Biography of Aemilia Lanyer

This biography was compiled and written by Kari Boyd McBride. 

Much of the information available about Lanyer's life comes from the casebooks of the astrologer Simon Forman whom Lanyer consulted about her husband's prospects for promotion. Forman tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce Lanyer. Many of his comments are deformed by jealousy and pique and must, therefore, be used as sources advisedly. Data for reconstructing Lanyer's life come also from parish records and government documents. This biography draws principally on Greer, Hastings, Medoff, and Sansone; Lewalski (various); Rowse (The Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady); and Woods (Dictionary of Literary Biography). For full references and other resources (including others cited parenthetically below), consult Bibliography. Thanks to Kristen Strandberg for her corrections.

Aemilia Lanyer was christened at St. Botolph, Bishopsgate--the London neighborhood where "foreign musicians and theatre-folk lived"--on January 27, 1569 (Rowse 13). She was the daughter of Baptista Bassano and Margaret Johnson. Nothing certain is known of Lanyer's mother but that she was buried in Bishopsgate on July 7, 1587 (Rowse 14). But it is possible that she was the Margaret Johnson born ca. 1545-1550 who was the aunt of Robert Johnson (1583?-1633), lutenist and composer, musician of Shakespeare's company, and, later, musician to the court of Charles I (DNB s.v. "Robert Johnson"; Woods, Lanyer, 3-4). Lanyer's father's family, the Bassanos, were court musicians who had come to England from Venice at the end of Henry VIII's reign. It has been argued that they were converted Jews (Lasocki and Prior; Rowse, "Revealed at Last," and ensuing correspondence; Greer et al., s.v. "Aemilia Lanyer"), but Ruffatti has argued persuasively that the family was Christian. Lanyer had an elder sister, Angela (d. 1584), and two brothers, Lewes and Phillip, who did not survive to adulthood (Lasocki and Prior 46). Lanyer's father died when she was seven and was also buried in Bishopsgate, on May 11, 1576 (Rowse 14). Internal evidence of Lanyer's poems tell us that she was fostered in the household of Susan Bertie Wingfield, Countess Dowager of Kent (information also confirmed by Forman), and that she was later attached to the household of Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, and her daughter, Anne Clifford. Lanyer memorializes her time with them at the estate of Cookham Dean in "The Description of Cooke-ham." Lanyer must have been educated along with the noble girls whom she attended, for her work shows familiarity with poetic genres and verse forms and with the (Geneva) Bible (McBride, Engendering Authority, "Appendix").

As a young woman, Lanyer frequented the court of Elizabeth I and was mistress to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, forty-five years her senior, who "maintained [her] in great pomp," says Forman, and provided her with an income of forty pounds a year (Rowse 11). (There is no conclusive evidence that Lanyer was William Shakespeare's mistress, an argument advanced by Rowse, nor, indeed, that she was the "dark-eyed lady" of Milton's sonnets, a theory advanced early in this century by John Smart.) She became pregnant at the age of twenty-three, was paid off by Hunsdon, and married her cousin by marriage, Alphonso Lanyer, a Queen's musician, on October 10, 1592 (Lasocki and Prior 106, 102). The Lanyers were from Rouen and had come to England under Elizabeth (Rowse 14). Alphonso was a member of the recorder consort originally started by the five Bassano brothers that included Lanyer's father, Baptista. (Indeed, Alphonso was the recipient of the royal stipend that had once been Baptista's [Lasocki and Prior 147].) Alphonso served as gentleman volunteer in the Essex Islands Voyage of 1597 and had also done service in Ireland (Lewalski, "God" 205; Rowse 11; Woods 213). He was one of fifty-nine musicians who played at Elizabeth's funeral, and he moved at her death into the service of James I (Rowse 18). He had been preferred by Elizabeth's closest advisor, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and granted a monopoly for the weighing of hay and straw in London (six pence for every load of hay and three pence for every load of straw brought into London and Westminster) (Rowse 19; Lasocki and Prior 108-09). When he died in 1613, Aemilia Lanyer made over the grant to her brother-in-law, Innocent, evidently with an understanding that she would continue to receive a portion of it, though her right to that income was a source of later dispute.

Lanyer told Forman that she had suffered many miscarriages (Rowse 11), but she had at least two children: the first (presumably the son of Hunsdon) named Henry, born early in 1593, and a daughter, Odillya, born in December of 1598, who died at ten months of age and was buried at St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate (Rowse 11, 15; Woods 213). Henry became one of the king's flautists on September 29, 1629. He had two children by his wife, Joyce Mansfield, whom he married in 1623: Mary, baptized July 25, 1627, and Henry, baptized January 16, 1630. The children may have been orphaned on Henry's death in October 1633. At any rate, Lanyer says in 1635 that she has "two grandchildren to provide for" (Rowse 35).

Lanyer first consulted Simon Forman, the astrologer, on May 17, 1597 (Rowse 11). She was then living in Longditch, Westminster, next to Canon Row, which Rowse calls "a fashionable quarter full of the houses of grandees" (13-14). Forman provides the only physical description we have of Lanyer--that she had a wart or mole in the pit of her throat (Rowse 12). Lanyer consulted Forman again on June 3 and 16, asking whether her husband would come into any preferment (Rowse 11). Forman reported that she was unhappy with her husband who had "dealt hardly with her" and "spent and consumed her goods" (Rowse 12). Forman thought her (supposed) emotional and financial neediness would make her "a good fellow," that is, a willing sex partner, but, though she seems to have had continued contact with Forman over the next few years and may have engaged in sexual play with him, she refused to have intercourse, prompting him to wonder "whether or not she is an incuba" and to call her a whore (Rowse 12, 13).

