Lady Mary Wroth

Last updated

Portrait of Lady Mary Wroth Lady Mary Wroth.jpg
Portrait of Lady Mary Wroth

Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1653) was an English poet of the Renaissance. A member of a distinguished literary family, Lady Wroth was among the first female English writers to have achieved an enduring reputation. Mary Wroth was niece to Mary Herbert née Sidney (Countess of Pembroke and one of the most distinguished women writers and patrons of the 16th century), and to Sir Philip Sidney, a famous Elizabethan poet-courtier. [1]



Because her father, Robert Sidney, was governor of Flushing, Wroth spent much of her childhood at the home of Mary Sidney, Baynard's Castle in London, and at Penshurst Place. Penshurst Place was one of the great country houses in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. It was a center of literary and cultural activity and its gracious hospitality is praised in Ben Jonson's famous poem To Penshurst. During a time when most women were illiterate, Wroth had the privilege of a formal education, which was obtained from household tutors under the guidance of her mother. [2] With her family connections, a career at court was all but inevitable. Wroth danced before Queen Elizabeth on a visit to Penshurst and again in court in 1602. At this time a likeness of her as a girl in a group portrait of Lady Sidney and her children was painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger in 1596, and is now on display at Penshurst. [2] As a young woman, Lady Mary belonged to Queen Anne’s intimate circle of friends and actively participated in masques and entertainments. [3]

On 27 September 1604, King James I married Mary to Sir Robert Wroth of Loughton Hall. The marriage was not happy; there were issues between the two beginning with difficulties over her father’s payment of her dowry. In a letter written to his wife, Sir Robert Sidney described different meetings with Robert Wroth, who was often distressed by the behavior of Mary shortly after their marriage. [4] Robert Wroth appeared to have been a gambler, philanderer and a drunkard. More evidence of the unhappy union comes from poet and friend Ben Jonson, who noted that ‘my Lady Wroth is unworthily married on a Jealous husband’. [5] Various letters from Lady Mary to Queen Anne also refer to the financial losses her husband had sustained during their time together. [6]

During her marriage, Mary became known for her literary endeavours and also for her performances in several masques. In 1605 she danced at the Whitehall Banqueting House in The Masque of Blackness , which was designed by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones. Mary Wroth joined the Queen and her friends in the production; all of whom painted their skin black to portray Ethiopian nymphs who called themselves the 'twelve daughters of Niger'. The masque was very successful and was the first in a long series of similar court entertainments. The ‘twelve daughters of Niger’ also appeared in The Masque of Beauty in 1608, also designed by Jonson and Jones. However, despite the success there were some less than favorable reviews, some referring to the women's portrayal of the daughters of Niger as ugly and unconvincing. [7]

The first sonnet of Wroth's manuscript of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, c. 1620 Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Sonnet 1 (Wroth, c. 1620).jpg
The first sonnet of Wroth's manuscript of Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, c. 1620

In February 1614 Mary gave birth to a son James: a month after this her husband Robert Wroth died of gangrene leaving Mary deeply in debt. Two years later Wroth's son died causing Mary to lose the Wroth estate to John Wroth, the next male heir to the entail. There is no evidence to suggest that Wroth was unfaithful to her husband, but after his death she entered a relationship with her cousin William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. Mary and William shared interests in arts and literature and had been childhood friends. They had at least two illegitimate children, a daughter Catherine and son William. In "Herbertorum Prosapia", a seventeenth-century manuscript compilation of the history of the Herbert family (held at the Cardiff Library), Sir Thomas Herbert – a cousin of the earl of Pembroke – recorded William Herbert's paternity of Wroth's two children. [8]

Mary Wroth's alleged relationship with William Herbert and her children born from that union are referenced in her work, The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania. It is also claimed that William Herbert was a favorite of Queen Anne and that she is the reason he gained the position of the King's Lord Chamberlain in 1615. In Urania, Wroth repeatedly returns to references to a powerful and jealous Queen who exiles her weaker rival from the court in order to obtain her lover, causing many critics to believe this referenced tension between Queen Anne and Wroth over the love of Herbert. [9]

The title page of Urania's first edition, printed in 1621 The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621) title page.jpg
The title page of Urania's first edition, printed in 1621

