Friday, August 24, 2012

Elizabethan Quote of the Day: "Affection is False!"-the Sordid Life of Mary Fitton

 "Affection? Affection is false!"-Queen Elizabeth I, 1600.
Queen Elizabeth I had long been observing the frivolous ways of one of her maids of honor, Mary Fitton, and she did not approve of what she saw. In June of 1600, Mary Fitton was leading a court masque entertainment for the wedding celebration of her fellow maid of honor, the Lady Anne Russell. Queen Elizabeth I attended the wedding festivities, and her arrival was famously captured in a painting by Robert Peake the Elder.

Queen Elizabeth Going in Procession to Blackfriars in 1601 by Robert Peake the Elder. This portrait depicts Queen Elizabeth I being carried by her maternal relatives in a litter, on her way to the wedding festivities of the Lady Anne Russell. The bride follows behind. You can read more about this painting, and the event it captures HERE.

Mary selected her mistress the Queen to take part in the dance, suggesting that Her Majesty should personify "affection" in the allegorical masque. When Elizabeth heard this, she scoffed, "Affection? Affection is false!"

Elizabeth was well aware of Fitton's reputation at court as a young woman who tempted even the most sensible of men, and she may have been giving her a public warning about the superficiality and fleeting nature of court liaisons. Also, Elizabeth's open skepticism to romance may have been informed by her own misadventures in love. In an case, Mary Fitton did not heed her mistress's warning, since she would go on to lead a life that defied societal expectations, becoming a mistress to a succession of powerful men at court.

A detail of a portrait of Mary Fitton, c. 1595, by an unknown artist. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain

Prior to the wedding of the Lady Anne Russell to Henry Somerset, later 1st Marquess of Worcester, Mary Fitton had entered the Queen's service just five years before. Mary's father, Sir Edward Fitton, had asked the Queen's kinsman and comptroller, Sir William Knollys, to recommend her and look out for her. Knollys, who was the son of Queen Elizabeth I's most beloved cousin and friend (or possible half-sister), Catherine Carey-Knollys, and her husband, Sir Francis Knollys, happily obliged. He told Sir Edward, "I will be as careful of her well doing as if I were her own true father." (Haynes, 44)

A 17th century engraving by Simon van de Passe of William Knollys, 1st Earl of Banbury. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

William Knollys's interest in his young charge was far from paternal, however. Though presently married to Dorothy Bray, Baroness Chandos, William fell in love (or lust) with Mary. William did not hide his interest in the young Mary from his peers, and he was lampooned throughout the court for his obsession (Haynes, 46).

Dorothy, the widow of Edmund Brydges, 2nd Baron Chandos, had five children of her own, but had been unable to provide her second husband with a child. Since Dorothy was more than 20 years her husband's senior, she may have been well past her child-bearing years. The 50-year-old William's infatuation with Mary may have been in part because of her youth, and thus her perceived ability to bear him a biological heir.

A portrait of a woman by John Bettes the younger, probably Dorothy Bray, Baroness Chandos c. 1578. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

When Dorothy Bray did die (in 1605) Mary still had no interest in the elderly William Fitton. He took another wife, Elizabeth Howard, the daughter of Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk. Thus, William Fitton's second wife was the granddaughter of Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, who had been executed for high treason against Queen Elizabeth I in 1572.

A portrait from 1598 of Thomas Howard in his robes for the Order of the Garter. He was later the 1st Earl of Suffolk. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Mary Fitton left court briefly due to illness in 1599, returning in time to help lead the court entertainments for Lady Anne Russell's wedding. On this occasion, Mary was not only the subject of one of Queen Elizabeth's many witty, biting retorts; she also caught sight of the man who would change her life significantly: William Herbert, the eventual 3rd Earl of Pembroke.

A detail of a portrait by Daniel Mytens of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, 1625. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

William Herbert was the son and heir of one of the leading figures in Queen Elizabeth's court, Henry Herbert, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke and his literary wife, Mary Sidney-Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

A miniature from around 1590 of Mary Sidney-Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. By Nicholas Hilliard. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Eventually following in his mother's footsteps, William would become involved in the literary world, helping to fund the publication of Shakespeare's First Folio in 1623.

