Lady Mary Wroth: An English Renaissance Feminist

Lady Mary Wroth

Lady Mary Wroth was the first Englishwoman to write a complete sonnet sequence, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. She was also the first English woman to compose an extended work of romantic prose, The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania. Her life and writing were unconventional and controversial as she chose to voice her feminine viewpoint-a viewpoint which oftentimes opposed the patriarchal culture of the English Renaissance. Lady Wroth was born in 1587, joining the aristocratic and famous literary family of the Sidneys. Her father, Sir Robert Sidney, was a poet and statesman; her uncle, Sir Philip Sidney, authored Arcadia, Astrophil and Stella, and The Defence of Poesy; and her aunt, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, was a well known patron of the arts who wrote, translated, and published her poetry during an era when few women were brave enough to do so. Although her remarkable literary heritage may have inspired Lady Mary to write, it was her uniquely creative spirit that enabled her to express her feminine beliefs as she navigated herself and her art across the Renaissance gender barriers.

Lady Mary spent a happy childhood growing up at Penshurst, the family estate. She was educated by tutors under her mother's supervision. Being born into an aristocratic family afforded her the privilege of education during an era when an estimated 90 percent of Englishwomen were illiterate. However, patriarchal tenants prescribed that "[t]he education of daughters was seen primarily as an education in virtue and in good 'huswifery' " (Walker 40). In her essay "Feminine Identity in Urania," Carolyn Swift points out that although Lady Mary was encouraged in pursuing her creative and artistic talents, she also must have been aware of the inequities between her education and that of her brothers. Sir Robert Sidney secured books for his daughter to read, but "he believed that a formal education was important only for boys" (160), stating his resolve in a letter to his wife:

For the girls I kan not mislike the care you take of them: but for the boies you must resolve to let me have my wil. For I know better what belongs to a man than you do. Indeed I wil have him ly from his maide, for it is time, and now no more to bee in the nurcery among wemen. I wil not stick to give the schoolmaster whom you speak of 20 [pounds] a yeare, if I kan heare of his sufficiency. But then wil I have the boy delivered to his charge onely, and not to have him when he is to teach him, to be troubled with the women. (160)

In keeping with the Renaissance tradition of arranging marriages for financial reasons, Lady Mary wed Sir Robert Wroth at Penshurst in September of 1604. Wroth had been knighted in 1603, and rose quickly in King James' favor due to his expert hunting skills. The Wroth marriage was unhappy from the start, with evidence of their trouble found in a letter written by Sir Robert Sidney to his wife:

Heer I found my son [in law] Wroth, come up as hee tels me to despatch some business, and wil be againe at Penshurst on Fryday. I find by him that there was some what that doth discontent him: but the particulars I could not get out of him, onely that hee protests that hee cannot take any exceptions to his wife, nor her cariage towards him. It were very soon for any unkindness to begin; and therefore whatsoever the matters bee, I pray you let all things be carried in the best maner til we all doe meet. (Roberts, Poems of LMW 12)
Wroth did not share his wife's love of the arts and literature, was a "reputed wastrel, spendthrift, drunkard, and womanizer" (Butler 1), and the only book dedication he was ever to receive was "a treatise on mad dogs" (Roberts, Poems of LMW 12). More evidence of the poor relations between Wroth and his wife are found in Ben Jonson's observation that Lady Mary was "unworthily maried on a Jealous husband" (Roberts, DLB: 121, 298).

However, reputed louse that he was, Sir Wroth's favor with King James I was the vehicle that propelled Lady Mary to the center of court life. Once at court, she gained a coveted role in Ben Jonson's first masque, The Masque of Blackness, and also took part or witnessed several other masques during the years of 1605-1611. In 1612 Jonson dedicated "one of his finest plays, The Alchemist," to Lady Mary in which he described her as "most aequall with virtue and her blood: The Grace, and Glory of women" (Roberts, Poems of LMW 15-16). During these court years, Wroth began her writing career with her poems circulating in manuscript. Ben Jonson honored her talent in his poem "A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, the Lady Mary Wroth," where he declares: "Since I exscribe your sonnets, am become / A better lover, and much better poet" (Underwood 28, ll. 3-4).

In her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, Wroth breaks from tradition and writes her name into literary history by turning the Petrarchan convention upside down. Wroth becomes "the first English writer to reverse the traditional gender roles of lover and beloved in a complete sonnet collection" (Miller 295). No longer must the woman be the desired, unobtainable, ice-hardened, and often degraded object of the male sonneteer's lust as Wroth inserts her protagonist, Pamphilia, into the commanding role with a feminine voice of her own. Pamphilia is now the possessor of the Petrarchan ideals which had previously been the exclusive property of the male sonneteer, as her "lov'd eyes which kindle Cupid's fire" are "Fix'd on the heat of wishes form'd by love" (Sonnet 83, ll. 3 and 6, from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus). The sequence explores the troubled love between Pamphilia, whose name means "all loving," and the inconstant Amphilanthus, whose name means "lover of two." Wroth stirs up the Petrarchan ideal of "the lady," and redesigns her from a "breaker into a maker of songs" (Miller 298). However, Pamphilia never addresses herself to Amphilanthus, choosing instead to address "Cupid, night, grief, fortune, or time" (Fitzmaurice 111). Interestingly, Wroth inserts Amphilanthus's name only in the sequence's title. An example of Pamphilia's ability to express herself is found as she addresses grief in Sonnet 32 from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus:

