Mary Fitton (c. 1578–1641) was the youngest daughter of Sir Edward and Alice Fitton of Gawsworth in Cheshire. At the time this portrait was painted (c. 1595), she was probably around 17, and was soon to become a maid of honour at Elizabeth I’s court. There, she gained many admirers, but also suffered disgrace after getting pregnant by the third Earl of Pembroke. She offers us an insight into the life of a woman at court, desired but also exploited.

Here, Mary Fitton is fashionably dressed in a white stomacher and sleeves, with additional red sleeves edged with fiery points. Her skirt is decorated with plants and garden creatures – snails, butterflies, caterpillars, even mosquitoes. Fitton’s silver headpiece is embedded with pearls, and she wears a miniature painting in a black case round her neck.

Scandal at Elizabeth’s court

Maids of honour were unmarried, high-born women who attended the Queen in her chamber and at court occasions. The word ‘maid’ suggests they were virgins, but they were often embroiled in gossip and sexual scandal.

Sir William Knollys – Comptroller of the royal household – reassured Mary’s father that he would defend her against ‘the wolvyshe [wolfish] cruelty’ of the court. But ironically Knollys, who was married and much older, then fell in love with Mary, though his feelings were not returned. By 1600 she had become the mistress of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, and by 1601 she was visibly pregnant and expelled from the court. Herbert refused to marry her and was briefly imprisoned, while she had a baby boy who died shortly afterwards. In 1606 Mary married Captain William Polewhele and, after his death, she was remarried to John Lougher.

Was Mary Fitton Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’?

Some critics have suggested that Mary Fitton could be the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. This is partly based on the notion that Mary’s lover, William Herbert, could have been the ‘Fair Youth’ of Sonnets 1–126. Others propose different candidates for the role of ‘Dark Lady’, from the prostitute Lucy Negro to the poet Emilia Lanier and even Queen Elizabeth herself.