In terms of cultural movements, I am in no doubt that when historians look back at 2018 they will note the sharp rise in female activism. From the Times Up movement to the BBC gender pay row to the iconic #metoo movement, female empowerment is everywhere and gender equality is the buzzword of the day.
It is perhaps no coincidence that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of women being granted the right to vote in Great Britain. As a result of their significant efforts during WWI, all women over the age of 30 and who occupied a property were awarded this fundamental democratic right. Yes, there was a long way to go to true equality, but it was a start.
Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle famously stated ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’, but there have been some equally fantastic women along the way too. There are also some brilliant people out there right now telling the stories of some of these lesser-known female trailblazers. (On Instagram, I thoroughly recommend you follow Rebel Women embroidery for cross-stitch stories of women across the world who broke the mould throughout history).
I thought that, in the spirit of the moment, I too would extol the virtues of a female historical figure that I personally find inspirational. However, deciding who to write about was difficult as there are so many outstanding candidates to choose from! I flitted from Gwenllian (Welsh warrior princess) to the Queen (living legend!) to Nancy Astor (first female MP), and back again. I finally settled on a Tudor personality I have always found intriguing and who (I think) is underappreciated.
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke
- Born – 27th October 1561 at Tickenhall Palace, Bewdley, Worcestshire
- Father – Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland
- Mother – Mary Dudley, daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (yes, that same Northumberland who was executed for trying to install Lady Jane Grey as queen). Mary nursed Queen Elizabeth through smallpox, ending up a badly scarred face herself as a result
- Siblings – Sir Philip Sidney, the noted Elizabethan poet and courtier; Robert Sidney, who later inherited his maternal uncle’s title the Earl of Leicester
- Husband – Mary was the third wife of Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (and nephew of Catherine Parr)
- Children – William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke and founder of Pembroke College, Oxford; Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke (these brother are the ‘Incomparable pair’ to whom Shakespeare’s First Folio is dedicated); Katherine Herbert (died young); Anne Herbert
- Death – 25th September 1621 at Aldersgate Street, London of smallpox
- Burial – Salisbury Cathedral
But why is Mary Sidney so interesting?
Mary Sidney was a highly educated and intelligent women by Elizabethan standards. While most of her female peers were given a basic education, Mary received the same humanist education as her brother Philip, which included classical languages, French, Italian, music and needlework. It is speculated she could also speak Welsh (she spent significant parts of her life residing at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches), Spanish and Greek. The only other women with this level of education was Queen Elizabeth I herself.
- She was a great patroness of the arts – She was the patron of one of the most important literary circles in British history – the Wilton Circle, which consisted of famous poets and writers such as Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, Nicholas Breton, John Donne and Ben Jonson. She was also a patron of the Pembroke’s Men, one of the early companies to perform the works of Shakespeare.
- She was a published writer herself – after her brother’s early death fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands, Mary finished his translation of the Book of Psalms, translating 107 of them herself. She was the first woman to publish a play in English (a closet drama), and the first woman to publish original dramatic verse (which was allowed because it was for Queen Elizabeth) – and all these works were published under her own name! She really pushed the boundaries in what was acceptable for a woman at the time.
- She was interested in chemistry and alchemy – She experimented with medicines and other chemicals (her recipe for disappearing ink is still in existence today) and had her own alchemy laboratory where Adrian Gilbert (Sir Walter Raleigh’s half brother) was her assistant. Mary was also interested in spiritual magic and the like, and was friends with the famous ‘magicians’ of the day including John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s personal astrologer, and Giordano Bruno
- She may have wrote Shakespeare’s plays – Mary Sidney is one of the candidates often mentioned as a potential author of Shakespeare’s plays – her written works certainly demonstrate she was more than capable of producing such works. Then there is also the fact that Shakespeare’s first folio is dedicated to her two sons. She may have been willing enough to put her name to a published drama that would be read by her aristocratic peers, but would she have been willing to put her name to a play for the masses?
In my opinion, Mary Sidney was unique for her time. Yes, Elizabeth I was undoubtedly as educated and intelligent as Mary, but Mary was free from many of the constraints that encumbered Elizabeth – there was no way Elizabeth, who constantly had to tread the middle line when it came to religion throughout her reign, could ever have published a work like the Book of Psalms translation that had strongly Protestant overtones. Mary was also fortunate that her husband was also an intellectual who let her explore her more ‘controversial’ interests such as alchemy.
When it comes to great female literary figures in British history, Mary Sidney was the first. She was a true pioneer.
If you are interested in learning more about Mary Sidney, you could try the International Sidney Society, which promotes the study and awareness of the work of the wider Sidney family, including Mary Sidney. There is also the Mary Sidney Society that advocates the theory that Mary was the author of Shakespeare’s work.