Frances Howard, The Murderous Countess of Somerset

The life of an early-seventeenth century Countess was all about appearances, wearing sparkling jewels in a display of wealth and power and standing loyally and dutifully beside her husband. But in 1615 Frances Howard Countess of Somerset, stood pale and solemn in a silent courtroom facing charges of murder. 

Frances was the daughter of Thomas Howard Earl of Suffolk and his second wife Catherine Knyvet. She had married, as a young teenager, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, but divorced him on grounds that he hadn't been physically interested in her. Following an examination, the marriage was dissolved. Another young marriage appears in Frances' family history: her father's first wife, Mary, had died in 1578 at the age of fourteen. His second wife, Frances' mother, married him at the age of seventeen. 

Catherine's life, even as a young child in the Essex countryside, was at the centre of the royal court. Her father had been knighted for his action against the Spanish in 1588 under Elizabeth I and fought in Cadiz in 1596, and in the Azores the following year. In 1601 he entertained the queen at his London mansion, The Charterhouse. Is it too much to imagine Frances, as a young girl, brought out and proudly presented to the aged, smiling queen? Thomas had been involved in the trials of the Earl of Essex and Southampton in 1601 and also played a part in uncovering the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. But there was a darker side to the heroic earl; he was removed from his post of Lord High Treasurer in 1619 on charges of embezzlement. This left him and Catherine in a precarious financial position. They were fined the huge sum of £30,000 although according to Cokayne this was later dropped to £7,000. 

The newly-divorced Frances next set her eye on the loyal but conniving Earl of Somerset Sir Robert Carr (sometimes spelled Kerr). He was one of James I's favourites at court, with witnesses testifying that the king would throw his arms around Carr's neck, hugging him and asking excitedly when he was next to return. 

Carr certainly enjoyed an illustrious political and royal career in the early Stuart reign. He was one of the group that accompanied the Scottish king to England in 1603 as a Page of Honour, aged sixteen. He was knighted at Hampton Court Palace in 1607 and in 1609 received the attainted lands of Sir Walter Raleigh in Sherborne, Dorset. Carr's roles in government included Acting Secretary of State, Treasurer and Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. Dubbed a Knight of the Garter in 1611 and in 1613 created Earl of Somerset at the age of twenty-six, Carr's rise was fast, suggesting that he had sound political sense as well as was able to win the favour of the new king. 

By the spring of 1613, Frances Howard and Robert Carr had begun a relationship and were married in December of that year at the Chapel Royal, Whitehall, with the king present. Although modern estimates of her date of birth have her born in 1590, Cokayne puts forward the date of 1599. As she recited her vows and received the applause and well-wishes of the royal family, Frances was between fourteen and twenty-three years of age.* 

The young Countess was renowned for her beauty, one drawing of the couple dating to around 1615 describing her as 'beautiful and profligate'. She stands alongside her husband, at the centre of our attention, as she may have done in life. She seems to have been relentlessly ambitious and, true to the contemporary description of her, enjoyed showing off her wealth. Frances' neck is adorned with rows of pearls and she wears a low-cut bodice decorated with jewels and an ornate lace ruff. Another painting of Frances shows her wearing a similarly low-cut gown, her brown eyes staring out at us from the canvas. She may have been beautiful, but not everyone was pleased with the marriage. In particular, Sir Thomas Overbury. 

Robert Carr and Frances, his wife. Yale Centre for British Art, Public Domain. 

Overbury had, according to the evidence collected in the subsequent court case, fallen out with Carr over his intended marriage to Frances, supposedly either jealous of the attention she was now commanding from the earl, or because he considered the Howards his enemies. The relationship between Carr and Overbury had once been a close one. Overbury was said to have advised the earl in political and court matters and even opened his letters, making 'table talk' of them. It was said that Overbury therefore, as the close associate of the king's favourite, knew more state secrets than the Council Table. 

On 15 September 1613 Overbury died while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Mysterious eyes fell on Carr, their newfound hatred for one another common knowledge at court. However from the evidence that was presented in court two years later, it was his young and beautiful wife Frances who seemed to have played the larger role. 

The charge was death by poisoning. Lawyers alleged that on May 9th, an unnamed date in June, July 10th and September 14th  1613, Overbury had unknowingly ingested poisons including mercury and arsenic. He had died a horrific death, complaining shortly before he died that he had sixty bowel movements in one day and had been vomiting for three to four days. The coroner remarked that, as he viewed Overbury's body on the morning of his death, he saw that he had a black ulcer between his shoulder blades and plasters to treat sores on his foot and back, but that his body was so thin and emaciated that it was 'nothing but skin and bones'. What increased the public's interest in the case however was that Overbury had been a prisoner of the king, housed in the Tower of London and 'out of his own defence'. More importantly, he had been under the king's protection, and someone had clearly infiltrated it. 

Standing, her hand held up in front of those present at her hearing, the pregnant Frances, aged around twenty-five, in her black gown and white ruff, immediately pleaded guilty to the charges. It was just as well. The case against her was damning. One witness, Sir D Woodes, testified that Frances revealed that her husband and Overbury were bitter enemies and that if Woodes could kill Overbury she would pay him £1,000 and help him in his affairs using her influence at court. Woodes did not take her up on the offer and the subject was quickly dropped. Frances was also accused of telling the Lieutenant of the Tower, who, the court argued had been placed there by the Carrs to oversee Overbury, that 'I was bid to tell you, that in the tarts and jellies there are letters; but in the wine none. And of that you may take yourself, and give your wife and children; but of the other, not. Give him these tarts and jelly this night, and all shall be well." She admitted, as the case unfolded, that her reference to the 'letters' did in fact refer to poison concealed in the prisoner's food and drink. 

