David Lindley. The Trials of Frances Howard: Fact and Fiction at the Court of King James. New York: Routledge, 1993. x+227pp. ISBN 0-415-05206-8 Cloth; 0-415-14424-8 Paper.
Bryan N.S. Gooch
University of Victoria

Gooch, Bryan N.S. "Review of The Trials of Frances Howard[:] Fact and Fiction at the Court of King James. " Early Modern Literary Studies 3.1 (May, 1997): 11.1-4<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-1/rev_goo3.html>.

  1. David Lindley's The Trials of Frances Howard could have simply been a new book about the most sensational scandal at James I's political, favourite-ridden, and allegedly licentious court, offering a rehash of details certain to horrify and amaze even veteran readers of mysteries replete with intrigue, murder, and execution. The elements are all there, of course. Frances Howard, daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, first married on 5 January, 1606, by arrangement between families, Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex. Both principals were just over the age of consent--she was thirteen and he nearly fifteen--and after the festivities (which marked a renewed acknowledgment of Essexian status) Frances remained in the bosom of her family and Essex pursued his training and went to the continent (1607-1609). Thereafter the union of the Suffolk and Essex dynasties began to founder: Essex returned to his wife who, by 1611, was thought to be inviting the interest of another prominent figure, and here suspicion falls on Robert Carr (who was to become Earl of Somerset), a staunch favourite of James I. In 1613 annulment proceedings (based on allegations that the union had not been consummated) were set in train, and on 26 December 1613 Frances married Carr, whose position could only have been seen to add lustre to the Suffolks. However, disaster awaited. Sir Thomas Overbury, a friend of Carr, was sent to the Tower on 21 April, 1613 (ostensibly because he turned down an appointment as ambassador), became unwell, and died there on 14 September, 1613. By 1615 allegations that Overbury had been poisoned were flying, and by 17 October of that year the Somersets were arrested, implicated in Overbury's unpleasant demise, their influence and reputation in ruins. Various figures were brought to trial and were executed (including Sir Gervase Elwes, Lieutenant of the Tower, and Anne Turner, a confidante of Frances). Frances herself confessed before her trial to complicity in the crime (Overbury might have opposed the Somerset's marriage and Frances wanted him out of the way?) but defended the innocence of her husband. In the end, they were spared but confined to the Tower, until 1622, when they were released, Frances being quickly pardoned and Carr waiting for his relief from judgment until 1625. Prominent status, early marriage, controversial annulment, extra-marital interest (even adultery?), showcase remarriage (of a now celebrated, somewhat notorious court beauty), and involvement in a supposedly squalid murder of the distinguished Overbury--this is strong stuff for a sensational narrative.

