Emilia Lanier

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Emilia Lanier
Emily Bassano.jpg
There are no known portraits of Emilia Lanier. In 2003 the actor and writer Tony Haygarth argued that this miniature portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, 1593, depicts her.[1]
Born Aemilia Bassano
Died 1645
London, England
Movement English Renaissance
Parent(s) Baptiste Bassano; Margret Johnson

Emilia Lanier (1569–1645), also spelled Lanyer, was the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet through her single volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611).[2] Born Aemilia Bassano and part of the Lanier family tree, she was a member of the minor gentry through her father's appointment as a royal musician, and was apparently educated in the household by Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. She was for several years the mistress of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, first cousin of Elizabeth I of England. She was married to her first cousin, court musician Alfonso Lanier, in 1592 when she became pregnant by Hunsdon, and the marriage was reportedly unhappy.


Very little is known about Lanier, and piecing together the events of her life has not always been an easy task for researchers. Scholars have constructed Lanier's biography by relying on sparse church, court and legal records which mention Lanier's name and activities. Researchers have also relied upon entries in astrologer Simon Forman's (1552–1611) professional diary, which logs interactions with Lanier. Lanier visited Foreman many times during 1597 for astrological readings, but because Forman was evidently sexually interested in her and rebuffed, his account is considered biased.

Church records show that Lanier was baptised Aemilia Bassano at the parish church of St. Botolph, Bishopsgate, on 27 January 1569. Her father, Baptiste Bassano, was a Venice-born musician at the court of Elizabeth I. Her mother was Margret Johnson (born ca. 1545–1550), possibly the aunt of court composer Robert Johnson. Lanier also had a sister, Angela Bassano, who married Joseph Hollande in 1576. There were also brothers Lewes and Phillip, both of whom died before they reached adulthood.[3] It has been suggested that Lanier's family were Jewish or of partial Jewish ancestry, though this is disputed. Susanne Woods says that evidence for Lanier's Jewish heritage is "circumstantial but cumulatively possible".[4] Leeds Barroll says she was "probably a Jew", her baptism being "part of the vexed context of Jewish assimilation in Tudor England".[5]

Baptiste Bassano died on 11 April 1576, when Aemilia was seven years old. Bassano's will dictated to his wife that he had left young Aemilia a dowry of £100, to be given to her either when she turned 21 years old or on the day of her wedding, whichever came first. Forman's records indicate that Bassano's fortune might have been waning before he died which caused him to be unhappy.[6]

Foreman's records also indicate that, after the death of her father, Lanier went to live with Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. Some scholars have questioned whether Lanier went to serve Bertie rather than be fostered by her, but there is no conclusive evidence to confirm this. It was in Bertie's house that Lanier was given a humanist education and learned Latin. Bertie greatly valued and emphasised the importance of young girls receiving the same level of education as young men.[7] Later evidence indicates that this decision may have greatly impacted Lanier and her own decision to publish her writing. After living with Bertie, Lanier went to live with Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, and Margaret's daughter, Lady Anne Clifford. Dedications in Lanier's own poetry seem to confirm this information.[8]

Lanier's mother died when Lanier was eighteen. Church records show that Johnson was buried in Bishopsgate on 7 July 1587.[8]

Not long after her mother's death, Lanier became the mistress of Tudor courtier and cousin of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon. At the time of their affair, Lord Hunsdon was Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain and a patron of the arts and theatre (he supported Shakespeare's theatre company, known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, but not until two years after their affair was over). He was also forty-five years older than Lanier. Records indicate that Carey gave her a pension of £40 a year. Lanier apparently enjoyed her time as Carey's mistress. An entry from Forman's diary reads "[Lanier] hath bin married 4 years/ The old Lord Chamberlain kept her longue She was maintained in great pomp... she hath 40£ a yere & was welthy to him that married her in monie & Jewells".[9]

In 1592, when she was 23, Lanier became pregnant with Carey's child. Carey paid her off with a sum of money. Lanier was then married to her first cousin once removed, Alfonso Lanier. He was a Queen's musician and church records show the two were married in St. Botolph's church, Aldgate, on 18 October 1592.[10]

