Aemilia Lanyer (alternatively, Emilia Lanier) was baptized as Emilia Bassano in Bishopsgate, London on January 27, 1569. Her parents, Baptista Bassano and Margaret Johnson, were Italian (and possibly Jewish) by heritage and court musicians by family trade. After her father died when she was 7 years old, Susan Bertie, Countess Dowager of Kent, brought up Aemilia in her aristocratic household. Susan’s mother Catharine Bertie, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk, “directed” Susan’s education methods and was a proponent of protestant and humanist learning. Lanyer next lived with Lady Margaret Clifford, Countess Dowager of Cumberland, and her daughter Anne in their “bookish and cultivated household.” Lanyer’s poem “The Description of Cookham” celebrates an estate that Lady Margaret sometimes occupied.
Soon after her mother’s death in 1587, Lanyer became the mistress of Henry Carey – Baron Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain of Elizabeth I, and a patron of the arts. He “maintained her in luxury” until she was 23 and became pregnant with Henry’s child. She then married Alfonso Lanyer, a first cousin once removed and member of another family of court musicians. Simon Forman, an astrologer and fortune-teller who Lanyer consulted repeatedly in 1597, supplies most available information about this period of Lanyer’s life in his records.
Aemilia Lanyer published one volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, printed in 1611 by Valentine Simmes for Richard Bonian. The book includes 8 poems addressed to noble ladies who were potential patrons: Anne of Denmark (James I’s Queen), Elizabeth Stuart (their daughter), Lady Arabella Stuart, Susan Bertie (Countess Dowager of Kent), Lady Mary Sidney (Countess Dowager of Pembroke), Lady Lucy Russell (Countess of Bedford), Lady Katherine Howard (Countess of Suffolk), and Lady Anne Clifford (Countess of Dorset). These efforts to gain patronage make Lanyer the first Englishwoman to overtly attempt to become a professional poet. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum also includes a passion poem by the same title (the bulk of the text), a prose address to Lanyer’s patron Lady Margaret, Countess Dowager of Cumberland, a poem “To Virtuous Ladies in General,” prose epistles “To the Virtuous Reader” and “To the Doubtful Reader,” and the first published country house poem “The Description of Cookham.” Lanyer’s book was the first substantial volume of original poems published by an Englishwoman.
Lanyer’s finances had long depended on others, and she complained of “hard fortune,” which only increased when her husband Alfonso died in 1613. He had spent her dowry trying to gain patronage. In 1617, she established a school to educate children of the nobility in St Giles-in-the-Fields. Her attempt was unsuccessful because she was arrested twice by 1619 regarding disputes over the rent price with her landlord Edward Smith. In 1637, the privy council granted her partial rights to Alfonso’s patent for weighing hay and straw. Alfonso had received patent rights in 1612, but Aemilia had surrendered them to his brother Innocent Lanyer upon his death. How much money, if any, she gained from the ruling is unclear, but at the time of her death she was a “pensioner,” receiving some form of income. Aemilia Lanyer was buried in Clerkenwell, London on April 3, 1645. She is well-known in part due to scholars’ attempts to prove that she is the “dark lady” in William Shakespeare’s sonnets.
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