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Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset
He was born the younger son of Sir Thomas Ker of Ferniehurst by his second wife, Janet, sister of Sir Walter Scott of Buccleuch. He accompanied James I as page to England, but being then discharged from the royal service, sought for a time to make his fortune in France. Returning to England he happened to break his arm at a tilting match, at which James was present, and was recognized by the king. Entirely devoid of all high intellectual qualities, Carr was endowed with good looks, excellent spirits, and considerable personal accomplishments. These advantages were sufficient for James, who knighted the young man and at once took him into favour. In 1607 an opportunity enabled the king to confer upon him a more substantial mark of his affection. Sir Walter Raleigh had through his attainder forfeited his life-interest in the manor of Sherborne, but he had previously executed a conveyance by which the property was to pass on his death to his eldest son. This document was, unfortunately, rendered worthless by a flaw which gave the king eventual possession of the property. Acting on Salisbury’s suggestion, James resolved to confer the manor on Carr. The case was argued at law, and judgment was in 1609 given for the Crown. Lady Raleigh received some compensation, apparently inadequate, and Carr at once entered on possession.
His influence was already such that in 1610 he persuaded the king to dissolve the parliament, which had shown signs of attacking the Scottish favourites. On March 24, 1611 he was created Viscount Rochester, and subsequently a privy councillor, while on Lord Salisbury’s death in 1612 he began to act as the king’s secretary. On the November 3, 1613 he was advanced to the earldom of Somerset, on December 23 was appointed treasurer of Scotland, and in 1614 Lord Chamberlain.
He supported the 2nd Earl of Northampton and the Spanish party in opposition to the old tried advisers of the king, such as Lord-Chancellor Ellesmere, who were endeavouring to maintain the union with the Protestants abroad, and who now in 1614 pushed forward another candidate for the king’s favour. Somerset, whose head was turned by the sudden rise to power and influence, became jealous and peevish, and feeling his position insecure, obtained in 1615 from the king a full pardon, to which, however, the chancellor refused to put the Great Seal. He still, however, retained the king’s favour, and might possibly have remained in power for some time longer but for the discovery of the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. Before 1609, while still only Sir Robert Carr, Somerset had begun an intrigue with Frances Howard, Lady Essex. Supported by the king, the latter obtained a decree of nullity of marriage against Lord Essex in September 1603, and in December she married the earl of Somerset. Ten days before the court gave judgment, Sir Thomas Overbury, who apparently knew facts concerning Lady Essex which would have been fatal to her success, and had been imprisoned in the Tower, was poisoned. No idea seems to have been entertained at the time that Lady Essex and her future husband were implicated.
The crime, however, was not disclosed until September 1615. Coke and Bacon were set to unravel the plot. After four of the principal agents had been convicted and punished, the Earl and Countess of Somerset were brought to trial. The latter confessed, and of her guilt there can be no doubt. Somerset’s share is far more difficult to discover, and probably will never be fully known. The evidence against him rested on mere presumption, and he consistently declared himself innocent. Probabilities are on the whole in favour of the hypothesis that he was not more than an accessory after the fact. James, who had been threatened by Somerset with damaging disclosures, let matters take their course, and both earl and countess were found guilty. The sentence was not carried into effect against either culprit. The countess was pardoned immediately, but both remained in the Tower till January 1622. The earl appears to have refused to buy forgiveness by concessions, and it was not till 1624 that he obtained his pardon. He only once more emerged into public view when in 1630 he was prosecuted in the Star Chamber for communicating a paper of Sir Robert Dudley’s to the earl of Clare, recommending the establishment of arbitrary government. He died in July 1645, leaving one daughter, Anne, the sole issue of his ill-fated marriage, afterwards wife of the 1st Duke of Bedford .
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