Aemilia Lanyer is the first female professional poet in the English language and the first woman to produce and publish a volume of poetry to garner patronage. She is also credited as one of the first feminist writers of England and her volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is arguably the first feminist publication in England.
It is believed that Aemilia Lanyer was born sometime in 1569. The exact date of her birth is unknown. However, according to the Church records, she was baptized on 27th January 1569. She was born to Margaret Johnson, aunt of the court composer Robert Johnson and Baptiste Bassano, an Italian composer and musician of Queen Elizabeth I. Her father, Baptiste Bassano died on 11th April 1576 when Aemilia Lanyer was just seven. She was then brought up at the house of Susan Bertie, the Countess of Kent. Bertie was keen on Lanyer’s education and emphasised that men and women receive the same education. It is possible that many of the ideas Lanyer developed in her poems found their seeds in her time with Bertie. Lanyer’s mother died around 1587, when Lanyer was eighteen.
Aemilia Lanyer served as the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth and the first Baron of Hunsdon for several years. However, her time with Lord Chamberlain, which she remembers fondly, was cut short by her pregnancy. She was then married off to the court musician, Alphonso Lanyer in 1592. She gave birth to her son, Henry, in 1593. Her daughter by Alphonso, named Odillya was born in 1598 but survived only ten months. Much of what is known about Aemilia Lanyer comes from the diary entries of the astrologer and fortune-teller Dr Simmon Foreman whom Lanyer consulted in around 1597. He provides the only available physical description of the poetess. He is also credited for the unhappy details of her married life riddled with miscarriages and a longing for the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
Lanyer also lived with Margaret Clifford, the Countess of Cumberland, and her daughter Lady Anne Clifford. These two women had a major influence on Aemilia Lanyer’s writings. She considers them her inspiration and her benefactors as well as patrons. They inspired several of her poems. For instance, The Description of Cookeham, which is regarded as the first published country-house poem, i.e. a poem dedicated to the description of a wealthy patron’s country-house, is an account of Lanyer’s time spent at the house of Margaret’s brother, William Russell.