George Herbert Biography

(Poet recognized as one of the foremost British devotional lyricists)

Birthday: April 3, 1593 (Aries)

Born In: Montgomery, Wales

George Herbert was a 17th century English poet, remembered for his devotional poems that continued to influence readers long after his death. Raised by his widowed mother in London, he had his education first at Westminster School and then at Cambridge University. Eventually he began his career at his alma mater before leaving his job to pursue a life in the church, being ordained as a priest exactly three years before his untimely death from consumption. It was while studying at Cambridge that he penned his first poems, enclosing two devotional sonnets in his letter to his mother on 1 January 1610. In them, he lamented that poetry always wears 'Venus livery’, concurrently declaring that his poems would always be 'consecrated to Gods glory'.  Thereafter, he continued to write devotional poems, majority of which are believed to have been written during his stay at Cambridge, preparing the manuscript of his main work, The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, at his deathbed, at his rectory in Bemerton. However, he did not live to see it being published.

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Quick Facts

British Celebrities Born In April

Died At Age: 39

Family:

Spouse/Ex-: Jane Danvers (m. 1629–1633)

father: Richard Herbert, Lord of Cherbury

mother: Magdalen Newport

siblings: Edward Herbert, Herbert of Cherbury

Born Country: Wales

Quotes By George Herbert Poets

Died on: March 1, 1633

place of death: Bemerton, England

More Facts

education: Trinity College, Cambridge, Westminster School, University of Cambridge

Childhood & Early Life

George Herbert was born 3 April 1593 in Montgomery, a traditional town in Montgomeryshire, Wales. They were one of the oldest and most powerful families in the country, having settled there in the early 13th century.

His father, Richard Herbert, was the Lord of Cherbury in Shropshire, and of Montgomery Castle. He was also an English Parliamentarian and Justice of the Peace. His mother, Magdalen née Newport, was an English patron, seen as the head of an early English literary family. They had ten children.

Elder to George were four brothers named Edward, Richard, William, Charles and two sisters named Elizabeth and Margaret. Younger to him were three brothers; Henry, Frances, and Thomas. While Edward grew up to be the 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, Henry became the Master of the Revels to Kings Charles I and II.

In 1596, when George Herbert was three years old, his father died. Thereafter, the children were raised by their mother, who not only managed the complex financial affairs, but also took care of their academic and spiritual education. George was especially fond of her.

In 1597, shortly after the birth of his youngest brother, the family moved to Shropshire, where his grandmother lived and after her death in 1599 to Oxford, where his eldest brother was a student of the University College.

In 1601, his mother moved the family once again, this time to Charing Cross, London, possibly to facilitate the education of her younger children. In 1604, George, who had so far been studying at home, entered Westminster School as day pupil.

Towards the end of 1605, he was elected a scholar of Westminster and thus became a resident pupil. The chief master was Richard Ireland, under whom he mastered classical rhetoric, logic, grammar, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as well as liturgical music. He also learned to play the lute.

An excellent scholar, he graduated in 1609 and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, on scholarship, arriving there on May 5. Some time now, his poetic inclinations began to surface, possibly writing his first poems on January 1, 1610.

In 1612, he contributed two Latin poems to a Cambridge collection of elegies on the death of Prince Henry, heir to James I. These are believed to be his published works.

In 1613, he earned his bachelor degree, ranking second out of the 193 graduates. In the following year, he was elected a Minor Fellow. His famous work, The Church Porch, is believed to have been written in the same year.

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Career at Cambridge

In 1616, George Herbert earned his master’s degree and was elected to Major fellowship with increased teaching responsibilities at his alma mater. Eventually he was appointed a Lecturer in Rhetoric and then the Deputy Orator. 

Concurrently, he continued to write, publishing a Latin elegy for Queen Anne of Denmark in Lacrymae Cantabrigienses, in 1619. Another important work of this period was Musae responsoriae, a series of Latin epigrams satirizing Scottish Church reformer, Andrew Melville. Possibly written in 1620, it was not published before 1662.