Lanyer published her volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews), in 1611, when she was forty-two years old. All the poems are in iambic pentameter, though the verse forms vary. Two prefatory pieces and an afterword are prose. "The Description of Cooke-ham" must have been written between February 25, 1609 (when Anne Clifford married and took the name "Dorset," by which she is called in the poem), and October 2, 1610 (when the poem was entered in the Stationers' Register) (Lewalski, "Lady" 275 n. 28), but there is no internal evidence to date other portions of the book so precisely and nothing to suggest that all of the poems were written at the same time. The book was issued twice, though the contents of extant copies make reconstruction of its publication history complicated. STC 15277 includes prefatory addresses to 1) Queen Anne, 2) the Princess Elizabeth, 3) "all vertuous Ladies in generall," 4) Lucy, Countess of Bedford, 5) Anne, Countess of Dorset (seven stanzas), and 6) Margaret, Countess of Cumberland. That version has a typesetting error in the second and third stanzas of D4 verso which is corrected in STC 15227.5, suggesting that version is the second printing. However, both STC versions have a five-line publisher's imprint on the title page, though a four-line imprint marks the first printing. This discrepancy suggests that later collectors cannibalized damaged copies to make "complete" versions (which, indeed, is the case with the Alexander Dyce copy held by the Huntington Library). STC 15277.5 has prefatory addresses to 1) Queen Anne, 2) the Princess Elizabeth, 3) "all vertuous Ladies in generall," 4) Arabella Stuart, 5) Susan, Countess of Kent, 6) Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, 7) Ludy, Countess of Bedford, 8) Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, 9) Katherine, Countess of Suffolk, 10) Anne, Countess of Dorset (eighteen stanzas), and 11) "the vertuous reader." Lewalski argues that "most of the dedicatees were linked through kinship or marriage with the staunchly Protestant faction of Robert Dudley" ("God" 207). Nine copies of the book survive, including a presentation copy from Prince Henry's library (Greer et al. 45; Woods 214). There are no extant contemporary references to Lanyer's book.

Lanyer's book is radical in its theology and politics and could aptly be called proto-feminist. Both the prefatory poems and the title poem argue for women's religious and social equality, and the longer version of the poem addressed to Anne Clifford (to whom the book is actually dedicated) includes a levelling tirade against class privilege. In addition to the prefatory poems, Lanyer's book consists of the long (1840-line) title poem, "Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum," "The Description of Cooke-ham," and a final prose address "To the doubtfull Reader" wherein Lanyer says that she dreamed of the book's title long before she wrote the book, implying its divine commissioning. "Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum" is a meditation on the Passion which argues that men (not women) were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. Lanyer further argues in an extended section entitled "Eves Apologie in Defense of Women" that Eve was less culpable than Adam. Lanyer then compares women's sinfulness in the Edenic context to men's sinfulness in the context of the crucifixion to argue for women's social and religious equality with men. "The Description of Cooke-ham" is the first country house poem to be published in English (predating Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst" [1616]). Drawing on classical generic features, Lanyer figures the virtue of the "Lady" of the poem, Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, in the homage accorded her by the estate's flora and fauna.

After her husband's death, Lanyer supported herself, at least in part, by runnning a school, as she put it, for "children of divers persons of worth and understanding." She leased a house for that purpose from Edward Smith, an attorney, in St. Giles in the Fields (an aristocratic London suburb) in the summer of 1617. Lanyer and Smith were almost immediately engaged in a series of lawsuits and countersuits. Lanyer claimed her right to deduct from the rent ten pounds she had spent on repairs; Smith sued her for nonpayment and had her arrested, a scene not apt to inspire confidence among the parents of one's students. She seems to have lost most of her pupils but stayed on in the house through August 1619 when she left without paying her midsummer rent, whereupon she was arrested again (Rowse 33-35; Lasocki and Prior 104).

Lanyer appears again in the law courts in 1635 (at age sixty-six), two years after the death of her son, Henry. She was supposed to receive half the profits from the hay and straw weighing patent she had made over to her late husband's brother, Innocent, but had received only eight pounds. She describes herself as being "in great misery and having two grandchildren to provide for." Her suit was complicated by the fact that, in the intervening years since her husband's death, Innocent had made over the patent to another brother, Clement. Charles I ordered Clement to pay Lanyer twenty pounds a year, but Lanyer had to bring suit again the next year, as Clement had paid her only four pounds. Their legal wrangling continued through 1638 with Clement repeatedly ordered to pay her and repeatedly complaining that he has not been able to collect on the patent (Rowse 35-37; Lasocki and Prior 104-105). Whether Lanyer was ever able to obtain the full amount awarded to her is unclear, but she died, at age seventy-six, a "pensioner," that is, possessed of a regular income, and was buried on April 3, 1645, at Clerkenwell (Rowse 37; Lasocki and Prior 106).