Frances Howard was a 17th century murderer who was lucky to escape the ultimate penalty for her crime but who caused other people to lose their lives on her behalf.
Frances Howard was born on 31st May 1590, the daughter of Lord Thomas Howard and therefore a member of a highly-respected aristocratic family. Famous Howards included Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham, who had commanded the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada, and Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII.
Frances was married at the age of 14, her husband being Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was then aged 13. However, due to their youth they were not allowed to live together as husband and wife. Robert was sent off to complete his education, followed by various missions abroad.
Frances was therefore left alone in her aristocratic world to ensnare whoever she wanted as a potential replacement for the role of bedmate. Her eye fell on Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester, who had been part of the Scottish coterie of aristocrats who had accompanied King James when he added the throne of England to that of Scotland in 1603.
Rochester was not averse to forming a liaison, but he was wary of offending King James, who had Robert Devereux’s best interests at heart, and he was also not a skilled letter writer. He therefore asked his friend Thomas Overbury to act as his secretary in writing love letters to Frances.
All went well until Devereux returned from Europe with every expectation of enjoying married life with Frances, who was then aged 18. However, she was far more interested in Lord Rochester and refused to yield to her husband’s nightly entreaties.
Frances now had two objectives, namely to depress her husband’s desire for her while at the same time increasing that of Lord Rochester. She therefore employed the services of Mrs Anne Turner, who was known to be able to provide various potions and powders and who worked alongside a somewhat sinister gentleman named Dr Simon Forman.
Mrs Turner duly supplied Frances with what she needed, but the “anti-lust” potion for Robert Devereux did not seem to have much effect. Frances then decided on a different tactic – she wanted to be a widow rather than a wife. However, although the wish was strong, the poisons were never strong enough.
Meanwhile, Frances was worried about Rochester, who was clearly the darling of the Court and surrounded by beautiful women. Rochester made a very good show of not showing affection for Frances, a married woman, because to do so might jeopardise his position. Frances underwent various black magic ceremonies, orchestrated by Dr Forman, to force Rochester to be more forthcoming.
Frances must have believed that the magic was working , because Rochester became infatuated with her. The couple had to keep their affair secret and met at Mrs Turner’s lodgings and a house that Frances bought specially for this purpose. Their secret was known to only one other person, namely Thomas Overbury.
Overbury was unhappy with the relationship, as he believed that it would ultimately destroy his friend, and he told him so. He also started to drop hints at Court that Frances Howard was an adulteress. When Frances got wind of this she realised that Overbury presented a real danger to her and had to be silenced.
Her opportunity came when Overbury was ordered by King James to become his Ambassador to the Low Countries. Overbury refused – being anxious not to allow Frances a free hand with Rochester – and this was interpreted as a matter of “high contempt” by the King. Overbury was duly sent to the Tower of London.
This could not have worked out better for Frances. She now employed a man named Robert Weston who got himself a position in the Tower as Overbury’s personal assistant and the man who handed him his food. Slipping him doses of poison was therefore going to be easy.
Or it would have been if Weston had not been caught in the act by Sir Gervase Elwes, the Lieutenant of the Tower. Sir Gervase now had a problem, because he knew that Weston was trying to smuggle poisoned food through to his prisoner but did not know on whose orders. For all he knew, the attempt to kill Overbury might have been initiated by King James himself. Elwes therefore stayed silent, but did not allow any more poison to reach Thomas Overbury.
Frances came to realise that her plan was not working, so she removed Weston from the scene and tried a different tactic. This was to contact William Reeve, who was an assistant to the Tower’s physician. She paid him to steal a quantity of mercury sublimate from the prison’s dispensary and administer it to Overbury as a medicine. It did not take long for him to die.
For Frances, everything now seemed perfect. Overbury was dead and she was able to obtain a divorce from Robert Devereux and marry Lord Rochester, who had no idea that his wife had murdered his former best friend.
But married bliss did not last long. Frances’s problem was that too many people knew about her activities, mainly because they had been bit-players in her schemes and were therefore able to call upon her to buy their silence. Frances gained little pleasure from the marriage she had schemed so hard to bring about, having instead a constant fear of being found out.
The first crack in the wall came courtesy of William Reeve, whose hands had actually killed Thomas Overbury. Two years after Frances had married Rochester, Reeve fell dangerously ill and decided to tell what he knew in the hope of saving his soul from perdition. Before long King James was told and the house of cards tumbled around Frances’s ears.
Both Frances and Rochester were sentenced to death, as was nearly everybody who had played a part in the Overbury murder. Those sentences were carried out as far as Anne Turner, Robert Weston and Sir Gervase Elwes were concerned, but Frances and Rochester were able to escape the hangman’s noose by virtue of royal pardons. In Frances’s case, this was in recognition of the high service that her family and ancestors had given to the Crown.
They were also able to escape incarceration in the Tower of London, because the King allowed them to stay at the Oxfordshire home of Lord Wallingford, who was Frances’s brother-in-law. The sentence was therefore commuted to house arrest for life. Rochester now had nothing but utter loathing for his wife, who had caused his downfall despite him being completely innocent of any wrongdoing concerning the murder.
Frances died in August 1632, aged 42, from what was described as a “terrible wasting disease”. One just wonders if this was not another way of saying that her husband was eventually able to do to her what she had done to Thomas Overbury, namely cause her death by ingesting poison. It would have been a fitting end to the story.
© John Welford