The high society of Stuart England found Frances Coke Villiers, Viscountess Purbeck (1602-1645) an exasperating woman. She lived at a time when women were expected to be obedient, silent, and chaste, but Frances displayed none of these qualities. The following extract looks Frances’ affair with Sir Robert Howard.
As her husband suffered through his increasingly frequent and severe episodes of mental illness Frances continued to struggle with her in-laws. Diversions such as her trip to The Hague with her mother no doubt presented welcome respite, but the death of her elder sister Elizabeth in 1623 added sorrow and grief to her difficulties. Increasingly, Frances sought solace in the growing and deepening relationship with the man who would come to play a central role in her life: Sir Robert Howard. By 1623, the two were lovers and the clandestine liaison triggered a whole host of new challenges for Frances.
Sir Robert Howard came from the influential and rich Howard family, but he made no mark on society. Robert was the son of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, and his countess Katherine, born Knyvet. Thomas Howard began his court career under Queen Elizabeth: she gave him a title, Baron de Walden, and he became her Lord Chamberlain towards the very end of her reign. When James came to the English throne in 1603, Thomas Howard managed to secure his position at the new court: James made him Earl of Suffolk, and he served as Lord Chamberlain from 1603 to 1613 and as Lord Treasurer from 1614 to 1618. Similarly, the Countess of Suffolk became an important and influential figure at court, serving as Queen Anna’s Lady of the Privy Chamber and Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels, receiving the very positions that Lady Hatton had so coveted. As it turned out, the rapacious greed and ambition of the Earl and Countess of Suffolk eventually led to their temporary downfall.
Frances and Howard’s relationship evolved from casual contacts to a romantic and sexual liaison around 1623. According to the witness depositions in Buckingham’s later investigation in the spring of 1625, Robert had ‘for the space of neer two yeers past’ had ‘verye often & familiar access to the Lady (Frances)’. At this point, Frances lived separately from John (her husband), which gave her more freedom of movement. Frances spent most of her time in Denmark House, Prince Charles’s London palace. His illness notwithstanding, John was still the Prince’s Keeper of Denmark House and as a result his wife had rooms available to her there. John, depending on the swings of his fragile nerves, split his time between treatment and isolation in the countryside and one of Buckingham’s London residences, Wallingford House.
While Frances and Howard certainly were meeting each other openly at various functions and entertainments, it was the revelations of their secretive and private meetings which later presented the damning evidence of their illicit affair. In the intense stages of an early relationship, the two lovers took great risks to be together. Howard’s frequent visits to Denmark House sometimes lasted until the early morning hours. To avoid curious eyes, Howard sneaked into Frances’s room by going through a neighbour’s house, climbing over the roof, and slipping in through Frances’s window, like an acrobatic Romeo. The couple also met secretly at the same accommodating neighbour’s house, a man named Mr Peel. It is not entirely clear why Mr Peel would allow the couple’s transgressions to take place in his house. Perhaps he was compensated, or perhaps he was a friend of Frances and Howard. The lovers had intimate suppers in their coach in Knightsbridge and at Ilford several times.
Sometimes, they left the city altogether; they went to the wells in Essex, no doubt drinking what was believed to be the holy waters. They spent nights at inns in Lambeth, Maidenhead, and Ware, where they rented rooms located right next to each other, which later interrogators interpreted as suspiciously close, although Frances and Howard claimed it was innocent. Perhaps the couple stayed at the White Heart Inn in Ware, which featured the famous Great Bed of Ware, a giant bed more than three metres wide, built as a special attraction to lure more visitors and customers to the establishment. Over the course of many centuries, overnight guests have left their marks on the bed by carving in their initials or leaving wax seals on the wooden posts. If they slept in the bed and left their marks, centuries of later couples have rendered Frances and Howard’s initials unreadable. Considering that the bed was associated with bawdy puns and stories and that it was so famous that both Shakespeare and Ben Johnson mentioned it in plays and poetry, it would have been wiser for the couple to stay somewhere more discreet and not leave any tell-tale signs behind.
Featured image credit: Somerset House, (orginally Denamark House) London, United Kingdom by Rob Bye. Public domain via Unsplash.