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Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of Spitalfields

April 20, 2018
by the gentle author

Poet Niall McDevitt writes about Emilia Bassano Lanier, who was a long-term resident of Spital Sq and believed by many to be the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets. On Sunday 22nd & 29th April at 2pm, Niall leads a walk starting at Tower Hill visiting the locations of Emilia’s life and telling her story. Click here to book.

Portrait miniature by Nicholas Hillard

Emilia Bassano Lanier is one of the most distinguished people to be born in Spitalfields, yet her reputation only grew four centuries years after her death.

She was born in Spital Sq early in 1569 and baptised at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate on 27th January. Her family situation was highly unusual. Technically, Emilia was a bastard since her father Baptista Bassano was not married to her mother Margaret Johnson although they lived together as a couple. Baptista was a racial outsider, a Sephardic Jew from the Veneto region of Italy with family connections to Venice and the small town of Bassano del Grappa. As Jews had no legal status in England at that time, he should not even have been there officially.

Yet he was not alone. There were growing numbers of Bassanos in London. Henry VIII invited six Bassano brothers over to London as court musicians. They were a prodigious musical family who doubled up as fine instrument makers. Perhaps the brothers explained their reservations about their racial origin to Henry VIII’s negotiators and were told not to worry. Were they crypto-Jews, known as ‘Marranos’ then? It is not known for certain whether they practised Judaism, though it is not unlikely. In those days, a little Protestant window-dressing was sufficient to cover up secularism or any other illicit belief.

The Anglo-Italian, Anglo-Jewish Emilia grew up in an artistic and courtly milieu. Her father and uncles played in the royal palaces such as Greenwich and big houses such as Baynards Castle, as well as the burgeoning inn-yard theatres such as The Cross Keys in Gracechurch St. Interestingly, while most of the extended Bassano family lived in a mansion on Mark Lane, Emilia’s father Baptista lived separately in a row of three properties on Spital Sq, close to the site of the former church of St Mary Spital. There he died in 1576 – the same year James Burbage’s Theatre was constructed – and was buried at St Botolph’s Bishopsgate.

Emilia’s status as minor gentry meant she was familiar with aristocracy if not quite of it. At six, she went to live in the London home of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent, possibly the original Willoughby House in the Barbican. She was fortunate to find herself in a Protestant humanist circle that prized education for women and she was brilliantly tutored. The musical talent that ran in her family was enriched by literary and philosophical learning. She became a musician and writer, although debarred by her gender from any professional status.

Yet despite the obstacles, Emilia became the first woman in England to publish a collection of her own poetry. Her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) is a profoundly Christian poem told from a feminist point of view two centuries before Mary Wollstonecraft who – coincidentally – was also born in Spitalfields. Note Emilia’s daring philosemitic title: ‘Hail God, King of the Jews.’ But her radical epic was ignored and forgotten and she died in 1645 at the great age of seventy-six, uncelebrated, and was buried at St James Clerkenwell.

It is thanks to the London diarist Simon Forman – also healer, astrologer and magician – that Emilia is remembered. He had many clients from all walks of Elizabethan-Jacobean society and his casebooks are full of detailed notes. In the last century, A.L. Rowse found information about Emilia among a mass of Forman’s unpublished papers.

During consultations, Emilia revealed to Forman that she had become the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain – patron of Shakespeare’s troupe, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men – when she was eighteen and he was sixty-three. Falling pregnant by him in 1592, she was forced to marry her cousin Alphonse Lanier, another musician, yet the affair with Carey continued until his death in 1596. Carey showered her with gifts and annuities which her aggrieved husband confiscated. Additionally, Forman tells of his own frustrated affair with Emilia who permitted every intimacy except penetration. This angered Forman and in his diary he accused her of sexual magic, ‘raising incuba’ and ‘villainy.’ He portrays Emilia as a dark, scheming psychopathic figure of who inspires fear and, from 1600, she ceases to feature in his writings.

But Emilia Bassano Lanier may have had another advocate. She is arguably the subject of one of the most celebrated sequences of poetry in literature, Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Sonnets 127-154 concern not so much a lady who is dark but a ‘mistress’ who is ‘black’. This does not imply an Afro-Carribean origin but someone dark-haired, dark-eyed, and ‘dun’ of complexion, such as an Italian Sephardic Jewess. The sonnets are a portrait in verse of someone remarkably similar in character and appearance to the woman that Forman desribes. The arc of both narratives is also similar – a sexually charged affair that ends in an atmosphere of toxic recrimination. Consequently, A.L. Rowse declared Emilia Lanier to be Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ in the seventies and a host of proponents and opponents have followed ever since.

