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Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Of Spitalfields

November 9, 2020
by the gentle author

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Today, 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.


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 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 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

You may also like to read about

At Shakespeare’s First Theatre

At The Curtain Theatre

In Search Of Shakespeare’s London

The Door to Shakespeare’s London

Shakespearian Actors in Shoreditch

Shakespeare in Spitalfields

Shakespeare’s Younger Brother, Edmond

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Pence permalink
    November 9, 2020

    What a life she led. Thank you for this

  2. Sophie Stanes permalink
    November 9, 2020

    Perhaps your readers will recall the hugely successful Globe Theatre and West End transfer of Emilia last year. This brought Emilia Bassano’s life story to a whole new generation and audience.

  3. November 9, 2020

    How interesting, and what a stunning woman. Thank you.

  4. Mary permalink
    November 9, 2020

    What a fascinating woman and she clearly had links to William Shakespeare. I am intrigued by the female hand that he is holding in the miniature. Both portraits of her are beautiful, particularly the Hilliard, although the sonnet seems less than complimentary.

  5. Howard Hilliard permalink
    November 9, 2020

    Wonderful to see a distant relative’s work shown here. Always enjoy your posts. Thanks, HH

  6. David Green permalink
    November 9, 2020

    Where is she buried?

  7. November 9, 2020

    Perhaps we will see a future post that goes into detail about Hilliard? His portrait of Elizabeth I is my all-time favorite — quite a statement!?

    Thanks for another fascinating post, as ever.

  8. Pamela Traves permalink
    November 10, 2020

    Lovely Pictures and Paintings!! Thank You So Much!!!????????

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