Griefe, killing griefe: have nott my torments binn Allreddy great, and strong enough: butt still
Thou dost increase, nay glory in mine ill,
And woes new past affresh new woes beeginn!
Am I the purchase thou canst winn?
Was I ordain'd to give dispaire her fill
Or fittest I should mounte misfortunes hill
Who in the plaine of joy can-nott live in?
If itt bee soe: Griefe come as wellcome ghest Since I must suffer, for an others rest:
Yett this good griefe, lett mee intreat of thee,
Use till thy force, butt nott from those I love
Lett mee all paines, and lasting torments prove
Soe I miss thes, lay all thy waits on mee. (1-14)
Thus, like the male sonneteers, Pamphilia is capable of possessing, expressing, and welcoming the emotions she is feeling.

During the time she was writing her sonnets and poems, Lady Wroth was most likely having an affair with her first cousin, William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. Through the correspondences of the Sidney family it is known that Pembroke and Lady Wroth continued to share a relationship after their respective marriages (Roberts, DLB: 121, 300). The two had been childhood friends, shared many of the same interests in the arts and literature, and had many opportunities to see each other at family and court functions. Pembroke came from one of the wealthiest families in England and had served time in jail for refusing to marry the mother of his illegitimate child. He eventually married the wealthy heiress, Lady Mary Talbot, at about the same time that Lady Mary Wroth married her husband. Pembroke quickly gained favor with King James' I and went on to become a statesman, lord chamberlain, and a lord steward. He was also a poet and a patron of Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare honored Pembroke by dedicating his first folio of plays to Pembroke and his brother Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery. And although Pembroke's "presence may have contributed to the unhappiness of Mary Wroth's marriage," she and Wroth apparently reached some accord since Wroth's last testament refers to Mary as "his deere and loving wife" who deserved more than he could "recompense her" (Roberts, DLB: 121, 301). However, Sir Wroth's death left Lady Mary with a one-month-old son and more debt than she would ever be able to repay. Her financial situation deteriorated even further with the death of her son at the age of two resulting in the bulk of the Wroth estate falling to one of the Wroth uncles.

Once widowed, Lady Wroth moved into Pembroke's London home. She bore him two illegitimate children, a son and a daughter, and found herself losing her place at Queen Anne's court. Her scandalous relationship with Pembroke may have caused the gossip and jealousy of court rivals; however, as a widow she also "lacked the financial ability to participate in lavish court entertainments" (Roberts, DLB: 121, 301). Textual evidence that Lady Mary fashioned Amphilanthus after Pembroke is found in the final sequence of Urania with a possible pun on his first name: " 'The endless gaine which never will remove' (italics added)" (Roberts, DLB: 121, 300) The "inconstant" William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, eventually abandons Wroth.

During the period of 1618-1620, Wroth wrote her romantic prose fiction The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania. Wroth's epic contains over six thousand words and over three hundred characters. It was published in 1621 with Wroth's sonnet sequence appended to it. With her book's publication Wroth "gains a place as the first in a long line of women forced to take up the pen to stave off creditors" (Stanford, Introduction xxxiv). Lady Wroth's depiction of the shepherdess Urania as a woman searching for her identity is the "first extended portrait of a woman by a woman in English" (Roberts, DLB: 121, 302). Urania confronts gender barriers as she demonstrates her ability and willingness to save the shepherd Perissus despite his sexist statement: "But now I see you are a woman; and therefore not much to be marked" (Roberts, DLB: 121, 304). Moreover, Wroth uses her Urania to address "issues of primary social importance, such as the ill of enforced marriage and the sexual double standard" (Fitzmaurice 5). Wroth's own unhappy marriage to Sir Robert becomes the basis of her "The Tale of the Cephalonian Lovers." In this tale, Wroth prophesizes the tragedy that may occur when parents arrange their children's marriages for financial gain, resulting in the desperate lovers' deaths due to their lack of choices. And in "The Tale of Lindamira," Wroth traces her own court life and subsequent banishment as the penalty she must suffer for adulterous lifestyle while the social hypocrisy of double standards allows the male (i.e., Pembroke) to remain at court as one of the queen's favorites.

