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Portrait Miniature of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, by Nicholas Hilliard, c1611

Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset (d. 1645)

ROBERT CARR, Earl of Somerset (d. 1645), or Ker, according to the Scottish spelling, was a younger son of Sir Thomas Ker of Ferniehurst, by his second wife, Janet, sister of Sir Walter Scott of Buccleugh. In Douglas's 'Peerage,'1 it is stated that he 'served King James in the quality of a page, and, attending his majesty into England, was invested with the order of the Bath at his coronation.' This last statement, though usually adopted, is erroneous. A list of the knights made at the coronation in Howes's continuation of Stow's 'Chronicle,'2 gives the name of Sir Robert Carr of Newboth. If, as can hardly be doubted, Newboth is an English corruption of Newbottle, the person knighted was the Robert Ker who subsequently became the second earl of Lothian3.

Robert Carr accompanied James to England as a page, but, being discharged soon after his arrival, went into France, where he remained for some time. Soon after his return, being in attendance upon Lord Hay or Lord Dingwall at a tilting match, he was thrown from his horse and broke his arm in the king's presence. James recognised his former page, and, being pleased with the youth's appearance, took him into favour4 and knighted him on 23 Dec. 1607.

James was anxious to provide an estate for his new favourite. Somewhere about this time Salisbury suggested to the king a mode of benefiting Carr without injury to himself.5 Though Raleigh had conveyed the manor of Sherborne to trustees to save it from forfeiture, a flaw had been discovered in the conveyance. The land was therefore legally forfeited in consequence of Raleigh's attainder,6 and on 9 Jan. 1609 it was granted to Carr, the king making a compensation, the adequacy of which is a subject of dispute, to the former owner.7

In the winter session of 1610, Carr, irritated by the feeling displayed in the commons against Scottish favourites, incited his master against the house, and did his best to procure the dissolution which speedily followed.8 On 25 March 1611 he was created Viscount Rochester,9 being the first Scotchman promoted by James to a seat in the English House of Lords, as the right of sitting in parliament had been expressly reserved in the case of Hay.

In 1612, upon Salisbury's death, Rochester, who had recently been made a privy councillor, was employed by James to conduct his correspondence, without the title of a secretary.10 James seems to have thought that a young man with no special political principles would not only be a cheerful companion, but a useful instrument as well, and would gradually learn to model himself upon his master's ideas of statesmanship. He forgot that conduct is often determined by other motives than political principles. The new favourite was already in love with the Countess of Essex, a daughter of the influential Earl of Suffolk, and a great-niece of the still more influential Earl of Northampton, the leader of the political catholics.

In the beginning of 1613 Lady Essex was thinking of procuring a sentence of nullity of marriage, which would set her free from a husband whom she detested [Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex], and enable her to marry Rochester. Her relatives, the chiefs of the Howard family, who had hitherto found Rochester opposed to their interests, grasped at the suggestion, and on 16 May a commission was appointed to try the case. James threw himself on the side of his favourite, and on 25 Sept. the commissioners pronounced, by a majority of seven to five, in favour of the nullity.11 When Rochester began his courtship of Lady Essex, he had given his confidence to Sir Thomas Overbury, a man of intelligence and refinement. At first Overbury assisted Rochester in 'the composition of his love-letters,'10 but afterwards, perhaps when he had discovered that his patron contemplated marriage instead of an intrigue with a lady whose relations were the leaders of the Spanish party in England, Overbury threw all his influence into the opposite scale, and exposed himself to the fatal anger of Lady Essex.

