Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Mary Sidney, Robert Sidney, Mary Wroth and William Herbert

This second film introduces you to Robert Sidney, his sister Mary Sidney Herbert, and their children Lady Mary Wroth and William Herbert.
This video introduces Sir Philip’s younger sister, Mary, his brother, Robert, and the second generation of Sidney writers. Sir Philip’s influence on the younger generation of Sidneys is clear from a manuscript in the British Library, which includes pages where an apparently younger writer has practised her penmanship and italic hand by copying out her uncle’s sonnets from Astrophel and Stella. The manuscript belonged to Philip’s younger sister, Mary Sidney, who became Countess of Pembroke when she was 15 and married William Herbert, the second Earl of Pembroke, who lived in Wilton House in Wiltshire.
She encouraged a younger generation of writers, both within the Sidney family circle and in the public domain, to perpetuate the name of Sir Philip Sidney and the literary renaissance that he had begun. Indeed, as Patricia Pender argues, if Philip was the spirit of the English renaissance, Mary Sidney was the machine which made it happen. Mary Sidney Herbert oversaw the publication of her brother’s works in revised and expanded versions, which culminated in the 1598 publication of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. This included expanded versions of Astrophel and Stella, a verse collection of Certain Sonnets, The Defence of Poetry, and Sir Philip Sidney’s pastoral drama, The Lady of May.
The title, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, therefore not only refers to the dedication of the writing to her, but points to a model of collaborative authorship between brother and sister. Simon de Passe’s engraving of the Countess of Pembroke strengthens our sense of collaborative authorship, because it depicts the countess holding a copy of the Psalms of David, which Mary continued to translate alone after Philip’s death. She also continued their work in translating the works of the French Protestant writer, Philippe de Mornay, publishing her English version of de Mornay’s Excellent Discourse of Life and Death in 1592 and reprinting this in the 1600s– texts that we will look at in week four.
She is therefore to be regarded as a Sidney author, providing a model of female authorship to a younger generation of writers, like her niece, Lady Mary Wroth. Mary Sidney Herbert had translated a French play by Garnier, The Tragedy of Antony, a possible influence on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. She had also composed a dramatic dialogue between two shepherds as an entertainment to welcome Queen Elizabeth to Wilton. She was a writer and translator of poetry and prose, as well as overseeing the publication of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. The third sibling, Robert Sidney, was nine years younger than his dazzling elder brother, Sir Philip, and two years younger than his sister, Mary. He inherited Penshurst Place when Sir Philip died in battle.
He also inherited Sir Philip’s role as governor of Flushing and continued the Sidney family’s strong connections with the continental fashions and politics. Robert Sidney strengthened their connections to the court, too. In 1603, the new king, James I, appointed him as Lord Chamberlain to his queen, Anna of Denmark. Robert Sidney wrote a series of political commonplace books and poetry, a collection of sonnets, and a series of lyrics between shepherds and nymphs. Thus, following the pastoral style, it had become a Sidney family tradition. His manuscript of poems is dedicated to his sister, Mary, Countess of Pembroke, just as his brother’s Arcadia had been. In 1584, Robert Sidney married Barbara Gamage, a wealthy heiress from Glamorgan.
His surviving letters to her from Flushing and from court in London suggest the strong affection he felt towards his family and towards Penshurst. His letter of the 22nd of September 1595, for example, asks his sweet Barbara to, quote, “kiss all our little ones from me.” And in a postscript, requests that “Jakes the Gardener comes to Penshurst to bring yellow peaches, apricots, apples, and plum trees to set along the wall towards the church.” Robert also shows particular interest in his children’s writing. In his next letter of 6 of October 1595, just before the eighth birthday of their eldest daughter, Mary, he writes, “I thank Malkin for her letter and am exceedingly glad to see that she writes so well.
Tell her, from me, I will give her a new gown for her letter. Kiss all the rest from me and love them still. I am your assured loving husband, Sidney.” Robert and Barbara’s eldest daughter, Mary, was to prove just as prolific a writer as her famous uncle, Sir Philip Sidney. Lady Mary Sidney Wroth and her cousin William Herbert are the two younger generation Sidneys whose writings have come down to us. Mary was matched and in 1604 married to a wealthy Essex landowner, Sir Robert Wroth. She was the dedicatee of Ben Johnson’s 1611 play, The Alchemist.
After Robert Wroth’s death in 1614, and that of their infant son in 1616, she produced a play, Love’s Victory, and wrote a long prose romance, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania. It contained a sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. So Lady Mary Wroth was following the tradition set up by her uncle, aunt, and her father. Lady Mary’s writing is replete with images of unrequited love, thought by many to express her own undying passion for her cousin, William Herbert. William Herbert was the eldest son of Mary Sidney Herbert, who had married the second earl of Pembroke. He was born and lived at Wilton, the other Sidney household, which was a site of writing under his mother’s influence.
William Herbert and his younger brother, Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery, were the dedicatees of the first folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623. William Herbert’s own poetry was circulated in manuscript and appeared in print in 1660. In 1624, Lady Mary bore two illegitimate children fathered by William Herbert. The cousins’ relationship is thus even closer than literary companions, as we will see next week, when the course looks at the Sidney’s writing on romantic love. For the remainder of this week, we will focus on Penshurst Place and writings about it.

In this step we will learn about Philip’s sister, Mary Sidney Herbert, his brother, Robert Sidney, who became the owner of Penshurst Place, and their children who became the next generation of Sidney writers.

Watch this video and think about what role Mary Sidney played in perpetuating Sir Philip Sidney’s literary legacy.

  • How do you think Mary Sidney and Robert Sidney extended the literary patterns he set?
  • How do the younger generation of writers, Mary Wroth and William Herbert continue those traditions?
  • Are any of these Sidney writers new to you?

Post a comment to share your thoughts with other learners.

Tag suggestions:

#marysidney #robertsidney #marywroth #williamherbert #literary

This article is from the free online

Penshurst Place and the Sidney Family of Writers

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now