FITTON, MARY (c.1578-1647), identified by some writers with the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, was the daughter of Sir Edward Fitton of Gawsworth, Cheshire, and was baptized on the 24th of June 1578. Her elder sister, Anne, married John Newdigate in 1587, in her fourteenth year. About 1595 Mary Fitton became maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth. Her father recommended her to 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." Sir William was fifty and already married, but he soon became suitor to Mary Fitton, in hope of the speedy death of the actual Lady Knollys, and appears to have received considerable encouragement. There is no hint in her authenticated biography that she was acquainted with Shakespeare. William Kemp, who was a clown in Shakespeare's company, dedicated his Nine Daies Wonder to Mistress Anne (perhaps an error for Mary) Fitton, "Maid of Honour to Elizabeth"; and there is a sonnet addressed to her in an anonymous volume, A Woman's Woorth defended against all the Men in the World (1599). In 1600 Mary Fitton led a dance in court festivities at which William Herbert, later earl of Pembroke, is known to have been present; and shortly afterwards she became his mistress. In February 1601 Pembroke was sent to the Fleet in connexion with this affair, but Mary Fitton, whose child died soon after its birth, appears to have simply been dismissed from court. Mary Fitton seems to have gone to her sister, Lady Newdigate, at Arbury. A second scandal has been fixed on Mary Fitton by George Ormerod, author of History of Cheshire, in a MS. quoted by Mr. T. Tyler (Academy, 27th Sept. 1884). Ormerod asserted, on the strength of the MSS. of Sir Peter Leycester, that she had two illegitimate daughters by Sir Richard Leveson, the friend and correspondent of her sister Anne. He also gives the name of her first husband as Captain Logher, and her second as Captain Polwhele, by whom she had a son and daughter. Polwhele died in 1609 or 1610, about three years after his marriage. But Ormerod was mistaken in the order of Mary Fitton's husbands, for her second husband, Logher, died in 1636. Her own will, which was proved in 1647, gives her name as "Mary Lougher." In Gawsworth church there is a painted monument of the Fittons, in which Anne and Mary are represented kneeling behind their mother. It is stated that from what remains of the colouring Mary was 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-Newdegate in her Gossip from a Muniment Room (1897) she has brown hair and grey eyes.
The identity of the Arbury portrait with Mary Fitton was challenged by Mr Tyler and by Dr Furnivall. For an answer to their remarks see an appendix by C.G.O. Bridgeman in the 2nd edition of Lady Newdigate-Newdegate's book.
The suggestion that Mary Fitton should be regarded as the false mistress of Shakespeare's sonnets rests on a very thin chain of reasoning, and by no means follows on the acceptance of the theory that William Herbert was the addressee of the sonnets, though it of course fails with the rejection of that supposition. Mr William Archer (Fortnightly Review, December 1897) found some support for Mary Fitton's identification with the "dark lady" in the fact that Sir William Knollys was also her suitor, thus numbering three "Wills" among her admirers. This supplies a definite interpretation, whether right or wrong, to the initial lines of Sonnet 135: -
"Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy 'Will,'
And 'Will' to boot, and 'Will' in overplus."
Arguments in favour of her adoption into the Shakespeare circle will be found in Mr Thomas Tyler's Shakespeare's Sonnets (1890, pp. 73-92), and in the same writer's Herbert-Fitton Theory of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1898).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)