Thursday, 22 December 2016

Frances Howard, a 17th-century murderer

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

Monday, 19 December 2016

George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury

George Abbot was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1611 to 1633, during the reigns of King James I and King Charles I.

He was born in Guildford, Surrey, the son of a cloth worker. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and became a fellow in 1583. He became the master of University College in 1597, dean of Winchester in 1600 and was Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University three times between 1600 and 1605.

He was appointed to the bishopric of Lichfield in 1609 and London in 1610 before gaining the see of Canterbury in 1611. A noted scholar, he worked on translating the New Testament section of the King James Bible which was published in 1611.

As Archbishop, he performed the consecration of King Charles I but did not always see eye-to-eye with the new monarch, at one time being deprived of his position but later reinstated.

George Abbot has the dubious honour of being the only Archbishop of Canterbury to have killed someone, although this was an accidental crossbow shooting during a deer hunt.

© John Welford

Friday, 16 December 2016

Sir Martin Frobisher

Sir Martin Frobisher (1539-94) was an adventurer during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I who made a name for himself both as an explorer and a military commander.

He came from a wealthy background but preferred a career at sea rather than that of a businessman. At the age of 14 he joined an expedition to West Africa but was soon involved in what must be regarded as piracy.

He became obsessed by the notion that there was a “quick” route to the Far East by sailing to the north of North America - the famed “Northwest Passage”. After several years of fundraising, Frobisher set off in 1576 and got as far as Baffin Island. He returned to England having collected some samples of local rock that were suggestive of gold ore, although the evidence was slight.

Even so, the possibility that there was gold to be found in the far north was enough to allow Frobisher to raise the funds for a much larger expedition, which set sail in 1577. He brought back 200 tons of the supposed gold ore, and the Queen was also interested in the possibility of extending her realm to the new – supposedly rich – lands that Frobisher had discovered.

In 1578 Martin Frobisher set off on a third expedition, this time with the intention of establishing a colony on Baffin Island. However, this came to nothing, and so did the intended gold-exporting business when it was proved beyond doubt that all he had discovered was a vein of iron pyrites, or “fool’s gold”.

Martin Frobisher now turned his attention to aiding Francis Drake in the latter’s state-sponsored harassment of Spanish ships and ports. In 1588 he served under Lord Howard as the commander of one of the four naval divisions that defeated the Spanish Armada. It was for this service that he received his knighthood.

After a short time managing his estates in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire he found the call of the sea and adventure to be too strong and in 1592 he joined Sir Walter Raleigh in a military expedition to the Azores. In 1594 he led a squadron of ships that took part in the Siege of Morlais during the French “War of The Three Henrys”. However, during the siege of Brest, shortly afterwards, he received a gunshot wound from which he died after his return to England.

Sir Martin Frobisher has a deserved place on the list of “sea dogs” who did much to make the reign of Queen Elizabethan I a golden age for England.

© John Welford

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Thomas Hooker

Thomas Hooker was an important figure in the history of colonial America, and not just in Hartford, Connecticut, the city with which he is most closely connected. It is therefore surprising that a school building in a village close to where I live should bear a plaque that declares that the “Reputed Father of American Democracy” was once a pupil there.

Market Bosworth, in Leicestershire, gave its name to the battle in which King Richard III lost his life in 1485, but it was also the seat of the Dixie Family. The Grammar School was founded in 1601 under the will of Sir Wolstan Dixie, and is still running to this day.

Thomas Hooker as a Puritan Clergyman

Thomas Hooker was born in 1586 at Markfield, some ten miles from Market Bosworth.  He was the son of a farmer and would have been one of the first pupils of the new Dixie school, from where he proceeded to Cambridge, taking a BA degree in 1608. He was granted a fellowship, endowed by the Dixie family, and remained at Emmanuel College until 1618.

Emmanuel was a distinctly Puritan college, and Thomas Hooker became a clergyman with a very Puritan outlook, meaning that he believed more in personal spiritual growth than adherence to Church dogma.

Hooker became rector of St George’s, Esher, Surrey. In 1621 he married Susannah Garbrand and they soon had two daughters, both of whom were eventually to become the wives of clergymen in America.

