Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016 / Bridgeman Images
This imposing portrait shows William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (1580–1630), a favourite at King James I’s court. The white staff symbolises his powerful role as Lord Chamberlain, and the blue ribbon is a sign that he was a Knight of the Garter. The painting was made in 1617 by Paul van Somer (c. 1576–1621), a leading Flemish artist of James’s court.
Pembroke was the son of Henry Herbert and Mary Sidney, and nephew of the famous poet, Sir Philip Sidney. Pembroke tried his hand at poetry, but his verse was never printed in his lifetime, and he made a bigger name for himself as a patron of the arts.
In the early 17th century, Pembroke had more works dedicated to him than anyone else outside the royal family. The playwright Ben Jonson and the architect Inigo Jones received sponsorship from him. The editors of William Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) also dedicated their text to William and his brother Philip.
As was usual in this era, William’s father tried to arrange a marriage between his son and a well-born lady. But William became notorious for his refusal to marry women from four prominent English families. When he was 20, he became embroiled in an affair with the maid of honour Mary Fitton, and by 1601 she was visibly pregnant by him. When Herbert refused to marry her, he was briefly imprisoned by Elizabeth I. After the Queen’s death in 1603, Herbert recovered his fortunes at James’s court, and he married Lady Mary Talbot in 1604.
Some critics suggest that Herbert could be the young man – or ‘Fair Youth’ – to whom Shakespeare addressed his first 126 Sonnets. This is partly based on the fact that Sonnets 1–17 urge the young man to marry. Herbert has also been seen as the mysterious ‘Mr. W. H.’ described, in the 1609 edition, as ‘the only begetter’ of the sonnets. However, other critics argue that an earl would not have been addressed as ‘Mr’.
There is also much speculation about the identity of the ‘Dark Lady’ of Sonnets 127–52. Herbert’s lover, Mary Fitton, is one of the many women that critics propose for that role. Others question whether these characters should, or could, be identified as real people.