Frances Howard (or, what I’m working on in Texas)

I haven’t posted anything in a little while, partly because my first draft (yes, really!) was with my supervisor for a few months, and partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time doing the “boring stuff”–footnotes, lit review, checking that everything actually did make it into the bibliography…

But on Monday I started a two-and-a-half-month stint at the University of Texas at Austin, where I’m the guinea pig for a developing exchange programme between UT and Exeter. And while I’m here, I’m going to take advantage of UT’s excellent libraries to finish a second draft.

Which brings me to Frances Howard. One of the bits that needs serious re-working following the first draft is the introduction/lit review, and so I am working hard to clarify, expand, and fact-check my sloppy first go. For the past couple of days, I’ve been spending time with Middleton and Rowley’s sources for The Changeling. Today, I spent a good long time with Frances Howard and her divorce and murder trials.

I’ve never thought that much about Howard before. I knew that she had been examined by a jury of matrons and midwives to determine whether she was a virgin or not as part of her divorce trial (more on that delightful episode in a moment). I knew that it was this same trial that inspired most of Act 4 of The Changeling, including the virginity test and the bed trick. I knew that her trials were the source of much scandal in Jacobean London. I’d glossed over a lot of the details because, at the end of the day, my thesis spends more time in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than in the seventeenth.

Then I had the opportunity to teach a seminar on The Changeling as part of a module on Renaissance and Restoration Theatrical Cultures that I was shadowing. After assigning the “Court Scandals” reading group to tell the class about Frances Howard, I thought I’d better brush up on the details. Lo and behold, two things that I had completely overlooked before:

1) Howard and her second husband, Robert Carr, were pardoned and released from prison less than 6 months before The Changeling was licensed;


2) This painting:

Frances Howard, we think. Or it might be her sister. Shh…

Look at that brazen display of lustfulness! Or so commentators on Howard’s life and trials would have us think. These two overlooked factors re-ignited my interest in Howard, and I put her name on my list of things to follow up in Texas.

Fast forward to today, in the Perry-Castañeda Library, in a seat that was one of many available (*cough*Exeter*cough), when I got to sit down with David Lindley’s book-length study on The Trials of Frances Howard. Seeking to rehabilitate Howard, or at least to question the accepted narrative of her lustful maliciousness, Lindley walks us through the primary sources and suggests that we have been too quick to dismiss and condemn Howard. And his work got me thinking about one of the central pieces of my thesis: the tension that inevitably results from staging a 400-year-old play in the present. So here are some of my thoughts, as they arose today, on Howard, Lindley, patriarchy, and performance:

Frances Howard, her husbands, her divorce trial, and her involvement in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury were a huge scandal in the Jacobean period, and her release from the Tower in January 1622 would have meant that the circumstances of her imprisonment were fresh in the minds of Londoners when The Changeling premiered. In 1606, at the age of fourteen, Howard was married to Robert Devereux, the thirteen-year-old future Earl of Essex. They were kept apart and not allowed to consummate the marriage until they reached the age of majority. In 1613, Howard and her family requested an annulment of her marriage with Essex; it is usually assumed that the suit was a direct result of her supposed affair with Robert Carr, the first Earl of Somerset and the King’s favourite. Arguing that she had made every attempt to have sexual relations with her husband, but to no avail, divorce was requested on the grounds that her husband was impotent, the marriage had never been consummated, and therefore she had never truly been married to Essex. Unfortunately, the laws of the time required that he publicly declare his impotence in order to support her case, which would have precluded any future marriages on his part. Hoping to preserve his prospects and reputation, Essex declared that he was very capable of performing sexual acts with any woman except his wife. Rather than verify this claim upon his body, the court determined that Frances herself should be examined, and the status of her virginity determined. She was declared a virgin by a jury of matrons and midwives. Significantly in relation to The Changeling, her request that she be veiled during the examination fuelled rumours that she had hired a substitute—a true virgin—to stand for her. The annulment was eventually granted, largely due to the intervention of James I, who added ‘two judges bound to vote in favour’ to the commission.[1] Howard and Carr married immediately following the verdict.

A few years later, in 1616, Howard found herself on trial once again, this time for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, her new husband’s trusted advisor and a strong opponent of their marriage (or, rather, of Howard’s divorce). She plead guilty to the charges and was imprisoned, with her husband, in the Tower. As noted above, Howard and Carr were both pardoned by King James and subsequently released from prison in January 1622. The Changeling was licensed for performance by Sir Henry Herbert on 7 May of the same year.[2]

The virginity test and bed trick sequence in Act 4 are the most obvious elements of The Changeling that allude to Frances Howard’s life and trials. As David Lindley rightly points out, there are more parallels between the real-life scandal and the play than these two episodes (although understanding these episodes in the context of the Howard divorce is crucial to an understanding of The Changeling). In his book-length engagement with the trials of Frances Howard, Lindley argues that one the most significant factors in Howard’s annulment trial and its subsequent representation ‘is the fear of female sexual expression’.[4] This fear, which Lindley argues ‘underlies, unacknowledged, much of the commentary on the divorce’, can also be read as one of the underlying, but often unacknowledged, assumptions in Middleton and Rowley’s play. An examination of The Changeling alongside Howard’s divorce and murder trials therefore calls into question Middleton’s frequent labelling as a feminist or proto-feminist playwright.

