The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury

A Jacobean Melodrama

Chapter 4 : Act III: Farce

Scene One: My Lord of Essex’ Prowess

Of far more interest was the nullity case. A quiet word in Essex’ ear had come up with the response that he would be glad to be shot of Frances, provided that he was not embarrassed in public. He would admit that France failed to stir him to action, but had to make it clear that he was a rampaging bull with anyone else, or there would be no other ladies willing to take up the soon-to-be vacant position of his countess.

But the law was not to be satisfied with Essex’ mere assertion of his general prowess. Archbishop Abbot, who belonged to the puritan end of the Anglican Church was highly suspicious of the Howards, many of whom were closet-Catholics. He certainly was not going to dissolve a marriage just to please them, without the strongest possible proof.

He went to see Lord Essex, who assured him that ‘he had the motions of the flesh for carnal copulation.’  The Archbishop was astonished that the Howards thought that any argument that Essex was impotent only with Frances would be a winner.

However, the case went ahead. Witnesses were called to confirm that they had seen Essex and Frances in bed together.

Essex was now having second thoughts. Did he really want to admit that he was incapable of consummating his marriage? His friends urged him to think again – especially those who had got wind of the plan for Frances and Rochester to marry.  Queen Anne, too, was not a fan of the idea of annulment. She still loathed Rochester, and hated Northampton and Suffolk only a little less virulently. It was rumoured that she was encouraging Essex to hold out.

Scene Two: Is She a Virgin?

Meanwhile, Essex agreed in court that he and Frances had never managed to have conjugal relations – although he had sometimes been put off by her refusing his advances. Asked whether his wife were still a virgin, he was ambivalent – ‘She saith so, and is so, for me.’  He had not found her to be ‘able and fit for carnal copulation’.

The panel of bishops was puzzled as to how to proceed. They asked Essex questions that normally are only asked by a physician in privacy. Exactly what was he capable of?, asked one Bishop. The others, embarrassed, allowed Essex to refuse to answer. As word got out of these details, the court was rocked with laughter at Essex’ expense.

Since both parties agreed that the marriage was unconsummated, there was the possibility of collusion – and there was also the question of how Essex had determined that France was not ‘able and fit’.  The lady would have to be examined, decreed the commissioners. Several respectable matrons and a couple of midwives were to inspect her to determine her virgin, or otherwise state.

Frances’ husband might have been lacking, but her lover certainly was not. The only way the lady could submit to such a humiliating examination was heavily veiled. The judges agreed. The six respectable matrons firkled around under the girl’s skirts and declared she was ‘as strait (narrow) as a girl of nine or ten.’ Hardly surprising, as they were indeed inspecting a girl of nine or ten dressed in France’ clothes.

Shortly after, Lady Frances, having recovered from the ordeal, swore on the Bible that her marriage had not been consummated. She was not asked to swear to her virgin state.

Essex was having none of it. Whilst his submission to the court, characterised as ‘round and piquant’ no longer exists, the gist of it was that the inspecting ladies knew nothing about medicine, so could not determine Frances’ virginity.

The ladies protested – they had not made quite such an intimate examination as the midwives, for fear of damaging the girl, but they were quite sure of their ground. The midwives had made a ‘more precise search than by eye or sight’ and were satisfied – the court took their word, although one Bishop on the panel thought they had been suborned.

Scene Three: Is He Impotent?

Archbishop Abbot was in a quandary. Only one precedent could be found in English law for a case where an annulment was granted because the husband was impotent only with the wife and that was the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Abbot did not think that Henry’s proceedings were a good example. He was loath to create a precedent himself, seeing swarms of dissatisfied husbands and wives beating a path to his door if he did.

If Essex were completely impotent, Abbot would immediately rule for an annulment, but he was being assured by Essex, and perhaps by messengers from the Queen, that he was not. If he were impotent only with Frances, that was a lack of will, not a lack of ability, and not grounds for annulment. He was even informed that Essex, tired of being teased by a group of friends had taken of his shirt ‘to show them all so able and extraordinarily sufficient matter that they all cried out shame of his lady and said that if the ladies of the court knew as much as they knew, they would tread her to death’ (an allusion to hens fighting each other to mate with the cockerel).

Everyone but Abbot thought that it was irrelevant whether Essex were man enough with every other woman. The King himself said that it was immaterial whether ‘the fault therof hath been born with him or done to him by violence, or disease, or disproportion, or inaptitude betwixt the parties, or unnatural practices’.  And it might be conjectured that James himself knew a thing or two about ‘unnatural practices’ as he prided himself on being an authority on witchcraft – he had even written a book about it. Of course, he may have meant something else by ‘unnatural practices’, but there, too, he might be considered something of an expert.

But the Archbishop was adamant. The couple should be reconciled and set to try again – even though he was warned that by now they hated each other so much that living together would end in murder. James urged him to have pity – they were only young and should not be forced to ‘live in perpetual scandal or misery.’ Abbot himself was unmarried, and did not seem to feel that a life of enforced celibacy for Frances would be a problem.

Scene Four: Gossip

The court was now rife with gossip that Rochester and Frances were more than ‘just good friends’. It was a race to see if the nullity suit could be granted before Abbot and the rest of the commission found out about the lady’s adultery. How could the Howards give Rochester enough access to Frances to keep him keen, whilst not enough to draw Abbot’s attention?

James was now tired of the scandal. He ordered that a conclusion be reached, and failing to persuade Abbot to his way of thinking, decreed the matter would go with a majority vote, and with no arguments being made in support of the commissioners’ individual decisions.

By a majority of seven to five, Frances was freed.

Public opinion tended to the view that Essex had been badly treated, and saucy rhymes were sung in the streets of London:

There was at court a lady of late
That none could enter, she was so strait
But now with use she is grown so wide

There is a passage for Carr to ride.