Soe though in Love I fervently doe burne,
In this strange labourinth how shall I turne?

—from the “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus” sonnet sequence,
published as a separate section in the First Part of the Urania.


The Urania is not for the intellectually faint-hearted (which may explain why this writer still has not finished it, and probably never will). Nor does it lend itself to quick summaries. At the heart of it, though, is what Roberts called the “intense, ambivalent passion” of Pamphilia—queen of a country by the same name—for Amphilanthus, whose credits include King of Naples, Holy Roman Emperor, and the first to teach Pamphilia the art of poetry. There is a lot of Lady Wroth in her portrait of Pamphilia, which means “All-Loving,” and a lot of William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, in Amphilanthus, whose name translates to “the lover of two.”

Actually, Wroth created a number of more-or-less autobiographical characters in the Urania, and those “multiple self-portraits” indicate a “continuing struggle for self-representation, in which the author seeks to assert and justify her behavior in the face of a disapproving public,” wrote Roberts. They also suggest a “progressive attempt to fashion an image of a woman and author who refuses to accept defeat”—and who is willing to subvert conventions, literary and otherwise. No wonder Roberts admired her.

“Jo came to see her as a kind of exemplary woman in many ways,” says Gaines. “She was very self-sufficient, as much as a woman could be at that time. Although she came from an illustrious family, her own family disintegrated during her life, and she really had to fend for herself. I think Jo identified with the strength of Wroth in her struggles.”

Wroth’s family was as literary as it was aristocratic. In addition to her famous Uncle Philip (a soldier and statesman as well as writer), her aunt and godmother, Mary Sidney, was a poet, translator, and “the greatest patronesse of witt and learning of any lady in her time,” in the words of Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Her father, Sir Robert Sidney, was a minor poet; her cousins included Sir Walter Raleigh; and her friends and literary admirers included the likes of Ben Jonson and the Scottish writer William Drummond.

Then there was her handsome first cousin, the third Earl of Pembroke, Sir William Herbert. Pembroke (as he is usually referred to) was a literary man himself, being Jonson’s chief patron and one of those to whom Shakespeare dedicated his first folio. (In a way that was fitting, since as a statesman, Pembroke had a reputation as a Hamlet.) While he was “immoderately given up to women,” he was fascinated not so much by physical beauty as by “those advantages of the mind, as manifested by an extraordinary wit, and spirit, and knowledge, and administered great pleasure in the conversation.” Or so said his biographer, the Earl of Clarendon. But Pembroke had already had an affair with the courtier Mary Fitton (thought by some to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), who found herself pregnant with his child in 1601. He admitted to being the father but refused to marry Fitton, which prompted Queen Elizabeth to toss him into Fleet Prison for a month, then banish him from court. Only after the accession of King James I in 1603 was he allowed to return.

No one knows exactly when he and Mary, who had known each other since childhood, became lovers. Roberts raises the possibility that they may have entered into a private, de praesenti marriage with each other, but since such marriages were based on oral agreements only, they are even harder to prove now than they were when the lovers were alive. In the Second Part of the Urania, Pamphilia and Amphilanthus exchange vows in a private ceremony with five witnesses, but although the narrator states flatly that such a vow “can nott bee broken by any lawe whatsoever,” it didn’t stop both characters from marrying others—to their mutual sorrow. In an essay titled “‘The Knott Never to Bee Untide,’” Roberts noted that Wroth raised pertinent questions for women about “exclusively monogamous relationships and how widely such unions need to be acknowledged.”

Whatever Wroth’s agreement was with Pembroke, she tied her legal knot with Sir Robert Wroth in 1604. It was a bad match. One of the groom’s few literary accomplishments was that somebody dedicated a treatise on mad dogs to him, and one of Mary’s servants once described another man as “a true imitation of Sir Robert Wroth”—in that he was the “foulest Churle in the world” and “seldom cometh sober to bedd.”

Around the time that Mary Sidney became Mary Wroth, Pembroke gave in and married a wealthy heiress named Mary Talbot. But he “paid much too dear for his wife’s fortune,” his biographer noted, “by taking her person into the bargain.”

Behind the scenes lurked one Hugh Sanford, a secretary and tutor who apparently acted as an intermediary in arranging the marriages of Mary Wroth and Pembroke—and in hindering their relationship with each other. Wroth would later paint a caustic portrait of Sanford in the Urania through a fictional character who, on his deathbed, admits to Pamphilia that he had tricked Amphilanthus into believing that she had married another man, thus laying the groundwork for Amphilanthus to marry someone else. He begs her to pardon him “for the most treacherous and most deserving-torterous punishment, if hell fire, that ever man deserv’d.”