Frances also showed impatience when Overbury's death took longer than it should have, their accomplice Weston assuring her that he had given him enough poison to kill twenty men. Weston testified that on one occasion Frances had sent Weston to give Overbury water, but warned him that he (Weston) shouldn't drink it, leading him to have 'perceived, or at least suspected that it was poison'. The Countess was not only poisoning Overbury through his water, tarts and jellies according to the documents, but also in the roasted pork and partridges he ordered while in his cell. 

There were others involved in the plot, too. Mrs Turner was either a close friend or servant of Frances who helped procure the poisons. The Lieutenant, Weston, delivered it to Overbury for his consumption, while an apothecary named Franklin sourced them on Frances' request. 

As the authorities began to investigate Overbury's death amid growing suspicion around the Somersets, Frances seems to have become anxious. She warned Franklin that he might be interrogated, but he was not to not mention her or her husband's involvement. Robert Carr was almost certainly involved, although maintained his innocence throughout the trial, even receiving a caution for continuing to try to speak in his defence after the case had ended. During his statements, he put the entire blame on his wife. When questioned about the foods he had sent to Overbury, Robert said that he had sent only 'good tarts', while it was his wife apparently who had set the 'bad'. 

Robert was, however, charged all the same, found guilty of conspiracy in the murder. He had burned documents and altered letters, adding future dates to them to make them appear unlinked to Overbury's death. He was also accused of engineering Overbury's imprisonment and employing Weston to carry out the murder from the inside. Witnesses saw angry letters between the earl and the deceased, including one from Overbury that said that if he died, the earl would have his blood on his hands, indicating that Overbury had sensed that murder at Carr's hands might be imminent. 

One interesting part of the trial involved Frances' dealings with witchcraft. Much was made of her letters to an astrologer called Forman, who she addressed as 'Sweet Father', and her loyal Mrs Turner, in using 'magical means' to win the heart and marriage of the earl. The skin of a dead man and 'other enchantments' were referred to, probably to show Frances as a wicked and sinister woman prior to their marriage in 1613. Franklin, the apothecary who became ensnared in the plot, certainly believed that she was. In his confession, he blasted 'one wicked woman', which can only refer to the Countess. He called her 'the most imprudent woman that lived' and said that she was able to 'bewitch any man... [urging] him two hundred times to bring the poison'. He had given in to her requests he said, because of her expensive bribes, including gifts of gold.  

On the morning of 14 November 1615 between 10 and 11am, Mrs Turner was hanged at Tyburn. She prayed for Frances as her hands were bound with black silk and concealing her face with a black veil. Kneeling on a cart with the rope around her neck, it was pulled away and she jerked to her death. Franklin, the apothecary, was also hanged, but insisted before his death that 'more were to be poisoned and murdered than are yet known', and that there were 'greater persons in this matter' that had not yet been revealed. 

Could he have been referring to the king? Both Robert and Frances were sentenced to death for Overbury's murder, but after a brief spell in the Tower, James I pardoned them and they were released in 1622, their official pardon dated two years later. The king's behaviour in the case has raised suspicion, the nineteenth century historian Andrew Amos noting that James was known to have disliked Overbury. James' keenness to follow the case is also suspicious, especially as it involved his court favourite. For a king, creating distance between him and his potentially criminal favourite would have been a better act in the public eye. Perhaps James wanted to manage the case, should any information leak out about his involvement. Although speculation, this is interesting to consider. 

After the trial, Frances was seen by the public as an enemy, despite being pardoned. On one journey, the public mistook a carriage carrying the Queen, the Countess of Derby, Lord Carew and Lady Ruthin for Frances', and believed she was travelling with her mother, Catherine. The people 'flocked together and followed the coach in great numbers railing and reviling, and abusing the footman, and putting them all in fear'. 

Ironically, if Frances murdered Overbury to pave the way for her wedding to Somerset, she would not enjoy a long marriage. The pair separated, Cokayne noting that they encountered further legal trouble together in 1630, although this case was dropped. Frances suffered the loss of her father in 1626 and she herself died, of a 'loathsome disease', on the warm summer day of 23 August 1632. She was just forty-two years old. Her mother died the following year, and was buried in Saffron Walden in Essex.

Frances Howard was certainly not the only criminal involved in this case. Despite his protests, her husband was also likely involved, along with Weston, Mrs Turner and Franklin. Franklin's suggestion that other, 'greater' people were implicated is intriguing, and it seems that in this respect at least, these figures escaped justice. However, Frances' actions seem especially chilling when we consider that, in the cold winter of 1613, not even three months after causing the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, she was smiling, dancing and feasting as she secured the hand of Somerset and celebrated with the king at Whitehall. 

Liked this? You might also like A Visit to Shakespeare's New Place, Stratford on Avon, 10 Everyday Objects from Tudor Times, or Sir Peter Vanlore: Jeweller, Merchant, Moneylender

Never want to miss a post? Subscribe to my newsletter here: 


Full Description of Image: Renold Elstrack, 1570–1625(?), British, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, with His Countess, Frances Howard, ca. 1615, Line engraving on medium, smooth, cream laid paper, pasted on mount, laid on additional larger mount, Yale Center for British Art, Gift of John Hay Whitney, Yale BA 1926, Yale MA (HON.) 1956, transfer from the Yale University Library and the Yale University Art Gallery, B1994.4.158.

* Cokayne asserts that Frances was born 30 September, 1599 in London. The earlier date of 1590 on a number of other websites seems more likely, the 1615 drawing also showing a much older woman than sixteen. 

Andrew Amos, The Great Oyer of Poisoning - The Trial of the Earl of Somerset for the Poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury. Bentley, London. 1846. 

George Cokayne, The Complete Peerage, Vol 7. 'Somerset' and 'Suffolk'. 1896.