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


Hic et ubique: reflections on a week in the archives

I foolishly set myself the task of writing a chapter of my dissertation on the six productions of The Changeling that took place virtually simultaneously in the 1978/79 theatre season. The six include the RSC’s first production of the play, along with productions at the Riverside Studios (London), Bristol Old Vic, Birmingham Midland Arts Centre, Victoria Theatre (Stoke-on-Trent), and University Theatre (Manchester). I say “foolishly” because, as a great many scholars warned me in advance, studying productions which happened outside of London and/or which were mounted by small companies usually means that the archival materials available will be, at best, limited and, at worst, non-existent.

Geography, archive theory, and bank balance be damned!, said I. These productions happened. They’re recorded. They’re not some phantasmic figments of my imagination. If I just go to the places where they happened, there will be something useful waiting for me.


Well, yes, in a way. Everywhere except Birmingham yielded something helpful (The Library of Birmingham suggested that I check the British Library newspaper collections. Sigh.). This is partly because, following my initial zeal, I realised that “bank balance be damned!” was not a practical methodology. I needed to plan. So I started emailing and calling up places and people that I thought might have helpful materials. In Manchester, this led me to a PhD student writing a history of the theatre company that did The Changeling in ’78. In the case of Stoke-on-Trent, I got a tip from another academic about an archive held at Staffordshire University. It was the kind of piecemeal work that tends to make me feel like a “real scholar”. At the very least, I knew I’d have no worries about claiming an original contribution to knowledge in this chapter.

My chapter is infinitely richer for having taken the trip, but not entirely because of the material I found. That was very hit and miss: the available materials in Manchester consisted of a couple dozen newspaper cuttings related to the company that produced the play; in Stoke-on-Trent, I was was luckier, and the archive held a prompt book, photos, the programme, and press details; in Birmingham, half a day scrolling through microfilm yielded nothing at all. What was more interesting was the real difference that money, location, and influence make where histories of regional theatres are concerned.

A friend noted that the RSC has recently been promised £2 million of Arts Council funding to revamp The Other Place, whilst Edward Hall’s company Propeller–by no means a small or insignificant company–got nothing at all. This kind of inequality in Arts Council and other subsidy funds was apparent on my archive jaunt–and it’s not a new problem. If anything, the situation has actually improved since the ’70s, at least for regional theatres, which collectively received less than 20% of the Arts Council’s total grant in 1979/80 (Olivia Turnbull has meticulously detailed the problems of being a regional theatre in her book Bringing Down the House).

Still, despite a more even distribution of financial resources, regional theatres struggle to keep up with the big guns in the capital, and one of the ways that they keep costs down is by not requiring space and staff for an archive. This is a great loss to the study of British theatre. Consider, for example, that the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent claims to be both the first company to perform permanently in the round and one of the pioneers of verbatim theatre (what the company’s founder Peter Cheeseman referred to as “documentary theatre”). I had never heard of it before I came across its 1979 production of The Changeling. Now, this partly betrays my lack of knowledge with regard to British Theatre in the twentieth century (although I’m catching up quickly). More importantly, however, it emphasises the fact that theatres which aren’t in London and aren’t well-known to those outside of their own audience base or scholars of theatre history can and do make important, paradigm-shifting, innovative work.

The Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent is lucky in that Cheeseman kept everything, creating a personal archive which makes the scholar’s job much easier. But very few people make use of the Victoria Theatre Collection’s, evidenced both by the fact that I was the only one there when I visited and by the fact that it’s managed by a small team of volunteers and open for very limited hours. It’s something of a catch-22: opening the archive for longer hours requires more staff and more money, but limiting its opening hours deters those who have to travel any great distance to examine its treasures. And treasures there are: Romy Cheeseman, manager of the archive and Peter’s widow, told me that the collection includes audio recordings made by the company for their verbatim/documentary work, for example.

What treasures have been lost because other companies were not lucky enough to have a hoarding AD? It’s a pointless question, like asking what was lost when the library at Alexandria burnt down. But I think it is worth asking what can be done in the future to ensure that regional theatres are included in the history of British theatre.




Fair warning: this is a total fangirl post. I feel like a kid who’s just been to Disneyland for the first time. 

There’s something weirdly indescribable about the Folger. Its art deco exterior gives way to a reading room that looks like it got lost on the way to Cambridge. Its proximity to the Capitol, Supreme Court (see photo), and Library of Congress is both totally fitting and totally incongruous: the message (as ever) seems to be that Shakespeare is as much part of the nation’s fabric as its governing bodies. It also makes lunch-break sight-seeing much easier. 

And when I say it’s like Disneyland, I mean that it is the happiest place on earth. Not only is it home to exciting documents and a Beauty and the Beast-worthy library/reading room, but the people! They truly are the happiest, friendliest, loveliest people in the world (sorry Disney, they win). So helpful, so kind, and so excited to be where they are doing what they’re doing. It’s like a secret happy club. I liked it. A lot. 

For those who are interested, I was hanging out with a series of quartos and manuscripts whilst I was there, along with a 1910 edition of Rowley’s All’s Lost by Lust. I saw an octavo from 1657 of Women Beware Women, the 1653 Changeling, The Birth of Merlin (1662), All’s Lost by Lust (1633), and the title pages for the 1625 printings of A Game at Chess. And I got to handle the Archdall and Rosenbach manuscripts of A Game at Chess. I only had two days, so I had to work pretty quickly, but I’m hoping to come back and spend a lot more time in the future (i.e., dear Folger, please give me a fellowship someday!). 

I’m sure the novelty will wear off after a while, but it’s my first time, so I’m going to gush a little. I touched paper that Thomas Middleton and Ralph Crane also touched!!! The ink from the pens that were in there hands was under my hands. It was almost religious. 

I also had a total nerd-gasm over Ralph Crane’s handwriting. It’s just so pretty. You can totally tell he was a professional scribe (especially when his writing is juxtaposed against Middleton’s slightly less legible writing, as it is in the Archdall manuscript. What amazed me most, however, was how different actually sitting in a room with these textual witnesses was to reading about them and seeing facsimiles or photos in books like Grace Ioppolo’s  (Dramatists and their Manuscripts in the Age of Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton and Heywood, which, regardless, I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject!). It’s not that I don’t believe her when she says that Crane is rather more fond of the colon than Middleton, but there’s something about seeing it firsthand, about making notes and realising that pattern for oneself. And I haven’t even mentioned my joy at finding that I wasn’t completely terrible at palaeography! I did cheat a little–I had T.H. Howard-Hill’s transcription of the Trinity manuscript to hand. 

The work also got me thinking about and feeling grateful for all of the people who spent time figuring these things out and transcribing them and making guides for how to read secretary hand (seriously, thank you to those people). I then went on a thought-tangent about my own handwriting, which is somewhere between cursive and printing (as I suspect most modern hands are). Handwriting is starting to be phased out of schools at the very moment: the focus has shifted (perhaps rightly?) to typing skills. Will the people of the future “discover” our handwritten documents, in what we consider perfectly legible handwriting, and find themselves critiquing minutiae of “minuscules and majuscules”? Already there are children and teenagers who can’t read cursive script; I have to be conscious to print when I’m teaching and hand-writing feedback. But, like all tangents, this discussion isn’t really going anywhere. It’s just something I thought about whilst deciphering what, to a 17th-century reader, was probably perfectly legible handwriting. 


And so, although I didn’t “discover” anything new, I certainly have a lot more information, and a lot more detail, than I had before I went. And now I completely understand why my lovely supervisors insisted that I should see these documents first-hand if I was planning to include some textual studies in my dissertation. 


So long, for now, Folger! I’ll be back…