Aemilia Lanyer: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You may already know that Aemelia Lanyer was a 17th century British poet, but did you also know that she was England's first feminist writer? In this lesson, you will learn about the life and times of Aemelia Lanyer and her collection of poems ''Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum''.

Early Life

Aemelia Bassano Lanyer was born in 1569 to Baptist Bassano and Margaret Johnson. Aemelia's parents had a common law marriage; they lived together and were considered to be married, but it was never made 'official'. Baptist Bassano was a Venetian musician who played in the Royal Court of Queen Elizabeth. Although he died when Aemelia was seven years old, she still spent a great deal of time rubbing elbows with British nobility. By the time Aemelia's mother died when she was 18 years old, she was already well-known for her beauty and intelligence.

Love Life

At some point in her early adulthood, Aemelia began an affair with a member of Queen Elizabeth's Court, a man named Henry Carey. Carey was the Lord Chamberlain, a position responsible for overseeing all of the different departments and offices that gave advice to the queen. The romance between them was scandalous for two reasons: Carey was 45 years older than Aemelia, and they had a child together while she was married to court musician named Alphonso Lanyer. Aemelia and her husband Alphonso had a daughter several years after her son with Carey was born.

Much of what historians know about Aemelia Lanyer's life comes from journal entries written by a man named Simon Forman, a doctor and astrologer. Lanyer and Forman became friends some time around 1600 when she began visiting him for advice. According to Forman's writing, she was very attractive and he was interested in her romantically, although nothing came of their friendship.

Based on Forman's descriptions and accounts, some historians have incorrectly linked Lanyer to William Shakespeare. You've probably heard some rumors that Shakespeare wasn't actually the guy who wrote all of those plays and poetry. Some have speculated that Lanyer is one of the people who helped write Shakespeare's work, but was never given any credit. Good a story as that might be, there isn't much proof to support that it's true.

Career and Later Years

At the age of 42, Aemelia Lanyer published her first and only volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, or 'Hail God, King of the Jews'. The book was largely inspired by religion and her connections to members of Queen Elizabeth's Court, like the Countess of Cumberland and her daughter.

Historians don't believe the poetry made Lanyer a lot of money. After her husband Alphonso died, Lanyer was caught in a legal battle with his family over a patent given to him by King James I. To make money and support herself, she opened a school in 1617 and taught the kids of wealthy families for about two years. Lanyer died in 1645 in England.

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum

So what exactly is the big deal about Aemelia Lanyer's book of poems? Well, for starters, it was the first book of poetry published by a woman in England. Second, it featured a specific type of prose called a country-house poem that describes an English estate. Perhaps the most important thing to know about Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is that it's religious in nature, but it's also one of the first examples of feminist writing in England.

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