Edward Herbert was born at Eyton, Shropshire, on March 3, 1582, although
some scholars favour 1583 as his birthdate. He was the eldest son of Richard Herbert (c.1554-96), Sheriff of Montgomeryshire and an MP, and Magdalen Herbert (later Lady Danvers), the patron of John Donne and other literary figures. He was the elder brother of the poet George Herbert (1593-1633) and of Sir Henry Herbert (1591-1675), the Master of the King's Revels, to mention only two of his nine siblings. He was largely educated at home, but as a boy he came under the tutelage of the Welsh autodidact Edward Thelwall, who apparently taught him Welsh and of whom Herbert spoke with great respect. He entered University College, Oxford, in 1595.
By his mother's arrangement Herbert married his cousin Mary Herbert of St. Julian's in 1598, and the marriage was a mixed success, Herbert claiming in his Autobiography that he remained faithful to her for the first ten years! He was knighted by James I (1603), and after a short stint on the Continent (1608-9) where he did some fighting and studying, Edward returned to England for a short time before going abroad again to fight under Prince Maurice of Nassau in the Low Countries. On his return to England he rejoined court circles and became acquainted with George Villiers, later the Duke of Buckingham and the rising star at the court of James I. This relationship culminated in Herbert's appointment as English Ambassador to France (1619-24), the highest political post he held. He was created Baron Herbert of Castle-Island in the County of Kerry, but did not receive his English peerage, the Barony of Chirbury, until 1629. His ambassadorship came to an abrupt end when Herbert managed to fall out with the Duc de Luynes, Louis XIII's chief minister. After giving James I unwelcome advice about the proposed marriage of Prince Charles to the Spanish infanta Maria (Herbert was against it) Herbert turned himself almost exclusively to intellectual pursuits, which is where his importance lies.
At the outbreak of the Civil War Lord Herbert found himself caught between his natural loyalty as an aristocrat to Charles I and his political beliefs about arbitrary power, which he expressed in an unpublished manuscript. He also resented the fact that he was still in arrears of payment for his ambassadorship and that his services to the Crown had not been, to his way of thinking, properly recognized. In 1644 he surrendered to Parliament in order to save his library from being confiscated, and he came under attack for disloyalty (most of the Herberts and their cousins the Sidneys were royalists). Lord Herbert died a depressed and disappointed man in 1648.
Lord Herbert was a brave, intelligent and accomplished man, as well as a consummate egotist. His Autobiography tells us he had the sweetest-smelling sweat and that he was irresistible to women, especially if they were married to someone else. According to Herbert they kept portraits of him hidden between their breasts. Herbert boasts about his prowess in battle and his exaggerated sense of honour. His other side was rather different: he was a significant metaphysical poet, a serious philosopher and a competent soldier. He played the lute and composed music, and he spoke several languages. He was a loyal servant to the King, and was never afraid to speak his mind. Thus, Herbert's boasting was not entirely unjustifiedindeed we might say that he was the last Renaissance man in some respects.
Herbert's philosophical task, set forth in his two major works on the subject, De veritate (1624) and De religione gentilium (1645), was to effect the reconcilement of religions by uncovering their common ground in antiquity. Herbert proposed that all religions can be reduced to the following propositions, which were innate and which he called Religious Common Notions: (1) There is a God; (2) God ought to be worshipped; (3) Virtue and Piety are the essential components of any religion; (4) Vice is expiated through some form of repentance; (5) There are rewards and punishments after death. Herbert believed that he could find a formula which would result in universal assent, which implied that his system would be rational rather than based upon revelation. Herbert's system was not really Christian, and by the beginning of the next century he was designated "the father of English deism" by Thomas Halyburton, writing in 1714. He suggested that no religion was devoid of truth, but that religious belief must be examined in the same way as any other propositional system. Thus we find he denies the existence of miracles, questions revelation, and implicitly denies the divinity of Christ and his function as a Saviour. It follows that Herbert came under attack after his death by many theologians, both Catholic and Protestant.
