Today’s post is about the family of one of the most notorious women in English History. Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset pleaded guilty in 1616 to murdering Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613 whilst he was a prisoner in The Tower.
Overbury was there because he had turned down the post of Ambassador to Russia. He thought that he would be protected by Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset. Carr was the king’s favourite but he had more looks than brains so Overbury had been dealing with the administration that came Carr’s way. Apparently Overbury even wrote the love letters that Carr sent to Frances Howard before they were married. In any event the pair were no longer as close as they once had been because Overbury didn’t much like Frances Howard. He described her, amongst other things, as a base woman. I am teaching a day school in Halifax on Thursday 21st June about the ins and outs of the murder so shan’t be delivering a spoiler here apart from to say that poisoned jam tarts were involved and a deadly enema. Also to note that Robert Carr, Frances Howard’s second husband did not perform terribly well at his trial for murder because he insisted on representing himself and most observers were of the opinion he would have done better to keep his mouth shut.
So who was Frances Howard? She was born on the 31 May 1590. She was the grand daughter of the 4th Duke of Norfolk by his second wife, Margaret Audley – it was how that grand mansion Audley End came into the hands of the Howard family. The fourth duke, Thomas Howard, was the man who aspired to marry Mary Queen of Scots in 1569 then managed to get himself caught up in the Ridolfi Plot of 1571. He was executed in 1572. As a traitor his lands and title were forfeit to the State but by that time the Tudors had become rather adept at removing wealth with one hand and returning it with the other in order to ensure that there weren’t too many grievances to be aired by rebellious subjects. The fact that the Howards were Elizabeth’s cousins should also be added to the scales.
As it happens Audley End was not part of Elizabeth’s haul of booty when the 4th duke got the chop. The estates there and around Saffron Waldon were part of Margaret Audley’s dowry so when she died they had passed straight into the hands of her eldest son Thomas Howard (born 1561), who was Frances Howard’s father.
Thomas Howard married his step-sister Mary Dacre, the daughter of the duke’s third wife at his father’s behest whilst the duke was int he Tower awaiting execution. Thomas was eleven or twelve when his father made his final arrangements but Mary Dacre died without having children.
Thomas then married Katherine rich neé Knyvet in 1583 – a distant cousin of Anne Vavasour’s – who was the widow of Richard Rich. The couple went on to have ten children who survived to adulthood of whom Frances was one. Sources identify that Thomas Howard was a kind father but that he continued the old idea of marrying his children off early – there were plenty of them after all. By the seventeenth century child marriages were becoming a thing of the past. Frances would marry her first husband, the third earl of Essex when she was just thirteen.
Thomas Howard being a second son, in between be-getting children and arranging advantageous marriages for them, had to earn his keep. He was a Tudor sea farer with the likes of Sir Richard Grenville commanding assorted vessels in a variety of campaigns including ventures against the Spanish to Cadiz. As a result of this he was created Lord Howard of Walden in 1597. From there he seems to have relaxed somewhat – Anne Somerset describes him as “fat and genial.”
When James I became king our Howard become the earl of Suffolk – now this a the bit where history can be a bit confusing. Followers of this blog know very well that there had been plenty of earls of Suffolk already, the two that spring to mind being Charles Brandon and then Henry Grey but Thomas Howard’s correct designation is Thomas Howard 1st Earl of Suffolk – just think of it as the clock being reset because an entirely new family has taken the title.
The new countess was one of Anne of Denmark’s ladies-in-waiting. She had served Elizabeth I in a similar capacity.
The earl of Suffolk became an influential member of the royal household between 1603-1614. He then spent the next four years as Lord High Treasurer before being sent to the Tower for misappropriating funds – which simply means that someone found a way of toppling him from power and that the king allowed those people to do so. It’s amazing that he managed to hang on to his job in the two years from 1616 to 1618 given that his daughter and son-in-law had both been found guilty of murder.
To make matters worse it wasn’t just the earl of Suffolk who’d been taking back handers. Katherine had also been in receipt of a Spanish Pension during the peace negotiations between England and Spain. It should be added that taking bribes, which is what “pensions” from Spain were wasn’t going to win friends and influence people even if James I did want peace with the Spanish. She also had strong Catholic sympathies. Popular opinion tended to exonerate the earl and place the blame for the bribery firmly on the shoulders of Katherine. The pair were fined £30,000 and imprisoned – which successfully toppled the Howard faction from power and, put simply, allowed the likes of the earl of Pembroke and the king’s new favourite George Villiers to take charge.
