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Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset (1585/6-1645)

P.2226-R Carr was a Scottish noble who met King James I (1566-1625) in 1607 and very quickly rose to a position of considerable authority in the King’s court. As James’ favourite, Carr received a steady flow of gifts in the form of cash, land and titles, until he put his mind towards achieving further, political ambition. In 1611 he was made Viscount Rochester (with the right to sit in the House of Lords), a Knight of the Garter and keeper of Westminster Palace. The following year Carr was appointed to the English Privy Council. His income amounted to the same as the king’s first-born son, Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612). In July 1612 his influence expanded still further with his appointment as secretary to the King. In this position Carr could establish a network of dependants, and accept money in return for granting privileges.

Carr fell in love with and proposed marriage to Frances Howard (1590-1632) (P.2722-R), daughter of Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk (1561-1626). The only obstacle to their union was that Frances was already married to the 3rd Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux (1591-1646). It is possible that Frances’ family encouraged the relationship; the recusant Howard family was politically ambitious and the marriage would grant them a closer relationship with the King. Frances petitioned for an annulment of her marriage on the grounds of her husband’s sexual impotence, claiming that under ecclesiastical law the marriage should be dissolved. Devereux denied the accusations of impotence, stalling the decision of the nullity commissioners. To break the deadlock James I intervened and granted the dissolution of the marriage. The scandalous case was a huge sensation. To say that no one’s reputation emerged from the affair unscathed would be an understatement. However, Carr was elevated to Earldom in November 1613, to increase his stature to be joined in matrimony to a member of one of the great aristocratic families of the country.

Further scandal was to follow in 1615, when factions against Carr fought to loosen his grip on power. Not only was his position as the King’s favourite usurped by the beautiful and intelligent George Villiers, but the wedded couple were deeply implicated in murder. The victim was Sir Thomas Overbury, Carr’s long-time ally, who had assisted the Earl in the initial wooing of Frances, but had tried unsuccessfully to end the courtship when it grew more serious. Overbury was opposed the inevitable political ties to the Howards. The King tried to remove Overbury from the scene by offering him a position as foreign ambassador. Overbury refused to take up the appointment, and Carr promised him protection, but the Earl did nothing and Overbury was punished for contempt and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Frances was vengeful about Overbury resistance to her marriage to Carr, and feared that he might succeed in preventing the annulment of her first marriage. The investigation into the crime instigated by the King ended in the imprisonment of Carr and pregnant Frances, and the second sensational trial of their lives was played out. Frances confessed to ordering that Overbury’s food be poisoned and when that did not work - to dispatch him with a poisoned enema. Although the pair was found guilty of murder in May 1616, they escaped the death penality, and were instead imprisoned in the Tower, where they stayed until 1622. Carr petitioned for a royal pardon, which he received in 1624, but he was forbidden from once more attending Court. Somerset’s possessions, which had helped to fashion his aristocratic identity, were confiscated by the crown and redistributed.

More portraits of Robert Carr

Museum Number P.2226-R