Another of Forman's diary entries indicates that the marriage was an unhappy one. It also indicates that Lanier was much happier as Carey's mistress. It reads "...and a nobleman that is ded hath Loved her well & kept her and did maintain her longe but her husband hath delte hardly with her and spent and consumed her goods and she is nowe...in debt".[9]

Alfonso and Aemilia remained married until his death in 1613. Forman's diary entries suggest Lanier told him about having several miscarriages. It is known that Lanier gave birth to a son, Henry, in 1593 (presumably named after his father, Henry Carey) and a daughter, Odillya, in 1598. Odillya died when she was ten months old and was buried at St. Botolph's, Bishopsgate. Lanier's son married Joyce Mansfield in 1623; they had two children, Mary (1627) and Henry (1630). Henry senior died in October 1633. It is implied from later court documents that Lanier may have been providing for her two grandchildren after their father's death.[11]

In 1611, Lanier published her volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. Lanier was forty-two years old at the time and the first woman in England to declare herself a poet. People who read her poetry considered it very radical and many scholars today refer to its style and arguments as "proto-feminist".[12] After the death of her husband, Lanier supported herself by running a school. She rented a house from Edward Smith to house her students but, due to disputes over the correct rent price, was arrested on two different occasions between 1617 and 1619. Because parents weren't willing to send their children to a woman with a history of arrest, Lanier's dreams of running a prosperous school ended.[13]

Little else is known about Lanier's life between 1619 and 1635. Court documents state that, in this year, Lanier brought a lawsuit against her husband's brother, Clement, for money owed to her from the profits of one of her late husband's financial patents. The court ruled in Lanier's favour, declaring that Clement pay her £20. Clement couldn't pay her immediately, so Lanier brought the suit to court again in 1636 and in 1638. There are no records that verify whether Lanier was ever paid in full but it is known that, at the time of death, she was described as a "pensioner", someone who has a steady income or pension.[13]

Lanier died at the age of seventy-six and was buried at Clerkenwell, on 3 April 1645.[13]


As the author of the collection of poetry known as "Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum" (1611) Emilia was only the fourth woman in England to publish a book of original poetry, with Isabella Whitney, Anne Dowriche, and Elizabeth Melville preceding her. Her volume centres on the title poem, a long narrative work of over 200 stanzas. It tells the story of Christ's passion satirically and almost entirely from the point of view of the women who surround him. The main poem is prefaced by ten shorter dedicatory works, all to aristocratic women, beginning with the queen. There is also a prose preface addressed to the reader, comprising a vindication of "virtuous women" against detractors of the sex. After the central poem there is a verse "Description of Cookham," dedicated to Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford. This last is the first published country house poem in English (Ben Jonson's more famous "To Penshurst" may have been written earlier but was first published in 1616). Her inspiration came from a visit to Cookham Dean, where Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland, and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford lived. While visiting the residence she says to have received a spiritual awakening, inspired by the piety of Margaret.

At the age of 42, in 1611, she published Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews). At the time that she published her book, it was extremely unusual for an Englishwoman to publish work and to do so as a means of making a living was even more unusual. The book was radical for its time, although the topics of virtue and religion were considered to be suitable themes for women. It was viewed as radical because it addressed topics such as the maltreatment of women. Lanier defends Eve, and womankind in general, arguing that Eve has been wrongly blamed for the original sin of eating the forbidden fruit, while no blame has been pointed at Adam. She argues that Adam shares most of the guilt by concluding that Adam was stronger than Eve, and thus, he should have been able to resist the temptation. She also defends women by pointing out the dedication of the female followers of Christ who stayed with Him throughout the Passion, and looked for him first after the burial and resurrection. She also draws attention to Pilate’s wife who attempted to intervene and prevent the unjust trial and crucifixion of Christ. Lanier reproaches mankind by accusing them of crucifying Christ. She also notes the male apostles that forsook and even denied Christ during His crucifixion and Passion. Theorists who claim Lanier was Jewish ignore the fiercely anti-Semitic statements she makes in the poem, though these beliefs are of course the norm for her period.

