Mary Fitton / Shakespeare’s Dark Lady (Baptised 24th June 1578 to 1647)


William Shakespeare wrote thirty seven plays which are still performed all around the world but there’re also 154 sonnets laced with love, passion and treacle-sweetness. He often refers to the seductive “Dark Lady” and her identity has been guessed at for over four hundred years.


Many scholars point to Mary Fitton, an Elizabethan gentlewoman who became a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth and daughter of Sir Edward Fitton. Her scandalous affairs with famous men of the time are well known. I read a book and its entirety is given over to her being the Dark Lady beyond reasonable doubt but we’ll never know. When I read she was the daughter of Sir Edward Fitton of Gawsworth Cheshire my nosiness was pricked. Gawsworth isn’t far from home, a forty minute drive. I went to see if I could find her.


Mary was about aged 17 when she became a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth (her dad knew the Queen well.) Her dad recommended her to the care of Sir William Knollys who looked after the Queen's household. Though Sir William was fifty and married it didn’t stop him getting infatuated and then romantically involved with Mary.


By 21 she had to give up her job due to a form of hysteria. A year later she led a dance in the masque celebrating the fashionable wedding of Lady Anne Russell and met William Herbert (later Earl of Pembroke) and became his pregnant mistress. The baby died perhaps from syphilis as William may have suffered from this. Both Mary and Pembroke were dismissed from court, socially ruined.


Mary then had an affair with the married Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Leveson and bore him two daughters. Mary couldn’t keep her knickers on and then had an affair and a son with Captain William Polwhele. Her mother wrote "such shame as never had a Cheshire woman, worse now than ever.”


When her husband died in 1610 the -32-year-old Mary had children to take care of and married again to a Pembrokeshire captain, "gentleman lawyer" and former M.P. Finally she settled and died aged 69. Her ghost is reputed to haunt Gawsworth Old Hall.


So why is she a contender for the “Dark Lady?” Scholars think William Shakespeare knew William Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke) and was senselessly infatuated by his pregnant mistress Mary Fitton. It was probably unrequited love as a lady moving in high society would not normally have a liaison with a lowly poet/actor. We’ll never know if most of those love-soaked sonnets were about the woman I’d come to find.


I entered the empty Gawsworth church but couldn’t get up to Mary. She’s buried in an elaborate family tomb but it’s sealed off from pond-life like me. She’s represented by one of the kneeling figures along with her siblings. I spent about fifteen minutes in the church reading about her in a book of churches I’d bought. The book said you know it’s a perfect day if you can look at the reflection of the church clock on the river’s surface and read the time. I went outside to see but couldn’t just read the time properly; there was a wee breeze tickling the water. Not a perfect day then but looking at the resplendent beauty of the Cheshire countryside it seemed pretty perfect.




On the walk round the church a few ducks came trotting towards me….had to give them something…


When learning about Mary Fitton I read you can tell when it’s a still day as you can read the clock in the water’s reflection…not quite…


She’s over here…



The ghost of Mary….?



Looking at Gawsworth New Hall near the church…