Mary Herbert lived in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. A member of the highly poetic Sidney family, she was the first English woman to receive wide recognition for her literary works.
She was born Mary Sidney in 1561 to Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley Sidney, the fourth of six children, including Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Robert Sidney. Her mother's father was specially favored by the earlier Queen Mary, and Sir Henry Sidney grew up with King Edward when he was still a prince. The family's connections and wealth provided Mary and her sisters with an education akin to Queen Elizabeth's, and were essential to Mary Herbert's future status as a successful poet in a time when men were the only names recognized for their talent.
Mary's older sister, Ambrosia, died in 1575, and after that Queen Elizabeth invited her to the royal court. She was arranged to be married in 1577 to Henry Herbert, the wealthy second Earl of Pembroke and a friend of her uncle Leicester's, at the age of fifteen. The early years of her marriage were joyous, producing four children between 1580 and 1584, but filled with tragedy as well. Her oldest child died at the age of three and her parents and brother Philip died three years after that within months of each other; Philip was killed in the Netherlands fighting with the English forces against Spain. As a woman she was barred from Philip's royal funeral and from publishing her elegies in the publications from Oxford or Cambridge.
She remained grieving at the Pembroke estate for two years after that, returning to London and the public sphere in November 1588, making up for her inability to publicly praise Philip by serving as patron to men who wrote in his praise. She arranged the publication of Philip's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, written to her before his death, and translated A Discourse of Life and Death from the French by his friend Philippe de Mornay. She gradually became able to publish a few poems of her own in his honor, and set about completing the poetic translation of the Psalms which he had begun, using an astonishing 126 different forms of verse. She also translated and published Antonius, a tragedie by the French Robert Garnier, and both this and A Discourse were published during her lifetime.
Throughout her life she encouraged poetry and literacy in her family, including her brothers Philip and Robert and her niece Mary Herbert, the future Lady Mary Wroth. Her most popular works were widely read during her lifetime and her name was cited often in dedications by other poets and writers, including such still-famous names as John Donne (who wrote "Upon the Translation of the Psalms...), George Herbert, and William Shakespeare.
These works were all completed by 1601, the year in which her husband died. After that she arranged marriages and court positions for her children, but when Queen Elizabeth herself died in 1603 her influence quickly waned. Her sons achieved prominence under King James I and continued her role as literary patron in the royal court. She continued to serve well as Countess of Pembroke until her death in 1621 from smallpox. After her funeral, a magnificent torchlight procession carried her from St. Paul's Cathedral in London to Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire. An engraved portrait by Simon van de Passe in 1618 attests to her literary rank, depicting her holding a book titled "David's Psalmes" and surrounded by the laurel wreath of the poet.