The publication of the book in 1621 was a succès de scandale, as it was widely (and with some justification) viewed as a roman à clef. The diffuse plot is organized around relations between Pamphilia and her wandering lover, Amphilanthus, and most critics consider it to contain significant autobiographical elements. Although Wroth claimed that she never had any intention of publishing the book, she was heavily criticized by powerful noblemen for depicting their private lives under the guise of fiction. However, her period of notoriety was brief after the scandal aroused by these allusions in her romance; Urania was withdrawn from sale by December 1621. [10] Two of the few authors to acknowledge this work were Ben Jonson and Edward Denny. Jonson, a friend and colleague of Mary Wroth praised both Wroth and her works in "Sonnet to the noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth." Jonson claims that copying Wroth's works he not only became a better poet, but a better lover. Denny on the other hand provides a very negative critique of Wroth's work; he accused her of slander in a satiric poem, calling her a "hermaphrodite" and a "monster". [11] While Wroth returned fire in a poem of her own, the notoriety of the episode may have contributed to her low profile in the last decades of her life. There was also a second half of Urania, which was published for the first time in 1999, the original manuscript of which now resides in the Newberry Library in Chicago. [12] According to Shelia T. Cavanaugh, the second portion of the work was never prepared by Wroth for actual publication and the narrative contains many inconsistencies and is somewhat difficult to read. [13]

After the publication issues surrounding Urania, Wroth left King James's court and was later abandoned by William Herbert. There is little known about Wroth's later years but it is known that she continued to face major financial difficulties for the remainder of her life. Wroth died in either 1651 or 1653. [11] Mary is commemorated in Loughton by the naming of a footpath adjacent to Loughton Hall as Lady Mary's Path.


Love's Victory (c.1620) – pastoral closet drama.

The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (1621) – The first extant prose romance by an English woman.

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621) – The second-known sonnet sequence by an English woman.

Related Research Articles

Ben Jonson 17th-century English playwright, poet, and actor

Benjamin Jonson was an English playwright and poet, whose artistry exerted a lasting impact upon English poetry and stage comedy. He popularised the comedy of humours. He is best known for the satirical plays Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone, or The Fox, The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1614) and for his lyric and epigrammatic poetry. "He is generally regarded as the second most important English dramatist, after William Shakespeare, during the reign of James I."

Philip Sidney 16th-century English poet, courtier, and diplomat

Sir Philip Sidney was an English poet, courtier, scholar and soldier who is remembered as one of the most prominent figures of the Elizabethan age. His works include Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poesy and The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia.

Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester English noble and diplomat

Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester, second son of Sir Henry Sidney, was a statesman of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. He was also a patron of the arts and a poet. His mother, Mary Sidney née Dudley, was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I and a sister of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, an advisor and favourite of the Queen.

Mary Sidney 16th/17th-century English noble, poet, playwright, and literary patron

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke was one of the first English women to gain a major reputation for her poetry and literary patronage. By the age of 39, she was listed with her brother Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare among the notable authors of her time in the verse miscellany, Belvidere, by John Bodenham. The influence of her play Antonius is widely recognized; it revived interest in soliloquy based on classical models and was one likely source for the closet drama Cleopatra (1594) by Samuel Daniel and for Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1607). Sidney was also known for translating Petrarch's "Triumph of Death," from the poetry anthology Triumphs, but it is her lyric translation of the Psalms that has secured her poetic reputation.

Emilia Lanier English poet

Emilia Lanier, néeAemilia Bassano, was an English poet in the early modern era. She was the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet, through a single volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611). Attempts have been made to identify her with Shakespeare's "Dark Lady".

Catherine Howard, Countess of Suffolk English countess

CatherineHoward, Countess of Suffolk (1564–1638), was an English court office holder. She served as lady-in-waiting to the queen consort of England, Anne of Denmark. She was born in Charlton Park, Wiltshire, the oldest child of Sir Henry Knyvet and his wife Elizabeth Stumpe. Her uncle was Sir Thomas Knyvet, who foiled the gunpowder plot.

William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke 16th/17th-century English nobleman, politician, and courtier

William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, of Wilton House in Wiltshire, was an English nobleman, politician, and courtier. He served as Chancellor of the University of Oxford and together with King James I he founded Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1608 he was appointed Warden of the Forest of Dean and Constable of St Briavels Castle in Gloucestershire, and in 1609 Governor of Portsmouth, all of which offices he retained until his death. He served as Lord Chamberlain from 1615 to 1625. In 1623 the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays was dedicated to him and his brother and successor Philip Herbert, 1st Earl of Montgomery.

