Lady Frances Howard (1590-1632) – The Poisoned Tart – Noble House of Howard – Historical Femme Fatale


Frances Howard Banner

Lady Frances Howard

Like all ladies born to powerful noblemen, Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, was destined to be used as a political pawn for her family to gain more power. At the age of 14 she married 13 year old Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex. They were separated after the wedding, probably so the union would not be consummated. Sometimes this was done, when either the bride or grooms parents did not trust the other family so much. That way, if the other family becomes troublesome, or does not follow through on promises made, pay dowries, or a better match comes along, the marriage can be easily dissolved. Of course they used the excuse as “they are so young.” However, at the time, young people their age (or even younger) got married and had babies all the time. It was obvious there were some misgivings about the match from the beginning.

While Frances’s husband was away, learning the things young Lords learn: like how to be a competent knight and kill in the name of the King… The young and beautiful Frances Howard met and fell in love with Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. 1st Earls are always interesting characters… To be a 1st of anything, you must have pleased your King. Usually favorites are 1st “this or that.” Robert Carr, must have been a political catch… (And he even had the same name as Frances’s husband. Pretty convenient considering she did not have to worry about saying the wrong name if she ever had to suffer her husband’s attentions.)

Ahhhh young love! Of course this ruined her relationship with her husband… Most likely when he came back, he found his young bride not interested in him at all, cold, and disgusted… How could she possibly like him, when she was in love with another man? Rumor was, she even made love to Robert Carr and was no longer a Virgin.

Seeing as becoming the wife of the King, James I of England, (and VI of Scotland’s), buddy was very good indeed, Frances’s power hungry father and uncle began to petition to annul her marriage. They claimed she was still a Virgin; that even though she tried to consummate the marriage with her husband, it was declared publically he that could not perform his duties. She accused her husband of being impotent, which is the most shameful thing for a man. One can suspect, they both could not stand each other for things to get so ugly in the end. However, it’s kind of expected, given their circumstances.

Devereux was humiliated, but he lashed right back out at his wife and her self seeking family. He began getting on with prostitutes and other willing ladies. He made it known that he was fully capable of the act. It was just he could not with Frances. Frances was a known beauty of her time according to the ideal beauty of her era, so it wasn’t that she was unattractive. It was the fact that she reviled her husband, calling him names and she was very mean to him. Completely understandable as she was very young and deeply in love with another man.

The quickest way for an annulment was to prove that no consummation took place and that Frances was still “Virgo Intacta.” A bunch of nuns came to visit and examine her. There was some question though… Was she a Virgin still? There were rumors that she and Carr were lovers. It was also interesting that the lady was shy and asked to be veiled during the procedure… It’s not far fetched that some young maiden took her place in the examination. All that is known was that she was found to be untouched. As the King of England was also the head of the church ever since uncle Henry VIII broke with Rome, it is a no brainer that the annulment was eventually granted so the King’s best friend could marry his lady.

When a friend and adviser of Carr, Sir Thomas Overbury, was trying to warn his friend against the marriage, Overbury suddenly found himself imprisoned in the tower and mysteriously poisoned. It was revealed that the Countess of Somerset was responsible. She wasn’t going to let anyone get in the way of getting what she wanted- Marriage to Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. Both the Earl and Countess were imprisoned in the tower and convicted of murder. They were spared execution, then later pardoned and released. See? It’s nice to have friends in high places.


Lady Frances Howard’s, Countess of Somerset, only issue was her daughter she shared with her 2nd Husband, Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset…

Lady Anne Carr, Countess of Bedford (1615-1684)


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