The king, too, was jealous of Overbury's influence over his favourite, and suggested to him a diplomatic appointment. Overbury, on refusing to accept it, was committed to the Tower.13 There seems to be little doubt that both Rochester and Northampton were consenting parties to the imprisonment. Their object is a matter of dispute. On the whole, the most probable explanation is that they merely wanted to get him out of the way for a time till the divorce proceedings were at an end14 Lady Essex's wrath was much more dangerous. She made up her mind that Overbury must be murdered to revenge his personal attack upon her character. She obtained the admission of a certain Weston as the keeper of Overbury in the Tower, and Weston was instructed to poison his prisoner. Weston, it seems, did not actually administer the poison, and Lady Essex is usually supposed—for the whole evidence at this stage is contradictory—to have mixed poison with some tarts and jellies which were sent by Rochester to Overbury as a means of conveying letters to him, the object of which was to assure him that Rochester and Northampton were doing everything in their power to hasten his delivery. Rochester, too, occasionally sent powders to Overbury, the object of which was said to be to give him the appearance of ill-health so that his friends might urge the king to release him. The evidence on the point whether the tarts were eaten by Overbury is again conflicting, but the fact that he did not die at the time seems to show that they remained untasted. Later on poison was administered in another way, and of this Overbury died. Whether Rochester was acquainted with the lady's proceedings can never be ascertained with certainty, though the evidence on the whole points to a favourable conclusion.15

At the time, at all events, no one guessed at the existence of this tragedy. Rochester was created Earl of Somerset on 3 Nov. 1613,16 and on 23 Dec. he received a commission as treasurer of Scotland,17 and on 26 Dec. he was married in state to the murderess. Courtiers vied in making costly presents to the pair.

Somerset was now trusted with political secrets above all others. His head was turned by his rapid elevation, and he threw himself without reserve into the hands of Northampton and the Spanish party. At first he advocated a plan for marrying Prince Charles to a Savoyard princess, but as soon as Sarmiento, the Spanish ambassador, whose later title was Count of Gondomar, arrived in England, he made overtures to the new envoy to secure an alliance with Spain.

In the parliament of 1614 Somerset's vote was given, as might have been expected, against any compromise with the commons in the dispute on the impositions, and a few weeks after the dissolution he was made lord chamberlain, a post which brought him into immediate connection with the king.

Somerset's importance might seem the greater as Northampton had just died. He was acting Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal in Northampton's place on 30 June 1614. His arrogance, combined with his open adoption of the principles of the Spanish party, set against him the statesmen, such as Ellesmere and others, who wished to maintain a close connection with the continental protestants. By these men a new candidate for the post of favourite, George Villiers, who first saw the king in August 1614, was brought to court. Though James in November 1614 showed that he had no intention of abandoning Somerset, the fact that he made Villiers a cupbearer so irritated the favourite that he grew morose and ill-tempered even to James himself.

James was much hurt. Early in 1615 he pleaded with Somerset, entreating him to continue to return his friendship,18 and in April he consented to place in Somerset's hands the negotiation which was going on with Spain on the subject of the prince's proposed marriage with the Infanta Maria, taking it from the ambassador at Madrid, Sir John Digby, to whom it had been originally entrusted.

Though it was not likely that Somerset's adversaries were aware of this secret trust, they must have perceived signs of James's continued favour towards him, and obtaining the support of the Queen, who was personally jealous of the favourite, they persuaded James, on April 13, to make Villiers a gentleman of the bedchamber. Whatever may have been the exact reason of James's conduct, he had no intention of abandoning Somerset, and possibly only meant to warn him against persistence in his harsh and unreasonable temper. Somerset, exposed as he was to hostility both as a Scotchman and as a favourite, was made by his sense of insecurity more querulous than before.

In July James refused to make an appointment at Somerset's entreaty,19 and about the same time sent him a letter in which his dissatisfaction was expressed. 'I have been needlessly troubled this day,' he wrote, 'with your desperate letters; you may take the right way, if you list, and neither grieve me nor yourself. No man's nor woman's credit is able to cross you at my hands if you pay me a part of that you owe me. But how you can give over that inward affection, and yet be a dutiful servant, I cannot understand that distinction. Heaven and earth shall bear me witness that, if you do but the half your duty unto me, you may be with me in the old manner, only by expressing that love to my person and respect to your master that God and man crave of you, with a hearty and feeling penitence of your by-past errors.'20