Shakespeare links[edit]

The Sonnets[edit]

After Bassano was no longer at court, and two years after her affair with Lord Hunsdon had ended, he became the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the theatre company which performed the Shakespearean plays after 1594. Some have speculated that Lanier, an apparently striking woman, was Shakespeare's "Dark Lady". This identification was first proposed by A. L. Rowse and has been repeated by several authors since, notably David Lasocki and Roger Prior in their 1995 book The Bassanos:Venetian Musicians and Instrument makers in England 1531–1665 and in articles by Martin Green and Stephanie Hopkins Hughes. Although the colour of her hair is not known, records exist in which her Bassano cousins were referred to as "black," a common term at that time for brunettes or persons with Mediterranean coloring. That she came from a family of Court musicians fits Shakespeare's picture of her playing the virginal in Sonnet 128, and that he claims she was "forsworn" to another in Sonnet 152 fits her relationship with Shakespeare's patron, Lord Hunsdon. More recently, the theory that she was the Dark Lady has fallen into disfavor by Lanier scholars like Susanne Woods (1999), given that Rowse posited her immorality based on Forman's biased accounts. Woods offers the most reliable account of Lanier's life. Barbara Lewalski notes that Rowse's theory that Lanier was Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" has unfortunately deflected attention from Lanier as a poet.

In 2005[14] the English conductor Peter Bassano, a co-lateral descendant of Emilia, suggested that she provided some of the texts for William Byrd’s 1589 Songs of Sundrie Natures dedicated to Lord Hunsdon. He further suggested that one of the songs, the setting of the translation of an Italian sonnet: Of Gold all Burnisht may have been used by Shakespeare as a parodied model for Sonnet 130: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.

Irish poet Niall McDevitt believes Lanier was the Dark Lady, saying "She spurned his advances somewhere along the line and he never won her back...It's a genuine story of unrequited love."[15]


A number of commentators have concluded that it cannot be just coincidence that in Shakespeare’s two Venetian plays, there is an Emilia in one (Othello) and a Bassan(i)o in the other (The Merchant of Venice). In addition in Titus Andronicus there is an Aemilius and a Bassianus. In 2008[16] Roger Prior suggested that in 1593 Shakespeare visited Bassano (del Grappa) where he saw the fresco of Goats & Monkeys that he apparently cites in Othello (IV.i.263) on the external wall of a house there. Prior does not, however, feel there is conclusive proof that the Bassanos were Jewish.

Janet Adelman thinks that it likely that Shakespeare met the Bassano family. If they were converted Jews, it possibly influenced the choice of names in The Merchant of Venice. "Given the centrality of conversion and intermarriage to Merchant's Jews, it seems to me not altogether implausible to imagine that Shakespeare might have been influenced in his choice of the name Bassanio (in place of the Gianetto of his main source, Il Pecorone) by the presence of this family."[17]

Feminist ideals, Lanier's poetry and Eve’s Apology[edit]

Aemilia Lanier’s book of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum has been viewed by many critics to be one of the earliest feminist works of British literature. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski in her article, "Writing Women and Reading the Renaissance," actually calls Lanier the "defender of womankind" [18] Lewalski claims that with the first few poems of the collection, as dedications to prominent women, Lanier is initiating her ideas of the genealogy of women.[19] The genealogy follows the idea that "virtue and learning descend from mothers to daughters".[20] Marie H. Loughlin continues Lewalski’s argument in her article, "'Fast ti'd unto Them in a Golden Chaine': Typology, Apocalypse, and Woman's Genealogy in Aemilia Lanier's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum," by noting that the genealogy of women began with Eve. Loughlin claims that Lanier is advocating the importance of knowledge of both the spiritual and material worlds in connection with women.[21] She argues that women must focus on the material world and their importance in it to supplement their life in the spiritual world rather than focusing solely on the spiritual.[22] This argument stems from Lanier’s desire to raise women up to the same level as men. Lanier attempts to convey the message to her audience that men are not the only important beings in the material world, but that women belong there as well.[23]