As a puritan, Thomas Hooker objected to the marriage of Prince Charles (later to become King Charles I) to a Catholic Spanish princess, and this marked him out as a potential troublemaker. This reputation grew when he moved to Chelmsford in Essex and he preached many sermons in favour of the nonconformist cause, emphasising individual salvation and castigating the established Church for its oppression and its laxity in spiritual matters. His sermons appealed to a wide swathe of the population, being direct and lively and free of classical allusions. A number of them were published.

He opened a school in Essex, where his family grew further with two more children being born who survived to adulthood. However, his puritan, anti-establishment views were becoming known in high places, and he eventually fell foul of the conformist Bishop of London, William Laud. In 1630 he was summoned to the Bishop’s court but chose to go into hiding, and then exile, rather than fight a case that he knew he could not win.

Thomas Hooker’s Escape to America

In June 1631 Thomas Hooker escaped to the Netherlands, returning only in 1633 to collect his family and take ship for Boston, which they reached on 4th September.

Hooker became the pastor of a church at Newtown (which is now Cambridge, MA), where he found a number of former friends from Essex who had preceded him to the colony. He stayed at Newtown until May 1636, when the decision was made to move further south and west, mainly because of the need to find better grazing land.

The place chosen for the new settlement was known by the natives as Suckiaug, on the banks of the Connecticut River, but was renamed Hartford after the English town of Hertford.

Can Thomas Hooker’s Reputation be Justified?

Thomas Hooker’s reputation as the “Father of American Democracy” comes from his activity during the formation of a colonial confederation of Connecticut towns in 1638. He preached a sermon in which he reminded the citizens that the authority of the leaders of the people depended on the consent of the people to be governed by those leaders. He merely extended to civil society the principle that pertained to church governance within the nonconformist tradition.

The resulting document became known as the “Fundamental Orders” (adopted in January 1639), which set out the conditions under which the Connecticut colony would be run as an entity distinct from that of Massachusetts Bay. It was what might be termed a “proto-Constitution”, in that it contained elements that were to be repeated in later constitutions, and eventually found their way into the Constitution of the United States.

In particular, the Fundamental Orders established the principle of magistrates being elected by secret ballot. It stressed the rights of the individual and set limits on the power of government. The Connecticut colony differed from Massachusetts in that non-members of the church were eligible to stand for office, thus enshrining the principle of the separation of church and state.

The claim that this was the world’s first written constitution was accepted for many years, although modern historians dispute this. It has however led to Connecticut becoming known as the “Constitution State”. Thomas Hooker’s role in this development would seem to have been elevated beyond its rightful place, and to call him the “Father of American Democracy” is somewhat exaggerated. All he did, in reality, was to point out how an Independent church managed its affairs, with the implication that a civic community could do the same.

Thomas Hooker’s role was not in government but in the church. He continued to lead his church in Hartford for the rest of his life, which ended on 7th July 1647. The link between the wall of a school in a Leicestershire market town and the American Constitution is a fascinating one, although the word “reputed” on Thomas Hooker’s blue plaque should not be ignored.

© John Welford

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Edward The Black Prince

Edward the Black Prince should have become King of England but died before his father (King Edward III), so the throne passed to his less worthy son, Richard II. Edward represents many people’s idea of a knight from the period when chivalry was at its height. Indeed, Chaucer’s “perfect gentle knight”, from the Canterbury Tales, written not long after Edward’s death, could have been a nostalgic (and doubtless sanitised) portrait of the Black Prince.

Prince Edward

Edward’s life, from 1330 to 1376, fell at the start of the period of English history known as the “Hundred Years War”. This was a series of conflicts between England and France that were fought over the right to rule large areas of territory in France that had formerly belonged to William I and Henry II. Edward III also had a claim to the throne of France. The War alternated between campaigns waged by English kings (from Edward III to Henry VI) and periods of truce.

Prince Edward was born on 15th June 1330 at the royal palace of Woodstock, being the first child born to the young King Edward III and Queen Philippa. When only six he was declared Duke of Cornwall, a title that brought him considerable wealth, as it does for the eldest son of the monarch down to the present day.

