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Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset; Frances, Countess of Somerset

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset; Frances, Countess of Somerset

attributed to Renold or Reginold Elstrack (Elstracke), sold by John Hinde
line engraving, circa 1615
7 7/8 in. x 6 1/8 in. (201 mm x 154 mm) paper size
Reference Collection
NPG D1316

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This double portrait of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, a favourite of James I, and his new wife Frances was probably produced around 1615 when they were being interrogated over the murder of the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury who had opposed their marriage. Frances was vilified in the press and they were charged the following year. They spent over five years in the Tower of London but were spared execution and later pardoned. The portrait was still in print over thirty years later.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG D19777: Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset; Frances, Countess of Somerset (from same plate)
  • NPG D25783: Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and Frances, Countess of Somerset (from same plate)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 73 Read entry

    Robert Carr was a young Scottish page in James VI's retinue who travelled to England with his friend Thomas Overbury. Carr came to the king's attention after a fall from his horse at the Accession Day tilt in 1607, following which James helped nurse him back to health. As he rose in the king's favour he was knighted and granted the sequestered estates of Sir Walter Ralegh. As factions developed at court, Carr began an affair with Frances Devereux, Lady Essex, daughter of Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk. Overbury, who had become Carr's secretary, opposed the relationship, and as a result the Howards sought to remove him from favour by manipulating him into refusing the offer of an ambassadorship; this resulted in his imprisonment in 1613, and he died in the Tower after five months. Frances's marriage to Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, was annulled, and she married Carr, by then Earl of Somerset, in December of that year. However, after two years it emerged that Overbury had been poisoned in the Tower; the Somersets were indicted, and Frances confessed her involvement, although, after being found guilty, both were pardoned and released. Engraved images of Overbury were produced soon after his death; this portrait incorporates an inscription lamenting his ill luck and false friendships. The subsequent revelation that he had been murdered caused a public scandal, and an engraved double portrait of the earl and countess circulated widely; it was still in print more than thirty years later and was often used to illustrate accounts of the case.

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Events of 1615back to top

Current affairs

George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, is knighted and appointed gentleman of the Bechamber and replaces Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, as the king's favourite. Buckingham would prosper under the king's patronage, advancing rapidly through the peerage.
The Somersets stand trial for the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury.

Art and science

James I produces Remonstrance for the Right of Kings and the Independence of their Crownes, in which he defends European kingship and directly confronts the papacy.
Architect Inigo Jones is appointed Surveyor of the King's Works and would hold the post for 27 years.


The Spanish court send official articles to serve as a basis for negotiations concerning a marriage alliance between Charles, Prince of Wales and the Spanish king Philip III's second daughter, Maria Anna.
Marriage of French king Louis XIII and the Spanish Infanta, Anne, Philip III's eldest daughter.

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