Biography of Aemilia Lanyer

Aemilia Lanyer (also Æmilia, Emilia, or Amelia, and Lanyer or Lanier) was the first woman in English literary history to publish a full-length poetry collection, as well as the first to receive artistic patronage. Her only book, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), is arguably the first literary publication in English with a distinctly feminist argument.

The poet was born Aemilia Bassano in 1569, to a family of Italian court musicians who migrated to England during the reign of Henry VIII, possibly as Christianized Jews or Protestants fleeing religious persecution. Aemilia’s early education under the Countess of Kent introduced her to various Elizabethan aristocrats, including the Queen’s lord chamberlain, Henry Carey, first Lord Hundson. Aemilia remained Hundson’s mistress until her pregnancy and hurried marriage to court musician Alphonso Lanyer in 1592. After marriage, Lanyer continued to socialize with aristocrats, writers, and publishers. (Historian A. L. Rowse has speculated, though with little evidence, that Lanyer was the “dark lady” in William Shakespeare’s sonnets.) Lanyer pursued a teaching career, and after her husband’s death, briefly ran a school in the London suburbs. At the age of forty-two, she published her first and only collection of poetry—in a time when writings by women were rarely read or published.

In Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (“Hail God, King of the Jews”), Lanyer writes devotional verse with a feminist edge. The book includes a title poem, which narrates the story of Christ from a woman’s perspective; several dedicatory epistles, in verse and prose, praising the achievements of women aristocrats and writers; and “The Description of Cooke-ham,” a poem which celebrates community and fellowship at the country estate of Lanyer’s patron (Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland) and her daughter (Lady Anne Clifford). “Cooke-ham” made Lanyer the first English poet to publish in the genre of country-house poetry.

Lanyer died in 1645, at the age of seventy-six, having seen the reigns of three different English monarchs (Elizabeth I, Charles I, and James I) during her lifetime. Contemporary scholarship on Lanyer highlights her legacy as an important early-modern poet and pioneer of English feminist writing.

Study Guides on Works by Aemilia Lanyer

“The Description of Cooke-ham” is the last poem in Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), a book which made Lanyer the first Englishwoman to publish a substantial volume of poetry. “Cooke-ham” is the first published country-house poem,...