Lady Mary Wroth

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"Mary Wroth" redirects here. For the fictional character, see Mary Worth.
Engraving of Lady Mary Wroth

Lady Mary Wroth (18 October 1587 – 1651/3) was an English poet of the Renaissance. A member of a distinguished literary family, Lady Wroth was among the first female British writers to have achieved an enduring reputation. She is perhaps best known for having written The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, the first extant prose romance by an English woman, and for Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, the second known sonnet sequence by an English woman. Wroth's works also include Love's Victory, a pastoral closet drama.


Mary Sidney was born on 18 October 1587 to the former Barbara Gamage (1563–1621), a wealthy Welsh heiress and first cousin to Sir Walter Raleigh, and Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester. Her father, Robert Sidney, 1st Earl of Leicester and Viscount Lisle of Penshurst Place, was a poet and governor of Flushing, Netherlands. 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.

Because her father, Robert Sidney, was governor of Flushing, Wroth spent much of her childhood at the home of Mary Sidney, and Penshurst Place, Baynard’s Castle in London. 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.[1] 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.[1] As a young woman, Lady Mary belonged to Queen Anne’s intimate circle of friends and actively participated in masques and entertainments.[2]

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.[3] 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’.[4] Various letters from Lady Mary to Queen Anne also refer to the financial losses her husband had sustained during their time together.[5]

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 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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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 of 1621.[9] 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".[10] 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 and now resides in the Newberry Library in Chicago.[11] 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.[12]

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.[10]

Themes in Urania[edit]

The title page of Urania's first edition, printed in 1621

Wroth's famous work The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania was published in 1621 and introduced controversial themes concerning gender. Mary Wroth was a radical in her time merely for writing a work intended for public consumption. For the time, the act of composing a novel by a woman violated the ideals of female virtue. Bernadette Andrea, a literary critic who focuses on gender themes in Urania in her work "Pamphilia's Cabinet: Gendered Authorship and Empire in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania", writes that female virtues at the time were seen to be silence and obedience.[13] In genteel society, an unmarried woman of the time was expected to be chaste, silent, and obedient and this theme is reiterated throughout contemporary religious works, legal treaties, and literature. The three themes were considered linked: a woman's silence and obedience were considered evidence of her chastity.[13][14] By writing a text intended for a public audience, critics such as Bernadette Andrea claim that Wroth was acting against the accepted ideals of the established patriarchy and so calling her own moral character into question.

Urania is the titular character of the work, but is not the character that represents Wroth in the work. In the work, Urania is an orphan and is the daughter of a shepherd. She is actually the biological offspring of the daughter of the King of Naples, and comes to this realization over the course of the work through a series of pastoral songs and sonnets with the shepherds. The female character of Pamphilia reflects Wroth the most and is the character who struggles with the mindset of the contemporary world in which Wroth wrote.[15] Pamphila, which is Greek for all loving, struggles throughout the text with the infidelity of her lover Amphialanthus, which is Greek for "one with two loves." Pamphilia must conceal her songs so that her moral character is not called into question by others in Urania. Pamphila carries around her works in a little cabinet and keeps them to herself because society would shun them.[16] She is however, rewarded in the work for her actions. She becomes a queen in Asia Minor despite her lack of the contemporary virtues of silence, chastity, and obedience.[17] Her compositions, although mostly secret, are still a violation of the code of what a woman should be and Wroth does not demonize her transgression, but rather glorifies it.

Wroth did not fare as well as her fictional character did when Urania was published. Wroth also angered people by drawing upon her contemporaries as inspiration. Paul Salzman, in The Review of English Studies article, "Contemporary References in Wroth’s Urania" notes that this work was full of references to others.[18] One of her contemporaries claims that the "whole world condemns" her work. Denny recommends that Wroth would be better served to do as her aunt before her had done and confine herself to translating holy works and read the biblical psalms like good women of the time were expected to do.[19] Wroth’s use of contemporaries as inspiration throughout the book has not been exactly noted.[20] What is known is that society caught on to them and rejected the book out of hand as shameful gossip by a sinful woman who was sinning by writing a book containing her thoughts. In the article "'Not much to be marked': Narrative of the Woman's Part in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania" by Naomi Miller published in the journal Studies in English Literature, the author relates that Wroth’s novel was the first work of fiction written by an English woman to be published in the Renaissance.[21] Virginia Woolf correctly claimed that any woman who composed a work of fiction during the period of the Renaissance would be "thought a monster".[22] The social backlash against her work caused Urania to be pulled from publication six months after it was first produced.[22] One critic, Lord Denny, called Wroth a "hermaphrodite in show, indeed a monster" because of the attacks he perceived Wroth to be leveling at English society and the English Court of King James in particular.[22] Denny goes on to command, drawing on the perceived virtue of female obedience, that Wroth "leave idle books alone for wiser and worthier women have written none."[22] She was spurned by society of the time and has only recently moved beyond being viewed as victim to being viewed as a capable author who has captured the mind of a female poet in a time where such a profession was viewed as an aberration.[23]


