Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of Crooms Hill
No, really. Well, maybe. Well, okay, probably not. But hey – it can’t be less likely than last week when I (highly convincingly, IMHO) argued that the Bayeux Tapestry was actually woven in Greenwich…
It started when I was reading a dense little book from 1977, The Story of Greenwich, by C M Dawson:
“Shakespeare was here (his Dark Lady of the Sonnets may have resided in Crooms Hill) and Marlow was killed in a tavern brawl…”
But yes, he does just leave it at that. No explanation about our own local Dark Lady of the Sonnets, nothing.
Now, of course the true identity of the Dark Lady has been a mystery for centuries. It’s even possible that – heavens – Shakespeare actually made her up. He was quite well known for doing that. But just for fun, let’s run with her being real. I sniffed A Quest.
There are, apparently, three front-runners for the position.
I rather hoped that the black prostitute Luce Morgan might be one of ours – she would fit in with the whole Greenwich Birdimage. But no. Better known as the “Abbess of Clerkenwell”, it wasn’t her. Neither was it Mary Fitton, a maid of honour at court. But the third candidate…
Emelia Bassano was of Venetian/Jewish/Moroccan origin, but she was English, born after her musician father came over to play at court. To be honest, there’s not much known about her early life (though she used to visit an astrologer, Simon Forman, on a regular basis and its his professional notes that give us what little we have) but she was quite a character – and, considering that she was the first female professional poet in England (her collection of frankly proto-feminist works, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum was published in 1611) it’s slightly depressing to think that she’s better known for having had a long-term affair with the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Seems that despite a minor age difference (he was forty five years older than her) her time was much happier with Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon than at any other. Some might attribute that to the fact that he ‘gave her monie and jewels’ but being a romantic Phantom, I like to think it was true love and companionship. She was no common strumpet – she had learned Latin and been given a humanist education when her father died and she was brought up by a Lady Bertie, who was convinced that girls should have the same level of education as boys – a bit of a radical idea in Elizabethan England.
Things got a bit embarrassing, though, when she became pregnant by Carey in 1592. Everyone held their collective breath while they tried to work out how to tell the Queen, who, somewhat inconveniently, happened to be Henry’s first cousin. They decided the best thing all round was to marry Emelia off to Hugenot musician Alphonso Lanier, who was the queen’s flautist.
Apparently they did pretty well – aquiring a lot of property in East Greenwich (remember in those days, ‘East’ Greenwich was what we would now call Central Greenwich) though I can’t find any record of them living at Crooms Hill. Their main house was said to have had a theatre in it – a precusor to home cinemas, I guess.
I’ll get onto the Lanier family another day – they warrant a post of their own, and today’s is about the Dark Lady. But despite the outward appearance of gentility between the couple, it doesn’t sound as though it was all sweetness and light. When Henry Carey died, a rather telling note by her faithful astrologer hints at why she became a professional poet:
“… a nobleman that is ded hath loved her well & kept her and did maintain her longe but her husband hath delte hardly with her and spent and consumed her goods and she is nowe…in debt”
At the age of 42, Lanierpublished her volume of poetry. The main thrust, sometimes known as “Eve’s Apology”, is a strange satire of Christ’s life from the point of view of the loyal women who surrounded him, not least Pilate’s wife who tried to persuade him not to wash his hands. She points out that everyone who betrayed Christ was male. Bassano also argues that Adam should shoulder most Original Sin because he was stronger than Eve, and therefore should have been able to resist temptation better than her. Pretty cool stuff for 1611, don’t you think?
Sadly poetry rarely brings riches and when her husband died she had to set up a school to support herself. I don’t know where it was – perhaps she was still in Greenwich – but she got arrested twice for not paying her rent and the school failed. Still – she lived to a ripe old age – 76. She’s buried in Clerkenwell.
But what about all this Dark Lady business? Well, it would seem that her skin – given her Venetian/Moroccan roots – was quite dark, and that she would have rubbed shoulders with Shakespeare. She was also quite striking to look at and her musical background is a clue too. A descendant of hers, Peter Bassano is utterly convinced of the link and it is very attractive to think that England’s first declared female poet inspired England’s greatest poet. For me, the jury’s out. Even pointing out that there’s an Emilia in Othello and a Bassan(i)o in The Merchant of Venice feels a bit like clutching at straws. But if there was indeed a real Dark Lady, I can’t see why on earth she shouldn’t be One of Our Own.
BTW no one knows what she looked like, but some people reckon the miniature above by Nicholas Hilliard is of her…
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