Frances Howard was born in 1590, the daughter of Lord Thomas Howard. Thomas was the second son of a powerful nobleman also called Thomas Howard, and her mother was the Duchess of Norfolk. So basically, Frances was a noblewoman on both sides, which meant that the main point of her early life was as a pawn for her parents to marry off to someone else for political reasons. And so it was she found herself married in 1604, aged 14, to a 13-year-old boy named Robert Devereux. But Frances was atypical of young women of her era, in that she was not content to hang out around the house and give birth to fifteen children or whatever. Frances had greater ambitions than that. She wanted to find true love.
Readers of some of my previous essays may be like, wait a minute, where have I heard the name Robert Devereux before? And to those readers, I will say: it’s complicated. So, the first Robert Devereux (the father of this 13-year-old) was a fairly useless nobleman who Queen Elizabeth I had sort of a crush on. And that Robert Devereux was also the son of Robert Dudley, who Queen Elizabeth I had had an even bigger crush on. I go into both of those things a bit in my essay about Lettice Knollys but basically: the whole Devereaux family had long been important at the royal court, which speaks to how powerful and influential the family was. But none of that mattered to 14-year-old Frances, who was not having any of this.
Luckily for her, everyone involved knew it was risky for young teenage girls to become pregnant (just ask Margaret Beaufort) and so Frances and Devereux were kept apart after the wedding so that they wouldn’t accidentally consummate things before Frances’s body was finished growing. So they were married, but also kind of not, because consummation was necessary to make it all officially official. But as far as the Howard and Devereux families were concerned, it was a done deal. Teenage Devereux headed off to go tour around the rest of Europe, leaving teenage Frances to her own devices back in England. He was gone for two years, and when he came back, Frances unleashed a full set of skills still used to this day by women who want to avoid men: she ensured they were never alone together. And why, you might ask, would the now 19-year-old bride behave this way? Well in the first place, Devereux had contracted smallpox during his trip and she didn’t want to die; and also, in his absence, Frances had fallen in love with another man, namely, Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset.
Because every man back then was called Robert, as I think we’re all now aware, we’ll call this one just Somerset. Somerset was just a few years older than Frances, and unlike Robert Devereux, was not from a particularly notable family. Around the same time that Frances was getting teenage married, teenage Somerset was toiling away as an obscure page in Edinburgh. While there, he made friends with another not-particularly-powerful writer named Thomas Overbury. They became friends, and Somerset wound up hiring Overbury to be his secretary. Of the two, Somerset was the charismatic, ambitious one, while Overbury was the supportive behind-the-scenes type. So when Somerset began making a name for himself at royal court, Overbury did everything he could to advise and support him. And working together, they paved the way for Somerset to become one of the most influential people at court.
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In 1607, the same year that Devereux left for his smallpox tour of Europe, Somerset broke his leg during a jousting match. King James I, who was definitely not heterosexual, became immediately smitten with him and helped nurse him back to health because that’s just the sort of guy he was. In short order, Somerset became James’s favourite courtier, a man the King loved so dearly that he knighted him, named him Viscount Rochester, and took him on as a Privy Councillor. Basically, King James kept himself busy with some personal things and sometimes let the political stuff slip by the wayside. Seeing this, Frances’s family, the Howards, began making power moves to gain themselves more power and influence over the government. And Somerset, having already begun an affair with Frances, was happy to support the Howard family in all this backroom dealing because it made marrying Frances seem like an even better idea.
But the thing is, she was still technically married to Robert Devereux. But, Frances pointed out, they had never consummated their relationship. This meant she had possible grounds for an annulment! So, she set out to get her marriage annulled. Meanwhile, Overbury was becoming jealous and concerned about Somerset’s dealings with Frances and the Howard family. Overbury was concerned about Frances’s reputation for “immodesty” by which I think he means “the neckline of the dresses she liked to wear when getting her portrait painted” (see below).
In a misguided attempt to get Somerset to dump her, Overbury published a poem called A Wife. This poem was basically a 17th century version of meninism and was like the world’s worst description of what an ideal wife should be like. It was effectively a subtweet meant to get Frances to back off and for Somerset to realize the error of this ways. He wasn’t just using subtle poetry to get in the way of the Frances/Somerset marriage; he was also dedicated to ensuring Frances did not get her annulment. Because if she was still married to Devereux, she couldn’t marry Overbury’s BFF.
Frances saw what was going on because she had two eyes, was brilliant, and also because Overbury wasn’t too slick with his schemes. So, with the help of her family, she set about getting Overbury kicked out of court. She had a genius-level plan to trick him into committing treason, and even Queen Anne herself may have been involved as Frances worked at pitting Overbury and Somerset against each other. I mean, what else did Anne have to do with her husband running around falling in love with men all the time? (* I’ll write about Queen Anne another day, because in fact she had lots of interesting things to do, she was just a petty gal who liked a little drama).
The scheme was this: knowing that Overbury was obsessed with sticking close to Somerset, they manipulated King James into offering Overbury the assignment of Russian Ambassador. And when Overbury turned down the job, which they knew he would because he wouldn’t go to Russia and leave Somerset alone, he got charged with treason for disobeying the King. Which sort of hints at the fact that James was in on this whole scheme as well, because he had long been jealous of Overbury’s relationship with his beloved Somerset. Getting rid of Overbury would, in that sense, help James out as well. For any combination of these reasons, Overbury wound up arrested and jailed in the Tower of London. And after five months in prison, he died of “natural causes.”