Broader concerns about the legibility of the female body and a woman’s sexual autonomy infuse both fact and fiction, and it is significant that only one known contemporary source questions the logic of testing Howard’s virginity to prove her husband’s impotence: William Terracae, who points out that she could just as easily have been having an affair, and so her sexual status tells us nothing about her husband’s.[5] Lindley spends a long section of his introduction applying an historicised understanding of these concerns to the well-known painting of Howard (see above), which has often been cited as evidence of her sexual promiscuity and maliciousness, by modern scholars as much as by her contemporaries.[6] As Lindley points out, however, ‘[m]any court ladies of unimpeachable moral life were depicted in exactly the same kind’ of low-cut dress, and Queen Elizabeth herself was famously described as wearing an open-breasted dress—which revealed her ‘somewhat wrinkly’ bosom—by a French ambassador.[7] The point is less her revealing dress and more what the gaze of the viewer reads into it.

The treatment of Howard extends to a larger question about Middleton and Rowley’s play, and indeed about Middleton and Rowley themselves, in the present day. Several prominent readings of Middleton’s canon see it as participating in a kind of proto-feminism, creating exciting, challenging roles for women and publicly questioning the oppressive patriarchal structures of their world. This reading of Middleton ignores two crucial points: firstly, that these exciting, challenging roles for women would have been played by young men, and, secondly, that these exciting, challenging women are always punished, often to the death, for resisting oppressive patriarchal structures. This is not to say that resistance cannot be staged through defeat; rather, it is an attempt to historicise and contextualise The Changeling within the frame of a Jacobean world view. Additionally, I want to be clear here that there is a difference between staging a feminist Changeling and arguing that The Changeling inherently espouses proto-feminist agenda: the former is a legitimate and often necessary theatrical manipulation of a play which is, in many ways, outdated; the latter is a distortion of history to co-opt Middleton and Rowley to an anachronistic interpretation of societal structures.

To demonstrate this difference in action, I once again call upon Lindley’s reading of Frances Howard. Musing upon Howard’s portrait, Lindley articulates a simplified version of our relationship to the past:

At one level the projection of lustful purpose into this image […] is uncomfortably close to the way in which in our society it is still possible for a rapist to plead that a girl’s short skirt might be taken as a mitigation of his crime. The desire of the beholder is converted into the intent and fault of the object.[8]

I regret to note that this comparison is as potent in 2015 as it was when Lindley was writing in 1993. It evokes a powerful current cultural touchstone, and effectively rehabilitates Howard as a victim of patriarchy rather than a malicious witch. This is important work, but Lindley’s comparison also collapses 400 years of history, placing Howard and late-twentieth-century sexual assault victims side-by-side. Although Lindley himself qualifies his comparison, there are many others who are content to let this kind of juxtapositioning stand unquestioned. The resulting accordion effect is problematic: it asks us to erase the often unsavoury and always specific cultural circumstances in which the early modern work arose.

Kim Solga addresses this problem from a different angle, with an eye to modern performance of early modern plays, when she asks ‘how do we square this work’s enormous cultural capital with its profound distance from contemporary attitudes towards social justice and human rights?’[9] In terms of The Changeling specifically, how do we stage Beatrice-Joanna’s rape without engaging with the hugely problematic assumptions that surround it? When we choose to erase the cultural gap between then and now, we risk losing sight of the fact that The Changeling and many of the other Jacobean plays (comedies and tragedies alike) are cruel, bloody, and horrible, particularly to women. And when we lose sight of that, we risk seeing Middleton, Webster, Rowley, Jonson, et al as “just like us”. And once they’re just like us, we’re less likely to confront the uncomfortable content of their work. If Middleton and Rowley are feminists, then we have to explain away the highly masculine closing of ranks at the end of The Changeling, for example. We have to conveniently forget that Beatrice-Joanna’s virginity is a ‘precious’ commodity which is being bought and sold for her as a matter of course. We have to justify, somehow, the fact that she is killed–after a scene in which she is called “whore” repeatedly–for her desperate attempts to determine her own sexual fate. We have to ignore the repeated structural and formal hints that the play drops–including the entire character of Isabella and the relentless Edenic imagery–which tell us that Beatrice is inherently bad and evil and wicked.

As I note above, I am not trying to suggest that The Changeling cannot be interpreted and performed in a way that empowers Beatrice, or at the very least suggests that she is a victim of a patriarchal super-structure rather than her own inherent wickedness (keep in mind that Middleton was a Calvinist–so in his world everyone is predestined to Heaven or Hell at birth). I would like to suggest, however, that erasing the gap between past and present is more problematic than we sometimes like to admit.


[1] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 120.

[2] See M. Neill, ‘Introduction’, p. xxxiii

[3] Q1 fol. F1v

[4] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 121.

[5] Cited in Lindley, p. 115. The original documents can be found in the Northamptonshire Record Office, Finch-Hatton MS 319, fol. 21v.

[6] See The Trials of Frances Howard, pp. 6-11.

[7] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, pp. 7-8.

[8] D. Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard, p. 7.

[9] K. Solga, Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance, p. 2.

[10] Q1 fol. D3f.

[11] K. Solga, Violence Against Women, p. 7