Sir Bombarduccio

"An Excellent Gentlewoman" / Anon. / ?Mary Sidney? (before 1593)

Historical records

Literary Source

From Gabriel Harvey's Pierces supererogation or A new prayse of the old asse (London: John Wolfe, 1593):

Her old Comedy, newly intituled.
My Prose is resolute, as Bevis sworde:
March rampant beast in formidable hide:
Superrogation Squire on cockhorse ride:
Zeale shapes an aunswer to the blouddiest worde.
If nothing can the booted Souldiour tame,
Nor Ryme, nor Prose, nor Honesty, nor Shame:
But Swash will still his trompery advaunce,
Il'e lead the gagtooth'd fopp a new-founde daunce.
Deare howers were ever cheape to pidling me:
I knew a glorious, and braving Knight,
That would be deem 'd a truculentall wight:
Of him I scrauld a dowty Comedy.
Sir Bombarduccio was his cruell name:
But Gnasharduccio the sole brute of Fame.
See, how He brayes, and fumes at me poore lasse,
That must immortalise the killcowe Asse.

Harvey, Works, 2:17-8.

Theatrical Provenance


Probable Genre(s)

Comedy featuring a miles gloriosus.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

None known.

References to the Play

None known beyond this pamphlet.

Critical Commentary

The problem revolves around two pamphlets by Gabriel Harvey, both published in 1593: Pierces supererogation or a new prayse of the old asse; and the New letter of notable contents. Both of these are part of the larger controversy between Harvey and Thomas Nashe, and in both of them Harvey repeatedly claims to have the support of an unnamed and mysterious "excellent Gentlewoman", several of whose writings against Nashe are quoted within the pamphlet. In addition, this gentlewoman is said to have written “certaine Discourses of regard, already dispatched to my satisfaction, & almost accōplished to her owne intention”, which Harvey expects to be issued in the near future as a pamphlet against Nashe. Harvey explicitly attributes to the Gentlewoman’s own pen around a thousand words of vituperative prose and three striking polemical sonnets, including the one listed above from Pierce's Supererogation.

There are currently three main interpretations of Harvey’s Gentlewoman.


She is entirely fictitious. This is a point of view put forward by Nashe, or rather a speaker in Nashe's pamphlet Have With You to Saffron Walden: “I am of the minde that, for all the stormes & tempests Haruey from her denounceth, there is no such woman, but tis onely a Fiction of his.” (Nashe, 3.111, 113). The problem with this hypothesis is put succinctly by Nashe’s twentieth-century editor, R. B. McKerrow: “the device would be so pointless” (Nashe, 5.89).

Mary Sidney

She is Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, whom Harvey praises fervently throughout both these pamphlets. As A. B. Grosart suggested: "Our Glossarial-Index references under ‘gentlewoman’ and under ‘Pembroke’ will satisfy the critical reader that the two were one - that is, that Harvey wished to convey that idea... possibly his ‘wish’ was father to the thought" (Harvey, Works, 3.xxiv). Variants on this position have been taken up by recent critics including Henry Woudhuysen, Penny McCarthy, Matthew Steggle, and Margaret Hannay, whose influential biography of Mary Sidney argues, “Whether the countess herself took any part in this quarrel, Harvey apparently wanted his readers - particularly Nashe - to think that she did" (140-2). This group of critics disagree over whether Harvey merely hints at or actually claims the involvement of Mary Sidney, and they also disagree over, or maintain an agnosticism about, whether or not Mary Sidney really was involved. Penny McCarthy, for instance, argues both that Harvey does unequivocally claim the involvement of the Countess, and that Mary Sidney participated as Harvey describes, writing the poems that the pamphlets attribute to the Gentlewoman: “Why should the sonnets and the rumbustious prose not be Mary's? For no reason but the overdelicate sensibilities of modern critics, it would seem” (34).

Someone else

She is real, but someone other than Mary Sidney, and it is an error to read Harvey's allusions as if they pointed to Mary Sidney since they are intended to be to someone else. This is the position taken by R. B. McKerrow and Charles Nicholl, among other writers. No specific candidate has yet been put forward.

For What It's Worth

If the Gentlewoman was real, and did indeed write the sonnet credited to her, as Harvey alleges: then, regardless of who she actually was, the sonnet is evidence for a lost play. This would be perhaps the earliest recorded original play by an Englishwoman, and particularly unusual by virtue of being a female-authored comedy. It featured the still untraced Sir Bombarduccio, "a glorious and braving knight". The possibility that the Gentlewoman is Mary Sidney, of course, would make the lost Sir Bombarduccio all the more interesting, but the problem awaits fuller investigation.

Works Cited

Grosart, A. B., ed., The Works of Gabriel Harvey, 3 vols. London: privately printed, 1884).
Hannay, Margaret P. “Herbert [Sidney], Mary, countess of Pembroke (1561-1621),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.
Hannay, Margaret P. Philip's Phoenix: Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
Harvey, Gabriel. A new letter of notable contents. London: John Wolfe, 1593.
Harvey, Gabriel. Pierces supererogation or A new prayse of the old asse. London: John Wolfe, 1593.
McCarthy, Penny. "'Milksop Muses', or Why Not Mary?", Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40 (2000): 21-39.
Nashe, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow, rev. F. P. Wilson, 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958.
Nicholl, Charles. A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.
Steggle, Matthew. "Gabriel Harvey, the Excellent Gentlewoman, and the Sidney Circle", Sidney Journal 22 (2004 for 2006): 115-30.
Woudhuysen, H. R. Sir Philip Sidney and the circulation of manuscripts, 1558-1640. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Site created and maintained by Matthew Steggle, Sheffield Hallam University; updated 13 September 2016.