Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wroth, Mary

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WROTH, Lady MARY (fl. 1621), author of ‘Urania,’ born about 1586, was eldest daughter of Robert Sidney, first earl of Leicester [q. v.], by his first wife, Barbara, daughter of John Gamage. The great Sir Philip Sidney was her father's brother. On 27 Sept. 1604 Lady Mary married, at Penshurst, Sir Robert Wroth, eldest son of Sir Robert Wroth [q. v.] The bridegroom was about ten years his wife's senior. He had been knighted by King James a year before the marriage. On 27 Jan. 1605–6, on his father's death, he succeeded to large property in Essex, including Loughton House and the estate of Durrants in the parish of Enfield. He was a keen sportsman, and the king occasionally visited him at Durrants for hunting. In 1613 Sir Robert was chosen sheriff of Essex. In February 1613–14 Lady Mary bore him an only child, a son (James), and on 14 March following Sir Robert died at Loughton House. He was buried two days later in the church at Enfield. His will was proved on 3 June 1614.

Lady Mary was often at court after her marriage. On Twelfth-night 1604–5 she acted at Whitehall in Ben Jonson's ‘Masque of Blackness.’ She came to know Jonson and the chief poets of the day, and was soon recognised as one of the most sympathetic patronesses of contemporary literature. Ben Jonson dedicated to her, as ‘the lady most deserving her name and blood,’ his play of the ‘Alchemist,’ 1610. He also addressed to her a sonnet in his ‘Underwoods’ (No. 46) and two epigrams (103 and 105). A sonnet addressed to her by Chapman prefaced his translation of Homer's ‘Iliad’ (1614). George Wither in 1613 addressed an epigram to the Lady Mary Wroth, apostrophising her as ‘Arts Sweet Louer’ (Abuses Stript, epigram 10). In the same year (1613) William Gamage, in ‘Linsi-Woolsie: or Two Centuries of Epigrammes,’ inscribed an epigram ‘To the most famous and heroike Lady Mary Wroth’ (Brydges, Censura Literaria, v. 349).

On her husband's death in 1614 Lady Wroth, according to court gossip, was left with a jointure of 1,200l. a year, an infant son, and an estate 23,000l. in debt (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1611–18, pp. 224, 227–8). She lived chiefly at Loughton, and there her only child, James, died on 5 July 1616. In April 1619 she stayed with her father at Baynard's Castle in London. Next month she figured in the procession at Queen Anne's funeral, and the rumour spread that she was about to marry the young Earl of Oxford (Nichols, Progresses of James I, iii. 547). Margaret, widow of Sir John Hawkins the admiral, left to Lady Mary by will, dated 23 April 1619, ‘a gilt bowl, price twenty pounds’ (Notes and Queries, 8th ser. iv. 252). On 21 July 1621 the king made her a gift of deer.

Sir Robert named three trustees to administer his property, each named John Wroth (one being his uncle, a second being his brother, and a third, of London, being his cousin); but Lady Mary appears to have managed her own affairs after Sir Robert's death, with disastrous result. She was involved in an endless series of pecuniary embarrassments. In 1623 she obtained from the king an order protecting her from creditors for one year. This was constantly renewed. She wrote to secretary Conway on 3 Jan. 1623–4 that she had paid half her debts and hoped to pay all in a year; but she was too sanguine, and she was still in need of ‘protection’ in 1628 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. passim).

Meanwhile Lady Mary had sought a more interesting road to reputation. On 13 July 1621 there was licensed for publication a folio volume from her pen (Arber, Stationers' Company Register, iv. 57). Her work bore the title: ‘The Countesse of Mountgomerie's Urania. Written by the right Honourable the Lady Mary Wroath, daughter to the right Noble Robert Earl of Leicester, And Neece to the ever famous and renowned Sir Phillips Sidney, Knight, And to ye most exelēt Lady Mary Countesse of Pembroke late deceased (London, printed for John Marriott and John Grismand).’ An elaborate frontispiece was engraved by Simon Pass, and bore the date 1621. The book was called ‘The Countess of Montgomery's Urania’ in compliment to the author's friend and neighbour at Enfield, Susanna, wife of Philip Herbert, earl of Montgomery. Lady Mary's ‘Urania’ is a close imitation, in four books, of the ‘Arcadia’ of her uncle, Sir Philip Sidney. It is a fantastic story of princes and princesses disguised as shepherds and shepherdesses. The scene is laid in Greece. The tedious narrative is in prose, which is extraordinarily long-winded and awkward, but there are occasional verse eclogues and songs. At the close of the volume is a separate collection of poems, including some hundred sonnets and twenty songs. The appended collection bears the general title ‘Pamphilia to Amphilanthus.’ One section is headed ‘A Crowne of Sonnets dedicated to Love.’ In these poems Lady Mary figures to greater advantage, and discovers some lyric faculty and fluency. Two of her poems are reprinted in Mr. Bullen's ‘Lyrics and Romances’ (1890).

The book seems to have had a satiric intention, and to have reflected on the amorous adventures of some of James I's courtiers. On 15 Dec. 1621 Lady Mary wrote to Buckingham, assuring him that she never intended her book to offend any one, and that she had stopped the sale of it (Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. p. 60). On 9 March 1623 Chamberlain wrote to his friend Carleton, enclosing ‘certain bitter verses of the Lord Denny upon the Lady Mary Wroth, for that in her book of “Urania” she doth palpably and grossly play upon him and his late daughter, the Lady Mary Hay, besides many others she makes bold with; and, they say, takes great liberty, or rather licence, to traduce whom she pleases, and thinks she dances in a net.’ Chamberlain adds that he had seen an answer by Lady Mary to these rhymes, but ‘thought it not worth the writing out’ (Court and Times of James I, ii. 298; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1619–23, p. 356; cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 3rd Rep. p. 179, Hatfield MSS.).

Lady Mary survived these incidents for more than twenty years. On 4 Dec. 1640 Sir John Leeke wrote to Sir Edmund Verney: ‘I received a most courteous and kind letter from my old mistress, the Lady Mary Wroth. … She wrote me word that by my Lord of Pembroke's great mediation the king hath given her son a brave living in Ireland’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. p. 435). She had no surviving son by Sir Robert Wroth, and reference was made either to a son by a second husband, or more probably—for there is no proof that she married again—to a godson, who has not been identified.

[Hunter's Chorus Vatum Anglicanorum, Addit. MS. 24492; Visitations of Essex (Harl. Soc.), p. 331; Collins's Sydney Papers, i. 120, ii. 305, 352 (where Lady Mary is wrongly credited with a second son); Morant's Essex, i. 163; Robinson's Enfield; Notes and Queries, 7th and 8th sers. passim.]

S. L.