In 1620, he was elected to the post of the University's Public Orator, an important position that required him to speak on occasions of state and compose official correspondence. Although he served in this capacity with both dignified wit and a degree of independence, his life was far from smooth.

His health was one of his main worries. All his adult life, he had suffered from ill health, which required expensive diet. He also wrote to his mother, "I alwaies fear'd sickness more than death, because sickness has made me unable to perform those Offices for which I came into the world."

Added to that was his financial insecurities. Although he held an important position, he received a modest amount for his services. The yearly allowance bequeathed upon him by his father’s will was administered by Edward, who never sent it on time.

His vocation was another of his worries, writing to his step father, John Danvers, in 1618, "You know, Sir, how I am now setting foot into Divinity, to lay the platform of my future life." While he was preparing for a life in the church, his friends and relatives wanted him to pursue a career in the court.

In 1623, during the celebration of the safe return of Prince Charles from Spain, he made a forceful plea for keeping peace while most others wanted war. Although it ruffled a few feathers he became a Member of Parliament from Montgomery in 1624, supported in this by the 3rd Earl of Pembroke.

Generally, his position as a Member of Parliament led to a career at the court. But in his case, things took a different turn. In 1625, King James I, who had showed him favor, passed away and so did two of his patrons, minimizing his chance of a court career.

Realizing the situation, George Herbert decided to change his course and opt for a career in the church.  In 1626, while he was still a don at the Cambridge, he was presented with the prebend of Leighton Bromswold in the Diocese of Lincoln and was appointed a deacon.

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In June 1627, his mother died. On this occasion he wrote five Greek and fourteen Latin poems, publishing them on July 7 as Memoriae Matris Sacrum (To the Memory of my Mother: A Consecrated Gift), including in it John Donne’s commemorative sermon for her. It was the only collection published in his lifetime.

In July 1627, the Crown grant made him part owner of some land in Worcestershire, which he sold to his younger brother Henry. It made him financially independent; enough to resign from his post at Cambridge.

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Priesthood

On resigning from Cambridge in 1627, George Herbert went to stay at Dauntesey Park in Dauntsey, Wiltshire, belonging to his stepfather. During this period, he recovered his health and started writing and revising some poems, which would later be included in his posthumous collection, subtitled as The Church.

On September 19, 1630, George Herbert was ordained as a priest and appointed rector of the rural parish of Fugglestone St Peter with Bemerton. Here he spent the rest of his short life, looking after the 13th-century parish church of St Peter at Fugglestone, and the 14th-century chapel of St Andrew at Bemerton.

At Bemerton, Herbert led a very simple life, crossing a lane from the rectory for the services at the small St Andrew's church twice every day. Twice a week he also traveled to Salisbury cathedral, to attend service there, thereafter making music with the cathedral musicians there.

He also helped to rebuild the St Andrew's church as well as the rectory out of his own funds. During this period, he revised some more poems, which were later included in his posthumous collection The Temple.

In addition, he also wrote a guide to rural ministry. Entitled A Priest to the Temple or, The County Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life, it remains influential to this day.

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Major Works

George Herbert is best remembered for his posthumously published collection, The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, in which the main body of poems carries the sub-title, The Church. While it is difficult to date the poems, it is believed that the majority of them was written while in Cambridge and was later revised.


He prepared the manuscript while on his deathbed at Bemerton and sent it to his close friend, Nicholas Ferrar, asking him to publish the poems only if he thought they might help some dejected souls. Published in 1633, the book became so popular that multiple editions were published by 1709.

Another of his important work was Jacula Prudentum. A collection of almost 1200 proverbs, it was also posthumously published. 

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Family & Personal Life

On March 5, 1629, George Herbert married Jane Danvers. She was his stepfather’s cousin and the marriage consolidated his relationship with the Danvers family. The couple did not have any children.

He died of consumption on March 1, 1633, one month before his 40th birthday.  Buried in the St Andrew's church at Bemerton, he also has a memorial window built in his honor. A niche was also built in his honor at the Salisbury Cathedral.

See the events in life of George Herbert in Chronological Order

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