Mary, Countess of Pembroke: poetry, patronage and power

Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (from a Nicholas Hilliard miniature)

This is, more or less, the text of the talk I gave earlier this month at the Wilton History Festival.

Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and her sons William and Philip, were the most influential patrons of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era.

Let’s begin with a story to illustrate that assertion. For the moment, we will work on the basis that it is true.

It is the autumn of 1603. James I is new on the throne. There is plague in London. The court is travelling with the new king in the west – along way from the dangers of the capital. The court is, in fact, at Wilton House for much of the autumn, enjoying the hospitality of the third earl of Pembroke, William Herbert, who himself only inherited his title two years earlier.

On 17 November, the court travels to Winchester where Sir Walter Ralegh is to stand trial for treason. Ralegh, once a close friend of Mary Herbert, is sentenced to death.

In London, the theatres are closed as a public health risk. The players themselves are touring the provinces. The King’s Men – formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the troupe of Shakespeare and Burbage – are at Mortlake.

Mary Herbert – the earl’s mother and the Countess of Pembroke – summons them to Wilton to play As You Like It before the king. Mary wants to lobby James I on Ralegh’s behalf. They play is one way to soften him up. She writes to her other son, Philip, “We have the man Shakespeare with us”.

The troupe receives the very handsome sum of £30 for a performance on 2 December. Whatever happened that day, the Herbert family is extremely grateful for it. (In 1598, for example, they received £40 for four performances at court.)

And Ralegh? Well, his sentence is commuted on the 9th.

Most of this story is certain. Mary’s summons, Shakespeare’s presence, the name of the play, are less so: the letter which contained those pieces of information hasn’t been seen since August 5, 1865, when a historian named William Cory – little known then and less known now – made a note of it in his journal.

As with so much of history, beneath the thin golden seam of certainty lies a deep, tantalising seam of possibilities gleaming with what may be gold too – but may very well be marcasite.

Much of this talk will be about Mary, Countess of Pembroke. I wanted to begin with this story because it conveys so much about the dynamics power and patronage and how they intertwine. Patronage is, among other things, the power to command, as the Herbert’s commanded the King’s Men that autumn. It is also the power to influence not just culture, but also politics. Soft power, we would call it now.

But before we come to Mary, who married into the Herbert family, let’s look a moment at the family itself.

The first earl of Pemboke of this creation – the tenth, I think – was William Herbert, who was born in 1506 or 1507, the grandson of the previous first earl. He was a native Welsh speaker, but there has always been a question mark over his literacy. The 17th century antiquarian and gossip John Aubrey said he signed his name with a stamp and he has been described as the last illiterate member of the Privy Council. This seems to have been an exaggeration, although when he was questioned about Mary, Queen of Scots in the late 1560s, he was unable to provide Sir William Cecil and Elizabeth I with a written account because he couldn’t write. Clearly for that excuse to work, it must have been credible; neither Cecil nor the Queen were fools.

He owed a great deal of his success at court to having the good fortune to be married to Anne Parr, younger sister to Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s final wife. Henry VIII appointed him one of the executors of his will, and he was also one of the 12 privy councillors appointed to advise the young Edward VI.

Wilton, the fourth largest nunnery in England, came to him in 1544. The annual income at Wilton was £674, but he acquired other monastic lands too, such as Ivychurch, which earned £123 a year. Through the 1550s he bought a lot of land, particularly in South Wales and Wiltshire, much of it once belonging to religious houses, and eventually amassed an annual income of £4,000 or £5,000.

Illiterate or not, he was clearly highly intelligent – and a very able politician. Not many people lived to serve all four Tudor monarchs but William Herbert, first earl of Pembroke, was one of them.

The second earl, Henry Herbert, who succeeded to the title on his father’s death in 1570, seems to have been the antithesis of his father, having the reputation of a tactless and inept politician. Appointed as lord president of the council in the marches of Wales in 1586, he did what had hitherto proved impossible and united the council. Unfortunately, he united them in opposition to his government. He once wrote a letter to Elizabeth I which his secretary courageously refused to deliver because he thought it rash to provoke the Queen with something so ill-tempered. Towards the end of his life, his son asked the queen for permission to stay with his father at Wilton, rather than at court, because he feared the second earl would give away all his money.

But Henry Herbert did two things for which we should be eternally grateful. He was patron of Richard Burbage’s theatrical troupe in the 1590s, at a time when it was performing plays by both Christopher Marlowe and, in particular, the young William Shakespeare. (It is sometimes speculated that Shakespeare was part of the troupe itself, which is certainly possible but impossible to prove.)

