Jul 102014
Frances, Countess of Somerset studio of William Larkin oil on panel, feigned oval, circa 1615 NPG 1955 © National Portrait Gallery, London, used here under a Creative Commons license

Frances, Countess of Somerset studio of William Larkin oil on panel, feigned oval, circa 1615
NPG 1955 © National Portrait Gallery, London, used here under a Creative Commons license

Originally Frances Howard; later married Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex and was Frances, Countess of Essex (usually signing herself Frances Essex) between1604-13; later married Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset and was Frances, Countess of Somerset.

In contemporary documents, her first husband is quoted as referring to her as “Frankie” and her father as “Frank”.

Born: 1590
Died: 1632

Lord Thomas Howard, later Earl of Sussex
Catherine Knyvet (his second wife)

Theophilus Howard, 2nd Earl of Suffolk
Elizabeth Howard
Robert Howard
Gertrude Howard
Sir William Howard
Catherine Howard
Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Berkshire
Emily Howard
Frances Howard
Sir Charles Howard
Henry Howard
John Howard
Edward Howard, 1st Baron Howard of Escrick
Margaret Howard

Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex (divorced) 1604-1613;
Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset 1613-death

Anne Carr, Countess of Bedford


Frances was born into a family whose status and connections were as notorious as their repeated falls from grace.

Her great grandfather, the Earl of Surrey (first cousin to Queen Katherine Howard), had been executed for treason by Henry VIII in 1547. Her grandfather, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, was in turn executed for treason in 1572, and his lands and titles declared forfeit. However, her father was restored as Lord Thomas Howard in 1580, marking a new beginning. By the time Frances was born, her father had been knighted after commanding a ship during the attack on the Spanish Armada, and in the years to come he rose to favour with Elizabeth as a naval commander. In 1597, he was created Baron Howard de Walden. Finally, in 1603, he was created Earl of Suffolk by King James, who grew to be rather fond of him. At the same time, his uncle Henry Howard was made Earl of Northampton and a Privy Counsellor.

Frances’ mother, Suffolk’s second wife  Katherine Knyvet, was a renowned beauty who has gone down in history as a particularly avaricious woman, due to the fact that it would later be revealed that she had demanded bribes on a scale that has to be considered impressive even by 17th century standards. She had a place in Queen Elizabeth’s Bedchamber, as well as Queen Anne’s, and her uncle Sir Thomas Knyvet was one of the most active in foiling the gunpowder plot.

From her father’s elevation to the rank of Earl, Frances was known as Lady Frances Howard and a very eligible young woman. In 1604, she was married at the age of 14 to the young Earl of Essex, whose family background resembled her own in that his father, the 2nd Earl, had been a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth’s who had been executed after an unsuccessful rebellion in 1601. Young Robert Devereux, who had only been 10 at the time of his father’s execution, had his titles returned in 1604 by King James who had reason to be grateful to the 2nd Earl for supporting his claim to the English throne.

King James himself gave away the bride and the feast following was sumptuous and included en elaborate masque by Ben Jonson called Hymenaei with spectacular costumes and special effects by Inigo Jones. According to later reports, the young couple received gifts in the form of silver plate, jewels, money and other choice items to a value of several thousand pounds.

However, since the bride and groom were both so young, the marriage was in name only and the agreement was that the couple would continue to live apart until they’d grown somewhat, a not unusual arrangement in the era. When that time had come, and the young Lord Essex returned from a European tour in 1609, Frances was already considered one of the great beauties at court and he was rather dour and short-tempered young man, barely out of his boyhood.

According to Essex himself, “When I first came out of France, I loved her.” What her feelings at the outset were are not recorded, but it seems the relationship turned sour rather quickly. John Chamberlain was told that her husband found her “difficult” and immediately “grew to that impatience that he prayed God to damn him if ever he offered her such kindness till she called for it, and she in like heat wished to be damned if ever she did.” Despite this, they seem to have struggled to fulfil their duties as husband and wife. During the first year they lived together, he “divers times attempted” to consummate the marriage, but without success. He later accused her of not always cooperating, but sometimes refusing his attempts, which from a modern perspective seems rather reasonable. It is not unreasonable to assume that it must have been a somewhat traumatic experience for both parties. After about a year they gave up and despite sharing a bed, Essex admitted he “did find no motion or provocation in himself to have any carnal copulation with her”.

Sometime in this period, Frances seems to have attracted the attention of King James’ current favourite, the young Scot Robert Carr. How it started isn’t know, but if later references by his best friend Sir Thomas Overbury are to be believed, Carr first pursued her as one in a long string of casual flings and with a rather cynical approach. Overbury aided and abetted him, and even wrote Carr’s love letters for him like a Jacobean Cyrano when she didn’t prove as easy a target as they’d hoped. Again, if Overbury is to be believed, they used to speak about her (and presumably other women) with contempt, which was a habit Overbury never grew out of.

Gradually, or at some point, Carr’s feelings changed, however, and he became seriously infatuated and she possibly even more so. No one knows if their relationship was physical at this time, but either way, no matter how romantic their trysts may have been, she had to go home to her bad-tempered husband who wouldn’t even “offer her such kindness” and who couldn’t find either motion or provocation in him to even consider trying to take her to bed. Not only must the mood of the household have been bad, but Frances must also have realised that she would be stuck like this forever with no prospects of a family of her own, and no hope of warmth or companionship in her own home. The prospect of this, and of possibly losing Carr, made her frantic.

