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Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset c1615 by William Larkin [public domain]

Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset c1615 by William Larkin [public domain]

“She that in every vice did soe Excell,
That she could read new principles to hell;
And shew the fiends recorded in her lookes
Such deeds, as were not in their blackest books:
Canidia now draws on.”


“Whose waxen pictures fram’d by incantation,
Whose Philters, Potions for loves propagation
Count Circe, but as a novice in the trade,
And scorne all Drugs that Colchos ever made;
Canidia now draws on.” [1]

Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset and formerly Countess of Essex, stares out confidently, or wantonly perhaps, from her gilt frame.  A strikingly beautiful woman, in a daringly provocative dress, she seems to be sizing up the viewer.  She looks as though she could be the keeper of dark secrets.  She was condemned as a murderer and accused of resorting to witchcraft to achieve her ambitions.  And in the end a king stepped in to save her from the gallows.

History has, until recently, been quite unkind to Frances Howard.  Not surprising since she was condemned as a cold and calculating murderess, nevertheless much of the vitriol poured out against her seems to have come about not just because of her crime, but because she was a woman and willful one at that, and there is nothing a paternalistic society fears more than a strong-minded woman.

The Child Bride Rebels

James I by Nicholas Hilliard

James I by Nicholas Hilliard

Despite a plethora of female rulers: Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots to name but a few; Tudor and Stuart society was very much dominated by powerful aristocratic men.  Women were supposed to be domesticated, decorative and submissive first to their father and then their husbands.  Having your own opinion was not encouraged.  Acting on it, even less so.

Things began unremarkable for Frances. She was born in the early1590’s, the daughter of Lord Thomas Howard (1st Earl of Suffolk).  At the age of about 13 or 14 she was married, for dynastic reasons, to the 13-year-old Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex.  It was said that the couple were:  ‘too young to consider, but old enough to consent.” [2]  The couple lived apart for a few years, the Earl traveling abroad and Frances living with her mother and attending court.  So far so good.

Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset; by John Hoskins c1625-30

Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset; by John Hoskins c1625-30

The glittering and decadent Court of King James was precisely the kind of place to turn a girl’s head.  Frances was young and very beautiful.  It was hinted that the kings own son and heir Henry had set his sights on her.   However, Frances had her sights set on none other than the kings Favourite.  The handsome Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester and later Earl of Somerset, had quite literally fallen into the king’s path one day when he was thrown by his horse and broke his leg.  James, ever a connoisseur of male beauty, took the opportunity to take the young man under his wing.  From that day Carr’s star had been rising inexorably.

Apparently not the jealous type, the King seems to have looked favourably on the liaison between his favourite and the lovely Frances.  But the path of true love seldom runs smooth, and eventually Frances’ husband Essex returned from his European travels.  Finding herself whisked away to Chartley, the Earl of Essex’s country seat, she barrackaded herself into her room, came out only at night and verbally abused the Earl at every opportunity.    Desperate he turned to her father the Earl of Suffolk to entreat her to fulfill her wifely functions.  All to no avail. Even when she did allow Essex to lie with her, he was not up to the job.  Possibly because she cooled his ardor by haranguing him so much during the attempt.

Eventually, with the assistance of her father she sued for the marriage to be annulled on the grounds of the Earls impotency.  The case dragged on.  During this time, Robert Carr’s secretary the overbearing and misogynistic Thomas Overbury had been expressing some very  vitriolic opinions of Frances Howard in a very public manner, and had been trying in earnest to dissuade Carr from marrying the tainted Frances once her marriage was annulled.  This enraged Frances who was not about to lose her man to a jumped up clerk’s misogynistic tirades and it also convinced the enamoured Carr that his secretary was now becoming somewhat tiresome. Eventually Overbury was manoevred into refusing a Royal Commission overseas and was sent to the Tower of London to cool his heels.  During this time Overbury fell dangerously ill, and after much suffering, he died.

Robert and Frances, Earl and Countess of Somerset by Reginold Elstrack

Robert and Frances, Earl and Countess of Somerset; by Reginold Elstrack

At the time nothing was suspected, and few seemed to mourn Overbury’s loss. A few days after his death the marriage was annulled.  Frances got her man, and on the 26 December 1613 she and Robert Carr married, with the full blessing of the King (he hurried the annulment along).   The court had never seen such a lavish ceremony.

