Frances Vavasour – the tangled loves of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting.

Robert Dudley son of the Earl of Leicester

I posted about Anne Vavasour a couple of years ago. She was one of Elizabeth I’s maid-of-hounour who became a mistess to Sir Henry Lee having previously had an affair with Edward de Vere. Sir Henry Lee was Elizabeth’s champion and master of armouries and Edward de Vere was the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Frances Vavasour (1568-1606) was Anne’s sister. She also came to court to serve as a maid of honour and wasn’t without her own share of scandal.
In 1591 Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Leicester, contracted to marry her – though the queen felt it wise for the couple to wait for a few years given the age of the groom. Despite his illegitimacy and lack of title he was a wealthy catch. His late father had left him many properties including Kennilworth Castle.

Somewhat bizarrely instead of marrying the young and handsome Robert Dudley Frances ran off with Sir Thomas Shirley (1564-1633.) The marriage was a secret one and whilst the marriage was still under wraps Shirley courted Frances Brooke, Lady Stourton. This was not a clever thing to have done as France’s brother-in-law was Robert Cecil. Frances was also the daughter of Lord Cobham.

Inevitably the secret wedding was uncovered and Elizabeth behaved in a familiar way i.e. banishing the couple from court. Thomas found himself imprisoned in the Marshalsea but was released in 1592. But there wasn’t any happy ever after for the couple.

The Shirley family fell upon hard times. Thomas’s father had been appointed Treasurer-At-War to the English army in the Netherlands. Unfortunately he borrowed the boney he should have been using for the Crown for his own ends – which went wrong. Essentially he ended up to his neck in debt. As an MP Shirley found a medium of sanctuary. A law was passed saying that MPS couldn’t be arrested for debt – only when they stopped being MPs could creditors take the matter further.

Thomas recognising that the family fortune was lost took up privateering (piracy licensed by the Crown.) This did not help matters very much as his father’s creditors continued to pursue him for payment. Nor did he help himself when he attacked a German ship taking goods to Holland.

Eventually he took himself off to the Levant where he was captured and help prisoner in Constantinople until a ransom was paid in December 1605. By the time he got home Frances was dead.

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