Frances Howard, the Queen of Hearts and her deadly tarts
The court of James I of England was a breathtaking place, but not built for a beautiful young woman. James I was a well documented lover of male beauty, and a stunning Howard girl was wasted on him. Luckily, young Frances Howard was not one to wait around to be noticed.
Born to Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, and granddaughter of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, Frances had a noble pedigree. She was married off as a child bride to Robert Deveraux, 3rd Earl of Essex. His pedigree was nothing to sneeze at either as he was the son of the infamous Lord Essex, favorite of Queen Elizabeth, and great-great grandson of Mary Boleyn. His grandmother was Lettice Knollys who married Queen Elizabeth’s other favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. At the time of the wedding, the groom was 14 and the bride was 13. It was decided they were “too young to consider, but old enough to consent” so Frances stayed at court with her mother while Robert went abroad.
That very well could have been the end of the story, but life was not through with Frances Howard. Life at court was exciting and Frances was young and beautiful, and garnered much attention. One of her admirers was said to be Prince Henry, James’ son and heir to the throne. In fact, later rumor said she relieved the Prince of his virginity. However, the man who caught her eye was Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester and later Earl of Somerset. Carr was astoundingly handsome and a favorite of the king. Frances immediately set her cap for him, but there was the annoying problem of her first husband.
In the meantime, Deveraux returned from his travels and Frances was taken from court to live at her husband’s estate. Used to the glittering whirl of court life, being buried alive at Chartley would not do. Reportedly she barricaded herself in her room and viciously berated her husband whenever he was in earshot. She appealed to her father and uncle to help her with an annulment claiming the marriage had never been consummated. Rumors flew that she had given Essex a “love-philter” to keep him incapable. In the end, a panel of matron examined Frances and determined she was “virgo intacta”. Again, rumors flew because the lady brought in as Frances was heavily veiled “for modesty”. The marriage was on its way to being annulled and the king would surely bless the marriage of his favorite to the lovely Frances. One last problem, her perfect husband had a jerk of a best friend.
Sir Thomas Overbury was very opposed to his best friend Carr marrying Frances and was not shy about saying so. In fact, he wrote a poem called “A Wife”, which listed all the virtuous qualities a man should demand in his wife and heavily implying Frances did not have them. This was war.
Frances did not stand idly by and fired her own salvos, pouring poison in the King’s ear about Overbury. The King offered Overbury the post of ambassador to Russia to get his influence away from his favorite, but Overbury refused. That was his second mistake. You don’t refuse a king, and Overbury ended up in the Tower. There he became dreadfully sick and died. Carr and Frances were married in a lavish ceremony and should have lived happily ever after. However, the rumors wouldn’t stop.
Two years later, the rumors and suspicions boiled over into a murder trial accusing Fran
ces and Carr of procuring poisons from a “cunning woman” to kill Thomas Overbury. What ensued was a comedy of errors. Frances had her servants bake poison tarts and sent them to Overbury. This happened multiple times, but he just wouldn’t die! Finally, an “apothecary’s boy” administered an enema laced with “copper vitriol” or sulfuric acid. OUCH!
The trial was the sensation of the age, and every scurrilous point of Frances’ life was paraded out. Copies of “A Wife” were revised and sold like hot cakes. In the end, Frances and her husband and their servants were found guilty. The servants were executed, but Carr still had powerful allies and he and Frances languished in the Tower. Ironically, Frances’ discarded ex-husband Robert Deveraux pushed for her death, one would probably assume for accusing him of impotence, which he vehemently denied.
Frances and Carr stayed in the Tower for eleven years until they were pardoned by the King. One daughter was born during their time in the Tower, but it was said no love remained between Frances and Carr. Their marriage had turned from passion to hatred, and Frances died ten years later.