The Queen of Hearts she baked some (poisoned) tarts……

In 1615 the whole house of cards fell down.  Suspicion had been growing as to the cause of death of the overbearing Overbury.  Investigations revealed that poisoned tarts and jellies had been sent to him in the tower, when they failed,  a poisoned enema containing copper vitriol (sulfuric acid) was administered by an apothecaries boy.  All of evidence led back to the Somerset’s, Frances in particular.  The accused were the Somerset’s, Robert Weston, Anne Turner, Gervaise Helwys, and Simon Franklin.

The state trial was a sensation.  The public devoured exaggerated tales of debauchery, intrigue, sexual licence and murder involving the highest in the land;  scandal sheets, libelous ballads and verse proliferated and the misogynistic Overbury became a martyr of sorts – his dreadful poem ‘The Wife’ going through numerous editions after his death.

The State Trials report the events in great detail and give some insight into the emotional state of Frances during the trial – she was after all very young and on trial for her life:

“The countess of Somerset, all the while the indictment was reading, stood looking pale, trembled, and shed some tears; and at the first mention of Weston in the indictment, put her fan before her face, and there held it half covered til the indictment was read.” [3]

Later when asked to plead, her fear is palpable:

“Mr Fenshaw:  Frances, Countess of Somerset, what sayst thou? Art thou guilty of this felony and murder, or not guilty?

The lady Somerset making an obesience to the Lord High Steward, answered Guilty, with a low voice, but wonderful fearful.” [4]

The final outcome was dramatic: all of the accused were sentenced to death.  Robert Weston, Anne Turner, Gervaise Helwys, and Simon Franklin were executed. Although disgraced the Somerset’s still had powerful allies, including the king himself, although both given a death sentence and were imprisoned in the tower until 1622 they were eventually pardoned by the King and allowed to live our their lives in obscurity far from the court they both adored.  Ironically the Earl of Essex, Frances’ first husband was on the jury and pressed for the death penalty – hell hath no fury like a husband scorned?

Potions, powders and philtres – the witchcraft connection

Mrs Anne Turner on her way to the gallows.  Public Domain.

Mrs Anne Turner on her way to the gallows. Public Domain.

Frances Howard was not alone in her pursuit of a handsome suitor.  Her waiting woman and confidante, Mrs Anne Turner, was also hot in pursuit of her man, Sir Arthur Mainwaring.  Mrs Turner was an attractive woman who had fallen on hard times when her physician husband died.  She became Sir Arthur’s mistress but had ambitions to be his wife.  Together she and Frances plotted how to achieve their aims.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the best way to influence love matters was to visit a cunning man or woman, or if you had a little more money, visit an astrologer or sorcerer.

Frances had previously had an unfortunate entanglement with Mary Woods a cunning woman from Norwich known as ‘Cunning Mary’.  Cunning Mary was a palmist and fortune-teller specialising in love matters.  As a back up when her spells failed, she threatened that if her clients denounced her to the law she would accuse them of trying to poison their husbands.  She was notorious for this, something that worked in Frances’ favour when she fell for a scam pulled by Cunning Mary.  In 1612 Cunning Mary had a practice in Clerkenwell and Frances tried to engage her services re the problem of the Earl of Essex.  She gave Mary a valuable diamond ring to render certain services, however Mary disappeared with the ring.  A JP was called to investigate but Mary accused Frances of offering it as down payment to kill Essex.  Much of Frances story did not add up, but Mary was known to cry wolf so the JP found in favour of Frances.  However, this and further links to occult practitioners would come to haunt Frances in her trial.

Dr Simon Forman c1611; public domain

Dr Simon Forman c1611; public domain

Dr Simon Forman had had many brushes with the law before he met the Countess of Somerset and Mrs Turner.  Astrologer, sorcerer, necromancer and inveterate ladies man he was a charismatic occultist who, like Cunning Mary, specialised in love matters.

