Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, was the favourite of James I until his fall from grace and was suitably rewarded with a succession of titles. Carr remained the main favourite of James I up until the time that James met George Villiers, the future Duke of Buckingham.
It is thought that Robert Carr was born in 1590. He first caught the eye of the king in 1607 when he fell from his horse at a tilting competition and broke his leg. James visited Carr at his bedside and they became firm friends almost from the start. Carr was described as “handsome and full of life” though to those in the royal court in London he was coarse, shallow and less than cultured. In 1607, James knighted Carr; in 1611 he became Viscount Rochester and in 1613, Carr was made Earl of Somerset. By July 1614, he had become the king’s Lord Chamberlain.
His influence on the king rose greatly after the death of Robert Cecil in 1612. Carr had spent time trying to undermine the position of the Chief Minister and Cecil’s death removed this challenge. Anyone who wanted to see the king had to go through Carr who acted as the king’s general secretary. He became a very wealthy man through the bribes people had to pay to see the king. Lavish gifts from James further bolstered his wealth.
Carr fell in love with Frances Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. She had been married to the Earl of Essex when a child. Doing all he could to help Carr, James agreed that a commission should be established to examine the legitimacy of Frances’ marriage to Essex. The commission was also to assess whether the marriage between Essex and Frances could be annulled. James packed this commission with bishops and judges who were sympathetic to what Carr wanted – an annulment. The commission found in favour of an annulment, but its finding did a great deal to undermine any respectability James had under the law. Carr married Frances on December 26th, 1613.
Carr had built up great wealth and influence. But he had also made many important enemies. In 1615, it became known that Frances had organised the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury in September 1613. Both Carr and Overbury were good friends. However, Overbury detested the Howard family and he had tried hard to persuade Carr not to marry Frances. This she could not forgive – hence his murder. The simple fact that she was married to Carr also brought disgrace on him and James did all he could to distance himself from what was to become his former favourite. In fact, the attention of James had now shifted away from Carr to George Villiers and this left Carr without any support from the top and with very many enemies below him.
Both Carr and Frances were impeached by Parliament and they were tried by the House of Lords in May 1616. They were both found guilty and sentenced to death. However, James pardoned both of them though they were kept in the Tower of London for the next six years. Released in 1622, both went into relative obscurity. Buckingham’s influence over James and the future King Charles was very great and the death of James in 1625 and the accession of Charles meant that for Carr there was no way back to his former power.
Robert Carr died in July 1645.
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