Edward’s military career

From 1340 onwards he took an active part in public life, being “guardian of England” (despite his youth) while his father was out of the country for much of the period up to 1346, but his first military experience came when he joined his father on the campaign in 1346-7 that included the Battle of Crecy.

Edward was knighted by his father and put in command of a division that played a major part in the victory at Crecy. Edward was in mortal danger at times during the battle but displayed great courage. In honour of the defeated and killed King of Bohemia, Edward adopted the latter’s device of an ostrich feather, which still forms part of the coat of arms of Princes of Wales.

Back in England in 1348, Edward created the Order of the Garter, a chivalric order that survives to this day. The order was designed to create a close bond between the knights who fought at Crecy and who would doubtless be called on again to serve the king. Team spirit was also fostered by a series of tournaments, featuring “war games” such as jousting, on which Edward spent lavishly.

Edward and his father were again called upon to fight in 1350, when they fought a sea battle in the English Channel, but the truce with France lasted until 1355, the interim being spent by Edward in running his various estates in England. It would appear that he could be somewhat heavy-handed in the administration of his lands, and petitions were presented to the king to appeal against the oppressive governance that he exerted.

Following growing hostile activity by the new French King, Jean, Edward landed at Bordeaux in September 1355 and put together an army that set off into the lands that were in dispute between the English and French crowns. Edward’s aim was to raid and pillage French territory with the hope of bringing the French regent, Jean d'Armagnac, to battle. However, d’Armagnac refused to be drawn from his citadel at Toulouse, and Edward eventually returned to Bordeaux, where he spent the winter.

During much of 1356 the English and French armies kept each other at arms’ length, but battle was eventually joined on 19th September at Poitiers in west central France. Despite being greatly outnumbered, English tactics and quick thinking won the day, with massive casualties on the French side. The great bonus from Edward’s perspective was the capture of the French king, who was then taken back to England to be held for ransom.

A three-year peace treaty was eventually agreed, although another military campaign was needed before the French King’s ransom was eventually paid. However, the original amount was greatly reduced, in exchange for Edward being recognised as virtual King of Aquitaine (the region of south-west France to which England had always laid claim).


Edward had had little time in his busy life to consider marriage (although he had fathered a number of illegitimate children), but now he was able to do so, his bride being Joan, Countess of Kent. Unusually for the time, this was a partnership of mutual attraction with no dynastic element being involved. Joan was a young widow, although a certain amount of scandal attached to her as it appeared that she had been married bigamously. Joan was also a first cousin of Edward, so papal dispensation was needed before the marriage could take place.

The marriage was a happy one, spent mostly in Aquitaine where their two sons were born. Young Prince Edward died at the age of six but Richard survived, becoming King Richard II at the age of ten.

Edward and Joan arrived in their new kingdom in June 1363. Edward was clearly a better soldier than administrator, and his efforts to raise revenue from his new territory led to resentment. He was not skilled in winning people over. His autocratic manner made him far more enemies than allies.

Another campaign

A further opportunity for military action came in 1366, when Pedro of Castile (northern Spain) appealed to Edward for help in regaining his throne after he had been usurped by his half-brother Enrique da Trastamara, with French support. Edward was at first reluctant to help, but early in 1367 he set off across the Pyrenees.

One difficulty to be overcome was the fact that the Kingdom of Navarre lay between Aquitaine and Castile, and Charles of Navarre levied a large fee for the passage of Edward’s army. In return, Edward demanded from Pedro control of the coastal region of Castile.

Edward eventually met the Castilians, under Trastamara, in battle at Najera on 3rd April 1367, and achieved a victory. Pedro was restored, but was unable to pay Edward the agreed fee for the campaign. Edward remained in Castile until August, waiting for payment, but it eventually became clear that Pedro was in no position to pay. Edward therefore left and returned to Bordeaux. Pedro was murdered by his half-brother two years later.

Edward had fallen ill while in Castile, possibly with malaria or dysentery. On his return he faced dissent from a number of local lords, encouraged by the French king, and his inability to pay for the services of the lords who had accompanied him to Castile also caused resentment. Edward’s only recourse was to raise taxes, which naturally increased his unpopularity.

