Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset
This post starts a whole series of Scandalous Women of history here at The Lady Novelist. I was actually inspired to write this post after reading Victoria Dahl's post over at History Hoydens about poisons.
The lovely woman on the right is Lady Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset. She was an English noblewoman who was the central figure in a murder scandal during the reign of James I of England.
She was born Frances Howard, the daughter of the second son of the Duke of Norfolk. He was later made the first Earl of Suffolk which made her then Lady Frances Howard. Her father was apparently a wealthy and powerful noble, despite being a second son.
When she was 13, she was married off to Robert Deveraux, 3rd Earl of Essex, son of the infamous Lord Essex, favorite of Queen Elizabeth and great-great grandson of Mary Boleyn. His grandmother was Lettice Knollys who married Queen Elizabeth's other favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Jean Plaidy wrote a wonderful novel about her called My Enemy the Queen). The Earl was 14 at the time, and the marriage was made for political reasons. They were seperated after the wedding because it was considered that sex and an early pregnancy would not be good for either of them (a novel notion to be sure). Essex went off on a tour of Europe, and when he came back, his wife pretty much wanted nothing to do with him.
While her husband was away, Frances had fallen in love with the Earl of Somerset. Also, her husband came back with smallpox which was highly contagious and could have killed him. Rumor has it that she may have given him something called a "love-philter" to keep him impotent and away from her. Instead of being upset by his wife's apparent distaste for him, Essex spent most of his time hanging out with his buddies.
Finally, Frances took the necessary steps to have her marriage annulled, actually she got her father and her uncle, the Earl of Northampton. to do her dirty work for her. Like today, the gossips of her era, watched the proceedings with open eyes and ears. Frances confessed that she had made every attempt possible to make herself sexually available to her husband, but alas she was still a virgin.
As was the fashion, she was examined by a team of experts, who would then testify that she was indeed still virgo intacta. However, it was rumored that she might have substituted another woman, which was easy to do since she would have been examined from behind a sheet to protect her modesty.
Essex of course did not take his manhood being besmirched lightly. He claimed, of course, that he was perfectly capable with other women, just not his wife. He claimed that she was verbally abusive to him, and that was why he was incapable of doing the deed.
Where does the murder come in? Well, Somerset had a very good friend Thomas Overbury's, who was totally against the idea of his friend marrying Frances after her annulment went through, and was quite vocal about it. Not only that but the Earl of Somerset who was Viscount Rochester at the time, told Frances what his friend had said. Uh oh, you can see where this is going. It's a classic tale of a man caught in between his woman and his best friend. These things never end well.
And in Sir Thomas Overbury's case, it ended in his death. But first, Overbury wrote a poem called "His wife" which detailed a list of virtues which a man should demand in a woman before he marries her. WTF? Outrageous but this was the 17th century after all. Let's see a guy try that nowadays. So Overbury threw down the gauntlet so to speak with Frances when he wrote this poem.
Her first step was to try and discredit Overbury with the King. It was apparently easy to do since Overbury had become a tad arrogant with his success, and the King personally disliked him, considering that he had a malevolent influence over Somerset. She somehow managed to get the King to offer the ambassadorship of Russia to Overbury who declined the post which pissed off the King. So he threw Overbury into the Tower on April 22, 1613. With Overbury in the Tower, the Howards managed to win the King's support for the annulment of Frances's marriage to Deveraux, which was granted. Two months later Fraces and Carr were married. It was apparently the wedding of the season, celebrated by no less a personage than the poet John Donne.
As for Overbury, he died in the Tower 11 days before the annulment was granted. Two years later, rumors abounded that Overbury had been poisoned while in the Tower. Frances confessed, although her husband denied any knowledge, and both were sentenced to death. Eventually they were pardoned (I have no idea how they swung that! But apparently the King was afraid of what Somerset might have said about him at the trail), although 4 others were executed instead including the apothecary who supplied the poison.
The details of the murder came out during the trials of the accused. Frances wasn't satisfied to just have Overbury in the Tower, she wanted him dead because hey, he could still talk and try and convince Carr not to marry her. She needed him silenced. She got rid of Sir William Wade, the Governor of the Tower, and her own man, Sir Gervaise Heiwys placed in the position. Overbury was plied with sulferic acid in the form of copper vitriol, probably in his food or drink.
Like Rasputin, he had a strong constitution and it took months for him to die, since they were apparently giving him very small does of the poison, probably to make it look like he'd taken sick in the tower with some lingering disease, instead of just killing him out right which would have looked really suspicious.
Somerset of course was disgraced, even though he pleaded innocent to the crime. No one is quite sure whether he knew what Frances was doing and turned a blind eye because of his love for her, or whether or not he was an innocent dupe, who fell in love with the wrong woman. The Carrs had one child who later married the 1st Duke of Bedford. I remember reading somewhere that their marriage wasn't any happier than her previous marriage to Deveraux. Which is kind of understandable, since she had his friend murdered and almost got them executed!
Overbury's poem however was a sensation. It went through 6 editions in one year when it was printed after his death, and was one of the most popular books of the 17th century. Ironic in a way that his poem took on such a life of it's own, after he lost his.
One of Somerset's descendants has written a book about the murder called Unnatural Murder by Anne Somerset.
So was Frances really wicked? Or just a woman desperate to hold on to her man? After all, she was taking a huge risk of having her marriage annulled to one man. What would have happened to her if Somerset had been convinced by Overbury to throw her over? There was so much gossip about her, Essex, and Somerset. Her reputation was in danger of being ruined by Overbury. I'm sure in her mind, he had to go, and then her life would be perfect.