Sunday, February 27, 2022

Lady Mary Wroth, Author and Courtier

 By Lauren Gilbert

Lady Mary Wroth c 1620

Born Mary Sidney, she was the daughter of Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester & Viscount de L’Isle and his wife Barbara Gamage, a Welsh heiress. She was born about 1587 (possibly October 18) possibly in Penshurst Place in Kent or in Baynard’s Castle, London (the Sidney family’s London headquarters). Robert Sidney was the younger brother of Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Robert Sidney was also a poet. He was appointed Governor of Flushing, the Netherlands, in 1588, where his wife and daughter Mary accompanied him. A brother, William, was born there. When she couldn’t accompany her parents, Mary was in the household of the Countess of Pembroke for much of her childhood.

Out of eleven pregnancies, Lord and Lady Leicester had six surviving children including Mary, and seemed to have an affectionate family unit. When at home together, the children had a tutor, who apparently gave the children a good education. When staying in the household of her aunt, the Countess of Pembroke, Mary shared her cousins’ tutor. She was known to have talent for writing, playing the virginals and dancing. In 1602, Mary danced at court, before Queen Elizabeth, whose reign would end at her death the next year.

When James I succeeded in 1603, he appointed Lord Leicester as Lord Chamberlain of Queen Anne’s household. His increased status put Mary, now about fifteen or sixteen years old, in a position to attend court as one of Queen Anne’s attendants. Mary was married in 1604, at about age seventeen to Sir Robert Wroth, who at about age twenty-seven, was about ten years older. He was a wealthy landowner and one of the king’s many hunting companions. He had been knighted in 1603. In 1613, he was chosen to be sheriff of Essex.

There are suggestions that the couple was unhappy, possibly an arranged or forced marriage. There were rumours of incompatibility early on. There are also suggestions that he was a profligate spender and womaniser. Lord Wroth inherited Loughton House and Durrants in Essex from his father c. 1605-1606. (Loughton House was a family home, and Durrants a hunting lodge.) Lady Wroth continued to attend court after her marriage, although she was not a member of the Queen’s household, and acted at Whitehall in one of Ben Jonson’s masques, The Masque of Blackness” on Twelfth Night 1605. This introduced her into literary society.

Lord and Lady Wroth had one child, a son named James, born in February 1613 or 1614, after about ten years of marriage, suggesting a possible rapprochement. Lord Wroth died March 14, 1614. She was left a widow with a very young child, a jointure of 1200 pounds per year (about $320,220.00 USD today), and debts totaling 23,000 pounds (approximately $6,138,000.00 USD today). Although there were three trustees involved, it appears she managed her estates herself, and wasn’t very good at it. She lived primarily at Loughton House, a widow the last forty years of her life. Sadly, little James died in July 1616, which resulted in Lady Wroth’s losing many of her rights as widow regarding her late husband’s estates.

As with many court ladies, there were rumours about Lady Wroth. One was a rumoured affair with Ben Jonson, for which there seems to be no evidence, so that is likely untrue. (He dedicated his play The Alchemist to her in 1612. He also wrote a sonnet, “A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, The Lady Mary Wroth,” which was not published until after his death, and was known to seek and receive patronage from Lady Wroth’s mother as well as Lady Wroth.) It is worth noting that Jonson was not the only poet to write poetry to her.

Lady Wroth did have an affair with her cousin, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (1580-1630). He was her first cousin (son of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke). When children, Lady Wroth and her cousin were close, and there is an indication that they may have been more than friends. Lord Pembroke was a wealthy and powerful courtier (even though he was not a favourite of King James). He was also a poet in his own right-his poems were collected and published by John Donne.

It is not known when Mary and William became lovers (there is an implication that the affair began while her husband was still living). Whenever it started, their affair lasted until the mid-1620’s. Lady Wroth had two children by William: a son William who died in the 1640s fighting as a Royalist in the English civil war, and a daughter Katherine who survived her mother. Lord Herbert never acknowledged these children as his, and there are no records of these children in the Wroth family records.