The frontispiece of Shakespeare's First Folio, published in 1623. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

But as a young, unmarried man of around 20 on the precipice of inheriting his Earldom, William took up with the slightly older Mary Fitton. Given her previous experience of being the object of affection for a much older man, Mary may have been taking control of her own happiness, either consciously or sub-consciously, by having an affair with a younger man. Mary became pregnant with William Herbert's child; she also was likely carrying something else: syphilis, which it is suspected William had.

When William admitted paternity of his illegitimate child in February of 1601, but refused to answer for his indiscretion by marrying his mistress, he was thrown into Fleet Prison by the Queen. This was not surprising, since just one year ago, a writer observed of William Herbert that, "I don't find any disposition at all in this gallant young lord to marry" (Furnivall, 3). A month later, aged about 23, Mary gave birth to a son who died almost immediately (Furnivall, 3). Some modern researchers have suggested that the infant's cause of death could have been congenital syphilis.

Mary Fitton and her former lover were banished from Queen Elizabeth's court for their transgressions. Elizabeth had always punished those ladies in her service who had compromised their chastity very harshly; she likewise punished the men who impregnated her ladies if they refused to marry them.

Still as obsessed as ever, Sir William Knollys offered himself to Mary Fitton once again, even though she was in disgrace. Mary seems to have abhorred the idea of stability and defied convention at all costs, since she spurned Knollys once again to have an affair with the married Vice Admiral Richard Leveson. Leveson's wife was the daughter of Lord High Admiral Charles Howard, a cousin to the Queen. When the Vice Admiral died in 1605 at the age of 35, he left Mary 100 pounds.

A statue of Sir Richard Leveson at St. Peter's church, Wolverhampton, by Hubert Le Sueur. This statue was originally part of a larger group in the chancel, now in the Lady Chapel. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Siwells53.

Still having no interest in marriage, Fitton began a liaison with Captain William Polwhele, and bore him a son. Mary's parents had understandably had quite enough of their daughter's serial dalliances. Mary's mother, Alice Halcroft-Fitton, wrote to her other daughter, Anne, the wife of John Newdigate, in great distress:

"such shame as never had a Cheshire woman, worse now than ever. Write no more to me of her." (quoted in Haynes, 49)

Captain William Polwhele and Mary did eventually get married, but Mary was widowed by 1610. Presumably to provide for the two children she had had with her late husband, and to attach some respectability to her own name, Mary got married for the last time to another captain.

In 1890, Thomas Taylor was the first to put forth the theory that Mary Fitton may have been the mysterious "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. This theory relies heavily on the assumption that William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke was Shakespeare's "fair youth", whom Shakespeare urges to marry, though there are other candidates. William and his brother Philip made up the "incomparable pair of bretheren" to whom Shakespeare's First Folio is dedicated.

According to the Folio editors, the Herbert brothers had "prosecuted both them and their author living with so much favor". Other parts of the dedication imply Shakespeare was close to the Pembroke's. Shakespeare's sonnets are dedicated to "the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets, Mr. W.H." These initials, of course match those of William Herbert. But "W.H." could just as well be an encrypted reference to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton (DNB, 227-28).

A full-length portrait of Henry Wriothesley,  the 3rd Earl of Southampton, painted between 1594-1600. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Frank Harris also championed this theory in several of his books, as did A.L. Rowse.  Of course, since many Shakespeare scholars cannot even agree on whether Shakespeare really was Shakespeare, attempting to identify the subjects of his sonnets is almost futile. For all the evidence we have that suggests Mary Fitton was the Dark Lady, we have an equal amount of evidence that suggests she was not. One of the chief arguments against her is that the Dark Lady had to have been married to break her "bed-vow"(Furnivall, 5). Fitton was not married at the time of her affair with William Herbert.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw knew Thomas Taylor personally, and discussed his theory with him. Shaw was one of the first authors to build a strong case against Mary Fitton as the Dark Lady. Even so, he did use Fitton as the Dark Lady in a work of fiction!