The knowledge of the existence of bad feeling between the favourite and his master made Somerset's enemies more hopeful of effecting his overthrow. Somerset accordingly directed Sir Robert Cotton to draw out a pardon sufficiently large to place him in safety. Upon the refusal of Yelverton, the Solicitor-General, to certify its fitness for passing the Great Seal,21 Somerset ordered a still larger pardon to be drawn up, which Ellesmere, the Lord Chancellor, refused to seal. On 20 July 1615 the matter was fully discussed at the privy council in the presence of the king, and at the end of the debate James insisted upon Ellesmere's sealing the pardon. After the king had left the council, however, private influence was brought to bear on him, and the pardon was left unsealed.22

Not many weeks after this scene information that Overbury had been murdered was brought to Winwood, the Secretary of State, who was one of Somerset's opponents. Helwys, the Lieutenant of the Tower, hearing that something was known, told his story to Winwood, and on 10 Sept. repeated it in a letter 1 to the king, who directed Coke to examine the affair. Lady Somerset's name was soon implicated in the charge of poisoning, and that of her husband was subsequently involved in it. On 13 Oct. a commission was issued to the Chancellor and other persons of high rank to inquire.

As soon as Somerset knew himself to be suspected, he left James at Royston and came up to London to justify himself. He wrote to James finding fault with the composition of the court of inquiry, and threatening him with the loss of the support of the Howard family if he persisted in the course which he was taking. James answered that the investigation must continue, and on 17 Oct. the commissioners wrote to the earl and countess directing them to remain in their respective apartments. On that evening Somerset burnt a number of his own letters to Northampton, written at the time of the murder, and directed Cotton to affix false dates to the letters which he had received at the same time from Northampton and Overbury. Though these orders were subsequently withdrawn, the fact that they had been given was very damaging to Somerset; but his conduct is not absolutely inconsistent with the supposition that, being a man of little judgment, he was frightened at the prospect of seeing letters relating to tricks purposed to be put on Overbury interpreted in the light of subsequent discoveries. On the next day Somerset was committed to the Dean of Westminster's house.

The inferior instruments, the warders, were tried and executed, and in the ordinary course of things the trial of Somerset and his wife would have followed soon. It was, however, postponed, apparently in order that investigation might be made into Somerset's relations with the Spanish ambassador, and also perhaps because Lady Somerset gave birth at this time to a daughter, who afterwards became the mother of Lord Russell.

The prisoners were to be tried in the high steward's court. A few days before the time appointed, Somerset, who had been urged by the king to declare himself guilty, threatened to bring some charge against James himself. James met the attack by refusing to hear further from the prisoner in private till after the trial, and Somerset then declared that he would not come to the trial at all, on the plea, it would seem, of illness.

On 24 May the countess pleaded guilty, and received sentence of death. On the 25th Somerset, though he at first pretended to be unable to leave the Tower, to which he had been removed some weeks previously, was brought to Westminster Hall. That Somerset was accessory to Overbury's murder before the fact, and consequently guilty of murder, was strongly urged by Bacon, who, as Attorney-General, conducted the prosecution, and Bacon was backed by Montague and Crew. Bacon had no difficulty in showing that Somerset had taken part in a highly suspicious plot, and he argued that there was no motive leading Somerset to imprison Overbury unless he had meant to murder him, as, if Overbury had been allowed to 'go beyond sea' as an ambassador, he would have been disabled by distance from throwing hindrances in the way of the marriage. The argument throws light on Bacon's habit of omitting to notice difficulties in the way of a theory which he has once accepted, but it is certainly not conclusive against Somerset. If Overbury had wished to give evidence of the conduct of Lady Essex, which might have influenced the commissioners who sat to decide on the nullity of her marriage, he might easily have done so by letter from the most distant embassy, while it would have been impossible for him to communicate his knowledge from the Tower, where both Helwys, the lieutenant, and Weston, his own immediate keeper, were Somerset's creatures.

Montague had charge of the most serious part of the case. He proved that Somerset had sent powders to Overbury, and he tried to show, though not very successfully, that Somerset had poisoned the tarts which had been sent.

