All the seventeenth century characters of Nights of the Road actually lived and I have tried to stay true to such facts about them as are known. None of the twenty-first century characters did or do live, even though some may bear a passing resemblance to people you and I know.
No birth record has yet been found for Frances Coke. References to her age at marriage range from fourteen to sixteen. Her marriage license declares her as sixteen in August 1617, but her age may have been overstated, given the coercive circumstances in which Frances was bound to a much older man. In the absence of proof, I have opted to place her birth at the later date of 1603.
The marriage of Mistress Frances Coke to Sir John Villiers, later Viscount Baron Villiers of Stoke and Viscount Purbeck of Dorset, created a huge stir in the upper echelons of British society. The King of England and his favorite, Buckingham, orchestrated events from afar during negotiations, and played prominent roles at the wedding.
This was the most formidable single battle of the many between Sir Edward Coke and his wife Lady Elizabeth Hatton (nee Cecil) that enlivened seventeenth century gossip columns. It was also another battleground for two remarkable rivals of their day, Coke and Bacon.
Francis Bacon became embroiled in the story, from the moment of the schism between Coke and Lady Hatton over Frances. Elizabeth sought Bacon’s aid to return their daughter to her custody and one letter of the time sent to Coke’s daughter, Ann Sadler, suggested she might even have pulled him out of his slumbers to do so.
Bacon may have seen the dispute not only as a chance to help his much-loved friend and cousin*, but also as an opportunity to do Coke further mischief. If so, he would have done better to rest content with his rival’s recent fall from royal grace and his own ascendancy to the role of Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.
Bacon must have been out of touch with the prevailing social tide. He seems not to have recognized that Buckingham and his mother were as eager for the match as Coke. Perhaps he could not pass up an opportunity to stir the pot. He certainly underestimated Buckingham’s position in the affections of James the First.
Bacon wrote first to Buckingham, itemizing reasons why the match was ‘very inconvenient for your mother, your brother and yourself.’ These included the inadvisability of marrying into a disgraced house, in which a husband and wife at odds were behaving in an Un-Christian fashion, and the likelihood that Buckingham would lose all his friends as a result of such an association. Suggesting the latter to a man with an ego the size of a house was not the wisest of moves.
Having received a curt put-down from Buckingham, Bacon committed an even greater gaffe, by intimating his concerns about the proposed marriage to the King. In the second message he sent to James, Bacon presumed to suggest that Buckingham might be feeling too secure in his ‘height of fortune’.
Bricks of royal wrath rained down on him from afar –– James was visiting Scotland for the first time in his fourteen years on the English throne –– for daring to criticize the King’s favorite, as well as for attempting to obstruct a marriage to which the Monarch declared himself warmly disposed. Bacon shared Coke’s view of the world in at least one regard: he was terrified of royal disapprobation. His awkward volte-face required him to distance himself from Lady Hatton and Frances for a time.
The Coke-Villiers match occupied Society’s mouths and pens for months. Many a gentleman of letters (and a lady or two) opined on it in private correspondence. The views and positions expressed depended much on the writer’s relationships with the principal players. Inconsistencies abound between the accounts of the day; much like media coverage of events in modern times.
Some did express a passing sympathy for Frances, particularly when the rumor that Coke had confined and beaten his daughter into submission, with the complicity of Buckingham’s unpopular mother, went viral. But Buckingham’s ascendancy with his King was already such that none who wrote about it appears to have sought to influence the outcome of the marriage negotiations, whatever their private opinion. For some, recounting the tale was as much about proving their place in the political and social swim, or showcasing their wit, as passing on useful information.
Descriptions of the wedding also varied. Some wrote about how pretty Frances looked in her white dress with her hair hanging long and loose down her back. Others presented the sorry picture of a tearful and unwilling child.
For years thereafter, Frances was rarely out of Court news, except when she lived with Robert Howard out of sight in Shropshire.
From the beginning of the 1640s, the writers of the day became increasingly preoccupied with the dangerous divisions that were leading up to Civil War. We hear little from this time about Frances, other than a few brief glimpses from legal records concerning the appropriation of her property, her continuing efforts in law to recover personal possessions, and the final record of her burial, in the register of St Mary’s, Oxford.
For all that has been said of her during or since her lifetime, Frances remains elusive. Everything that we know, even including those dictated letters from her parents that she copied out and signed before her marriage, originates from those living with and around her rather than from Frances herself. If she set out deliberately to avoid attention, it is not surprising, given the extent to which she was pursued and persecuted by the powerful during so much of her life.
There is no epitaph to Frances in the Oxford church in which she was buried on June 4, 1645, although the seventeenth-century Oxford antiquarian Anthony Wood spoke of a floor plaque in the church of St Mary the Virgin, which has long since disappeared.
Perhaps the two most touching artifacts of her life are the lovelock that flows down over Sir Robert Howard’s left shoulder in his portrait painted by Antony van Dyck, believed to date from the late 1630s, and the fact that Sir Robert –– eligible bachelor as he was and comely enough of countenance to attract the ladies –– remained unmarried until three years after her death, when entering his sixth decade of life.
In one major instance alone, I knowingly strayed from the safe ground of known facts.
John Clavell did live and love, steal college silver and rob people on the highways of seventeenth century England. He also served time, escaped execution, recanted his former criminal lifestyle and became known thereafter as an author, a lawyer and a doctor.
Whether Frances met John at Corfe Castle during her childhood or had any further dealings with him in her adult life is unknown. I have found no proof that she did and none that she did not.
I have asked Frances directly if she enjoyed any kind of relationship with John Clavell. She says nothing but gives me that enigmatic look captured so powerfully in her portrait of 1623, by Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, which hangs today in Ashdown House, Oxfordshire.
So it must rest with you, dear reader, to decide whether the story of Frances Coke and John Clavell’s meeting is fact and/or fiction, as well as to draw your own conclusions about its place in the lives of the present day characters of Nights of the Road. Whatever you conclude, I hope you may enjoy the reading as much as I have the writing.
Agoura Hills. California. USA.
* Francis Bacon was nephew to Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth Cecil Hatton’s grandfather.