Wroth uses the technique of Roman clef, or thinly veiled allusions, in her fiction. She often based her characters upon members of the Sidney family as well as court figures. Following its publication, the Urania caused quite a controversy at the court of King James when one of the courtiers, Sir Edward Denny, became outraged to discover his family's scandalous personal affairs exposed within the episode of Seralius and his father-in-law. Sir Denny sued Wroth for slander, and stated his anger in a letter to Wroth, addressing it:

To Pamphilia from the father-in-law of Seralius
Hermophradite in show, in deed a monster
As by thy words and works all men may conster
Thy wrathfull spite conceived an Idell book
Brought forth a foole which like the damme doth look
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Thus hast thou made thy self a lying wonder
Fooles and their Bables seldome part asunder
Works o th' Workes leave idle bookes alone
For wise and worthyer women have writte none.
(Roberts, Poems of LMW 32-33, ll.1-4 and 23-26)

True to her independent nature, Wroth rallied back a reply to Sir Denny:

Railing Rimes Returned upon the Author
by Mistress Mary Wrothe
Hirmophradite in sense in Art a monster
As by your railing rimes the world may conster
Your spitefull words against a harmless booke
Shows that an ass much like the sire doth looke
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
By which you lively see in your owne glasse
How hard it is for you to ly and pass
Thus you have made your self a lying wonder
Fooles and their pastimes should not part asunder
Take this then now lett railing rimes alone
For wise and worthier men have written none.
(Roberts, Poems of LMW 34-35, ll. 1-4 and 21-26)

Despite her attempt to defend herself, Wroth was forced to write to one of King James' highest officials, the Duke of Buckingham, pleading her innocence by stating that her books "were solde against my minde I never purposing to have had them published" (Roberts, DLB: 121, 304). Sir Aston Cockayne summed up the overriding patriarchal consensus of the court's attitude towards the Urania with his statement that "The Lady Wroth's Urania is repleat / With elegancies, but too full of heat" (Roberts, DLB: 121, 304). The controversy resulted in Lady Wroth's book never being republished, and effectively slammed the publishing door to women for the next forty years until Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, has her fiction published.

Following the controversy, Lady Mary continued to write a second, unpublished part to the Urania, in which she addresses the social prominence of illegitimate children who are judged upon their individual merit rather than their birth status. Wroth also completed a pastoral play Love's Victorie. However, there are no surviving literary works from the last thirty years of her life, with "the scholarly consensus being that her reputation was permanently besmirched by Urania's notoriety and that she must have kept a low profile" (Butler 2). Through tax records and family correspondences, it is known that Lady Worth directed her energies at remedying her dire financial situation. She was repeatedly forced to apply to the crown for protection against her creditors. In 1623, Sir Edward Conway, principle secretary of state, wrote to her father demanding he pressure his daughter for immediate repayment of her debts. Sir Sidney came to his daughter's defense, "insisting that his daughter has handled her own affairs since widowhood" (Roberts, Poems of LMW 39), and by 1624 she had succeeded in repaying half of all her debts. Little is known of the last years of Lady Wroth's life, but tax records show her name in connection with land sales and tax payments. The exact date of her death is unclear, with the event occurring in either 1651 or 1653.

Lady Mary Wroth dared to tread where no woman had gone before her. Her creative and unique feminist messages were recorded "firsts" in English literature. She worked hard to erase her late husband's debt, relying upon the faith she had in herself to earn her own way in life with her literary talent. Her decision to live with Pembroke and bear his illegitimate children opposed Renaissance social conventions and undoubtedly contributed to her banishment from Queen Anne's court. Yet, Lady Wroth continued to demonstrate her independent spirit through her writing, oftentimes exposing the hypocritical court life of Jacobean England. However, her position as a woman capable of expressing a voice and message of her own creation could not go unpunished by patriarchal society. Lady Mary Wroth was forced to surrender, and she did so with her silence.

Works Consulted:

Butler, and Annina Jokinen. "Lady Mary Wroth." Feb.1998. Online. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/wrothbio.htm. (27 Oct. 1999).

Fitzmaurice, James, and Josephine A. Roberts, et al. Major Women Writers of Seventeenth-Century England. Ann Arbor: Michigan UP, 1997.

Miller, Naomi J. "Rewriting Lyric Fiction: The Role of the Lady in Lady Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus." The Renaissance Englishwoman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon. Eds. Anne M. Hasselkorn and Betty S. Travitsky. Amherst: Massachusetts UP, 1990. 295-309.

Roberts, Josephine A. "Lady Mary Wroth." Dictionary of Literary Biography: Seventeenth-Century British Nondramatic Poets. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli, et al. First Series. Vol. 121. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. 296-309.

_ _ _, ed. The Poems of Lady Mary Wroth. Baton Rouge: Louisianna State UP, 1993.

Stanford, Ann, ed. Introduction. The Women Poets in English: An Anthology. New York: McGraw, 1972. xxix-xlix.

Swift, Carolyn Ruth. "Feminine Identity in Lady Mary Wroth's Romance Urania." Women in the Renaissance: Selections from English Literary Renaissance. 1971. Ed. Kirby Farrell, Elizabeth H. Hageman, and Arthur F. Kinney. Amherst: Massachusetts UP, 1988. 154-174.

Walker, Kim. Women Writers of the English Renaissance. New York: Twayne, 1996.


This web page (http://www.d.umn.edu/~tbacig/) is maintained by Tom Bacig, and was last updated Monday, 06-Mar-2000 08:53:39 CST. Send comments to tbacig@d.umn.edu.
© 1999 Mary Hardtke