James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 20 : The Rise of Robert Carr

It was widely known that James enjoyed the company of young men to a degree that certainly raised a few eyebrows in his own time, although the exact nature of his relationships cannot, of course, be ascertained. He had seven children by his wife, and whilst it was never a great romance, he remained fond of her until her death in 1619. Nevertheless, it was apparent that he did not have a close emotional or intellectual bond with his Queen, and did not, in general, have a high opinion of women – hardly unusual in a misogynist age. From around 1607, by which time the Queen had had several miscarriages and lost two children in infancy, they seemed to have stopped sleeping together. Anne was 33 and James was 41.

This increased distance from Anne seems to have revived James’ early inclination towards male companionship. After his early close relationship with Lennox (see Chapter 4) there were other favourites, including Sir James Hay, and Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomerie but none that touched the King as did Robert Carr.

In 1607, Carr (or Kerr, as it was spelt in Scots), was twenty-one years old, son of Sir Thomas Kerr of Ferniehurst, Scottish Warden of the Middle March. He had spent some time in France, and was described by Sir John Harington (Elizabeth I’s god-son, the inventor of the water-closet) as ‘straight-limbed, well-favoured, strong-shouldered and smooth-faced.’

Carr’s first appearance at court came in March 1607 when, in attendance on Sir James Hay at a tournament, he was thrown by his horse and broke a leg. James insisted that he be tended by the royal physicians, and took a personal interest in Carr’s recovery. He visited frequently, and quickly came to dote on the young man. He began to teach his protégé Latin, and to spend a good deal of time with him.

Once Carr was recovered, James appointed him as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, and walked around the court, leaning on the younger man’s arm – a great sign of James’ personal favour. Over the next three years, Carr was showered with grants and favours, attracting the disgust not only of the court but of Queen Anne and Prince Henry.

The latter’s disapproval was silenced by his sudden death, aged eighteen, in November 1612. Although the relationship between the King and his heir had become tense, owing to Henry’s support for Sir Walter Raleigh, his strident Protestantism, and general popularity, it was a terrible personal blow to both James and Anne.

Memory of his son’s disapproval did nothing to cool James’ affection for Carr, who by 1613 was Earl of Somerset and Lord Chamberlain.

Over the next few years, as Salisbury’s influenced waned – mainly because he was fighting a rear-guard action to contain James’ spendthrift habits which were leaving the Crown enormously indebted and in need of Parliamentary support for funding – Somerset’s mastery grew. Somerset himself was not personally disliked – he was of a pleasant disposition, devoted to James, and not inclined to factionalism – yet his influence and his control of preferment was profoundly resented.

Eventually, Somerset could not stand aloof from court faction – on the one side, Northampton, Suffolk and the other Howards, and on the other, his own oldest friend, Sir Thomas Overbury, who aligned with a reforming group in Parliament. Matters came to a head when Somerset fell deeply in love with Lady Frances Devereux (nee Howard), wife of the Earl of Essex, and daughter of the Earl of Suffolk. The Essex’ had been married aged 13 and 14, but had not consummated their union. Apparently the earl, no matter how often he bedded with his wife, could not summon up the necessary enthusiasm to perform.

By 1613, Somerset was Frances’ lover, and the two hoped for an annulment of the Essex marriage, so they could marry. Overbury counselled Somerset strongly against it, criticising Frances as a ‘base woman’. The Howards, of course, were keen for the marriage to take place.

James himself wanted Somerset to have his way, and interfered unduly with the Ecclesiastical Commission set up to judge whether the Essex marriage could be annulled. In due course, Frances was free, but she and her family deeply resented Overbury’s interference, and she arranged his murder. For a full account of this scandalous story, see Anne Somerset’s ‘Unnatural Murder’.

Somerset had been shown so much favour by James that he began to be careless about pleasing his royal master, and by August 1614, a new young man was being talked of as very much in the King’s eye – George Villiers.

Whilst Somerset might have faded gently into the background, the discovery in 1615 that Overbury had been murdered led to a trial in which both Somerset and his wife were found guilty. She was pardoned but they both remained in the Tower for seven years. He adamantly refused to admit to any involvement. In 1622 they were released from prison, and in 1624 Somerset received a pardon. He lived more or less in obscurity until his death in 1645.