The Future of History

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Somerset Scandal

How timely is this?  Barely have I sent in the manuscript for Who Killed William Shakespeare to my editor at The History Press, than the BBC decides to show a programme which touches on a major historical scandal featured in the book!

Tomorrow evening (Wednesday, 9:00pm), BBC1 will screen an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" with Celia Imrie.  The popular actor discovers in the course of the programme that one of her ancestors was Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset (pictured here).

The scandal which engulfed Frances Howard, her husband Robert Carr, and the entire Court of King James I, was to prove fatal to William Shakespeare.

And what a scandal it was!  According to the official version, it involved adultery, poison, witchcraft and murder.  But this is somewhat typical of history, in that it is the tabloid version of events which tends to be remembered.  The reality is that a vicious and bitter power struggle was raging at the heart of King James's court, and Lady Frances was just one of the victims of that struggle.

On the one side of the power struggle were Frances Howard's relations and her husband, the handsome Robert Carr, a former favourite of the King.  On the other side were the forces of Puritan oppression: the Earl of Pembroke, his younger brother, the Earl of Montgomery, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  This latter group also included Sir Fulke Greville, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Recorder of Stratford-upon-Avon, and Shakespeare's great rival, Ben Jonson.

At this distance in time, it is difficult to know just how bad Frances Howard was.  She had been married, at the age of 14, to the 3rd Earl of Essex.  This was in fact a political arrangement designed to protect the despicable Robert Cecil, an ally of Frances's father, who was widely blamed for the death of Essex's father.

Frances Howard and her first husband lived apart for the first three years of their marriage and then soon found that they were utterly incompatible.  Frances then fell in love with Robert Carr, a young Scot who was also the King's lover.  Strenuous efforts were made to ensure that Frances's marriage to Essex was annulled, so that she could marry Carr.

Robert Carr had a close friend called Thomas Overbury.  The two were seemingly inseparable.  Carr was nobody's idea of an intellectual, and he relied on Overbury's superior brain power.  Overbury, in turn, relied on Carr's relationship with King James for his own advancement.

Overbury grew intensely jealous when it became clear that his companion and meal-ticket, Robert Carr, had fallen hopelessly in love with Frances Howard.  Because it looked like Overbury would create difficulties over the matter of Frances's marriage annulment, King James personally ordered that Overbury should be locked up in the Tower of London.  After five months of imprisonment, Thomas Overbury was dead.

It was not until two years later that rumours began to circulate concerning Overbury's miserable death.  These rumours were exploited by the Puritan faction which was seeking to oust the crypto-Catholic Howards from King James's government.  Four "lesser" people were tried and executed for the supposed murder of Thomas Overbury before Lady Frances and her husband themselves stood trial.

In my forthcoming book on Shakespeare, I explain how this trumped-up scandal impacted on the life of Will Shakespeare, guaranteeing that he was "stopped", and how his illegitimate son was able to exact some sort of revenge upon those who had conspired against Shakespeare.

For now, it might well be worth watching tomorrow night's "Who Do You Think You Are?" in order to get a glimpse of Lady Frances Howard, the dazzlingly beautiful young noblewoman whose scandalous story robbed us of our greatest ever poet-dramatist.  And to admire the fact that these people, so distant from us in time, live on, in our own age, in the form of their descendants.

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