For Emilia Bassano Lanier, oblivion is over. She now has a place in the canon of English literature as an esteemed poet and feminist in her own right, as well as potentially being the female subject of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Emilia is becoming more and more present.



My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.


Portrait miniature by Nicholas Hilliard believed to be William Shakespeare

Sixteenth century drawing of St Mary Spital as Emilia Bassano Lanier may have known it with gabled wooden houses lining Bishopsgate

Title page of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum by Emilia Basson Lanier, 1611, the first collection of poetry published by a woman in England

Simon Forman, Diarist, Healer, Astrologer and Magician c.1611

Spital Sq, home of Emilia Lanier who may have been the inspiration for the ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets

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Last Of The Crooners At The Palm Tree

April 19, 2018
by the gentle author

This Saturday 21st April promises to be a big night at The Palm Tree in Mile End. Accompanying the opening of an exhibition of portraits of celebrated musicians by photographer Tom Oldham is the release of limited edition of five hundred copies of The Last of The Crooners, a record of  live recordings of the performers (including a portfolio of portraits) for £20 available exclusively on a first-come-first-served basis at the pub. The exhibition opens at 7pm and the music starts at 9pm.

“Jack Honeyborne on keys, Alan Jackson on drum and Izzy on bass, playing a more freeform instrumental track prior to the singer stepping up.”

Jack Honeyborne“Jack used to perform with Vera Lynn and maintains the heyday for modern music in this country was before the rot set in, in the fifties.”

Charlie Willis - “Charismatic singer Charlie used to sing in down in the tube stations during the Second World War. They’d ask him to get up and give us a song, which is how he started performing.”

Alan Jackson - “The other rock solid element of the Palm Tree Trio rhythm section is Alan Jackson on drums. Cheeky, but an incredible talent at beating a jazz pattern out of the modest cocktail kit that comprises the absolute minimum of luxuries for a drummer.”

Izzy - “Izzy play bass. He’s the backbone of a rock solid rhythm section and one third of the Palm Tree Trio.”

Andy Gangadeen“a drummer of world reknown, having played with greats such as Massive Attack, Jeff Beck and a huge variety of artists going back thirty years. He happily sits in at the Palm Tree and loves the gig for its challenges and the free range creativity it demands.”

Helen Keating - “Helen Keating is so glamorous it’s almost impossible to believe she’s almost eighty-one, dare I say it. She is a true performer and reglaulary played the last Sunday of every month for next twenty-five years before retiring a few months back. She also performed in Minder and the Sweeney back in the day.”

Bruce - “Bruce is a pianist at the Palm Tree and guests at the old piano occasionally. He plays beautifully and always makes a welcome return to the little stage.”

Shireen Francis - “Shireen has a beauty in her voice that brings so much to these old songs, everytime. A proper journeyman singer, she regularly performs all over London but still gives every show her all. A delight to see if you’re every in.”

Colin Anthony - “Colin Anthony is a guest singer and regularly travels to Bow to guest on the mic at The Palm Tree. He adds a stylish air of panache to the proceedings, as well as performing with a voice truly reminiscent of Tony Bennett.”

Kerrie Barrett - “daughter of Alf & Val, landlord & landlady at the Palm Tree. She’s also the owner of a great set of vocal chords and often graces the stage at the weekend to sing a jazz standard or two, which everyone looks forward to.

“generations of talent have stepped onto the stage at the Palm Tree”

Photographs copyright © Tom Oldham

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At The Caslon Foundry In Chiswell St

April 18, 2018
by the gentle author

22/23 Chiswell St

Chiswell St is a canyon lined with glass and steel buildings leading from Moorgate to the Barbican today, yet once this was the centre of printing in the City of London. The foundry established by William Caslon in 1737, Britain’s most celebrated type designer, stood here until 1937. For more than two centuries, Caslon was the default typeface for printing in the English language and when the Americans wanted to make their Declaration of Independence and publish their Constitution, they imported type from the Caslon Foundry in Chiswell St to do it.

