Aemilia Lanyer was the daughter of Baptista Basano and Margaret Johnson, his common-law wife. Nothing is known about Aemilia's mother. Margaret may have been the aunt of Robert Johnson, a musician of Shakespeare's company, later attached to the court of Charles I (Boyd McBride 1). Baptista Bassano came to England from Venice with his four brothers; all became musicians at the English court. Baptista's first appearance as a musician for the court was at the coronation of Edward VI in 1547 (Greer et al., 44). Aemilia Basano was apparently born while her father was in the King's service. She was christened at St. Botolph, Bishopsgate on January 27, 1569. Lanyer's father died when she was seven. His will indicates that she had at least one sister, Angela, four years her junior. Her father's death, however, did not halt Aemilia's access to Elizabethan court circles. By the time of her mother's death in 1587, the eighteen-year-old Aemilia had found favour at court. The Queen's Lord Chamberlain, a man forty-five years older than Aemilia, chose her to be his mistress. Lord Hunsdon and Aemilia Bassano enjoyed the arrangement for a number of years, until she became pregnant. Aemilia "apparently resented being married off to Alphonso Lanyer, a court musician" (Woods 213). The son by Lord Hunsdon, Henry, was born in 1593, soon after her marriage to Lanyer. Odillya, her daughter by Alphonso, was born in 1598, but died ten months later.
Much of what information is available on Lanyer's life comes from the records of Simon Forman, an astrologer whom she consulted during 1597. Forman's diary indicates that Lanyer was concerned about promotion to knighthood for her husband, who was serving as a soldier at the time (Woods 213). Forman also documents Lanyer's problem with miscarriages, as well as her missing the enjoyment of Queen Elizabeth's court. In his notes, Forman claims that Lanyer's need for his advice, coupled with her financial difficulties, led her to allow him some sort of familiarity. The implication that Forman was involved with Lanyer sexually is exaggerated, according to Woods and Greer, although he undoubtedly had that aim. Woods also refutes claim of historian A. L. Rowse that Lanyer was William Shakespeare's "dark lady," arguing that the notion comes from a misreading of Forman's diaries. No documentary evidence indicates Shakespeare and Lanyer knew one another.
Aemilia Lanyer published her only known volume of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail God, King of the Jews), in 1611. The book is remarkable both because women poets rarely published in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and because of its groundbreaking women's perspective on religious issues. As Lewalski says, it "is a vigorous apologia for women's equality or superiority to men in spiritual and moral matters" (203). Lanyer was seeking support through patronage with the publication of the work, specifically female patronage. There is some suggestion "that the nine dedications to the volume may have been written in expectation of the usual 2 [pounds] per dedication" (Greer 45). The desired funding was not forthcoming.
Lanyer's financial situation worsened after the death of her husband, in 1613. Alphonso Lanyer had received a hay-and-grain patent from King James in 1604, which entitled him to "six pence for every load of hay and three pence for every load of straw brought into London and Westminster" (Boyd McBride 1). Aemilia made over the grant to her brother-in-law, Innocent, apparently with an understanding of receiving partial proceeds herself. She later fought in court for her share of the income from the grant, with minimal success (Woods 214). Lanyer's financial problems were compounded by the fact that her son, Henry, predeceased her, leaving her with two grandchildren to raise. For a time, Lanyer ran a school for "noblemen and gentlemen's children"(Greer 45), but legal disputes with the landlord resulted in her being arrested on several occasions. As Boyd McBride says, an arrest would constitute "a scene not apt to inspire confidence among the parents of one's students"(3), and Aemilia gave up the endeavour. Lanyer's monetary difficulties continued until her death, at age seventy-six.
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University of Saskatchewan
Department of English
Revised June 8, 1998