This is a handwritten poem composed by Ben Jonson for Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset (c. 1587–1645), to celebrate Carr’s wedding day. It is titled ‘To the most noble, and above his Titles, Robert Carr Earl of Somerset’.
The poem has been pasted into a 1640 edition of Jonson’s Works (digitised in an extract here).
The Somersets and ‘the greatest scandal of the Jacobean age’
Robert Carr married Frances Devereux née Howard (1590–1632) in a lavish ceremony on 26 December 1613. However, this was not Frances’s first marriage. She had wed Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex, in 1606. The marriage was a failure, and in May 1613 Frances petitioned for annulment on the grounds of Essex’s impotence. Patriarchal Jacobean society was scandalised, not only because she openly sought divorce, but also because it was widely known that she was in a relationship with Robert Carr (soon to be Earl of Somerset).
This was not the end of the scandal. Robert Carr’s close friend and advisor, Sir Thomas Overbury (1581–1613), vehemently opposed the relationship with Frances. To remove Overbury’s negative influence, Frances resolved to have him murdered.
During the summer of 1613 Overbury had displeased the King, and was sent to the Tower of London. Frances saw her opportunity, and with the help of a bribed jailer and an apothecary’s assistant she poisoned Overbury, who died on 15 September 1613. His death, quickly followed by the wedding of Frances and Carr, became a source of intrigue. The adverse public sentiment eventually led to a full investigation and trial. The Somersets were found guilty of murder in the spring of 1616, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
What was Ben Jonson’s connection to the scandal?
Ben Jonson knew Frances Howard and her husbands through their participation in his masques at court, and he was commissioned to write the entertainment for both of Frances’s weddings.
Jonson had also been a close friend of Sir Thomas Overbury’s.
Despite the murder not being exposed until 1615, the scandal of Frances’s divorce and swift remarriage would have put Jonson, as the pre-eminent court poet, in an uncomfortable position.
Jonson refers to Overbury in lines 11 and 12 of ‘To the most noble, and above his Titles, Robert Carr Earl of Somerset’:
may she whom thou for spouse today dost take
Out-be that wife in worth thy friend did make
Overbury had written a poem called ‘The Wife’, which described wifely virtue. Thus he is ‘thy friend’, and ‘that wife’ is an allusion to his poem. In hindsight this reference is wickedly ironic, but Jonson could not have known about the couple’s involvement in Overbury’s death when he wrote it.
The poem was not included in Jonson’s Works, which was first printed during the trial in 1616. Jonson must have thought it wise to remove any mention of the now infamous couple. In distancing himself from Somerset he became allied with the new dominant faction at court, the Earl of Pembroke and his followers. Jonson therefore ensured that he had aristocratic patrons who were in favour with the King, and would require his literary services.
 David Lindley, The Trials of Frances Howard: Fact and Fiction at the Court of King James, (London, New York: Routlegde, 1996), p. 1.
These Verses were made by the aucthor of this booke, and
were delivered to the Earle of Somersett upon his Lo[rdshi]p’s
wedding day: they are written by ^ the aucthor’s his owne hand:
To the most noble, and above his Titles.
Robert ^ Carr, Earle of Somerset.
They are not those, are present w[i]th theyr face,
And clothes, & guifts, that only do thee grace
At these thy Nuptials; but, whose heart, and thought
Do wayte upon thee: and theyr Love not bought.
Such weare true Wedding robes, and are true freindes,
That bid, God give thee ioy, and have no endes.
W[hi]ch I do, early, Vertuous Somerset,
And pray, thy ioyes as lasting bee, as great.
Not only this, but every day of thine,
W[i]th the same looke, or w[i]th a better, shine.
May she, whome thou for Spouse, to day, dost take,
Out-bee th[a]t Wife, in worth, thy freind did make:
And thou to her, that Husband, may exalt
Hymens amends, to make it worth his fault.
So, be there never discontent, or sorrow,
To rise w[i]th eyther of you, on the morrow.
So, be yo[u]r Concord, still, as deepe, as mute;
And every ioy, in mariage, turne a fruite.
So, may those Mariage=Pledges, comforts prove:
And ev’ery birth encrease the heate of Love.
So, in theyr number, may [thou] never see
Mortality, till yo[u__] mortall bee.
And when your yeares rise more, then would be told,
Yet neyther of you seeme to th’other old.
That all, th[a]t view ^ you then, and late; may say,
Sure, this glad payre were maried, but this day