These historic photographs from St Bride Printing Library, taken in 1902 upon the occasion of the opening of the new Caslon factory in Hackney Wick, record both the final decades of the unchanged work of traditional type-founding, as well as the mechanisation of the process that would eventually lead to the industry being swept away by the end of the century.

22/23 Chiswell St with Caslon’s delivery van outside the foundry

The Directors’ Room with portraits of William Caslon and Elizabeth Caslon

Sydney Caslon Smith in his office

Clerks’ office, 15th November 1902. A woman sits at her typewriter in the centre of the office.

Type store with fonts being made up in packets by women and boys working by candlelight

Another view of the type store with women making up packets of fonts

Another view of the type store

Another part of the type store

In the type store

A boy makes up a packet of fonts in the type store

Room of printers’ supplies including type cases, forme trolleys and electro cabinets

Another view of the printers’ supplies store

Printing office on an upper floor with pages of type specimens being set and printed on Albion and Imperial handpresses.

Packing department with crates labelled GER, GWR, LNWR, CALCUTTA, BOMBAY, and SYDNEY

New Caslon Letter Foundry at Rothbury Rd, Hackney Wick, 1902

Harold Arthur Caslon Smith at his rolltop desk in Hackney Wick with type specimens from 1780 on the wall, Friday 7th November, 1902

Machine shop with plane, lathes and overhead belting

Gas engines and man with oil can

Lathes in the Machine Shop

Hand forging in the Machine Shop

Another view of lathes in the Machine Shop

Type store with fonts being made up into packets

Type matrix and mould store

Metal store with boy hauling pigs upon a trolley

Casting Shop, with women breaking off excess metal and rubbing the type at the window

Another view of the Casting Shop.

Another view of the Casting Shop

Founting Shop, with women breaking up the type and a man dressing the type

Casting metal furniture

Boys at work in the Brass Rule Shop

Boys making packets of fonts in the Despatch Shop, with delivery van waiting outside the door

Machine shop on the top floor with a fly-press in the bottom left

Woodwork Shop

Brass Rule Shop, hand-planing the rules

Caretaker’s cottage with caretaker’s wife and the factory cat

Photographs courtesy St Bride Printing Library

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A Chance To Visit The Old London Hospital

April 17, 2018
by the gentle author

Inhabited only by the lonely ghost of Joseph Merrick, the former Royal London Hospital building in Whitechapel sits in limbo awaiting its new purpose as Town Hall for the Borough of Tower Hamlets.

Yet before the redevelopment begins there is a chance to take a guided tour of the hospital estate on Saturday 28th April, courtesy of the Survey of London whose volume on the buildings of Whitechapel will be published next year. Click here to book.

Contributing Photographer Phil Maxwell was granted privileged access to record the empty hospital. His new film Pensioners United, created in collaboration with Hazuan Hashim, has its premiere at the East End Film Festival on Friday 27th April. Click here to book.

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

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At The House Mill

April 16, 2018
by the gentle author

The House Mill of 1776 at Bromley by Bow is the largest tidal mill in the world and the only remaining mill at Three Mill Island on the River Lea, an artificial island created in ancient times – like Venice – by driving thousands of wooden stakes into the mud, for the purpose of harnessing the powerful tidal surge of the Thames. Daniel Bisson, a Huguenot, built the House Mill for grinding grain to bake bread and the manufacture of gin to supply London, and it functioned here until the end of World War II, before falling into disrepair.

Twenty-five years ago, William Hill saw the derelict mill from the train and came to explore. He became one of a group of committed volunteers who have been responsible for overseeing the magnificent restoration programme of recent years, and it was he who showed me round. We spent a couple of hours, climbing up and down ladders, and exploring every corner of the huge old mill, including those parts not open to visitors – enabling me to create this photographic record.

Initials of Daniel Bisson, builder of the mill, and his wife Sarah

View down the River Lea

Some of the beams at House Mill are one hundred foot long and may be recycled ships’ timbers

Nineteenth century wooden patterns for casting the machinery of the mill

Stretcher frames from World War I

Hopper where the grain was channelled down to the mill stones

The oasthouses and the clock mill

The Miller’s staircase


Pegs where the millers hung their coats

Mill worker in the nineteen thirties

The same spot today

Iron frames for the nineteenth century mill wheels

The Clockmill

Visit The House Mill, Three Mill Lane, Bromley by Bow, London E3 3DU

Volunteers are always required to act as stewards, guides and to run the cafe at the House Mill. If you would like to help, please contact