George Herbert - The would-be courtier

George Herbert’s family

George HerbertGeorge Herbert was born 3 April 1593. The Herberts were a prosperous and well-connected family, living in Montgomeryshire in mid- Wales.

  • His mother, Magdalen, was one of John Donne's patronesses when he was looking for advancement in his career.
  • His father, Richard, died when George was only three years old. Magdalen did re-marry, her second husband being Sir John Danvers, but not for another twelve years.
  • There was a large family of ten children. George was the fifth son.
  • His oldest brother, Edward, became a leading academic, philosopher and minor poet, and ended his successful career as Lord Herbert of Cherbury.

George Herbert's education

Herbert received a good education at Westminster School in the heart of London. In 1609, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge University. Although we might think 16 young to go to university, it was quite a normal age in those days.

Herbert did well at Cambridge:

  • He received a good honours B.A. in 1613
  • He took his M.A. in 1616
  • He was elected a major fellow at Trinity College, showing how highly the College thought of him. He could easily have had an academic career
  • He obtained the post of Reader in Rhetoric at the University in 1618
  • He was appointed Public Orator for the University in 1620, a high profile post, which meant he had to read a welcome in Latin to any visiting dignitary. Herbert held the post till 1628.

George Herbert's entry into politics

In 1624, Herbert became Member of Parliament for Montgomery through the patronage of an influential friend. He was well-connected at this time. Even Sir Francis Bacon, formerly Lord Chancellor, dedicated one of his writings to the young Herbert in 1625. However, continued ill health, together with the death of James I (who knew of him) and of other patrons, dashed Herbert’s ambitions. By his own admission, he had been looking for a career as a courtier, rather than as an academic.