Fitton, Mary (DNB00)

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FITTON, MARY (fl. 1600), maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, and alleged to be 'the dark lady' mentioned in Shakespeare's sonnets, was the fourth child and second daughter of Sir Edward Fitton the younger [see above], by his wife, Alice, daughter of Sir John Holcroft. She was baptised at Gawsworth Church, Cheshire, 24 June 1578. In 1595 Mary was one of the maids of honour to the queen. In 1600 Queen Elizabeth attended the festivities which celebrated the marriage of Anne Russell, another of her maids of honour, and Lord Herbert, son of the Earl of Worcester. Mary Fitton took a prominent part in the masque performed then by ladies of the court, and she led the dances (Sidney Papers, ii. 201, 203). Her vivacity made her popular with the young men at court, and she became the mistress of William Herbert (1580-1630) [q. v.], the young earl of Pembroke. 'During the time that the Earl of Pembroke favoured her she would put off her head-tire, and tuck up her clothes, and take a large white cloak and march as though she had been a man to meet the said earl out of the court' (State Papers, Dom. Add. vol. xxxiv.) Early in 1601 she was 'proved with child' (Cal. Carew MSS. 1601-3, p. 20). Pembroke admitted his responsibility, and both were threatened with imprisonment. The earl 'utterly renounced all marriage,' and was sent to the Fleet in March, but his mistress, who was delivered of a son, seems to have escaped punishment. The child died soon after birth. According to Sir Peter Leycester (1614-1678) Mary Fitton also bore two illegitimate daughters to Sir Richard Leveson, knight (Shakespeare, Sonnets, ed. Tyler, xxii.; Academy for 15 Dec. 1888, p. 388). There seems no doubt that she married Captain William Polwhele in 1607. But there is some likelihood of his having been her second husband, for as early as 1599 her father corresponded with Sir Robert Cecil about her marriage portion. In Sir Peter Leycester's manuscripts the name of Captain Lougher appears beside that of Captain Polwhele as one of her husbands. Recent examination of Leycester's manuscripts (in the possession of Lord de Tabley) seems to show that Mary Fitton married Polwhele before Lougher. Hence it would seem either that the marriage conjecturally assigned to 1599 did not take place, and that, when mistress of Pembroke and Leveson, Mary Fitton was unmarried; or that her first husband's name is lost, and that Lougher was a third husband. On the elaborate tomb erected by her mother over her father's grave in 1606 in Gawsworth Church, kneeling figures of herself, her brothers, her sister, and her mother still remain.

An attempt has been made to identify Mary Fitton with the 'mistress' with eyes of 'raven black' to whom Shakespeare appears to make suit in his sonnets (cxxvii-clvii.) There seems little doubt that the earlier sonnets celebrate Shakespeare's friendship with William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, while it has been assumed that the later sonnets describe how Shakespeare supplanted his friend in the affections of a dark-complexioned beauty of the court. This beauty, it is now suggested, was Mary Fitton. But there is very little beyond the fact that Mary Fitton was at one time Herbert's mistress to confirm the identification, and it is possible that the later sonnets deal with a fictitious situation. The natural objection raised to the circumstance that a lady moving in high society should have entered into a liaison with a man of the low social position of an actor and playwright has been met by the discovery of the fact that William Kemp, the actor, dedicated to Mistress Anne Fitton, whom he calls maid of honour to the queen, his 'Nine Daies Wonder,' 1600, in terms approaching familiarity. Mistress Anne Fitton was Mary Fitton's elder sister, and there is no good reason for supposing (as has been suggested) that Kemp intended Mary when he wrote Anne. Anne Fitton, baptised 6 Oct. 1574, married about 1595 Sir John Newdegate of Erbury, Warwickshire. Kemp's employment of her maiden name alone in his dedication is in accordance with a common contemporary practice of addressing married women. The whole theory of Mary Fitton's identification with Shakespeare's 'dark lady' is ingenious, but the present state of the evidence does not admit of its definite acceptance.

[Shakespeare's Sonnets the first quarto, 1609 a facsimile in photo-lithography, edited by Thomas Tyler, London, 1886, contains almost all that can be said in favour of the theory of Mary Fitton's identification with the 'dark lady' of the sonnets. Mr. Tyler has supplemented this information by a letter in the Academy, 15 Dec. 1888, which is to be incorporated in a volume on Shakespeare's sonnets. See also J. P. Earwaker's East Cheshire, ii. 566; Ormerod's Cheshire; Nichols's Progresses of Queen Elizabeth; Gerald Massey's Secret Drama of Shakespeare's sonnets (1888), adverse to the Fitton theory.]

S. L. L.