Vic Keegan’s Lost London 176: Longditch and Amelia Lanier

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 176: Longditch and Amelia Lanier

Storey’s Gate – named after Edward Storey, Charles II’s bird keeper – runs from Tothill Street by Parliament Square to St James’s Park. It used to be called Longditch because it ran alongside a branch of the Tyburn river, which wound its way from Tothill Street to Whitehall where it flowed under a bridge into the Thames. It is also the scene of one of  the world’s ongoing literary mysteries. Here lived Amelia Lanier (1569-1645), thought by many to have been the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare sonnets and, by some, even to have been the actual author of his works.

Lanier – whose forename is sometimes spelled Emelia or Aemilia, and surname Lanyer – was born in Spitalfields of a highly musical Italian-Jewish family from near Venice, who were prominent court musicians to Elizabeth I. She had purchased a house with the proceeds of a payoff from Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, whose mistress she had been since she was 18 years old (he was over 40 years older than her) and whose baby she was carrying. According to the diary of Simon Forman, her astrologer, she was “maintained in great pomp” with an allowance of 20 pounds a year.

Hunsdon was the son of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary, who was Henry VIII’s long-time mistress before he fell for Anne, so he was quite likely Henry’s illegitimate son. But, more particularly, he was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting troupe. So, with her links to Hunsdon and her geographic closeness to Whitehall and to her musical family, which participated in lots of royal plays and masques, it would be surprising if Lanier was not at least acquainted with Shakespeare.

But Lanier doesn’t any longer need an association with Shakespeare, whether literary or romantic, to ensure her place in history. She is now recognised as a formidable figure in her own right, being one of the very first women to publish a book of poetry and also a pioneer of proto-feminism through her emphasis on social and religious equality for women. She even dared to suggest in her verse that it may not have been Eve who tempted Adam in the Garden of Eden, but the other way round.

Did she write Shakespeare’s works? Several books claim she did, including a recent one by John Hudson (“Shakespeare’s Dark Lady” ) which argues, among numerous other things, that there is so much hidden Jewish imagery in the plays that they must have been written by a Jewish person. I was quite impressed with the evidence and would have been even more impressed had I not read another book shortly before which chronicles the amazing amount of Catholic imagery hidden in the text and purports to prove that Shakespeare was a Catholic. The Shakespeare authorship question is already the world’s longest literary who-dun-it and shows no signs of flagging.

One of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets includes lines which have been linked to Nicholas Hiliard’s miniature of Lanier (see inset photo above):

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red, than her lips red:

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”

There is a surprising amount of information about the inhabitants of Longditch going back to the 12th century, but sadly not enough about one of its most enigmatic inhabitants. The who-dun-it rolls on.

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

1 Comment

  1. Dan Hawthorn says:

    This could not be better timed for me – am in the middle of The Heavens by Sandra Newman – which I strongly recommend for another angle on this story…

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