The other undeniably great thing Henry Herbert did was to marry Mary Sidney.

Mary Sidney was born in 1561, the daughter of Sir Henry Sidney, the niece of the Queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Socially, it was a good marriage for Mary, although it took her father until nearly a year after the wedding to pay the £3,000 dowry that had been agreed. He wrote to Leicester: “alas my deerest Lord, myne abylyte answereth not my harty desyres”. To Sir Francis Walsingham, simply: “I pray you help me”. In the end, he had to borrow £500 from his brother in law to fulfil his obligation.

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say she made Wilton – certainly as a place of great cultural significance.

For a long time – centuries, really – her influence has been overshadowed by that of her brother, Philip Sidney.

As well as being a brilliant writer – he is the author of the most-read and most influential work of prose fiction for 200 years after his death; of the first great Elizabethan sonnet sequence; and of the first extended piece of literary criticism in English – Philip Sidney was also regarded by contemporaries as a rising political star – perhaps the rising political star – of the period.

It did his reputation no harm that he died a heroes death in October 1586, aged just 30, from wounds gained fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands. He was given a state funeral and buried at St Paul’s.

He and Mary were, without doubt exceptionally close. Philip’s work of prose fiction I just mentioned is a pastoral romance known as The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. If that sounds dull, it really isn’t: it is packed with stories from a wide range of classical and renaissance souces, which involve low politics, love, sex, disguise, kidnapping and everything in between. It is very hard to think that the Shakespearean comedy of As You Like It, for example, would exist without it.

Much of the Arcadia was written here, at Wilton, the summer of 1580, while Philip was banished from court from criticising Elizabeth I’s projected marriage with François, duc d’Alençon. (Sidney’s family status came in useful here; another man, John Stubbe who publicly criticised the marriage, had his right hand chopped off by the public hangman.)

The title is rather unusual, and, I think, indicative. By calling it The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, Sidney is doing more than merely dedicating the work to her, he is involving her quite explicitly in its ownership and, in some respects, its creation. Reading it, there are frequent asides to the lady or ladies listening to it being read to them, and there is a strong, almost collusive sense of intimacy between author and audience.

“You desired me to do it,” he wrote in a dedicatory epistle, “and your desire to my heart is an absolute commandment. Now it is done only for you, only to you… Your deal self can best witness the manner, being done in loose sheets of paper, most if it in your presence, the rest by sheets of paper sent unto you as fast as they were done.”

Indeed, Hugh Sanford, a friend to both and a sometime family tutor, described the work in 1593 as “most by her doing, all by her directing”.

In any case, there is, in fact, a work that the two of them certainly undertook together, and that she finished after his death.

It is a verse translation of the Psalms. Philip was responsible for the first 43, and Mary for the remaining 107 – although she also revised Philip’s verses after his death. It is, on both a technical and a spiritual level, an extraordinary work. If you include the 22 sections of the exceptionally long Psalm 119, there are 172 poems in the work. Mary and Philip Sidney only repeat the precise verse form once. To put that another way, there are 171 different verse forms used, drawn from classical, Italian, French and Hebraic literature, and many, many of them used in English for the first time.

Not for nothing has it been called a one-volume “school of English versification”. It went on to influence much English religious verse, including Herbert, Vaughan and Milton, the best of which is also hugely formally inventive.

Donne wrote a poem about the Sidney Psalms, in which he says Mary and Philip:

“Both told us what, and taught us how to do…
“They tell us why, and teach us how to sing”

If I am stressing Mary Sidney Herbert’s literary prowess here, it is because she has been demeaned over the centuries as something of a blue stocking, a woman who merely managed her brother’s reputation after his death – which she certainly did do – and who tried to promote a highly formal and stylised neo-classical literary style – which she certainly didn’t.

There is sometimes a sense of her place in literary history as someone cloistered away here in Wilton. This simply isn’t true of her as a person. She spent two years in mourning here after her brother died – she had lost her mother and father the same year – and then, when the two years were over swept into London with 80 servants in her entourage, all dressed in Sidney blue and gold. Later, when her husband the second earl died and her son, William, had taken over the estate, she travelled to Spa, in what is now Belgium, where she shot pistols, played cards, smoked tobacco, danced and – it is rumoured – took a young lover.

In a period when we are often told aristocrats disdained to associate themselves with publication – and when it was certainly highly unusual for women to have any kind of public voice – Mary Countess of Pembroke, published her work.