Robert Wroth did have one thing to offer: his friendship with King James, which gave the well-born Mary further entrée to the Jacobean court. In Queen Anne’s first masque—The Masque of Blackness, designed by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones—Wroth was given a plum role, joining the queen and 11 of her friends “in disguising themselves as black, Ethiopian nymphs,” as Roberts noted. That and other elaborate masques would find their fictionalized way into the Urania.

But after Robert Wroth died in 1614, and their one son died two years later, much of the estate passed to her late husband’s uncle, and Lady Mary found herself deeply in debt. She would soon have other issues to contend with. One letter-writer said he had heard “whispering of a lady that hath ben a widow above seven years, though she had lately two children at a birth. I must not name her, though she be saide to be learned and in print.”

Those love-children by Pembroke cost Wroth dearly in the Court of Royal Opinion. One of her self-modeled characters in the Urania is described as having fallen from the queen’s favor after “fourteen years unchang’d affection,” and having been forced to retire from court, “her honor not touched, but cast downe, and laid open to all mens toungs and eares, to be used as they pleas’d.”

Wroth took solace—and some revenge—in writing The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, which she dedicated to her close friend and neighbor, Susan Vere Herbert, Countess of Montgomery, an independent-minded woman who could appreciate the world Wroth created. The role of women in society was just one of the charged issues explored in the Urania, which was written “at the height of the Jacobean debates concerning the nature and status of women,” as Roberts pointed out. Wroth was keenly aware of “how little voice women had in determining their own destinies or even choosing their life partners,” and the Urania’s “vast panorama of women characters” explored some unorthodox options. “In transgressing the traditional boundaries that restricted women,” Roberts noted, “Wroth ventured into a territory that offered rich possibilities for women to reshape Jacobean culture by addressing and representing it.”

That territory—and some of the men who inhabited it—proved to be hostile. Shortly after the Urania was published in 1621, Lord Edward Denny, who apparently saw more of himself in the book than he cared to, “charged that he and his family had been maliciously slandered in the work and that his personal affairs had been thinly disguised in the episode of Seralius and his father-in-law,” Roberts noted. Denny also wrote a furious poem in revenge, titled “To Pamphilia from the father-in-law of Seralius,” which began:

Hermophradite in show, in deed a monster
As by thy words and works all men may conster
Thy wrathfull spite conceived an Idell book …

Halfway through, Denny took nasty to a new level:

Yet common oysters such as thine gape wide
And take in pearles or worse at every tide.

Denny concluded by advising Wroth to

… leave idle bookes alone
For wise and worthyer women have writte none.

Wroth responded line for line with “Railing Rimes Returned upon the Author”:

Hirmophradite in sense in Art a monster
As by your railing rimes the world may conster
Your spitefull words against a harmless booke
Shows that an ass much like the sire doth look …
Take this then now lett railing rimes alone
For wise and worthier men have written none.

Wroth may have had the last word, but she was now in very hot water. She wrote to the powerful Duke of Buckingham, assuring him that she never intended the Urania to offend anyone and that she had already stopped sales of it. In fact, she added disingenuously, the books “were solde against my minde I never purposing to have had them published.” (This ignores the fact that she had already sent him his own personal copy.) She also requested the king’s warrant to recall copies of it—though no record of such a recall exists—and claimed to have had the remaining books withdrawn from sale and “left to bee shut up.”

Whatever the extent of Wroth’s efforts, she set aside “at least one copy in which she sought to correct the major errors in the text and to revise selected passages,” Roberts pointed out. “The meticulous care which she devoted to the task is one reflection of her determined dedication to authorship, even in the face of her society’s hostile reception.”

Even though the First Part was consigned to a sort of permanent exile, Wroth still churned out some 500 manuscript pages of the Second Part. But eventually she lost interest in it—perhaps in 1626, when Pembroke assigned his estate to his seven-year-old nephew, thus dashing Wroth’s hopes that he would provide for the two children he had fathered, one of whom she had named William Herbert. At that point, the romance was probably over.

Four years later, Pembroke died suddenly, and though Wroth lived on for more than two decades, she apparently wrote little during that time. When she passed away in the early 1650s, her literary name died with her. Almost.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 10/29/04

Strange Labyrinth
By Samuel Hughes

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