Posted on: July 30, 2013

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I remember once walking round Woburn Abbey and coming across a portrait of a woman showing an almost full amount of naked bosom, and with a very sly look in her eye. On finding out it was Frances Howard, I thought “ah that figures”. Frances was the bad girl of King James I’s time, notorious for poisoning a meddlesome acquaintance whilst he languished in the Tower of London, and possibly trying to do away with her first husband as well.

She was born on 31 May 1590, daughter of Lord Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, and Catherine Knyvet. The Howards were a ruthless, greedy lot. Lord Thomas was eventually done for embezzlement of public funds.

At the tender age of 14 Frances was married off to Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, himself only 13. As was usual with marriages amongst the aristocracy, the union was a purely political one. The two children were separated almost immediately, and Robert was sent off to finish his degree at Oxford, and then sent off on a tour of Europe.

When he returned home, Robert found that his bride had fallen in love with the devilishly handsome Scot, Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset, and a favourite of the homosexual king. Frances wanted a divorce so that she could marry Carr. She was determined to keep Devereux at arms length, rebuffing his advances, and turning to poisons to dampen his ardour. Claiming the marriage hadn’t been consummated, she was medically examined by a bunch of worthy matrons, who pronounced her a virgin. Frances remained veiled throughout the proceedings, which led many gossips at the time to speculate that another girl had been substituted in her place.

Robert Devereux, perhaps feeling that his manhood was being maligned, was said to have raised his nightshirt in the company of friends to prove that he could get an erection. He said that Frances had constantly belittled him so that he was unable to perform. Many believed that she had put a hex on him, which was pretty dangerous gossip considering that King James had an almost total paranoia about witches.

James though, finding the whole matter distasteful, granted the couple an annulment on Christmas Day 1613, and Frances speedily married Somerset the following day. All was not to be plain sailing though. Sir Thomas Overbury, a close friend of Somerset’s, had tried to warn him against marrying Frances, even though he had helped the two lovers conspire to meet, and had carried letters for them. Overbury detested Frances though, describing her as a “filthy, base woman”. The powerful Howard family weren’t having this, and conspired to get Overbury banged up in the Tower of London … where he met an untimely death.

It was said that Frances had visited the prison in the company of Mrs Anne Turner, and handed over a little basket of jellies and tarts for Overbury’s delectation. Mrs Turner was a rather suspect character. Although a doctor’s widow, she kept a house of ill-repute, and was well-versed in the art of poisoning. She was reputed to have been assisted by Simon Forman, an Occultist and herbalist. Frances had used their services to try and dampen her husband’s libido, and in a damning letter to Turner wrote “I cannot be happy as long as this man liveth”.

Worried that she may lose Robert Carr before they were hitched (he was very popular with the ladies of the court), it was said that Frances had even resorted to black magic ceremonies, conducted by Forman, where wax figures of Frances and Carr were put in a copulating position to ensure that Carr remained dazzled by Frances’s charms.

Frances admitted her guilt, although her husband protested his innocence. Public feeling against Frances was high, and everyone expected her to suffer the ultimate fate for what she had done, but the King waived this, on the dubious grounds that her family had done a lot for the country. They were both to spend several years in the Tower. Mrs Turner wasn’t so lucky. She was hanged at Tyburn in November 1615.

Frances and Robert were finally released from the Tower in January 1622. It is said that they were both put under house arrest at Grey’s Court in Oxfordshire, where Frances died in August 1632, at the age of 42.



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