How Frances Howard knew Anne Turner isn’t clear. Turner herself said at her trial in 1615 that “she was ever brought up with the Countess” but it isn’t clear what that meant (and Turner was more than 10 years the senior of Frances Howard). Turner might have had some connection to the court; she would later denounce it as the cause for her miseries and her brother was later given as a servant of Prince Charles. Also, her lover, Sir Arthur Mainwaring, had been carver to Prince Henry, who would later be named (possibly perfectly unjustly) as Frances’s first lover; or, as the contemporaries would have it, her first victim.

No matter how Frances and Anne Turner knew each other, they were apparently close and very affectionate. Frances addressed her in writing as “Sweet Turner” and signed herself  “Your sister, Frances Essex” and Mrs Turner’s last act before being executed at Tyburn in 1615 was begging permission to pray for Frances, whom she’d earlier called “as dear unto me as my own soul”. They were in close contact during Frances’s budding relationship with Carr, and it seems to have been Anne Turner who introduced Frances to Dr Simon Forman, infamous astronomer, quack and, according to himself, “necromancer”.

Exactly what services Dr Forman provided isn’t known to us, but at Anne’s trial in 1615, several objects of dubious nature were produced, and it is reasonable to assume they came from Forman. These include two “pictures of black lead, a man and woman naked, belly to belly in bestial fashion” and a parchment with a piece of human skin attached to it. On this was written the names of the devils “who were conjured to torment the Lord Somerset and Sir Arthur Mainwaring” if they were faithless. It may also have been that Frances asked him for remedies or other help to keep her husband in a continued state of impotence and disinterest, as her loathing for him grew. In a letter to Forman, she wrote of Lord Essex that he “useth me as doggedly as ever before and all the contentment he gives me is to abuse me. I think I shall never be happy in this world because he hinders all my good, and will ever, I think.”

And Frances’ situation was becoming increasingly desperate. In the summer of 1611, her husband (who seems to have had no suspicions about her relationship with Carr) carried her off to the country, and complained to her family, laying all the blame for their sexual failure on her. Her family responded by putting pressure on her. In Frances’s own words: “my father, my mother, and my brother said, I should lie with him /…/ My father and mother are angry, but I had rather die a thousand times over”.

Meanwhile, Carr’s fortunes flourished. He was made Viscount Rochester in March, 1611, and subsequently, a Privy Counsellor. He was also serving informally as James’ secretary, the position of Secretary of State being kept empty. Rochester may not have been stupid, but he wasn’t exceedingly bright either and he struggled to keep up. It made him depend to a great degree on his friend Sir Thomas Overbury, through whose hands all important papers passed. Overbury was jealously guarding
his position in Carr’s life and he did not take kindly to Frances’s intrusion on the bromance. He referred to her as “that base woman” and abused her to Carr several times, while also rubbing his nose in how invaluable he was and how Carr could not do without him. This twin attack on Carr’s vanity and his honour was beginning to take a serious toll on their friendship.

Around Christmas, 1612, it seems that Frances’ continued complaints finally had some effect. Suffolk, Northampton, the Earl of Worcester and Essex’s uncle, Lord Knollys, sat down to have a frank chat with Essex who confessed to his problems. The incident led to Suffolk deciding that the marriage had to be dissolved, and he set about to enforce it with all his might.

In May 1613, the divorce proceedings began. Frances sued for annulment on the grounds of impotence, and while her husband had no great desire to be married to her, he vigorously defended his virility. At the same time, he did not dispute that his marriage had not, in fact, been consummated. The proceedings dragged on, and the outcome was increasingly uncertain. The case was not helped by the fact that rumours about her involvement with Carr had started to circulate.

The Howards – with the notable exception of Frances, obviously – disliked Carr as a Scottish upstart and as the major impediment to their influence at court. Suffolk detested him, and would have nothing to do with him, but Lord Northampton had started to groom his friendship, and when he found out about the affair, he seems to have welcomed it, referring to Frances as “that dainty pot of glue that will make the bond more sure.” Nevertheless, if Frances could be proven to have been involved with Carr, that would seriously have impaired the possibility of a divorce. As it depended on the non-consummation of the marriage, it was vital that she could prove herself to be a virgin.

In order to establish that, she was inspected by a committee of two midwives and four noble ladies. The story goes that in order to protect her modesty, she was veiled during the examination, and later it would be considered an established fact that her place had been taken by a younger and more chaste girl. As a contemporary ballad had it:

This dame was inspected
butt fraud interjected
A mayd of more perfection
Whome the Midwives dooe handle
while the Knight houlds the kandle
O there was Cleere inspection

Nevertheless, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Abbot, who presided over the committee trying the nullity suit, was not convinced that the Essex’ marriage could legally and morally be annulled on the grounds brought forward, Frances being a virgin or not. The idea of the suit was that both parties were supposed to come out of proceedings free to remarry, but such a thing was only possible if the alleged impotence on the husband’s part was in regards to this particular wife only. As the rhyme cited earlier states:

But when as her Earle
had an other girle
His wimble could pierce her flanke
His nagg proved able
by Changing his stable
O there was a quo ad hanc.

Abbot was not comfortable with this, and refused to be convinced that such a course was possible. Finally, the King forced the issue by making the commission vote on the matter. The verdict was a seven to five in favour of annulment. As of 25 September, 1615 Frances was Lady Essex no longer and she was free to marry the man of her heart.

Her happiness, however, would prove short-lived.

To be continued in part II…

Further reading:

The case of impotency of Robert, Earl of Essex, and the Lady Frances Howard in that Remarkable Tryal An. 1613 by George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury
The great oyer of poisoning : the trial of the Earl of Somerset for the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury, in the Tower of London, and various matters connected therewith, from contemporary mss. by Andrew Amos
Unnatural Murder. Poison at the Court of James I by Anne Somerset
Various ballads and rhymes concerning the divorce and the subsequent marriage between Howard and Carr at Modern English Libels.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>