Lanier’s poetry is working towards reversing the images of women typically portrayed in the Bible; specifically, that women should be subservient to men.[24] Lanier flips that idea of the subservient woman and instead strives towards illustrating the idea that women are in "mystical and apocalyptic union with Christ",[25] that is, if either gender was placed nearer the "‘everlasting throne’" of Jesus, it would be the female sex.[25] In lines 745–840 of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, more commonly known as Eve’s Apology, Lanier brings together two biblical women of different eras who perfectly portray this idea of the genealogy of women striving towards that union with Christ. The first half of the passage has Eve addressing the fact that Adam too should share the blame of the fall of Man. If women are to be subservient to men, men should be protecting women. Adam should have stopped Eve from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but he instead succumbed to temptation, although he had not been tempted by any "subtle serpent" as Eve had been. Lanier writes, "Her weakness did the serpent's words obey, / But you in malice God's dear Son betray", thereby placing greater blame on the men responsible for Jesus's death. Eve’s disobeying God’s laws led to the need of having a savior. The second half of the passage illustrates that Pilate’s wife tried to save Jesus Christ’s life, therefore remedying any fault of Eve’s. This smaller section of the larger Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum uses Christ’s Passion to depict good women in contrast to bad men.[20] Eve’s Apology and Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum as a whole was Lanier’s vehicle, as Loughlin claims, to "depict(s) woman’s history as a teleological progression from the times of the Old Testament to those of the New Testament and finally beyond time itself into her glorious future union with Christ." [25]


  1. ^ Simon Tait, Unmasked- the identity of shakespeares Dark Lady, The Independent, 7 December 2003.
  2. ^ Isabella Whitney, a half century before, had been the first Englishwoman known to have published non-religious poetry.
  3. ^ McBride, Kari Boyd. Biography of Aemilia Lanyer. Aemilia Lanyer (1569–1645). 16 November 2008. Women's Studies, University of Arizona. 20 November 2008. [1]
  4. ^ Woods, Susanne, Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p180n48
  5. ^ Barroll, Leeds. "Looking for Patrons" in Marshall Grossman (ed) Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, University Press of Kentucky, 1998 pp.29, 44.
  6. ^ The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer. Ed. Susan Woods. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 1993. xv–xvii
  7. ^ Woods, Susan. Lanyer, A Renaissance Woman Poet. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 1999.9
  8. ^ a b McBride, Biography of Aemilia Lanyer, 1
  9. ^ a b Woods, The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer, xviii
  10. ^ Woods, The Poems of Aemilia Lanyer, xviii. McBride, Biography of Aemilia Lanyer, 1–2
  11. ^ McBride, Biography of Aemilia Lanyer, 2–3
  12. ^ McBride, Biography of Aemilia Lanyer, 2
  13. ^ a b c McBride, Biography of Aemilia Lanyer, 3
  14. ^ Duke University, International William Byrd Conference 17–19 November 2005
  15. ^ Conjure the Bard: On London's streets, Nigel Richardson follows a latter-day Prospero bringing William Shakespeare back to life, Sydney Morning Herald, February 26, 2011.
  16. ^ University of Malta Anglo-Italian Studies Vol. 9
  17. ^ Janet Adelman, Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in the Merchant of Venice, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008, p.138
  18. ^ Lewalski, Barbara Keifer. "Writing Women and Reading the Renaissance." Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Winter, 1991), pp. 792–821.
  19. ^ Lewalski 802–803
  20. ^ a b Lewalski 803
  21. ^ Loughlin, Marie H. "'Fast ti'd unto Them in a Golden Chaine': Typology, Apocalypse, and Woman's Genealogy in Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum." Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 133–179
  22. ^ Loughlin 139
  23. ^ Loughlin 140
  24. ^ Loughlin 134
  25. ^ a b c Loughlin 135

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