antonius; in 1592 Antonius and A Discourse of Life and Death were ready for publication. In 1593 the Countess revised her brother's Arcadia again, adding additional works to it for its second publication (Hannay,71). The following year, the Countess had completed the metrical translation of Biblical psalms begun by her brother (Rathmell). By 1595, the Countess's husband, Henry, had started to suffer a rapid decline in his health. With the combination of undertaking the translation of biblical psalms and her husband's health problems, it is understandable that that the Countess did not debut any new material until 1599; that year, she presented a copy of of the biblical psalms translated by both herself and her brother to the Queen, complete with a personalized dedication (Hannay, 95)

Queen Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, circa 1595. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The year before the Countess gifted Queen Elizabeth, her husband had asked the Queen to be relieved of his strenuous duties in Wales (Wagner, 152). But despite his ill-health, in 1599, with the threat of another potential Spanish invasion, (which never came to fruition) Herbert offered to raise two hundred horsemen for the crown (190)

3 quarter-length Italian armor, most likely that of Henry Herbert, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke. The Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, MA. Picture taken by Ashlie R. Jensen.

A detail of the gauntlet from the 3 quarter-length Pembroke armor. The Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, MA. Picture taken by Ashlie R. Jensen.
A detail of the gilded etching on the 3 quarter-length Pembroke armor. The Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, MA. Picture taken by Ashlie R. Jensen.

As any writer can attest, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke's immense body of work, produced in such a short amount of time, is rather remarkable. For those who study English literature, the quality and complexity of Mary's work is astounding. Because of the Countess's remarkable gift, she has become a candidate for the 'true' authorship of the Shakespeare canon; this is a far-fetched theory at best, but the fact that her name has been involved in the authorship controversy at all demonstrates the caliber of her work and the literary circle that she traveled in.

Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke was supportive of his wife's literary career. After all, even the least supportive husband would have been, since, "Her own literary works fit approved categories for women, elegy, encomium, and translation, thereby allowing her to stretch the boundaries for women even while she appeared to remain within them." (Hannay) Pembroke and his wife both shared a passionate love for the arts, and where his wife was the author, the Earl Henry was a patron. Hannay believes the Countess's role as a patron has been exaggerated, in comparison with her husband, though she did support the Wilton Circle and encourage her own relations to write, among them her niece, the English author Mary Wroth.

A portrait of Lady Mary Wroth, the niece of the Earl and Countess of Pembroke, and also the eventual mistress of their eldest son, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

When Henry Herbert was not playing an integral part in Elizabethan politics, he owned and operated his own theatre company, which may have for a time include William Shakespeare (Wagner,152). From 1592-1601 Pembroke's Men was the first company to perform Shakespeare's Henry VI, part I and the The Isle of Dogs by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe (190). The play was considered seditious by the government because of various thinly-veiled critical references within the script to foreign states with which England conducted business. Understandably, the decision to run The Isle of Dogs caused the company great financial difficulty and earned them the disapproval of the Queen and her government. Jonson was even imprisoned for a time for co-authoring the work (Wagner 152).

A portrait of Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, circa 1590. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
On January 19th 1601, after years of ill-health, Henry Herbert, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke died at his family's beloved Wilton House. He left his wife with a significant amount of debt to settle. He was laid to rest in Salisbury Cathedral.

A view of Salisbury Cathedral. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Tony Hisgett and Magnus Manske.

After the death of her husband, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke became the head of her family, arranging marriages for her children and managing the Pembroke estates. The Countess attempted to put down insurrections in Cardiff, Wales, and built herself the impressive and "innovative" Houghton House in Bedfordshire, and continued to write and translate (Hannay)

The ruins of Houghton House, built by Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Houghton House was the inspiration for 'House Beautiful' in Paul Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Widowed for twenty-years, Mary Herbert never remarried, but she did carry on a prolonged flirtation with her much-younger doctor, Sir Matthew Lister (Hannay).

Ironically, the Countess died from the same disease that had scarred her mother's body, smallpox, on September 45th 1621 at her home in London on Aldersgate Street (Hannay, 205). After her funeral service at St. Paul's Cathedral, her body was taken to Wiltshire for burial in Salisbury Cathedral, alongside her husband.

A portrait of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke in her old age, circa 1614. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The Countess was replaced by her sons at court; both William and Philip found favor under James I. Both continued the work of their parents, becoming patrons of the arts. The 2nd Earl and Countess of Pembroke leave a shared legacy as patrons of the arts in England's Golden Age. Separately, Henry Herbert was one of the leading figures in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and Mary Herbert was a pioneer, being the first English woman to create a successful literary career for herself.

Authors Note:
Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Mary Sidney-Herbert, Countess of Pembroke are two of my favorite Elizabethans, so it seemed fitting that I make them my 'pilot' Elizabethan Power Couple. I first discovered the Countess of Pembroke and her works when I studied English literature as an undergrad. I became more familiar with the Earl through independent research for James C. Donnelly, Jr., the President of the Board of Trustee's at the Higgins Armory Museum and a member of the Shakespeare Club of Worcester. I am blessed that the Earl of Pembroke's armor is in the Higgins collection, and I visit it every day that I am at work!

UPDATE: The Worcester Art Museum bought the Higgins collection and the Higgins Armory Museum closed.

Ashlie R. Jensen as Queen Elizabeth I, with 3-quarter length Italian armor, probably that of Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. The Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester MA.


Hannay, Margaret P. Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Hannay, Margaret P. Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621). Cambridge U,
     2000. Web. 27 September 2012.

Rathmell, John C. A. ed. "Introduction." Sir Philip Sidney transl., and Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke transl. The Psalms of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke. Alternate Title: The Psalmes of David. New York: New York University Press, 1963.  

Palmer, Michael. Reputations: Elizabeth I. Bath Press, 1988. Print.

Wagner, John A. The Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World. Print.

"Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (c.1538-1601)." Dictionary of National Biography
     Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, eds. Vol 26, Smith, Elder, & co., 1891. pg 189-90. 

"William, third Earl of Pembroke (1580-1630)." Dictionary of National Biography
     Sir Leslie Stephen and Sir Sidney Lee, eds.Vol 26, Smith, Elder, & co., 1891. pp 227-228.