Frances HOWARD

(C. Hertford / D. Lennox)

Born: 27 Jul 1578, Lychet, Dorset, England

Died: 8 Oct 1639, Exeter House, London, Middlesex, England

Buried: Westminster Abbey; London, Middlesex, England

Father: Thomas HOWARD (1º V. Bindon)

Mother: Mabel BURTON (V. Bindon)

Married 1: Henry PRANELL (d. 20 Dec 1599) 1592

Married 2: Edward SEYMOUR (2° E. Hertford) 27 May 1601

Married 3: Ludovic STUART (2° D. Lennox) 16 Jun 1621

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Frances Howard, Duchess of Lennox and Richmond

portraits painted in 1611, 1615, and c.1620.

The Complete Peerage vol.VI, p.584.note d. Born at Lychet, Dorset, on 27 Jul 1578, between nine and ten at night, the only child of Mabel Burton, the third wife of Thomas, first Viscount Howard of Bindon. Orphaned at age three, the will of Lord Howard of Bindon bequet: "... £2000 for the better preferment and advancement of Frances Howard my daughter, my loving sister in law Mary Fowle, wife unto Robert Fowle, gentleman, shall have the government and education of my said daughter until her marriage, etc., or if the said Mary shall happen to die or depart out of the Realm of England I will the government etc. to my loving brother in law Richard Burton of Carshalton in Surry, esq. or to mine executors until the time of her marriage unless she be preferred to her Majesty in service...! But Frances was made a ward of her cousin Thomas, Baron Howard of Walden.

A dowerless maid, she had no resource but her beauty, royal extraction, and well-connected relatives whereby to secure a marriage settlement. At age thirteen she was wedded to a wealthy young vintner of London and Hertford, Henry Prannell, eldest son and heir of Henry Prannell (d. 1588), a London alderman. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was obliged to keep a watchful eye on the Queen's Howard cousins, was incensed: he had personally intended, under Elizabeth's direction, to arrange a match for the maid. Henry Prannell's letter of apology to Cecil (8 Feb 1592) is preserved among the Burghley papers. The young couple appear to have escaped further censure; but Thomas Mountforde, the prebendary of Westminster who performed the ceremony, was suspended for three years by Archbishop Whitgift.

The young Henry Pranell had a good education at Shrewsbury and Greyfriars Schools and was admitted to Caius College Cambridge in 1581 at the age of 15 and to the Middle Temple in 1584. In 1595 Henry added to the estates by purchasing the Manor of Berwick in neighbouring Nuthamstead. He also made what must have been considered a very good marriage to Frances. It is a mystery why Frances Howard, said to have been 'one of the greatest both for birth and beauty in her time' should have married a mere vintners son; perhaps she was attracted by the fortune which Henry's father had amassed. She was certainly a formidable woman.

Henry and Frances had not managed to produce any children. Legally, Henry's two sisters, Joan Brooke and Mary Clarke were his co-heiresses. However it seems that Henry was so greatly influenced by his wife and her rich and powerful relations that, in 1597, he was persuaded to make a settlement in favour of Frances and her heirs. Relations with his sisters had apparently already deteriorated as he had been in dispute with his brother-in-law, Robert Brooke, over the lease of a windmill and meadow at 'Rookey Meade'.

In May 1597, Frances began to consult regularly Dr. Simon Forman the astrologer. According to Forman’s records, she was hoping to learn whether her husband would return from sea, and if not, begin an affair with the Earl of Southampton.

Mrs Prannell want to learn (in Jul and Aug) by giving water, whether she were pregnant. Forman predicted that Frances would ‘change her estat 3 times’, and found that the stars shone favourably on her desired match, despite her ‘woman enimie’, Elizabeth Vernon (Bodl. Oxf., MS Ashmole 226). Upon returning home, Henry Prannell was honoured with Leon Battista Alberti's Hecatonphila: the Arte of Love (1598, registered 20 Dec 1597) in an anonymous translation by Anthony Munday. In Munday's treatment, dedicated to Henry, Frances is transparently figured as ‘Hecatonphila’, the mistress of one hundred loves, yet an affectionate and faithful wife during her husband's absence, Penelope-like.

Two years later, in Dec 1599, while still in his early thirties, Henry Pranell at his house in Hertfordshire died leaving a young and beautiful widow. There upon Frances took possession of Newsells and the other manors. The grave which she had laid in Barkway Church reads:

"Heare lieth the body of Henry Prannel Gente who married Frauncis Howard youngest daughter to Thomas Vicount Bindon second sonne to Thomas Duke of Norfolke who deceased this life without issue & was buried the 12th of December 1599"

Pranell sisters, Joan Brooke and Mary Clarke, attempted to recover their reversionary interest in the manors by bringing a case in the Court of Wards, proving that Henry Prannell had limited the title of his wife to a life interest. Frances apparently ignored the judgment. The  21-year-old widow inherited all. Southampton in the meantime had secretly married Elizabeth Vernon and suffered disgrace. In Dec 1600, when the widow Frances ended her mourning, she was besieged by suitors, among them William Eure, heir to baron Eure, and Edward Seymour, the 61-year-old earl of Hertford, whose second wife (another Frances Howard, daughter of William, lord Howard of Effingham, and sister of Charles, 1st Earl of Nottingham) had died in May 1598 and who offered the young lady a jointure of more than £4000 upon his decease. On Dr Forman's advice Mrs Prannell accepted Hertford's suit, and on 27 May 1601 married him, at Hertford House on Canon Row.

