Frances Howard was a bad woman. She had a lurid history and a luscious wickedness that wrapped around her, keeping her name warm for nearly four hundred years.
This portrait of her was painted in 1615, a year before she was tried for murder.
She is 25 yeard old, her soft face colored with roses and chalk – the crushed petals flooding her cheeks, the powder a chaste snow covering her immodest skin. The neckline of her gilded dress dives into oblivion, and scarlet bands curl around her arms like velvet chains. The outline of her mouth is a mad, curving journey – a seductive flight. The expression in her narrowed eyes is sly, cunning: they speak of sins completed and sins under consideration. This was a lady who winked at her reputation as she bid it farewell.
Frances was married when she was 14 years old to Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex, who was one year her junior. This marriage was a celebration of adult avarice: woven into the names of Howard and Devereux were castles, land, all that England had to offer. Yet when the children's hands were joined, they were cold and empty. But they were only old enough for a marriage on paper, and they were quickly separated; Frances would not see her husband again until she was 19. But by then she had lost interest.
Frances had become a careless, flaunting beauty – famous in a court well known for its foolishness and decoration. She had also fallen in love with Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset. Gossips said that Frances had consulted alchemists and astrologers, men of numbers and planets who read their equations in the sky. It was said that they made for her "love-philters" which would encourage her husband's impotence, enabling her to start the proceedings for an annulment.
Any accusation of impotence must be followed by an examination of the woman to confirm that she was virgo intacta. Frances was examined by a cadre of matrons and midwives and was judged intact. But as she requested to be veiled, "for modesty's sake", the rumor began that another woman was used as a substitute:
"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"
Yet the annulment was granted, in September 1613. Frances and her lover were married three months later.
Many whispered, but only one spoke out loud. Sir Thomas Overbury, Somerset's closest frirend, violently opposed the affair. He told Carr that his intended was "noted for her injury and immodesty." His opinion did not go unheard: Frances' powerful Howard relations intervened and had Overbury imprisoned in the Tower, where he died under mysterious circumstances.
Mystery eventually became murder. Stupid and wily, Frances had her opponent poisoned – possibly with a cocktail of sulfuric acid and copper vitriol. This violent concoction was nestled in a collection of cakes and tarts given to a gaoler in Frances' pay. They were left for Overbury, who no doubt consumed the sweets happily.
Frances admitted her part in the affair and though Robert maintaianed his innocence, they were both condemned to death. They were pardoned, but remained in the Tower. For six years Frances felt her skin become rancid and coarse; she would watch the moving tapestry of straw and insects at her feet; she felt her passions evaporating into the foetid air.
This was the history of the bad woman – lustful, ambitious; sophisticated and spoiled: condemned with that "good face, which had brought to other much misery and to herself greatness which ended with much unhappiness."