  2. Indeed, the story has been sensational, and that is precisely the problem that Lindley so ardently and thoroughly addresses in his book, which takes the reader--with assiduous attention to detail and meticulous scholarship--through the years, detailing the evidence and marking precisely the boundaries between fact and allegation, rumour, innuendo, and so on in a successful attempt to show the extent to which history has been the domain of constructed narrative and even creative narrative at that. What emerges is more than slight suspicion that the portrait of Frances--as beautiful, deadly schemer in a gossip-rife court--may well have been mis-drawn and that even much later accounts, like that of William McElwee (The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury [London: Faber and Faber, 1952]), have likely taken rather too much on trust. Lindley moves from a succinct introduction, in which he sets out the historical/theoretical problem, to consider the circumstances of the first marriage to Essex ("the first trial"), the years leading up to the annulment, the annulment proceedings ("the second trial"), the second marriage to Somerset, and the charges and hearings concerning Overbury's death ("the third trial"). Even the setting out of the facts, insofar as they can be known, would make this a valuable contribution to our reassessment and understanding of the events and related circumstances in a court headed by a monarch whose belief in the right of his own authority and judgment is beyond doubt (clearly, Charles I evidently learned much at his father's knee). However, Lindley goes well beyond correctional necessity to offer a relevant social and cultural context, to discuss, for example, the nature and relevance of literary and dramatic documents of the period, pointing out that it is the literary world that was not only influenced by matters of historical record--as, for example, occasions demanded celebratory masques or complimentary verse--but which also, by virtue of subject and convention, reveals a way of coming to terms with the way Frances was seen and judged as she was. Hence, Jonson's Hymenaei--the nuptial masque for the youthful Frances and Essex--comes into play (Lindley wisely takes the masque tradition seriously); ironically, the issue of female virginity that the text (in part) addresses becomes a central issue in the plea for annulment a few years later. So too, in the context of parental involvement in arranged marriages, do references to Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest, and Wilkin's The Miseries of Enforced Marriage prove their worth. As for a bawdy, dangerous court (and women were thought in some quarters to be part of the peril), the Middleton/Tourneur The Revenger's Tragedy provides trenchant comment (Antonio's wife is seduced during a masque), and Jonson's Epicoene offers a gloss on conjuring (an issue in the annulment case) and infidelity. Frances herself was a participant in more than one masque and was evidently part of a fast-paced, dubious game in which feminine independence was constrained by male rules and opinion. In seeking annulment Frances violated a code of submissiveness, and her triumph in marrying Carr almost invited societal revenge on a reputedly fickle, disruptive, and willful woman. The literature clearly explains why she could be so easily typed and condemned, and Lindley's continuing references are illuminating, whether, for instance, to Elizabeth Carey's Tragedy of Miriam (regarding unhappy marriage), Middleton's The Changeling (about testing for virginity), Campion's Somerset Masque and Donne's belated "Eclogue" (both for the marriage with Carr), Chapman's Andromeda Liberata (concerning the annulment and second marriage), or Jonson's The Golden Age Restored for the period of the Overbury trials, before Frances and Carr were brought before their prosecutor, Francis Bacon. Overall, the telling literary commentary provides nice articulation placed, as it is, alongside the historical record. In a sense, one could be reading two books at once, and it is to Lindley's credit that the pieces fit together so harmoniously.

  3. Public figures pay high prices for their indiscretions, and the current age is by no means the first to succumb to the idea that one ill move (say, a liaison with a secret love) is almost certainly an indication of other indiscretions undiscovered, or, for that matter, to take as proof of guilt whatever seems to run counter to societal norms or even political priorities. Even if the Somersets were not guilty in the Overbury case (suppose Frances' pre-trial confession might have been a desperate, and successful move to gain clemency from the court, whereas otherwise she would have gone to her death, and Carr with her, no doubt), once James had demanded a full investigation (assuming that Overbury was really poisoned in the first place) matters were on a roll, and the King could not move with political ease to push his one-time favourite and his wife out of harm's way. The king must seem impartial, even if the Essexians were to be on the rise again. Guilty? Why not? There is a slight touch of Alice in Wonderland in these events: "Off with their heads! Well, most of them anyway."

  4. Politics, prison, and poetry in plenty: Lindley has meticulously rewoven an extraordinary tapestry, adding valuable contextual elements and providing, with appropriate frequency, the warning that things may very well not be as they seem and that we need to look with care at the assumptions of the present and the past and not to take even contemporary accounts of an event--just because a reporter was apparently a witness of a kind--with careless detachment, for those accounts may give rise to skewed judgments about people, cultural matters and so on. This is a book that ought to have a wide readership, and obviously anyone working in early seventeenth-century English studies (literature, drama, history, music, etc.) should find it compelling and revealing, both in terms of text and documentation. With respect to the latter, the notes at the end supply the bibliographic details (alas, there is no formal bibliography) and thirteen black and white plates offer a brief visual gloss on some of the principals as well as a few homiletic touches. Indeed, this is a volume for the must read shelf--even if the quest is only for a good mystery.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1997, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(May 5, 1997)