Barbara Sidney, Countess of Leicester English noble

Barbara Sidney, Countess of Leicester was a Welsh heiress, and the first wife of Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester. Her family connections tied her to prominent contemporary figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh.

A sonnet sequence is a group of sonnets thematically unified to create a long work, although generally, unlike the stanza, each sonnet so connected can also be read as a meaningful separate unit.

A country house poem is a poem in which the author compliments a wealthy patron or a friend through a description of his country house. Such poems were popular in early 17th century England. The genre may be regarded as a sub-set of the topographical poem.

Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford patron of the arts and literature in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods (1581-1627)

Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford (1580–1627) was a major aristocratic patron of the arts and literature in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, the primary non-royal performer in contemporary court masques, a letter-writer, and a poet. She was an adventurer (shareholder) in the Somers Isles Company, investing in Bermuda, where Harrington Sound is named after her.

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is a sonnet sequence by the English Renaissance poet Lady Mary Wroth, first published as part of The Countess of Montgomery's Urania in 1621, but subsequently published separately. It is the second known sonnet sequence by a woman writer in England. The poems are strongly influenced by the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (1580) penned by her uncle Sir Philip Sidney. Like Sidney's sequence, Wroth's sonnets passed among her friends and acquaintances in manuscript form before they were published in 1621. In Wroth's sequence, she upends Petrarchan tropes by making the unattainable object of love male.

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

Edward Denny, 1st Earl of Norwich English politician

Edward Denny, 1st Earl of Norwich, known as The Lord Denny between 1604 and 1627, was an English courtier, Member of Parliament, and a peer.

Susan Herbert, Countess of Montgomery English noblewoman

Susan Herbert, Countess of Montgomery, was an English court office holder. She served as lady-in-waiting to the queen consort of England, Anne of Denmark. She was the youngest daughter of Elizabethan courtier, poet, and playwright Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Sir Robert Wroth was an English politician.

Love's Victory is a Jacobean era pastoral closet drama written circa 1620 by English Renaissance writer Lady Mary Wroth. The play is the first known original pastoral drama and the first original dramatic comedy written by a woman. It is written primarily in rhyming couplets. There are only two known manuscripts of Love's Victory, one of which is an incomplete version located in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The other version is complete, and is the Penshurst Manuscript which is owned by Viscount De L'Isle, indicating continued ownership by the Sidney family since its creation.

The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, also known as Urania, is a prose romance by English Renaissance writer Lady Mary Wroth. Composed at the beginning of the 17th century, it is the first known prose romance written by an English woman. The full work exists in two volumes, the first published in 1621 and the second written, but unpublished, during Wroth's lifetime. The novel also contains several versions of Wroth's sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, distributed throughout the prose and reproduced in sequence at the end of the volume.

Loughton Hall Loughton, Epping Forest, Essex, IG10

Loughton Hall is a large house in Rectory Lane, Loughton, Essex. The architect was William Eden Nesfield, and it is grade II listed with Historic England. It is now a 33-bedroom residential care home for elderly people.

Sir Edward Wingfield of Kimbolton (c.1562-1603), member of Parliament and author of a masque.


  1. Lee, Sidney (1900). "Wroth, Mary"  . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography . 63. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  2. 1 2 Butler, John & Jokinen, Anniina. The Life of Lady Mary Wroth. 2006.
  3. Cavanaugh, Shelia T. Cherished Torment:The Emotional Geography of Lady Mary Wroth's Urania. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,2001.
  4. Roberts, Josephine A. The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
  5. Miller, Naomi, J. Changing the Subject, Mary Wroth and Figurations of Gender in Early Modern England. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1960.
  6. Roberts,11
  7. Roberts,10
  8. Lamb, Mary Ellen. "Wroth , Lady Mary (1587–1651/1653)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/30082.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  9. Nandini Das, Lady Mary Wroth – Biography,
  10. Lamb, Mary Ellen. Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990
  11. 1 2 Lamb, 154
  12. Mary Sidney Wroth, The Second Part of the Countess of Montgomery's Uraniaed, ed. by J. A. Roberts, S. Gossett, and J. Mueller (Tempe: Renaissance English Text Society in conjunction with Arizona Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, 1999).
  13. Cavanaugh, 30

Secondary sources