Fitton, Mary (c. 1578–1647)

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Fitton, Mary (c. 1578–1647)

English noblewoman, doubtfully identified as the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets. Name variations: Mary Logher or Lougher. Born in 1578; baptized on June 24, 1578; died in 1647; daughter of Sir Edward Fitton the Younger of Gawsworth, Cheshire, England; married Captain W. Polwhele, in 1606 or 1607 (died 1609 or 1610); married a Captain Lougher or Logher (d. 1636); children: (first marriage) a son and daughter; (with Sir Richard Leveson) possibly two illegitimate daughters.

Identified by some as the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, Mary Fitton was born in 1578, the daughter of Sir Edward Fitton the Younger of Gawsworth, Cheshire. When she was 14, her elder sister Anne Fitton married John Newdigate. Around 1595, Mary became maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth I , and her father put her under the care of Sir William Knollys, comptroller of the queen's household, who promised to defend the "innocent lamb" from the "wolfish cruelty and fox-like subtlety of the tame beasts of this place." Though 50 and already married to Elizabeth Knollys , Sir William soon became Mary's suitor, and he appears to have received a great deal of encouragement.

It is doubtful that Fitton is the basis for Shakespeare's "dark lady." There is no hint in her authenticated biography that she was acquainted with Shakespeare. William Kemp, a clown in Shakespeare's company, dedicated his Nine Daies Wonder to Mistress Anne Fitton, "Maid of Honour to Elizabeth" (possibly confused with her sister); and there is a sonnet addressed to Mary in an anonymous volume, A Woman's Woorth defended against all the Men in the World (1599). In court festivities in 1600, Mary Fitton led a dance at which William Herbert, also rumored to be the subject of Shakespeare's sonnets, was present; shortly afterwards, she became his mistress. In February 1601, Herbert, later the 3rd earl of Pembroke, was sent to the Fleet in disgrace because of the affair. Fitton, who appears to have been simply dismissed from court, went to stay with her sister, Lady Newdigate, at Arbury. It is also said that she gave birth to a child who died soon after.

A second scandal has been attributed to Fitton by George Ormerod, author of History of Cheshire. Ormerod asserts that she had two illegitimate daughters with Sir Richard Leveson, a friend and correspondent of her sister Anne.

In Gawsworth church, there is a painted monument of the Fittons, in which Anne and Mary are represented kneeling behind their mother. From what remains of its coloring, Mary is shown to be a dark woman, which is of course essential to her identification with the lady of the sonnets, but in the portraits at Arbury described by Lady Newdigate in her Gossip from a Muniment Room (1897), Mary has brown hair and grey eyes. The identity of the Arbury portrait with Mary Fitton was challenged by Thomas Tyler, however. Arguments in favor of Mary Fitton as the false mistress of Shakespeare's sonnets can be found in Tyler's Shakespeare's Sonnets (1890) and his Herbert-Fitton Theory of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1898).

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Fitton, Mary (c. 1578–1647)

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