Aemilia Lanyer, or Emilia Lanier (c. 1569–1645), was a trailblazing poet of the English Renaissance who published a single book of poems, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, in 1611. Lanyer was one of the first Englishwomen to publish a volume of original verse and identify herself as a professional poet.

The book begins with 11 poems and letters celebrating female wisdom and virtue. They are all dedicated to women, from James I’s wife Queen Anne (A3r) to ‘all vertuous Ladies in generall’ (B3r).[1] At a time when there was still suspicion of women’s work in print, Lanyer uses the language of piety and respect to mount a radical, self-assured ‘defence of Women’. She acknowledges the rarity of ‘Woman’s writing’ on religious themes, but requests that we ‘Reade’ her volume (A3r).

A female reading of the Passion of Christ

The long central poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, is a daring version of the story of Christ, told from a female perspective. Its Latin title means ‘Hail, God, King of the Jews’. Part of the verse is narrated by Pilate’s wife who, according to the Bible (Matthew 27.19), tried to dissuade her husband from ordering Christ’s death. She launches into an ‘Apologie’ for Eve, saying Eve’s only fault was ‘too much love’ for Adam (D1v). This leads to a passionate plea for women’s freedom and equality:

You came not in the world without our paine,
Make that a barre against your crueltie;
Your fault beeing greater, why should you disdaine
Our beeing your equals, free from tyranny? (D2r)

‘The Description of Cooke-ham’ (H2r–H4v)

At the end of the volume is Lanyer’s best-known work, ‘The Description of Cooke-ham’. It recalls a visit to an idyllic rural estate with her patron, the Countess of Cumberland and her daughter, Anne Clifford. This was the first in a genre of English ‘country house’ poems, which praised noble patrons by celebrating their homes. However, Lanier’s poem is strikingly different from others, because it depicts Cookeham as a haven for devout, learned women.

‘To the doubtfull Reader’

On the final page is a note ‘To the doubtfull Reader’, which both asserts and undermines Lanier’s right to express herself. She says the title of the collection came to her in a dream, convincing her that she was ‘appointed to performe this Worke’ (I1v).

Who was Aemilia Lanyer?

Aemilia was the daughter of Baptista Bassano, a court musician from Venice, and Margaret Johnson. After her father’s death, Aemilia was taken in by Susan, Dowager Countess of Kent, and while in her care she seems to have learned to read and negotiate court life.

At 18, Aemilia became the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain – Henry Carey, first Baron Hunsdon. But when she got pregnant by him in 1592, she was quickly married off to Alphonso Lanyer, another court musician.

At the age of 42, she published this volume of poetry. Later, in 1617, she tried to run a school but encountered financial troubles.

Was Aemilia Lanyer the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets?

A L Rowse has argued that Lanyer is the ‘Dark Lady’ behind Shakespeare’s Sonnets. His edition of Lanyer’s work is called The Poems of Shakespeare's Dark Lady (1978), diminishing Lanyer’s status as an articulate woman and foregrounding the male writer. Rowse’s claim is partly based on the idea that Lanyer’s Italian background made her dark skinned, and partly on the idea that she was promiscuous. Other critics have questioned whether there is any firm evidence that Shakespeare ever met Lanyer. 

[1] In this copy, 12 pages of this section are missing.