In a case of circumstantial evidence the business of the counsel of the defence is not only to show that the facts proved do not fit the theory of the prosecution, but to show that they do fit another theory which is compatible with the innocence of the accused. The main weakness of the argument of the counsel for the crown was that they proved too much. Somerset, according to their showing, was constantlv trying to poison Overbury, and yet all his efforts signally failed. Powder after powder, poisoned tart after poisoned tart, were sent, and yet Overbury would not die. At last an injection was administered by an apothecary's boy, and Overbury succumbed at once. Yet no tittle of evidence was advanced to connect this last act with Somerset.

On the other hand, the proceedings become explicable if we suppose that Somerset, with Northampton as his adviser, merely wanted to silence Overbury while the nullity suit was proceeding, and to impress him with the belief that he and Northampton were advocating his cause with the king, in order that when he was released he might not bring with him an angry feeling. This would explain the constant letters and messages, and even the sending of medicine to produce illness, which might work upon the king's feelings.

Lady Essex would naturally regard the affair from another point of view. Overbury's attack upon her character was an insult to be avenged, and she may very well have seized the opportunity afforded to her by her lover's plot to effect her purpose. We do not know enough of her character to say whether she was likely to preserve silence with her husband even after her design was carried out or not, and it is, of course, quite possible that she may have told him what was going on, even before the final act. If so, the anxiety which he showed to keep out of sight all evidence relating to his own proceedings would be more intelligible than ever. Under these circumstances there is no wonder, even if Somerset was not guilty, that his defence should have broken down in some points. The only question which can be raised is whether his failure to sustain his argument was owing to the reality of his guilt, or whether it was only what might fairly be expected from a man called on to fight an unequal battle against trained lawyers, and conscious that his part in the intrigue of Overbury's imprisonment was such as to lay him open to the worst suspicions.23 The court, besides, was hostile, and the verdict of guilty, which was ultimately given, was probably inevitable.

James had no intention of allowing either the earl or the countess to be executed. On 13 July 1615 a pardon was granted to the lady.24 Somerset was informed that his life would be spared, and a letter is extant25 from the obscure phrases of which it would seem that an offer was made to him of leaving him at least part of his property if he would accept the intercession of a person unnamed, who was probably Villiers. Somerset, however, refused to do this, and strongly reasserted his innocence. Perhaps in consequence of this firmness, both he and his wife were kept in the Tower till January 1622, when they were allowed to exchange their captivity for residence at certain fixed places. At last Somerset received a formal pardon. The statement, often made, that James thought of taking him again into favour when he was displeased with Buckingham's conduct in 1624, is absolutely without foundation.

In 1630 Somerset once more came before public notice, as being prosecuted in the Star-chamber, together with other more important personages, for having, in the preceding year, passed on to the Earl of Clare a paper written long before by Sir Robert Dudley, recommending James to establish arbitrary government. On 29 May he and the others implicated were told that, in consequence of the birth of the king's son, who was afterwards Charles II, the proceedings would be dropped.26 After this Somerset remained in obscurity till his death, which took place in July 1645.

