Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset

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Frances Carr
Countess of Somerset
Frances Howard-Countess-of-Somerset.jpg
Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset
Born 31 May 1590
Died 23 August 1632(1632-08-23) (aged 42)
Chiswick, London, England
Buried 27 August 1632
St Mary the Virgin, Saffron Walden, Essex, England
Noble family Howard
Spouse(s) Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex
Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset
Father Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk
Mother Catherine Knyvett

Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset (31 May 1590[1][2] – 23 August 1632), born Frances Howard, was an English noblewoman who was the central figure in a famous scandal and murder during the reign of King James I. She was found guilty but spared execution, and was eventually pardoned by the King and released from the Tower of London in early 1622.


She was born Frances Howard, the daughter of Lord Thomas Howard (later 1st Earl of Suffolk), and his wife, the former Catherine Knyvet. Frances' father was the second son of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, a wealthy and powerful nobleman during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and Margaret Audley, Duchess of Norfolk. Frances' maternal grandparents were Sir Henry Knyvet, of Charlton, Wiltshire, and Elizabeth Stumpe. She was the ten-times-great grandmother of the actress Celia Imrie.[3]

Failed marriage

Lady Frances Howard was married at the age of 14 to the 13-year-old Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex. The marriage was primarily a political union; they were separated after the wedding to prevent them from having intercourse, with the view that premature sex and pregnancy was to be avoided.[citation needed] Essex went on a European tour (from 1607 to 1609), and when he returned Frances made every effort to avoid him. He was at the time seriously ill with smallpox, but she had also fallen in love with Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. When she finally took the step of annulment, unable to legally represent herself, her father and her uncle, Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, represented her and drew up the libel. The situation quickly attracted public attention, and was widely observed by those with "prurient minds". She claimed that she had made every attempt to be sexually compliant for her husband, and that, through no fault of her own, she was still a virgin. She was examined by ten matrons and two midwives who found her hymen intact. It was widely rumoured at the time that Sir Thomas Monson's daughter was a substitute, which is possible because she had requested to be veiled during the examination "for modesty's sake".

The matter was a subject of mockery and ribald commentary throughout the court, including:

This Dame was inspected but Fraud interjected
A maid of more perfection
Whom the midwives did handle whilest the knight held the candle
O there was a clear inspection.[4]

In turn, Essex claimed that he was capable with other women, but was unable to consummate his marriage. According to a friend, one morning (while chatting with a group of male companions) he had stood up and lifted his nightshirt to show them his erection—proving, if nothing else, he was physically capable of arousal. When asked why only she caused his failing, he claimed that "she reviled him, and miscalled him, terming him a cow, and coward, and beast."

The idea of satanic involvement was seriously considered by the judges and at one point it was proposed that Essex should go to Poland to see if he could be "unwitched". The annulment languished and possibly would not have been granted if it were not for the king's intervention (Somerset was the favourite of King James). James I of England granted the annulment on 25 September 1613. Frances married Somerset on 26 December 1613.

A murderous plot

Sir Thomas Overbury, a close friend and advisor of Somerset, had tried to advise Somerset not to marry Frances Howard, but the Howard family and their allies were powerful. The Howard faction persuaded the king to offer Overbury the post of Ambassador to Russia, knowing he would refuse in order to stay in England by Somerset's side. When he did so, the king viewed this as an insult and imprisoned Overbury in the Tower of London, where he died. The annulment of Frances and Essex's marriage went through eleven days after Overbury's death.

It was revealed in court that Frances had Overbury poisoned with the help of her waiting-woman and companion Mrs Anne Turner. The Somersets were both sent to the Tower of London, and later convicted of murder, but spared execution. Frances admitted her complicity in the crime; however, her husband maintained his innocence. They received a pardon from King James in January 1622 and were subsequently released from prison. She died 10 years later at the age of 42.

Lord and Lady Somerset had one daughter born while Frances was under house arrest[4] before being taken to prison in the Tower of London. She was Lady Anne Carr, who married the 1st Duke of Bedford.

Titles from birth to death

  • 31 May 1590 – 21 July 1603: Mistress Frances Howard
  • 21 July 1603 – 1604: Lady Frances Howard
  • 1604 – 26 December 1613: The Right Honourable The Countess of Essex
  • 26 December 1613 – 23 August 1632: The Right Honourable The Countess of Somerset



  1. ^ Brian Tompsett's Royal Genealogy Database
  2. ^ Retrieved 31 May 2010
  3. ^ BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are?
  4. ^ Haynes, Alan: Sex in Elizabethan England, page 130. Wrens Park Publishing, 1997


  • Bellany, Alistair. The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News Culture and the Overbury Affair, 1603–1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Fraser, Antonia. The Weaker Vessel. New York : Knopf, 1984. ISBN 1-84212-635-0
  • Haynes, Alan. Sex in Elizabethan England. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1997. ISBN 0-905778-35-9
  • King, Betty Nygaard. Hell Hath No Fury: Famous Women in Crime (Borealis Press, 2001)
  • Lindley, David. The Trials of Frances Howard. London, Routledge, 1993.
  • Schama, Simon. A History of Britain: The Wars of the British, 1603 – 1776. New York : Hyperion, 2001. ISBN 0-563-48718-6
  • Somerset, Anne. Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of James I. London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997. ISBN 0-7538-0198-1
  • Harris, Brian. Passion, Poison and Power. London: Wildy, Simmonds & Hill. 2010. ISBN 978-0-85490-077-0
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