The Sidney Psalms and Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

Trinity College Library owns two manuscripts catalogued by M.R. James as ‘Sidney’s Version of the Psalms’ (O.1.51) and ‘Sir Philip Sidney’s Metrical Version of the Psalms’ (R.3.16). In fact, these metrical paraphrases were authored by both Philip Sidney and his sister, Mary. It was Philip’s early death in 1586 which allowed his sister to emerge, not only as the champion of her brother’s legacy, but also as a well-regarded poet with an important influence on the development of the seventeenth-century devotional lyric.

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) was an author and well-connected courtier and diplomat during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. None of Sidney’s writings were printed during his lifetime. His work circulated in manuscript amongst family, friends and courtiers and included A letter to Queen Elizabeth seeking to dissuade her from marriage to the Duke of Anjou and Old Arcadia, dedicated to his younger sister, Mary. The latter was later reworked into his best-known pastoral romance, Arcadia.

Mary Sidney was born in 1561. Schooled at home in scripture, classics and rhetoric, she was fluent in several languages and a renowned needleworker. In 1575 she was brought to court and two years later, aged 15, became the third wife of Henry Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke. The couple lived primarily at their estate Wilton House, near Salisbury, and it was here on one of his many visits that Philip began Old Arcadia. Many of Philip’s manuscript works were circulated at Wilton.

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke by Simon de Passe, sold by William Peake line engraving, 1618, NPG D27991, © National Portrait Gallery, London. Mary is depicted holding a manuscript of the Psalms.

Philip Sidney died from wounds sustained at the Battle of Zutphen in the Netherlands at the age of 31 on 17 October 1586. After his death, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke emerged as a literary patron dedicated to her brother’s memory. She supervised two printed editions of Arcadia, wrote poems in praise of Philip and by the early 1590s had completed the metric paraphrasing of the Psalms left unfinished at his death.

Mary became a significant patron of poets, encouraging a culture of writing particularly amongst friends and family at Wilton House and was the subject of many dedications. Thomas Churchyard, for example, wrote in A Pleasant Conceite, that she ‘sets to schoole, our Poets ev’ry where’. Mary also circulated her own poems both within and outside her household as well as producing translations including the play Antonius and Petrarch’s The Triumph of Death. Her metrical paraphrases of the Psalms were based on extensive scholarship drawn from earlier translations and commentaries, in particular the Geneva Bible and the work of Théodore de Bèze and John Calvin. Philip had completed 43 of the 150 Psalms at his death and she continued to revise his work as well as compose her own psalms, in total employing 128 different verse forms. Fewer than 20 manuscript versions of the Psalms are known today, one of which contains the dedicatory poem, To the Angell Spirit of the most Excellent Sir Philip Sidney.

Psalm 44 from O.1.51, the first of Mary’s compositions

Most of Trinity manuscript O.1.51 was copied from the Penshurst manuscript, a contemporary copy whose production was supervised by the Countess herself, written out by the poet John Davies of Hereford. Trinity’s other manuscript version – R.3.16 – was licensed for printing in the mid-17th century though this authorisation was never taken further. The first complete printed text of the Psalms was published in a limited edition by the Chiswick Press in 1823.

Mary’s work was much admired during her lifetime and indeed the poet John Donne celebrated her joint authorship of the paraphrases in a poem, but her reputation had faded by the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke is celebrated as one of the first English women writers and as a literary patron particularly of other women such as her niece and poet, Lady Mary Wroth. Mary Herbert died in London in 1621.