Howard, Frances (1593–1632)

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Howard, Frances (1593–1632)

English murderer and countess of Somerset . Name variations: Lady Frances Howard; Lady Somerset. Born in England on May 31, 1593 (some sources cite 1590); died in Chiswick, Middlesex, England, on August 23, 1632; interred at Saffron Waldon, Essex, on August 27, 1632; daughter of Thomas Howard (1561–1626), 1st earl of Suffolk (r. 1603–1626), and Catherine Knyvett, countess of Suffolk; sister of Elizabeth Knollys ; married Robert Devereux, 3rd/20th earl of Essex, on January 5, 1605 (annulled in 1613); married Robert Carr (c. 1587–1645), later earl of Somerset, on December 26, 1613; children: Anne Carr (1615–1684, who married William Russell, 1st duke of Bedford, in 1637, and had ten children).

The short life of Lady Frances Howard is dominated by her involvement in a murder plot that was carried out at the court of King James I of England. Howard was born into nobility, the daughter of Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk, and Catherine Knyvett , the countess of

Suffolk. Something of a femme fatale even in her teens, Frances first appeared at court at age 15 and immediately captured the attention of Robert Carr, a page and one of James I's male favorites. Howard, though married at 12 to Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, entered into a love affair with Carr, keeping her husband at bay by dosing his food with "debilitation powders" that rendered him impotent. After two years, she petitioned James for an annulment of her marriage, which the king agreed to grant in order to keep Carr happy. In the meantime, Carr's confidant (and intellectual superior), Sir Thomas Overbury, criticized the annulment and warned Carr that Frances Howard would be his ruination. For his trouble, Overbury was accused of plotting against the Crown and ordered by James I to the Tower of London.

Not content to have her nemesis locked away and under heavy guard, Howard began sending Overbury food rations laced with exotic poisons, such as rose algar, lapis constitis, cantharides, and white arsenic. The meals were delivered by several Tower guards whom Howard had won over. Overbury had a sturdy constitution, however, and took some time to die, finally succumbing on September 15, 1613. Within three days of his demise, Frances Howard received her annulment and a short time later married Carr in a lavish ceremony in Whitehall. As a wedding gift, James I pronounced Robert Carr the earl of Somerset, and Frances was now known as Lady Somerset.

The Somersets had the run of court, and James rewarded them further with gifts of real estate. Frances Howard's privileged life would have continued had not Paul de Lobel, one of the apothecaries involved in the murder plot, made a deathbed confession that detailed the poisoning of Overbury and named all the accomplices, including Howard, Carr, the Tower guards, and the suppliers of the various poisons. Howard's murder trial was successfully delayed by James I until May 24, 1616, when he finally bowed to pressures from court. She was prosecuted by no less than Sir Francis Bacon, who, in deference to the king, treated her with the utmost kindness. During the proceedings, Howard was said to have looked beautiful and wept openly, admitting her guilt. She was convicted and condemned to death, as was her husband in a subsequent trial. Both were later pardoned by the king and banished to cloistered but comfortable lives in the Tower. Their daughter Lady Anne Carr was born there on December 9, 1615. The Somersets were released in 1622 and retired to Oxfordshire, where they lived out their life in less than perfect harmony. Frances Howard died in 1632, at age 39, after suffering a prolonged illness. Robert Carr lived until 1645 and was honored at his burial in the Church of St. Paul's, Covent Garden.

suggested reading:

Lindley, David. The Trial of Frances Howard: Facts and Fiction in the Court of King James. Routledge, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Howard, Frances (1593–1632)

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