Lady Mary Wroth (18 October 1587 – approximately 1640) was the eldest daughter of Barbara Gamage, a Welsh heiress, and Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester, the younger brother of Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Lady Mary spent much of her childhood at the ancestral home of the Sidneys, Penshurst Place, one of the great country houses in the Elizabethan period. It was a center of literary activity and its gracious hospitality is praised in Ben Jonson’s famous poem To Penshurst. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger included Lady Mary in a group portrait of Lady Sidney and her children in 1596, which is now on display at Penshurst.
During a time when few women were educated, Lady Mary had the privilege of a formal education, which was obtained from household tutors under the guidance of her mother. With her family connections, a career at court was all but inevitable. In 1604, Lady Mary married Sir Robert Wroth and became part of Queen Anne’s intimate circle of friends, actively participating in masques and entertainments. Her poetry was circulated in manuscript and garnered much praise. Ben Jonson dedicated The Alchemist to her and praised her as “a Sydney” who incorporated the virtues of all the goddesses.
Sir Robert Wroth appears to have been a gambler, philanderer, and drunkard. Ben Jonson adds more evidence of an unhappy union, by noting that ‘my Lady Wroth is unworthily married on a Jealous husband.’ Various letters from Lady Mary to Queen Anne also refer to the financial losses her husband had sustained during their time together. Sir Robert died in 1614, leaving Lady Mary with an infant son and a debt of £23,000. She endeavored to pay off the debt herself, and suffered financial difficulties for the rest of her life. Never remarrying, Lady Mary bore two illegitimate children by her cousin, WIlliam Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke.
Lady Mary is best known for The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania (1621), an intricate prose romance patterned on Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. Lady Mary also appended 19 songs and 83 sonnets to the text, entitled Pamphilia to Amphilantus (the latter name translates to Lover-of-two) portraying Pamphilia constant in her love for the faithless Amphilanthus. Lady Mary’s poems are in the Elizabethan style of her father’s Rosis and Lysa, and her uncle’s Astrophil and Stella. The work caused a scandal, since it was rumored to satirize court intrigues. Lady Mary apologized and withdrew the book from sale. A second half of The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania remained in manuscript until it was published for the first time in 1999.
After the publication issues surrounding The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania, Wroth left King James’s court and was later abandoned by William Herbert. There is little known about Lady Mary’s later years but it is known that she continued to face major financial difficulties. Lady Mary is commemorated in Loughton by the naming of a footpath adjacent to Loughton Hall as Lady Mary’s Path.
Wroth, Mary, Lady, approximately 1586-approximately 1640. The first part of The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania. Edited by Josephine A. Roberts. Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton,1995.
Wroth, Mary, Lady, approximately 1586-approximately 1640. The second part of the Countess of Montgomery’s Urania. Edited by Josephine A. Roberts ; completed by Suzanne Gossett and Janel Mueller. Renaissance English Text Society in conjunction with Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies,1999.
Wroth, Mary, Lady, approximately 1586-approximately 1640. The poems of Lady Mary Wroth. Edited, with introduction and notes, by Josephine A. Roberts. Louisiana State University Press, 1983.
Wroth, Mary, circa 1586-circa 1640. Pamphilia to Amphilanthus in manuscript and print. Edited by Ilona Bell ; texts by Steven W. May and Ilona Bell. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2017.