While we will probably never know for sure who the Dark Lady was (and really, isn't it almost better that way?) we do know that Mary Fitton has been referenced in other Elizabethan poetry, and had at least one literary work dedicated to her. The comedic actor Will Kempe dedicated his account of his record breaking morris-dancing jig across the English countryside in 9 days to Mary; the work was entitled Nine Daises Wonder (Furnivall, 3). That being said, Kempe was so ill-acquainted with Mary that he painstakingly called her Anne Fitton in his dedication, confusing her first name with that of her married sister, Anne Newdigate! (Funivall, 3).

A woodcut of Elizabethan clown William Kempe dancing a jig across the English countryside. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Whether Mary is the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets or not, she certainly led a bold and fascinating life!


Haynes, Alan. Sex in Elizabethan England. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997. Print.

"Herbert, William, third Earl of Pembroke, 1580-1630". Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 8-23-2012. Electronic.

Furnivall, Frederick James. "Shakespeare and Mary Fitton". Cornell University Library Database.  Retrieved 8-23-2012. Electronic.
"Earl of Banbury". Leigh Rayment's Peerage pages. Retrieved 08-22-2012. Electronic


  1. Interesting post and not to nitpick but I disagree with your statement "most Shakespeare scholars cannot even agree on whether Shakespeare really was Shakespeare".

    on the contrary, the vast majority of Shakespeare scholars wholeheartedly agree that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, it is a fairly small number who are keeping the "authorship" question alive.

    As Stephen Greenblatt noted: "The idea that William Shakespeare's authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the 'authorship controversy' be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that 'intelligent design' be taught alongside evolution. In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time."

    In addition (from Wikipedia):
    In 2007, The New York Times published a survey of 265 American Shakespeare professors on the Shakespeare authorship question. To the question of whether there is good reason to question Shakespeare's authorship, 6 percent answered "yes", and 11 percent "possibly". When asked their opinion of the topic, 61 percent chose "A theory without convincing evidence" and 32 percent chose "A waste of time and classroom distraction".

  2. Thank you, Mr. Hamilton, for taking the time to read and comment on this article.
    While I proof-read my work multiple times before publishing it, you seem to have caught an error that I overlooked. Indeed, The word "most" in the sentence you took issue with should have been the word "many"; I have since made the change.
    But, since you have raised the issue of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, I will certainly take the time to respond to that.
    I do not consider myself to be an expert on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, though I do harbor a few doubts about the Bard. My opinion has come through years of attending seminars and reading literature on the literary and historical issues of accepting the traditional candidate as Shakespeare. That being said, at the end of the day I don't take a militant stance like some people do on the matter, because I don't think it really matters WHO authored the Shakespeare canon at all; the collection speaks for itself, as it is the greatest body of literature in the English speaking world.
    I am very interested in the statistics you provided, and I would be interested to know if there was a more recent survey conducted than the one in 2007. If you know of one, could you please forward that information to me as well?
    I received my undergrad Bachelor of Arts in Literature, and I believe that you may be interested to know that all my literary professors at the University level were well aware of the authorship question. In fact, the topic was discussed in every classroom at length.
    I had one teacher in high school who brought the topic into the classroom as well, although she was a bit more heavy-handed about the issue. She referred to Shakespeare as de Vere the entire year; in fact, a Shakespeare quote in my senior class yearbook had "Edward de Vere" listed as the author! I will let you draw your own conclusions from that.
    However, most professors were professional, and were careful not to reveal their personal views.
    I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

  3. I am unaware of any other surveys at this point as I generally don't spend much time on the authorship question myself. I think the work stands well enough on its own.

    I do however highly recommend taking a look at James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, which does a fairly comprehensive job of examining the rise of the authorship question and the very many potential contenders that have been put forth over the years.

    My biggest issue with the authorship question lies with a the fact that Shakespeare's own contemporaries such as Ben Jonson recognize him for his works. Given the number of sly asides and digs these contemporaries seemed to poke at each other in their own works, I find it difficult to believe that anyone else could have secretly authored the works without someone like Jonson alluding to it and revealing the secret "man behind the curtain". Throw in the Warwickshire slang and the reams of other evidence that it was Shakespeare that wrote the plays (at least the majority of them, a few are questionable), and I find that most of the evidence for deVere or the other pretenders to not be particualrly compelling.

    I freely admit though, I am not an expert on the subject....

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