OR DID HE.
(Yes, he died; but not necessarily of natural causes)
Anyway, with Overbury out of the way, Frances was finally able to get on with her annulment proceedings. During the trial, Frances claimed that she had done her best to be sexually compliant for her teen husband Devereaux, and that it was entirely his fault they had never consummated their marriage — the annulment was to be on grounds of Devereux’s alleged impotence. This meant that Frances’s virginity was the ultimate evidence, and so she was examined by ten matrons and two midwives to verify whether or not her hymen was intact. And she was found to still be a virgin. Or I should say, whoever the matrons and midwives examined was still a virgin. Because Frances had requested to have her head covered during the examination, for modesty reasons, and it was widely rumoured she had swapped places with a virginal doppelganger.
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But Devereux wasn’t about to agree to an annulment or admit to being impotent, so he got up on the stand to argue that in fact, he was actually super virile and that it was Frances’s fault they had not consummated their marriage. As evidence, he explained that he had successfully completed intercourse with other women. One of his friends noted that he had once seen Robert with an erection, which proved that he was at least capable of being aroused. Devereaux claimed that Frances was mean to him, and also sexually unappealing, and emasculated him, which made him unable to perform the act with her. This trial was the talk of the town, obviously, because it’s amazing gossip. It became even more so when the judges began considering if satanism was somehow involved, and they debated sending Robert to Poland for an exorcism. Finally, James intervened and did his favourite courtier a solid by granting the annulment. Three months later, Frances married Somerset. Happy ever after! … Until it wasn’t. Because two years after Overbury’s death, someone finally noticed that he had not conveniently died “of natural causes”… he’d been murdered by poisoning!!
And so Frances headed back to court, this time on trial for murder with Somerset and four accomplices. During the trial, the whole scheme came out. What had happened was, Frances had removed the honest and decent Lord Lieutenant of the Tower of London and had him replaced by a man much more morally flexible. This man had the incredible name of Gervaise Helwys. Her second inside man was Richard Weston, a jailer who apparently was familiar with the murderous possibilities of drugs; he was set up as Overbury’s jail concierge, because even though it was jail, Overbury was rich, and that’s how these things were done. A woman named Mrs. Anne Turner also become involved, as the wife of a physician (and part-time brothel owner, which isn’t to do with this but is a great detail) she had access to lots of drugs. And, just to be on the safe side, an apothecary named Simon Franklin joined the team. The poison that this Ocean’s Eight squad decided upon was sulfiric acid, to be laced into Overbury’s meals and hand-delivered by Weston.
Many of these details came directly from Frances during the trial, where she pled guilty. Somerset, however, claimed innocence. James, concerned he might lose his dear friend and also that he himself might somehow found complicit if this didn’t end quickly, encouraged Somerset to change his plea to guilty. The King noted that if Somerset admitted complicity, then James could offer him a pardon and it would all be OK. But if Somerset continued to say he was innocent, he could be found guilty by the jury, and put to death. Fun fact: guess who one of the jurors was? None other than Frances’s recently spurned husband, Robert Devereux! And to no one’s surprise, Devereux was eager to sentence both Frances and Somerset to death. Honestly, just this detail of him being on the jury elevates this already operatic-scale story to telenovela proportions.
But when the verdict was decided upon, Frances and Somerset’s rank at court (and, likely, James’s love of Somerset) meant they were sentenced not to death, but to life in prison. Their co-conspirators, being not so wealthy or beloved, weren’t so lucky. Gervaise Helwys, Richard Weston, Anne Turner, and Simon Franklin were all hanged for their role in the poisoning murder of Thomas Overbury.
Frances was pardoned almost immediately, and Somerset was soon after. In total, the married couple spent about two years imprisoned in the Tower of London, during which time Frances gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Anne. The couple lived out the rest of their lives out of the public eye, though the notoriety of the murder followed them to the end. A number of plays, poems, and other writings came out over the subsequent years, inspired by the events of both Frances’s annulment trial as well as the Overbury murder. Thomas Overbury’s poem A Wife became wildly successful due to its connection to his murder and the trial. Over the next sixty years, it was never out of print. Robert Devereux, I would like to note, went on to marry again but never fathered any children so maybe he truly was impotent. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Frances Howard Carr, Countess of Somerset, passed away in 1632 at the age of 42. Her second husband, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, passed away twelve years later. Their daughter Anne Carr lived a long and healthy life. King James’s reputation was forever tarnished by his rumoured involvement in the Overbury murder.
This case caught my attention when I heard about the upcoming historical noir The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle, which leans into the murderous love triangle aspect of the Frances/Somerset/James/Overbury situation. I haven’t read it yet but can’t wait to! It comes out in November,m.
Two nonfiction works on the situation are the Edgar Award-winning true crime work The Overbury Affair by Miriam Allen DeFord as well as Unnatural Murder: Poison in the Court of James I by Anne Somerset, an author who also seems to be a descendant of Frances Howard’s.
4 thoughts on “The Murder of Thomas Overbury by the Notorious Frances Howard”
Absolutely fascinating! What a drama!
I stumbled on this website several weeks ago while looking up something as I fell down a Mary, Queen of Scots, rabbithole, and it has been THE BEST. Big fan of the writing and the podcast, especially in weirdo pandemic times. THANK YOU.
Yay!!! Welcome and I’m glad to help distract in weirdo pandemic times (tm, you)
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