Wroth, Mary (c. 1587–c. 1651)

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Wroth, Mary (c. 1587–c. 1651)

English poet, prose writer, and literary patron . Born Mary Sydney in Penshurst Place, Kent, England, around 1587; died around 1651; daughter of Robert Sidney, 1st earl of Leicester, and Barbara Gamage; niece of Mary Herbert (1561–1621); married Sir Robert Wroth, in 1604 (died 1614); children: (first marriage) son James (died 1616); (with William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke) two illegitimate children.

Selected writings:

The Countesse of Montgomerie's Urania (1621); Pamphilia to Amphilanthus; Love's Victorie.

Born in Penshurst Place in Kent, England, Lady Mary Wroth was the eldest daughter of Barbara Gamage and Sir Robert Sidney, 1st earl of Leicester. Her paternal uncle was Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan poet best known for his Arcadia. Her own work would be deeply influenced by Philip, although he died about the time of her birth. In 1604, Mary married the wealthy Sir Robert Wroth, eldest son of a member of Parliament. As with many upper-class marriages in the 17th century, the couple did not freely choose one another; instead, the marriage was arranged as a union between the two families. Lady Mary and her husband had one son, but spent most of their years of marriage apart. Mary was prominent at the English court, where she circulated her verses and was a generous supporter of other writers; those who dedicated works to her in the hope of a reward included Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and George Wither. Jonson dedicated The Alchemist to her in 1610, after she had performed in one of his masques.

Despite his large landholdings, Sir Robert Wroth lived well beyond his means; when he died in 1614, Mary was left in considerable debt. Her son James died two years later. Sometime in the late 1610s, Wroth began a relationship with her cousin, William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke, with whom she had two children.

In 1621, Wroth sought patrons of her own when she issued a prose romance, The Countesse of Montgomerie's Urania, which imitated her uncle's popular Arcadia and is considered the first English novel published by a woman. It included verses and a set of sonnets entitled Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, written in the form of letters between two lovers, thought to have been drawn from her affair with Herbert. Both romantic and satirical, the Urania provides a female perspective on the joys and sorrows of courtly love, as do her few other known works. However, the Urania did not bring Wroth the financial success she needed; the work's satirical depiction of court figures caused a great scandal at court and forced her to withdraw it six months later.

In addition to these works, she authored a play, a tragicomedy titled Love's Victorie which was not published until 1853. Wroth retired from court and spent her final years at her country estates. The year of her death is not known. In the late 20th century, literary scholars rediscovered her works and began using them as sources to understand women's experiences in 17th-century England. Lady Mary Wroth's collected verses were published in 1983; in 1995, the first part of Urania was newly made available again to readers, drawn from surviving manuscripts.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. III. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California