The assistance he rendered Frances Howard, through the medium of her confidante Mrs Turner, came out in sensational style during the murder trials, illustrating both the superstitious horror and fascination the occult provoked:

“There was also showed in court certain pictures of a man and woman in copulation, made in lead, as also the mold of brass, wherein they were cast, a black scarf also full of white crosses, which Mrs Turner had in her custody.  At the shewing of these, and inchanted papers an other pictures in court, there was heard a crack from the scaffolds, which caused great fear, tumult and confusion among the spectators and throughout the hall, everyone fearing hurt, as if the devil had been present, and grown angry to have his workmanship shewed by such as were not his own scholars; and this terror continuing about a quarter of an hour, after silence proclaimed, the rest of the cunning tricks were likewise shewed.”[5]

The testimony of Dr Forman’s wife was equally damning:

“Mrs Turner…did demand certain pictures which were in her husbands study; namely, one picture in wax, very sumptuously apparelled in silks and satins, as also one other sitting in form of a naked woman, spreading and laying forth her hair in a looking-glass…”

“There was also enchantments shewn in court, written in parchment wherein were contained all the names of the Blessed Trinity mentioned in the scriptures; and another parchment, +B+C+D+E.  And a third likewise in a parchment were written all the names of the Holy Trinity and a little figure, in which was written the word Corpus; and upon another parchment was fastened a little piece of the skin of a man – in some of these parchments were the devils particular names, who were conjured to torment the Lord Somerset and Sir Arthur Mainwaring, if their loves should not continue, the one to the Countess, the other to Mrs Turner.” [6]

16th Century Magical Paraphanalia; British Museum collection.

16th Century Magical paraphernalia; British Museum collection.

Such matters raised in the Overbury murder trial only helped to malign Frances in the eyes of her peers and the public at large, even if they had little bearing on the accusation of murder they helped paint a picture of an immoral and disorderly woman.  Despite the fact that her action in visiting cunning folk and astrologers was hardly unusual at the time.  Dr Forman, for example,  had many illustrious clients including the Dean of Rochester.   Even Essex seems to have, however unwillingly, colluded in the witchcraft element of the annulment hearing agreeing that it was only Frances that he could not perform for.  It is possible that both parties used the witchcraft clause in an entirely pragmatic way, simply to get out of a untennable marriage and be able to remarry.  Nevertheless this pragmatism would have far graver consequences for Frances, as a woman.

Frances Howard the disorderly woman: Proto-feminist or ruthless murderess?

There is a lot about Frances Howard to like.  Despite being born into a conventional role as a pawn of dynastic ambitions, she rebelled against her fate.  She defied her first husband and successfully had her marriage annulled (a verdict that would allow both parties to remarry).  She pursued her heart’s desire and got her man.  But, her passionate determination and impetuous nature made her ruthless and willing to take risks.  She sought out unorthodox means to achieve her ends – potions and powders and charms. In casting off Essex she publicly humiliated him as impotent in front of the whole court; Overbury may have been a charmless, pompous sexist, but her rage against him lead to the end of his career and ultimately to his agonizing death.

Possibly Frances acted in the only way her nature would allow in that setting at that time.  Bellany as quoted by Underwood says of Frances that she fitted:

“The conventional image of the sexually emancipated disorderly woman whose independence and moral libertinism threatened the basis of the patriarchal system.” [6]

Had she been born today, no doubt she would be the queen of the tabloids, but probably not a murderess.

Notes & Sources

1. Anonymous poem ‘She with whom troops of bustuary* slaves’  ‘Supposed to be made against the Lady Francis Coun of Somerset’ http://www.earlystuartlibels.net/htdocs/overbury_murder_section/H17.html [pertaining to funeral pyres]

2. Abbott, George (1562-1633) The case of impotency as debated in England: in that remarkable tryal an. 1613. between Robert, Earl of Essex, and the Lady Frances Howard, who, after eight years marriage, commenc’d a suit against him for impotency; http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004847628.0001.001/1:5.3?rgn=div2;view=fulltext

3, 4, 5.  Howell, TB; A Complete Collection of State Trials for High Treason and other crimes and misdemeanors, Vol II; p954, p933

6. Underdown, David; Sex and Violence at the Court of King James; 2002,

Abbott, George (1562-1633) The case of impotency as debated in England: in that remarkable tryal an. 1613. between Robert, Earl of Essex, and the Lady Frances Howard, who, after eight years marriage, commenc’d a suit against him for impotency; http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004847628.0001.001/1:5.3?rgn=div2;view=fulltext

Howell, TB; A Complete Collection of State Trials for High Treason and other crimes and misdemeanors, Vol II; Londonn 1816, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2vc8UQII-jsC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

Somerset, Anne, Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of James I, 1997, Weidenfeld & Nicholson


Underdown, David; Sex and Violence at the Court of King James; 2002, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=6231