A Tawdry Tudor Tale

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howardFrances Carr was quite a piece of work. Born into the powerful, not to say Machiavellian, Howard family in 1591, she was married to the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, when she was 13 and he was 14. They were kept apart for a couple of years because of their youth, but when they finally got together, Frances was dissatisfied to say the least -- she had already fallen in love with the Earl of Somerset --and went about getting the marriage annulled for non-consummation:

She claimed that she had made every attempt to be sexually available for her husband, and that she was still a virgin. She was examined by ten matrons and two midwives who found her hymen intact. It was widely rumoured at the time that Sir Thomas Monson's daughter was a substitute, which is possible because she had requested to be veiled during the examination "for modesty".

The matter was a subject of mockery and ribald commentary throughout the court, including:

This Dame was inspected but Fraud interjected

A maid of more perfection

Whom the midwives did handle whilest the knight held the candle

O there was a clear inspection. 

In turn, Essex claimed that he was capable with other women, but was
unable to consummate his marriage. . . . When asked why only she
caused his failing, he claimed that "she reviled him, and miscalled
him, terming him a cow, and coward, and beast."

The idea of satanic involvement was seriously considered by the judges and at one point it was proposed that Essex should go to Poland to see if he could be "unwitched". The annulment languished and possibly would not have been granted if it were not for the king's intervention (Somerset was the favourite of King James). James I of England granted the annulment . . . and Frances married Somerset [in] 1613.

Prior to the marriage, a friend of Somerset's, Sir Thomas Overbury, tried to convince the groom not to go through with the wedding. Frances's family, the Howards, took immediate action:

[They] managed to get Overbury imprisoned during the annulment proceedings where he died -- interestingly enough, the annulment went through eleven days after his death. It has been widely considered that Lady Somerset had him poisoned through an agent. The Somersets were convicted of murder, but spared execution.

Thanks to 24-Hour Museum for reminding me of this Renaissance shocker. And, by the way, if you think that neckline is low, it was not uncommon for some ladies of high fashion to show actual aureole.


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