1. ii. 134.
2. p. 827.
3. As stated in Nichols's 'Progresses,' i. 222, note 5.
4. Wilson, in Kennet, ii. 686.
5. The King to Salisbury, undated, Hatfield MS. 134, folio 149.
6. Memoranda of the King's Remembrancer, Public Record Office, Mich. Term, 7 James I, 253.
7. Gardiner, History of England, ii. 47.
8. Correspondence in the Hatfield MS. 134.
9. Patent Rolls, 9 James I, Part 41, No. 14.
10. Chamberlain to Carleton, 11 and 17 June, 2 July, Court and Times of James I, 171, 173, 179.
11. State Trials, ii. 785.
12. Winwood, Memorials, iii. 478.
13. Chamberlain to Carleton, 29 April 1613, State Papers, Dom., lxxii. 120.
14. See Gardiner, History of England, ii. 178-80.
15. Gardiner, History of England, ii. 183-6.
16. Patent Rolls, James I, Part 5, No. 20, misdated in Nicolas, Hist. Peerage.
17. Paper Register of the Great Seal, Book I, No. 214, communicated by T. Dickson, esq., chief of the historical department of the Register House, Edinburgh.
18. James to Somerset, Halliwell, Letters of the Kings, ii. 126.
19. Chamberlain to Carleton, July 15, Court and Times of James I, i. 364.
20. James to Somerset, Halliwell, Letters of the Kings, ii. 133.
21. Cotton's Examinations, Cotton MSS. Titus B vii. 489.
22. Sarmiento to Lerma, 29 July8 Aug. Madrid Palace Library MSS. 2030 Oct. Simancas MSS.
23. For the more favourable view see Gardiner, History of England, ii. 353; for the less favourable, Spedding, Letters and Life of Bacon, v. 328. References to the original authorities are given in both these works, and most of them will be found in Amos, Great Oyer of Poisoning, a book of no critical value.
24. State Trials, ii. 1005.
25. Cabala, i. 1.
26. State Trials, iii. 396.

Gardiner, S. R. "Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset."
Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. IX. Leslie Stephen, Ed.
London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1887. 172-6.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Bellany, Alastair. The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England:
           News Culture and the Overbury Affair, 1603-1660
           Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Lindley, David. The Trials of Frances Howard: Fact and Fiction at the Court of King James
           Routledge, 1996.

Carr on the Web:

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Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk
Henry Howard, 1. Earl of Northampton
Thomas Howard, 1. Earl of Suffolk
Henry Hastings, 3. E. of Huntingdon
Edward Manners, 3rd Earl of Rutland
Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland
Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland
Henry FitzAlan, 12. Earl of Arundel
Thomas, Earl Arundell of Wardour
Edward Somerset, E. of Worcester
William Davison
Sir Walter Mildmay
Sir Ralph Sadler
Sir Amyas Paulet
Gilbert Gifford
Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague
François, Duke of Alençon & Anjou

Mary, Queen of Scots
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley
James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell
Anthony Babington and the Babington Plot
John Knox

Philip II of Spain
The Spanish Armada, 1588
Sir Francis Drake
Sir John Hawkins

William Camden
Archbishop Whitgift
Martin Marprelate Controversy
John Penry (Martin Marprelate)
Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury
John Dee, Alchemist

Philip Henslowe
Edward Alleyn
The Blackfriars Theatre
The Fortune Theatre
The Rose Theatre
The Swan Theatre
Children's Companies
The Admiral's Men
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
Citizen Comedy
The Isle of Dogs, 1597

Common Law
Court of Common Pleas
Court of King's Bench
Court of Star Chamber
Council of the North
Fleet Prison
First Fruits & Tenths
Livery and Maintenance
Oyer and terminer

The Stuarts

King James I of England
Anne of Denmark
Henry, Prince of Wales
The Gunpowder Plot, 1605
George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham
Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset
Arabella Stuart, Lady Lennox

William Alabaster
Bishop Hall
Bishop Thomas Morton
Archbishop William Laud
John Selden
Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford
Henry Lawes

King Charles I
Queen Henrietta Maria

Long Parliament
Rump Parliament
Kentish Petition, 1642

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford
John Digby, Earl of Bristol
George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol
Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax
Robert Devereux, 3rd E. of Essex
Robert Sidney, 2. E. of Leicester
Algernon Percy, E. of Northumberland
Henry Montagu, Earl of Manchester
Edward Montagu, 2. Earl of Manchester

The Restoration

King Charles II
King James II
Test Acts

Greenwich Palace
Hatfield House
Richmond Palace
Windsor Palace
Woodstock Manor

The Cinque Ports
Mermaid Tavern
Malmsey Wine
Great Fire of London, 1666
Merchant Taylors' School
Westminster School
The Sanctuary at Westminster


Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
London in late 16th century
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's View of London, 1616
Larger Visscher's View in Sections
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London

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