The French were now emboldened to encroach on the territory of Aquitaine, with several cities changing their allegiance, and Edward was forced back into the field to defend his borders. The city of Limoges, which had been taken back into French hands, was recaptured and sacked after a siege of five days’ duration, in the summer of 1370. Despite this action, no other city was inspired to return to English control.

His final years and legacy

Edward was now too ill to be an effective commander in the field, and in January 1371 he returned to England for the last time. During the remaining years of his life he played little part in the affairs of state, rarely travelling more than 50 miles from London. He attended the opening of Parliament in April 1376 but that was his last public appearance. He died on 8th June 1376, a week short of his 46th birthday, and was buried at Canterbury. He therefore failed to become King of England by one year.

The name “The Black Prince” was a Tudor invention, but it has stuck. It is not clear why it was given; it could possibly have been a reference to the colour of his armour, or even his temper.

As a heroic figure of distant English history, Edward the Black Prince will always be part of the romance of a chivalric past, especially as his legacy survives in the Order of the Garter. As one of a long list of great English and British military commanders, he deserves his place in history. However, how successful he might have been as a peace-time monarch must remain in doubt.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Nurse Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was a nurse who was executed by the Germans during World War I. Her death did much to excite anti-German feelings in Great Britain and make the British more determined to win the War.

A notable statue

This statue stands in St Martin’s Place in central London, opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery and facing towards Trafalgar Square. It is therefore seen by thousands of people every day, many of whom may not know the story behind it.

The woman portrayed is Edith Cavell, a nurse who died during the First World War, shot by a German firing squad. The wording on the statue gives the details of her death: “Brussels Dawn October 12th 1915” but not her birth, which was in 1865. Below this is a quotation of words she spoke shortly before her execution: “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”.

Behind the statue is a high stone plinth, twice the height of the statue, with the words “For King and Country” at the top and four words around the sides of the plinth: Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion and Sacrifice.

The statue, by Sir George Frampton, was erected in 1920 and unveiled by Queen Alexandra. The quotation mentioned above was added in 1924.

Edith Cavell

So who was Edith Cavell? She was a London-trained nurse who established a clinic and nursing school in Brussels, Belgium, in 1910. On the outbreak of World War I in 1914 she had been in England but returned to Brussels to continue her work there. Belgium was quickly overrun by the German army and Nurse Cavell was kept very busy treating wounded soldiers of several nationalities, including Germans.

She became involved in a scheme to smuggle British and French soldiers out of Belgium to neutral Holland, from where they could be repatriated rather than taken prisoner. She allowed her house to be part of the chain of safe houses through which the scheme was conducted, and for this reason she was arrested by the Germans in August 1915. The total number of British and French prisoners of war, and Belgian civilians, that she helped to escape was probably around 200.

Despite representations made from many quarters, including the still neutral United States, Edith Cavell and another conspirator faced the firing squad. She died instantly from four bullet wounds. Her body was initially buried in Brussels but was later (after the end of the war) repatriated to Britain where she was finally laid to rest in Norwich Cathedral, not far from her home village.

A spy or a traitor?

It is sometimes implied that Edith Cavell was executed for espionage, but this is not so. Her activities counted as treason according to the German military law that now applied to Belgium, and the law made no distinction between German nationals and those of other countries who happened to be living in German-occupied territories.

Whether or not Germany was legally justified in executing Edith Cavell, and the facts do seem to point in that direction, doing so was probably unwise because the event became something of a recruitment poster in Great Britain at a time before conscription was introduced. Much play was made of the fact that Edith Cavell’s actions had been entirely humanitarian and that she made no distinction between nationalities when it came to treating wounded soldiers.

On the other hand, Germany could be painted in the British press as a source of evil and a regime that condemned women to death, which was something that Britain never did during World War I, whatever the circumstances. Not much was needed to cast Germany in the role of monster, and to persuade young men to join the army to prevent more such horrors taking place, but the death of Edith Cavell was one such happening.

The impressive statue will continue to remind passers-by of the brave and remarkable woman who displayed those qualities of humanity, fortitude, devotion and sacrifice in equal measure.

© John Welford