Katherine Knyvet or Knyvett depending upon the source (pictured above) had a reputation for avariciousness. Edward Coke described her during her trial as running the treasury like a shop which is definitely taking the traditional backhander a bit far. There were also some fairly colourful stories in circulation about her including that she was the one time mistress of Robert Cecil – I should add that I can’t find any primary source evidence of this. There were others and it would appear that she was also prone to using prior relationships with extortion in mind. Katherine was purported to be a great beauty until small pox ruined her looks in 1619 when she was 55 years old.
The countess was ambitious for her daughters in terms of wealth and political power for the Howards. She encouraged Frances to seek an annulment from her first husband, the 3rd earl of Essex having encouraged the match in the first instance and having been absolutely furious when Frances refused to consummate the match when the young couple were deemed old enough to live as man and wife. Katherine believed that a match with Robert Carr, the king’s favourite would build the Howard power base better than a familial link with the earls of Essex. She was one of the “respectable” women who attested that Frances was still a virgin so that her first marriage could be annulled. The ballads of the time were firmly of the opinion that the countess had perjured herself with the statement. It did not matter that the earl of Suffolk did not much like Robert Carr or that Carr had previously been at loggerheads with the Howard faction. I can’t help wondering what James I’s queen Anne of Denmark felt about the matter. She did not much like Robert Carr and neither had James’ eldest son Prince Henry who had died suddenly in 1612 just before the whole Frances Howard scandal sprang to life. I don’t suppose it mattered much to the countess either that Frances was besotted by Robert Carr for her it was a question power and its accompanying cash.
Katherine was similarly cavalier about her other two daughters, Frances’ sisters. Elizabeth ended up married to William Knollys , a man old enough to be her father. He was born in 1544 whilst she was born in 1583. Her third surviving daughter, Catherine, was married to Robert Cecil’s son.
Frances Howard’s parents saw Fortune’s Wheel turn as their new son-in-law Robert Carr fell from favour prior to his arrest for his part in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, ironically enough, partially as a result of the death of Overbury. There was no longer anyone to look after the administration or deal with the paperwork for him. Carr did not have the ability to deal with it himself. It turned out that James required more than a pretty face. He needed someone to help run the country.
Edward Coke another Jacobean administrator and canny political operator did not much like the Howards or the power that they wielded. The fact that Frances had played an active part in Sir Thomas Overbury’s murder was a means to bring down both Robert Carr. The Spanish pension business toppled the earl of Suffolk once and for all. Coke even sent Sir John Digby to Madrid in an attempt to incriminate the earl still further prior to the earl and countess’s trial.
Even better from Coke’s point of view was the fact that recognising the growing power of George Villiers over the king the Suffolks had encouraged a young man called Monson to supplant Villiers in the king’s affections. It was Villiers who first told the king that the Countess was taking bribes through exchequer debts. There was no sign of George falling from favour not least because Monson had been so irritatingly obvious that he had been told to get out of the king’s sight. Their involvement in the plan to put Monson in Villiers place was enough to ensure that the Howards had made a very powerful enemy.
Suffolk’s fall from power and subsequent trial should have meant that he stayed in prison until a £30,000 fine was paid but a mere ten days after sentence was passed he found himself at home. The fine was later reduced to £7,000. What he had lost was his political power. Interestingly when he had been bought low Villiers was prepared to let bygones be bygones as it was he who arranged the interview between James I and the earl of Suffolk reducing the fine. Historians believe that the slate would have been wiped clean had Howard not sought to avoid the king’s wrath by putting his property into trust in an attempt to save them for his family in the event of the worst happening. In 1623 the earl’s youngest son, Edward, married George Villiers’ niece – meaning that the Howards were now part of the Villiers’ affinity. Times had well and truly changed.
The earl died in 1626. His widow lived until 1638.
And finally, France’s maternal great grandfather was Sir Henry Knyvet of Charlton in Wiltshire. Sir Henry had six children. Frances Howard’s great uncle Thomas played a part in the foiling of the Gun Powder Plot and became a baron. Margaret Knyvet married into the Vavasour family. Her daughter Anne would cause a scandal when she became pregnant by the earl of Oxford and then moved in with Sir Henry Lee despite being married to someone else as seen in previous posts. Alice Knyvet married into the Dacre family. Catherine married firstly into the Paget family and then into the Carey family – demonstrating where Frances’ mother got her hard-headed attitude to marrying her children from. Henry Knyvet who was Sir Henry’s eldest son married three times and was an MP.
Somerset, Anne. (1997) Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of James I. London:Weidenfeld and Nicholson.