  1. ^ a b Butler, John & Jokinen, Anniina. The Life of Lady Mary Wroth. 2006.
  2. ^ Cavanaugh, Shelia T. Cherished Torment:The Emotional Geography of Lady Mary Wroth's Urania. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,2001.
  3. ^ Roberts, Josephine A. The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
  4. ^ Miller, Naomi, J. Changing the Subject, Mary Wroth and Figurations of Gender in Early Modern England. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1960.
  5. ^ Roberts,11
  6. ^ Roberts,10
  7. ^ Mary Ellen Lamb, ‘Wroth , Lady Mary (1587–1651/1653)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008.16 Nov 2008
  8. ^ Nandini Das, Lady Mary Wroth – Biography,
  9. ^ Lamb, Mary Ellen. Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990
  10. ^ a b Lamb, 154
  11. ^ 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).
  12. ^ Cavanaugh, 30
  13. ^ a b Andrea, Bernadette. "Pamphilia's Cabinet: Gendered Authorship and Empire in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania". English Literary History 68.2, 2001. Project Muse.
  14. ^ Andrea 336
  15. ^ Andrea 335
  16. ^ Andrea 337
  17. ^ Andrea 338
  18. ^ Salzman, Paul. "Contemporary References in Wroth’s Urania" ,The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 114 (May, 1978), pp. 178-18.
  19. ^ Salzman,179
  20. ^ Salzman 178
  21. ^ Miller, Naomi. "'Not much to be marked': Narrative of the Woman's Part in Lady Mary Wroth' Urania."
  22. ^ a b c d Miller 121
  23. ^ Miller 123

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Andrea, Bernadette. "Pamphilia's Cabinet: Gender Authorship and Empire in Lady Mary Wroth's Urania." English Literary History 68.2, 2001. [1]
  • Bates, Catherine. "Astrophil and the Manic Wit of the Abject Male." SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. Houston: William Marsh Rice University, Vol. 41, Num. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 1–24. [2].
  • Butler, John & Jokinen, Anniina. The Life of Lady Mary Wroth. 2006. [3]. 28 October 2008.
  • Cañadas, Ivan. "Questioning Men's Love in Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella and Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus". Medieval and Early Modern English Studies [MEMESAK journal]. Vol 13, Num. 1, 2005. pp. 99–121.
  • Cavanaugh, Shelia T. Cherished Torment: The Emotional Geography of Lady Mary Wroth's Urania. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2001.
  • Grosart, Alexander, The Complete Poems of Sir Philip Sidney. Oregon: University of Oregon, December 1995. [4].
  • Hagerman, Anita. "'But Worth pretends': Discovering Jonsonian Masque in Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.3 (January, 2001): 4.1-17 [5].
  • Lamb, Mary Ellen, 'Wroth, Lady Mary (1587-1651/1653)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008. [6].
  • Lamb, Mary Ellen. Gender and Authorship in the Sidney Circle. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
  • Miller, Naomi, J. Changing the Subject. Mary Wroth and Figurations of Gender in Early Modern England. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1960.
  • Miller, Naomi. "'Not much to be marked': Narrative of the Woman's Part in Lady Mary Wroth' Urania." [7].
  • Mullaney, Steven. "Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance," in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988).
  • Mullaney, Steven. The Place of Stage: License, Play and Power in Renaissance England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • Nandini Das, Lady Mary Wroth-Biography. 2005. 30 October 2008.
  • Roberts, Josephine A. The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
  • Salzman, Paul. "Contemporary References in Wroth’s Urania" The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 114 (May, 1978), pp. 178–18. [8].
  • Taylor, Sue "Lady Mary Wroth" London: LDHS. 2005 ISBN 0-9542314-8-1
  • Verzella, Massimo "Hid as worthless rite". Scrittura femminile nell’Inghilterra di re Giacomo: Elizabeth Cary e Mary Wroth, Roma, Aracne, 2007.
  • Verzella, Massimo, "The Renaissance Englishwoman’s Entry into Print: Authorizing Strategies", The Atlantic Critical Review, III, 3 (July–September 2004), pp. 1–19;
  • Waller, Gary. The Sidney Family Romance: Mary Wroth, William Herbert, and the early modern construction of gender. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993.
  • Wilson, Mona, Sir Philip Sidney. London: Duckworth, 1931.

External links[edit]