Lady Wroth was an accomplished writer-her poetry was noticed as early as 1613. She predated Aphra Behn (c. 1640-c. 1689), who wrote plays, poetry, and other works during the Restoration. (It has been suggested that Lady Wroth may have been Behn’s grandmother through her daughter Katherine, who married twice. I am unable to address this as so little is known of Aphra Behn’s personal history and much is contradictory.) Lady Wroth’s writings addressed themes of love, faithfulness, loyalty, and questions of power and gender.

Around 1617-1619, Lady Wroth wrote a play, a romance titled “Love’s Victory” and gave a bound, hand-written copy to Lord Pembroke before their affair ended.* The play was not published. It was, however, performed at Penshurst in 2008, the first professional performance.

Her most famous work is “The Countess of Montgomerie’s Urania” for which she was issued a licence to publish July 13, 1621. A lengthy novels, this was her first and only published work and was based extensively on the lives of her family and fellow courtiers, including her affair with the Earl of Pembroke. Considered a forerunner of the modern novel, it also created a huge scandal.*  “Mad Madge”, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (an author herself) made fun of it. Edward Denny, the Baron of Witham accused Lady Wroth of slander-he was so angry about it, he wrote scurrilous verses about her in 1623. She ended up withdrawing it from sale by December of 1621. Because of this work, Lady Wroth is considered the first English woman novelist.

The title page of Lady Mary Wroth's The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania 1621


Lady Wroth wrote a sequel to Urania, which hinted at her affair with the Earl of Pembroke and the fact that he fathered her children, but did not publish it. (It was published in 1999, and the manuscript is held at the Newberry Library in Chicago.) 

Lady Wroth owned a translation of Xenon’s CYROPAEDIA (biography of the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great) which was published in 1632. She also wrote poetry. In “The Countess of Montgomerie’s Urania”, the heroine of her novel wrote sonnets to the hero. Lady Wroth also wrote other poetry. Considered to be one of the first women to write a sonnet sequence, over 200 of her poems are known, and there may be others not yet discovered.

After her affair with the Earl of Pembroke ended, Lady Wroth no longer attended court, apparently going into seclusion. She was heavily in debt, and received help more than once from the king to stave off creditors. Another blow came when William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke died in 1630. She died in March of 1651 (or 1653), at age 53. After her death, some of her possessions, including some writings came into her daughter's hands and were preserved.*. Her primary home, Loughton House, which included her library, burned down in the 1800s.

*See "The Secret Codes of Lady Wroth, The First Female Novelist" by V.M. Braganza.  

Sources for Lady Mary Wroth, Author include:

Waller, Gary. THE SIDNEY FAMILY ROMANCE Mary Wroth, William Herbert, and the Early Modern Construction of Gender. 1993: Wayne State University Press, Detroit.

Early Modern Women Research Network. “Mary Wroth, Biography.” here

Goucher College online. “Lady Mary Wroth, The Countess of Montgomerie’s Urania (including “Pamphilia to Amphialanthus”) (1621).” (No author or post date.) here “Lady Mary Wroth (1587? -1651?)” by John Butler and Anniina Jokinen. (No post date.) here

Orlando Project, Cambridge University. “Lady Mary Wroth Entry.” Overview. here

Smithsonian Magazine. “The Secret Codes of Lady Wroth, the First Female English Novelist,” by V. M. Braganza, September 2021. [Print version title: “Decoding Lady Wroth”], here

The Monstrous Regiment of Women blog. “Mary Sidney Wroth, Pamphielia, Poetry, and Prose,” posted on October 18, 2015 by Sharon L. Jansen. here

The Sidney Homepage online. Biography. “Lady Mary Wroth,” by Nandini Das. (No post date.) here

University of Saskatchewan, Digital Research Center. “Lady Mary Wroth, Biographical Introduction.” (No author shown.) Revised June 8, 1998, contact person Ron Cooley, Dept. of English. here DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, 1885-1900. “Wroth, Mary” by Sidney Lee. here

Lady Mary Wroth (Public domain) here
The Countess of Montgomerie's Urania Title Page (1621) (Creative Commons) here

An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. Lauren has a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. She has presented several programs for the Palm Beaches Region of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and recently for the Jane Austen Fest in Mt. Dora, FL. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her most recent novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and more. She is currently working on a non-fiction book. For more information, visit her website at here , her Facebook page here and her Amazon page at here.