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The Voice of Reason: Archbishop Abbot on the Essex Divorce Case


In 1613, Frances Howard (later known as Frances Carr), petitioned for an annulment of her marriage to Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex, to whom she had been married in 1604, when she was fourteen years old. The grounds for claiming the annulment was the non-consummation of the marriage, with Howard claiming that her husband was impotent. The earl denied the charges, going as far as to claim that he was perfectly capable of intercourse with other women, but that Frances had never allowed him to consummate the marriage.
Since Howard wanted the annulment in order to marry Robert Carr, who was the current favourite of James I, James took a personal interest in the case and tried to use his influence to secure the annulment. Since the Archbishop of Canterbury was one of the authorities who could rule on the matter, James put pressure on George Abbot, who was the Archbishop at that point, to agree to the annulment, going as far as to suggest that perhaps the Earl of Essex was under the influence of witchcraft, which made him unable to consummate his marriage to his wife.
Abbot, however, refused to be pliant. In a letter written to James I that year, a copy of which is part of the Thomas Murray Papers (MS 663) of Lambeth Palace Library, and which was reprinted as part of a large pamphlet, The Case of Impotency as Debated in England, published by the notorious publisher Edmund Curll in 1715, he takes a very rational stand on the matter, not only demanding proof of such witchcraft, but also refuting points made in favour of the idea that witchcraft was involved.
This article will attempt to examine Abbot’s letter, the response by James I (also in the form of a letter) and some related texts in order to demonstrate how Abbot attempted a rational inquiry (as far as rationality went in that period) into a subject that was widely believed in by virtually every social class in England at that time, and also how his language negotiates his political obligations to James I and his own position as an arbiter.

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