Among the rejected suitors were Sir William Woodhouse and Sir George Rodney of Somerset. Following the couple to their Wiltshire estate, Rodney wrote the Countess a woebegone ‘Elegia’, using blood for ink, in which he threatened suicide. In her ‘Answer’, a witty verse-epistle of 160 lines, the Countess draws on various literary sources, including Munday's Hecatonphila and Shakespeare's As You Like It, to mock Rodney's Petrarchan posturing:

"... No, no, I never yet could hear one prove
That there was ever any died for love..."

Upon receipt of this, Rodney wrote a farewell note and slit his throat.

Defeating Dr Forman's prognosis, Hertford lived for another twenty years, by which time Lady Seymour was past childbearing age. It was an unhappy marriage. Fiercely jealous, resentful of his bride's popularity at court, the Earl kept his lady in the country, allowing her much freedom to hunt rabbits in the warrens of Old Sarum, owned by Robert Cecil, the Countess's most powerful friend and ally. Frances would often spoke about her two grand-fathers, the Dukes of Norfolk and Buckingham; but if the Earl came in presence, she would quickly desist; for when he found her in those exaltations, to take her down, he would say: "Frank, How long is it since thou wert Maried to Prannel?", thereby taking her down a peg or two.

Hertford died on 6 Apr 1621, at the age of almost eighty-two, and was buried in Salisbury Cathedral.

While the earl was yet living, the Countess was courted by Ludovick Stuart, Duke of Lennox, who visited her wearing ‘odd disguises’. That she sometimes deceived her jealous husband concerning her friendships is evident from her correspondence with the Earl of Salisbury. Only a few weeks after the Earl's death, Countess Frances was secretly married to the Duke, and henceforth maintained great pomp, not so much as attending chapel without a stately procession. Frances became the only Duchess in the kingdom. In 1623 the Stuarts were made Duchess and Duke of Richmond as well as of Lennox, earning her the nickname the “double Duchess”.

Biographical commentary on Frances Stuart has had a sharply disdainful edge, with innuendo that swells by the nineteenth century into unfounded allegations that she repeatedly swindled the royal family and killed her own husbands as they slept. But her letters reveal her to be an amiable, witty, and honourable lady, a shrewd businesswoman but generous in dispensing praise and material gifts.

Ludovick Stuart died in bed, in London, on 16 Feb 1624, s.p. legit. The Earl of Southampton followed nine months later, in Holland. The Duchess, who grieved for both, continued a widow until her death, by report vowing not to remarry unless it should be to the King.

Frances Howard's stellar rise from penniless orphan to merchant's wife, countess, duchess, double duchess, and would-be queen of England, and her alleged vanity and avarice, were a theme of Jacobean wags, including the letter-writer John Chamberlain, who makes frequent mention of this ‘Diana of the Ephesians’ (Letters of John Chamberlain, 2.499). Not easily subdued, the Countess Frances appears on strong evidence to be the anonymous writer who replied to the misogynist Joseph Swetnam in 1617 with a pamphlet called Ester hath hang'd Haman … written by Ester Sowernam, neither maide, wife, nor widdowe, yet really all, and therefore experienced to defend all. Biographical facts, vocabulary, prosody, and source material converge on the Countess as sole author of the pamphlet by Sowernam. (The unnamed ‘gentleman’ who introduced ‘Ester’ to Rachel Speght's Muzzle for Melastomus (1617) may be the countess's friend, Dr Mountforde, whose wife was Rachel Speght's godmother.)

And can we then be blamed (if, being harmed
By sad experience) we be strongly armed
With resolution to defend our wrongs
Against the perjured falsehood of your tongues?

On 8 Oct 1639 she died at Exeter House in the Strand, aged sixty-one, contented and said to be the richest woman in England at time of death. She is interred beside her third husband in Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey, in a stately monument erected for herself and the Duke under her direction and at her own expense. Will dated 28 Jul, pr. 31 Oct 1639.



The letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. E. McClure, 2 vols. (1939) ·

A. Wilson, ‘The dutches of Richmonds legend’, The history of Great Britain: being the life and reign of King James the First (1653), 258 ·

D. W. Foster: DNB

S. Forman, journals and notebooks, Bodl. Oxf., MSS Ashmole 226 (1597); 208 (1600); 411 (1601); 802 (Dec 1601), 298–9 · 

D. W. Foster, ‘“Against the perjured falsehood of your tongues”: Frances Howard on the course of love’, English Literary Renaissance, 24 (1994), 72–103 · 

A. L. Rowse, Sex and society in Shakespeare's age (New York, 1974), 226–33

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