George Herbert's Life Before Bemerton

1593 - 1629

George Herbert was born into a distinguished Welsh border family in Montgomery on 3rd April, 1593. The 3rd Earl of Pembroke, also a Herbert, was a distant cousin. George was the fifth of seven sons, the eldest of whom (Edward) was to become Ambassador to France. His father Sir Richard Herbert died in 1596, leaving his mother Magdalen to bring up ten children. She moved the family to Oxford, and then to London (Charing Cross and, later, Chelsea). In 1609 she married again; her second husband, Sir John Danvers, was only five years older than George.

Cambridge University and the Court

Educated at Westminster School, at the age of sixteen George won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, which he entered in 1609 intending to offer himself for the priesthood. He excelled in languages and music, and had already started to write poetry; in a letter to his mother in 1610 he declared that "my poor abilities in poetry shall be all, and ever consecrated to God's glory".

George Herbert's mother Magdalen

George Herbert's mother Magdalen

By the age of 23 he had become a Fellow of the College, and his ability was such that he was elected Public Orator of the University in 1620. This senior position was often the prelude to some high office of state; as he had attained it at the age of 27, and had also found favour at the court of King James I, one would have confidently predicted a brilliant future in public life for a man so accomplished in classical languages and rhetoric.

But throughout his early life he was strongly influenced by his mother, who had always wanted him to enter the priesthood. After her death in 1627 he wrote a series of poems, some in Latin, some in Greek, as a memorial to her, showing the depth of his grief. It was shortly after this that he resigned his office of Public Orator.

Social and Political Life

It seems likely that many of Herbert’s English poems were written in the 1620s, when he still held his post at Cambridge but he often spent time in Chelsea, at the home of his mother and step-father. As well as his brothers - the diplomat and poet, Edward (1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury) and the Court Master of Revels, Henry - eminent religious and literary figures such as John Donne and Francis Bacon were frequent visitors. Herbert translated some of Bacon’s scientific works into Latin.

He also helped his powerful Pembroke relatives and his friend Nicholas Ferrar with the activities of the Virginia Company, which traded in the new colonies. In 1624 he and Ferrar, following family traditions, became MPs; they experienced the political and religious controversies at the end of the reign of King James I, and the emerging problems with King Charles I who succeeded to the throne in 1625.

Herbert was ordained deacon in 1624 and in 1626 was given a non-residentiary post at Leighton Bromswold, near the religious community which Ferrar was creating at Little Gidding; he raised funds to refurbish the parish church there.

St. Mary's church at Leighton Bromswold

St. Mary's church at Leighton Bromswold

In the late 1620s he left London several times to escape the plague and, in 1628, moved to live in Wiltshire. It was there that, while staying with his step-father’s relatives in Dauntsey, he met Jane Danvers. They were married in the magnificent Priory Church at Edington on 5 March 1629. It is thought that they lived at Jane's family home Baynton House nearby while George was considering his future.

George Herbert - The Bemerton Years

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