In 1592, she published both her translations of Antonius, by the contemporary French playwright, Robert Garnier, and A Discourse of Life and Death, by her brother’s friend Philip Mornay. The first would certainly become a source for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, while the second was popular enough to be reprinted four times over the next 15 years.

(As an aside, one of the nice things about these two works – especially being where we are – is that she says where they were written: Antonius was finished at Ramsbury on 26 November 1590, and the discourse here at Wilton on 13 May the same year.)

I should probably add here that Mary was interested in chemistry as much as literature. Aubrey accounted her a great Chymist. One surviving recipe is titled, My Lady of Pembrookes Vomett. It’s in the Bodleian, if you want to see if it works.

But, as I said earlier, the greatest impact she made – both on her own account and through her son William, in particular – was as a patron.

She and her children had some 250 works dedicated to them, vastly more than anyone in the period – except Elizabeth I. These included works by Sir Thomas Browne, George Chapman, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, John Ford, Ben Jonson, Philip Massinger, Thomas Nashe and Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623 was dedicated to her sons – “Incomparable brethren”, they are called – William and Philip.

Some of the writers who made such dedications would have received gifts of money. Others were employed at Wilton: the translator John Florio, and the poets Samuel Daniel and Michael Drayton were all tutors to the Herbert children, for instance. It has, in fact, been pointed out that everyone at Wilton seems to have written: not just the family, not just the children’s tutors, but also the secretaries, the family physician and at least one of the family retainers.

Other writers received what amounted to commissions: Samuel Daniel, for instance, was asked – firmly encouraged – possibly instructed – to write a sequel to Antonius, named Cleopatra.

It is not necessarily the case that troupes of players who claimed the livery of aristocratic patrons received any financial backing beyond payment for specific performances. With the Countess of Pembroke, however, it is clear that she was involved intimately in supporting the actors. The will of a Pembroke actor named Simon Jewell who died in the summer of 1592 refers to “my share of such money as shall be given by my lady Pembroke or by her means I will shall be distributed and paid towards my burial and other charges”.

I don’t want to pretend that the Herbert family in the early modern era were paragons of virtue. I referred to immorality in the title of this talk, and the adjective certainly seems to apply to he young William Herbert. He had an affair with a gentlewoman of the court named Mary Fitton, who became pregnant. It is not to his credit – I think it’s fair to say – that he fled to Wilton and refused to either acknowledge Mary’s predicament or marry her.

Elizabeth I sometimes gets a bad press for her autocratic impulses, but I think she wasn’t all that off the mark in this case. She put William Herbert in the Fleet prison for a month and refused to give him the positions his father had held.

But, to end on a more positive note, it’s important to say that patronage wasn’t only about financial support, welcome though that was. William Herbert gave Ben Jonson £20 a year just to buy books. He paid for the architect Inigo Jones to go on a tour of Europe.

Patronage was also protection. When Ben Jonson caused offence with a play that satirised James I and his Scottish friends at court – and wound up in prison – Pembroke was one of those he turned to. “Neither am I or my cause so much unknown to your Lordship, as it should drive me to seek a second means, or despair of this to your favour. You have ever been free and noble to me, and I doubt not the same proportion of your bounties, if I can but answer it with preservation of my virtue and innocence; when I fail of those, let me not only be abandon’d of you, but of men.”

I would also say that patronage wasn’t a merely transactional relationship. These were – or could be – or were in the case of the Herberts, personal relationships, too.

“Since your lordships have been pleased to think these trifles something heretofore, and have prosecuted both them and their author, living, with so much favour, we hope that… you will use the like indulgence toward them you have done unto their parent”

And, most movingly, I think, the first great Shakespearean actor – the man for whom the roles of Richard III, Hamlet and Othello were written – died on 12 March 1619. Two months later, William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, attended a banquet. The entertainment that evening was to have been Pericles, for which Burbage had played the title role. Herbert wrote to a friend that, “being tender-hearted, [i] could not endure to see [the play] so soon after the loss of my old acquaintance Burbage.”

I think that’s an image I’d like to end this talk with. We tend to think of patronage as a cold, commercial and transactional. But, with the Herbert family at least, it was also intimate, personal and deeply meant – both in terms of what might be achieved, and in simple human terms, between two people.

Note: I’m indebted to blogger Denise Keay for pointing out that when I first posted this, I had typed Shrewsbury instead of Pembroke in a couple of places. I must have had Shrewsbury on my mind for some reason, although I’ve no idea why!

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