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The mystery behind Frances Coke Villiers [extract]

Frances Coke Villiers was raised in a world which demanded women to be obedient, silent, and chaste.  At the age of fifteen, Frances was forced to marry John Villiers, the elder brother of the Duke of Buckingham, as a means to secure her father’s political status.

Defying both social and religious convention, Frances had an affair with Sir Robert Howard, and soon became pregnant with his child. The aftermath of their affair set Frances against some of the most influential people in seventeenth century England.

Insight into Frances’ life has diminished with time, causing her become known as a mysterious and scandalous figure. In the following extract from Love, Madness, and Scandal, Johanna Luthman pieces together the historical life of Frances Coke Villiers to better understand one of history’s notable rebels.

In early June of 1645, the town of Oxford was under siege. The Parliamentarian New Model Army had arrived three weeks prior, rapidly blockading all entrances and exits and trapping the nervous inhabitants inside. Normally a center for learning, Oxford had been transformed into royal headquarters during the English Civil Wars, and King Charles’s courtiers and supporters crowded into the small town until it was bursting at the seams. Lords and ladies, used to the luxury of palaces and large staffs of servants to tend to their every need, now had to suffer meager and plain dishes in cramped quarters. The town streets soon overflowed with trash and filth.

The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in Oxford made its population vulnerable to infectious diseases. A severe plague epidemic had ravaged the town the previous summer. Outbreaks of smallpox, typhus, and other diseases also kept the gravediggers busy. Before the siege, the sick had sometimes been forced into quarantine in the outskirts of the city, but with an enemy army guarding the gates, that method was not available. One of the many who fell ill during this siege was a noblewoman who had arrived in the city a few months earlier. Her name was Frances Coke Villiers, the Viscountess Purbeck. On 4 June, just one day before General Thomas Fairfax received orders to lift the siege of Oxford and join other Parliamentarian troops poised to engage the king’s forces to the north, Frances died.

Portrait of Frances Coke, Viscountess Purbeck by Michiel Janszoon Miereveldt. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

If Frances had the mental energy for contemplation as she lay shivering and sweating during her final disease, she might have looked back on a life filled with countless struggles. As an adolescent and young woman, she had been forced to bow to the authority of her parents, in-laws, and sovereign. She grew into a very strong-willed person, increasingly insistent on being treated according to her noble status. As an adult, her head would tilt for no person, but her own choices also created increasingly difficult challenges. Those who loved and admired her believed she was a beautiful, brave, witty, and romantic, albeit tragic, heroine. Those who disliked her thought she was an annoyingly stubborn, haughty, greedy, and scandalous woman. Either way, most people found her very difficult to ignore.

Young Frances’s marriage to Sir John Villiers in 1617 significantly changed the trajectory of her life. Frances’s parents, Sir Edward Coke and Elizabeth Cecil (known as Lady Hatton) clashed over the issue of her marriage, sending huge waves and ripples through the courtly society of King James I. Frances, like so many other daughters of the seventeenth-century elite, did not choose her own husband, but conceded that her parents would bestow her in marriage. Her marriage to John Villiers, her father’s candidate, initially afforded her many privileges, including membership in the highly favored and influential Villiers family with even closer connections with the royal court.

Frances’s in-laws, the Villiers family, owed their power to the fact that John’s younger brother, George Villiers, was King James’s beloved, the last and greatest of his royal favorites. Like his predecessor Queen Elizabeth, King James I (ruled 1603–25) enjoyed having handsome, flattering men close at hand, who could provide company, adoration, and entertainment. While Elizabeth had been sparing in gifts, wealth, and positions to her favorites, James seemingly could not lavish enough rewards on those he loved. They rose to great positions of political power, collected a variety of influential offices, became enormously wealthy, and also made influential and rich marriages. This was true of George Villiers, who eventually became Duke of Buckingham, arguably the most powerful man in England next to the king. When Frances came of age, Buckingham reigned supreme in the heart of the king, and all attempts to lessen James’s attachment to him had failed.

Despite its apparent benefits, Frances’s marriage turned out to be a disaster. Frances’s own responses to her marital difficulties in turn created endless problems in her life. First, her husband succumbed to an intermittent and debilitating mental illness. Separated from him, Frances then struggled with her resistant in-laws to receive financial support. At this juncture, she took a lover, became pregnant, and gave birth to an illegitimate son. Her actions turned her in-laws even more firmly against her, and their great powers now became a burden instead of a boon, as they had both the political and economic capital to pursue her relentlessly. Frances had to fight the consequences of her illicit love for the rest of her life. As the years passed, she became even more tenacious than her pursuers, and no matter how much they fought her, she never gave up.

The historical Frances has remained rather elusive. She was neither a political person, nor a literary one, and thus no one thought it important to preserve most of the papers an upper-class life necessarily produced. Only a precious few of her letters and petitions have survived, giving us a glimpse of Frances’s own interpretations of her life and actions. Instead, we learn about her mostly because of others’ reactions to her deeds, movements, and decisions. Because her parents, husband, and in-laws were influential people at court, people who cared about court politics and wanted to keep abreast of the news often wrote about Frances’s contentious marriage and the scandals that followed when she had an affair. Other sources include administrative and legal records, like those of the High Commission court, both houses of Parliament, Acts of the Privy Council, and the extensive State Papers, a rich collection of letters, petitions, royal orders, warrants, and investigations. Frances’s life is like a puzzle, where many pieces unfortunately are irretrievably lost. Nevertheless, the picture that emerges of this seventeenth-century woman from the pieces that we do have is both intriguing and compelling, and more than worth the telling.

Featured image credit: “Oxford. State 1.” by Wenceslaus Hollar. Provided by University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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