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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13 Comments to “Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of Crooms Hill”

  1. OldChina says:

    Fascinating. The best Phantom posts are the ones that then set me off googling for an hour afterwards to discover more (doing it now).

    By the by, Crooms Hill is one of my favourite roads in Greenwich. There’s one spot in particular that has what looks like a “muse” (?) over looking the park that I’ll often go out of my way to walk past as I like it so much.

    I’ll attempt a link now-,-4.064941&sspn=18.388688,39.155273&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=London+SE10,+United+Kingdom&layer=c&cbll=51.477616,-0.006046&panoid=RRQ0J7youRsQ4NLhdG7l8w&cbp=12,230.99,,0,-11.18&ll=51.477616,-0.006046&spn=0.004263,0.027294&z=16

  2. Ah yes, Robert Hooke’s summerhouse. Have I ever posted about that? No? How remiss. I’ll do so asap.


  3. Paul says:

    Yes, the summer house is beautiful. Recent research has shown how it was Hooke, not Wren, who designed many of the most beautiful city churches, especially St Paul’s Benet Wharf, a tiny & beautiful jewel of a church. The summer house is reminiscent of the church – shame it’s owned by a hedgefund vampire who doesn’t use it and stores furniture in there. Pearls before swine and all that.

    I love this post, it adds to all the overblown claims I can make about Greenwich to visitors, based on rigorous sources like Shakespeare In Love.

    another time, Phantom, please tell us whereabouts on CHurch Street Samuel Johnson lived. If you don’t know, just make something up…

  4. OldChina says:

    Robert Hooke built the Summerhouse? I had no idea it was so old. It’s beautiful. It does seem to be used for storing rubbish at the moment which is a shame as it would make a lovely… Summerhouse.

    Great to learn about the Dark Lady, whoever she was. I thought I remembered reading somewhere that Shakespeare’s Lady of the Sonnets may well have been male, as it’s written about someone who performed in his plays, and all the players were male, back in those days. Even the women.

  5. I can’t believe I haven’t written about the Grange. Okay – it’s going on the list. God the list is long these days. And to think that I once thought I’d run out of material…

  6. Ebspig says:

    Didn’t Samuel Johnson lodge with the great bookseller and printer Henry Richardson (where Pizza Express is now – some of the post-bomb photos show the bookshop destroyed)? As a child I used to believe he’d met Mrs Thrale across the road (the off-licence on the corner of Nelson Road and Gr Church Street was Carlos and Thrale) and of course Fanny Burney was just up the road. Great place, Greenwich, then and now.

  7. Paul says:

    hmmm… wonderful story. According to Boswell he lived near a tavern called The Golden Hart.

  8. Ebspig says:

    Yep, just have to work out where the Golden Hart was. Blessed with a lot of boozers, Greenwich, then and now.

  9. Mary says:

    But – I note you hadn’t mentioned the second part of the note, about Marlowe. I thought research indicated Marlowe was killed by three secret service agents in a private house…………. don’t know if that impacts on the dark lady.
    And – as I keep pointing out ‘property in East Greenwich’ seems to mean most of the world – and in this context, can anyone throw any light on the two chunks of Brixton marked on old maps as ‘part of East Greenwich”

  10. Wow. Have gone past that summerhouse so many times, and it’s good to know that it’s attributed to Hooke. If you haven’t already, read Lisa Jardine’s superb biography of Hooke — she suggests he did many of the City churches (including St Martin’s Ludgate) that are normally said to be Wren churches. And he laid out the City after the fire — every property boundary to this day is the line he drew after 1666. And that’s all apart from his scientific work — the Royal Society, Hooke’s law and all that.

  11. Pedro says:

    It is a good book. Check out the Adrian TInniswoode one that predated hers, too, although Jardine is the better writer, his biog is excellent, perhaps better on the science. Sadly the portrait she discovered turned out not to be him.

    Wren was a good delegator – the towers at St Vedast and, probably his most famous, St Bride’s were drawn, and probably designed, by “our” own Nicholas Hawksmoor.

  12. Oberon says:

    Amela Bassano Lanier has graduated from dark lady candidate to author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. Why would she write sonnets to herself? “Why not?” asks the proponent of this tendentious new theory, which can’t even marshal convincing evidence she was Jewish:

  13. [...] homes than forking out the cash to build her own. It was also home to the Lanier family (see Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of Crooms Hill but I promise to get on to the rest of the family some day, they really warrant their own post). [...]