As a poet, Herbert is of the "metaphysical" schoolhis poetry is tough, philosophical, and sometimes obscure, but he often comes up with powerful imagery and a kind of bleak pathos that suffuses his whole oeuvre. Herbert is a dark, brooding figure, the personification of melancholy at its best, in Robert Burton's sense. As a philosopher, Herbert is difficulthis knowledge is encyclopaedic and he loves displaying it, but his Latin style is often rather laboured, complex, and difficult, perhaps due to the fact that he employed Thomas Master, a particularly long-winded Latinist, as an adviser about the language. The second book is easier, Master having died before Lord Herbert finished the work.
Herbert's philosophical work was praised by Descartes who wrote that Herbert's "mind had few equal," by Pierre Gassendi who called him "the second Verulam" (Bacon) and by Ben Jonson, who referred to him as "all-virtuous Herbert," who could not be contained because he was "so many men" in one. His self-styled disciple Charles Blount called Herbert "the Great Oracle and Commander of his Time for Learning," and amongst others who held his work in high esteem were Tommaso Campanella, Thomas Hobbes, Sir William Dugdale and Hugo Grotius. John Donne is said by Johnson to have thought that Herbert's poetry was a bit over-complex, and threatened to write a poem on Prince Henry that "match'd Sir Edward Herbert in obscurity." Herbert made a real contribution to rationalist epistemology, and he deserves more attention than he gets. His poetry is overshadowed by that of his brother George and his philosophical works were, until recently, unavailable in English.
Butler, John A. Lord Herbert of Chirbury: An Intellectual Biography.
Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990.
Herbert, Edward. Autobiography. J.M. Shuttleworth, Ed.
Lee, Sir Sidney. The Autobiography of Lord Herbert of Cherbury
with a Continuation by Sir Sidney Lee. Oxford, 1886.
Rossi, Mario Manlio. La vita, le opere i tempi di Edoardo Herbert
di Chirbury. 3 volumes. Florence: G.C. Sansoni, 1947.
2. Editions of Herbert's Works
De religione gentilium.
Latin text. Gunter Gawlick, Ed. Stuttgart: Frommann, 1967.
[William Lewis], The Antient Religion of the Gentiles (London, 1705);
[John A. Butler], Pagan Religion. Translated and edited with
Introduction and Notes (Binghamton: MRTS/ Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, 1996).
Latin text. As above.
Translation: Meyrick H. Carre (Bristol: Arrowsmith, 1937).
Dialogue between a Tutor and his Pupil. Gunter Gawlick, Ed.
In English. Stuttgart: Frommann, 1973.
Expedition to the Isle of Rhe. Earl of Powys, Ed.
London: The Philobiblion Society, 1860.
Life and Reign of King Henry the Eighth.
Various editions since 1639. No modern edition.
Poems on Several Occasions. Scholar Press Facsimile
Edition. Modern Edition by G.C. Moore Smith (Oxford, 1923).
The Poems, English and Latin, of Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury.
AMS Press, 1987.
Religio laici. H.R. Hutcheson, Tr.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944.
3. Studies of Lord Herbert
Bedford, R.D. The Defence of Truth: Lord Herbert of Cherbury and
the Seventeenth Century. University of Manchester Press, 1979.
Bottrall, Margaret. Every Man A Phoenix: Studies in
Seventeenth-Century Biography.London: John Murray, 1958.
Hill, Eugene D. Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury.
Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Remusat, Baron Charles de. Lord Herbert de Cherbury, sa vie et
ses oeuvres. 2 volumes. Paris, 1824.
NOTE ON SPELLING: "Chirbury" is correct. That's the way the name
is spelled in the letters patent granting the title, and the village in Wales
after which it's named also spells it this way. Mario Rossi was the only
person who got the name right. I know the present Earl of Powys (who
bears the subsidiary title Baron H. of Chirbury) and he says he doesn't
know why the spelling got altered.J.B.
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