Mary Sidney, as foul a lady as the smallpox could make her

Happy anniversary to Mary (née Dudley) and Henry Sidney who got married on this day in Tudor history, 29th March 1551, in the reign of King Edward VI.

Both Mary and Henry served Queen Elizabeth I loyally and for many years, and, unfortunately, Mary suffered a great deal after she nursed the queen through smallpox in 1562.

Find out more about Mary Dudley and Henry Sidney in the video and transcript below:

Mary was the eldest daughter of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and his wife Jane Guildford, and Henry was the eldest son of Sir William Sidney of Penshurst. The bride was somewhere between 16 and 21 while the groom was 21. They were married at Esher in Surrey and then had a more public ceremony at the Dudley family home, Ely House in London, on 17th May 1551.

It is not known whether the marriage was a love match, but it was a good match for both families. Henry Sidney had been a constant companion to the young Edward VI since 1538 and was one of his principal gentlemen of the privy chamber, and Mary’s father was Lord President of the Council, the man in charge of leading Edward VI’s government. Henry was knighted in October 1551.

The marriage appears to have been happy and successful. They had seven children together, although only four survived childhood. Their children included Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and the poets Sir Philip Sidney and Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester.

Mary was very well educated and is known for her intellect. She knew French, Latin and Italian, and she corresponded with and visited John Dee, the famous Elizabethan scholar, mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and alchemist. She began serving in Queen Elizabeth I’s privy chamber in 1559 and was with the queen when Elizabeth became ill at Hampton Court Palace in October 1562. What was thought to be a heavy cold turned into smallpox, a highly contagious and often fatal disease. Mary nursed her royal mistress through her illness and ended up contracting it herself. While Elizabeth was lucky in not only surviving it but also getting off lightly with just light scarring, Mary was badly scarred. Her husband, Henry, recorded:

“When I went to Newhaven [Le Havre] I left her a full fair Lady, in mine eye at least the fairest, and when I returned I found her as foul a lady as the smallpox could make her, which she did take by continual attendance of her majesty’s most precious person (sick of the same disease). The scars of which (to her resolute discomfort) ever since hath done and doth remain in her face, so as she liveth solitarily sicut Nicticorax in domicilio suo [like a night-raven in the house*] more to my charge then if we had boarded together as we did before that evil accident happened.”

It is sad that Mary suffered as a result of her loyal service to the queen.

Although her husband’s words suggest that Mary hid herself away, she actually continued in her service to the queen at court and she accompanied her husband to Ireland in 1565 when he travelled there as Lord Deputy. The couple also accompanied their mistress the queen on her famous 1575 visit to Kenilworth castle, the home of Mary’s brother, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Henry died on 5th May 1586 and Mary died on 9th August the same year. They share a tomb at Penshurst Church.

Mary’s biographer, Simon Adams, writes of the couple: “The Sidneys were in some respects the golden couple of the court in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. But from the end of the 1560s they became increasingly embittered by what they regarded as shabby treatment at the queen’s hands.” They felt unrewarded for their long and loyal service.

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