Great Royal Scandals: Lady Frances Howard and the Sulfuric Acid Enema of Doom

Just read about a Stewart Scandal I had not heard of before - namely, the various trials of the Lady Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset.

This one has it all: exposed genitals, Satanism, poisioning, sex both straight and gay, and finally - death by sulfuric acid enema!

To cut a very long story short - the lady in question was originally married to the Earl of Essex (when they were both young teens). He was sent to the continent, where he got good and poxed. She fell in love with the King’s favourite pretty boy (and reputed boy-toy), Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset. So when the Earl of Essex came home, she wanted nothing to do with him. She alleged he was impotent, and asked for an annulment - which lead to her genitals being solemly examined by a panel of experts. For “modesty”, she was veiled during this procedure (allegations arose that she slipped in a ‘body double’).

It was of course a huge scandal and humilation for Essex to be publicly declared impotent, so he fought it; however, the King could refuse his favorite nothing (and apparently, he was not jealous of him having a wife). So the annulment was granted.

Now, there was one guy who disliked this, aside from poor Essex: as it turns out, Somerset was part of a dynamic duo - he was the “beauty”, but the “brains” behind his rise at court was his buddy, Thomas Overbury. Overbury fed Somerset his lines as to what opinions to have, etc. Thomas (for whatever reason - jealousy?) just hated Frances, and loudly and publicly attempted to get his buddy to stop the marriage.

The King disliked Overbury, disliked his influence over his favorite, and so was willing to help poor Frances out. The two of them cooked up a trap: the King offered Overbury an ambassadorship - in Moscow (butt end of nowhere). He refused, and was promptly thrown in the Tower.

However, he retaliated against Frances by publishing a nasty poem entitled “The Wife”, which (in verse) pointedly praised the attributes of female meekness that Frances so conspicuously lacked.

Her vengence was epic … she arranged to have her creatures appointed to the management of his prision, and started poisioning him. This didn’t work - Rasputin-like, he refused to die. So, allegedly, she had him killed with a sulfuric acid enema (!). I can’t immediately think of a worse way to go, than a sulfuric acid enema.

Meanwhile, she got married to pretty boy Somerset, and all was well - for a couple of years. Then, it all came out (apparently, the apothicary spilled the beans). Leading to a sensational trial, complete with witches she had hired, allegations of bizzare sex, etc. - one of the judges was Sir Francis Bacon, he of the scientific method fame - The King was of course in part involved … just how much, the whole country wondered … and who should be on the jury trying Frances (and Somerset) but her “impotent ex husband” Essex!

In the event, she pled guilty, did a stint in the Tower (together with her husband), and was forgiven by the King … her alleged accomplices were not so lucky: they were executed.

They just don’t make royal scandals like that any more. :frowning:

We are taught this in school as 'The Overbury Scandal’.

Same with the wholly justified murder of Tom of Ten Thousand, 60 odd years later. Von Königsmark got off, but his creatures, who did the actual shooting, swung.
They don’t seem to have resented this. any more than samurai to ronin would object to being sacrificed for their live/dead lord.

When it comes to royal scandals, there’s always fun to be had reading about the relationship between George, Prince of Wales(later George IV) and his wife Caroline.
Rumors were out that he was so drunk on his wedding night he fell into the fireplace.By the time of George’s coronation they had been long estranged, she wasn’t even allowed into Westminster Abbey, much less allowed to become Queen consort.

Changing country, what about “L’affaire des poisons”? Huge scandal in the France of Louis XIV, with a lot of exciting and titillating details (poison manufacture and distribution at almost industrial levels, black masses and witchcraft galore, the very mistress of the King was apparently taking part in extremely murky businesses…)

Now that was a great scandal…!

I was going to ask if the OP ever took AP European History? I talk about the “Overbury Affair” when we start the unit on the Stuarts. The kids are appropriately scandalized, I’m sure. :stuck_out_tongue:

I did take a European History course in University many years ago (not sure what “AP European History” means - I assume it is an introductory course), and it wasn’t mentioned, more’s the pity. :frowning:

Indeed! “L’affaire des poisons” is in some ways a more awesome scandal. This one earns marks for (1) the King’s own involvement, and (2) you gotta love a sulfuric acid enema - that’s something a fictional villian would come up with.

It would be an Advanced Placement class. Students take them while in high school and can take AP tests afterward where a high enough score will allow you to test out of various levels of introductory college classes.

Not all of us went to public schools or schools that offered AP European History or any AP classes at all, Silenus. My 4 years of high school went AmHist, AmHist, AmGov, Current Events. And there were no other history electives.

Malthus, AP courses are courses taken at the high school level but which (if you pass a test at the end of the year) will give you credit for introductory college courses. So whether they’re “introductory” or not depends on your perspective.

Okay - when I was going to school here in Canada, such a thing did not exist. Not sure if it does now, here.

I took AP European History in high school, from the toughest teacher the school had. Everyone who took the AP test at the end of the year got the three hours of college credit. Thank you Mr. Wingo!

I did not know of this; it didn’t come up in my school history courses. Thank You!


Posting historically interesting stuff here is a discouraging experience … ‘what, you didn’t know that from high school?’ :frowning:

You just have to let it go. Sometimes high school can be its* own* ‘sulfuric acid enema’. :eek:

My AP EuroHist teacher was also probably the best teacher at my HS. He was the only one at the time with PhD. My other favorite, who taught physics, earned his shortly after I graduated.

I wish I had taken the test, I rocked the class and could have passed, but it was too intimidating at the time.

THIRD GRADE!!! What kind of backwoods hick hasn’t picked on every detail of the ethnogenesis of the Bulgarians by early grade school at the very least!

Actually I never had heard the sulfuric acid enema story before your post either ;). My own earlier formal education tended to be heavy on dry facts and light on the juicy biographical details. It’s one of the reasons I’ve developed a taste for royal biographies as I’ve gotten older to flesh out some of those facts with a little more human details. I read an interview with Jonathan Sumption a little while back where he was criticizing the modern spate of such biographies, arguing they’re a poor way to learn history. But screw that - details make the story :p.

Now sulfuric acid enema or Edward II’s hot poker up the rear - which is the worse way to go? I imagine if it actually happened the second would have at least been quicker.

Putting in a few of the juicy details is what would make high school students sit up and take notice in history class.

Like in English lit. don’t give them Julius Caesar or Hamlet, give them Measure for Measure. Cross dressing, dirty jokes, illicit sex. it’s got it all. Until I saw that play I didn’t know Shakespeare could be funny!

A really good book on the scandal at the link below. It not only details the scandal but life at Court under James.
Overbury was a moderately known poet. He was not only disliked by James but by much of the Court. I believe he was thought to be arrogant. I suppose this may have hastened his death.

Awesome! I was going to ask if anyone knew a good book on it. Thanks. :slight_smile:

Written by “Lady Anne Somerset”, eh? I take it that’s no coincidence! :smiley:

Oh, I could not agree more. :smiley:

Add Edmund Ironside to the list of men who are alleged to have met unfortunate “ends”. :smiley: