The Poison Bed: A Novel

Image of The Poison Bed: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 2, 2019
Pegasus Books
Reviewed by: 

“The Poison Bed is a riveting retelling of history.”

Political ambition, murder, and witchcraft at the Court of King James I fuel the worst scandal of the reign of the first Stuart King as two aristocratic families, the Howards and the Devereuxs, vie for power. Using the scandal as a springboard Elizabeth Fremantle’s evocative novel reveals the thinly veiled schism between lingering Catholic sentiment and the Protestant majority that will in time bring down the Stuart dynasty.  

Lady Frances Howard is married to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, at age 12. Frances’s great-uncle, the Earl of Northampton, sees the marriage as a way to unite the two feuding families and elevate both to a position of unparalleled power.

Frances is aware of the political machinations surrounding the marriage of any well-born woman, be it her or the king’s daughter. “In our world there was nothing that wasn’t infected with politics.”

Politics isn’t the only infection that may have ultimately affected Northampton’s plan. During the several years’ separation between Frances and Robert Devereux after their marriage as was the custom when the wedded couple is very young, Robert contracts small pox.

Whether the disease which leaves Robert disfigured, the alteration in his personality as a result, or the fact that Frances has met the very handsome favorite of King James, Robert Carr, is the underlying reason for the unhappy marriage is immaterial. Frances wants Robert Carr in the worst way.

“This is like possession. I had believed myself incapable of such feelings, that Uncle had trained the possibility out of me . . . But even flint will cause a spark if rubbed in the right way . . .”

Carr is a favorite of the king, meaning he is also a bedfellow and a man of tremendous influence, a fact that doesn’t escape Northampton’s notice. “with the Essex crowd being slowly frozen out, if we can extract you wed you to Carr it will place us perfectly in the inner circle.”

The problem is that Frances is already married, an inconvenient fact that must be addressed by Northampton. “This will be a long game, Frances, but I’m convinced we can pull it off.”

The remedy is a claim by Frances and the Howards that Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is impotent and the marriage remains unconsummated, grounds for an annulment.

Frances’s former nurse and present companion, Ann Turner, believes that potions and charms will bolster Devereux’s failure, so introduces Frances to Dr. Forman, a well-known practitioner of the occult arts, and his pox-ridden servant, Franklin.

Frances is dubious about the cunning man. “She had a suspicion that cunning men, such as Dr. Forman, were charlatans, who staged an atmosphere to squeeze money out of those who knew no better.”

Nevertheless, Frances accepts two sachets of unknown powders, one to wear around her neck, the other to place beneath Essex’s pillow. Dr. Forman warns her that “once it is set in motion it cannot be reversed.”

The proverbial fly in the ointment of Northampton’s and Frances’s plans is Sir Thomas Overbury, secretary to Robert Carr, who is now the Lord Chamberlain. Overbury is intelligent and well educated, neither of which describes Robert Carr. Overbury and Carr are lifelong friends, and Carr depends on his friend’s linguistic abilities to translate letters and papers from foreign governments.

Thus Overbury knows of all the secret plans and plots of Carr and the king. Overbury knows something else: He witnesses a sexual encounter between Carr and the king. Given that sodomy is an offense carrying the death penalty, Overbury’s knowledge threatens the king. Although court gossip about James’s proclivities abounds, there has never been hard evidence.

Overbury’s knowledge plus his strong Protestant beliefs make him a dangerous man. Although he is a minor and supposedly insignificant aristocrat, his position as Carr’s secretary makes him an attractive target for the Earl of Essex.

Overbury’s most grievous fault, to Robert Carr, is his strong aversion to Frances, and his almost rabid insistence that Carr not marry her. “She’s a Howard, for Christ’s sake.”

The king is more accommodating. “If it’s Lady Essex you want, then Lady Essex you shall have. We’d better set proceedings in motion to undo her ties . . . You’d better not fall for her . . . The smile had gone from his face.”

The king agrees to send Overbury to Russia as an envoy, thus absenting him and his deadly secret from the court and any possible interference with the upcoming legal confrontation between the Earl of Essex and Frances.

Overbury fears he may be murdered on the road to Russia. Carr, fearing his friend may be right, persuades him to refuse the appointment. The refusal infuriates James, who confines him to the Tower of London. Carr assures his friend that he will use his influence on the king to have him released.

All the pieces are now in place: Overbury safely confined in the Tower and out of the way; the king safe from the treat of Overbury’s threat; Carr, now Earl of Somerset, free to marry Frances as soon as her present marriage is annulled.

The subsequent court case finds that although Essex seems able enough to perform with other women, he is unable to function when in the marriage bed with Frances. A physical exam of Frances, or rather of a heavily veiled young virgin, by a group of midwives proves to the court that the marriage was unconsummated.  

Frances receives her annulment along with the Earl of Essex’s bitter hatred; she and Carr marry and anticipate living happily ever after.

What seems like a fairy tale ending to a complicated and politically dangerous courtship is just that: a fairy tale. The various forces at court combine to create a perfect storm that will send Frances and Robert to the Tower charged with murder.

The Poison Bed is not just based on historical events, it is almost a history in itself. Fremantle divides her novel into two parts: the first narrated in alternating chapters by Carr and Frances tells of their courtship and marriage; the second part, also narrated by Carr and Frances in alternating chapters, reveals the true nature of Frances.

Only two events are more a matter of rumor and gossip than hard evidence: Overbury’s witnessing Carr and King James in bed together, and the substitution of a virgin for Frances during the midwives’ examination. Both events are logical assumptions. Rumors about Frances and her relationships with men at court, including King James’s oldest son, Henry, were nearly as prevalent as rumors about the king’s sexual preferences. One may say that the rumors were probably more true than not.

Some may question Fremantle’s portrait of Frances Howard as a ruthless murderess and a shrewd manipulator of people with little to redeem her character, a harsh judgement that veers close to reducing Frances to a caricature.  However, the two parts of the novel considered together present a more complex individual: the strong-willed woman who wears the mask of a shy girl, but a woman who is molded into a tool for use by her ambitious family.

All in all, The Poison Bed is a riveting retelling of history.