Frances came to the royal court in the late 1580's to serve Queen Elizabeth I as a maid of honour, and in November 1590 she was observed by Sir John Stanhope, the vice chamberlain, to have "flourisheth like the lily and the rose". Her elder sister Anne's romantic adventures may have served as a warning to Frances, however Frances was to find herself in her own romantic entanglements.
By 1591 Frances was the mistress of Sir Robert Dudley (1574-1649), the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley - the queen's favourite - and Douglas Sheffield, nee Howard (1542-1608). Frances and Robert became contracted to marry with the queen's consent, although the queen wished Robert to wait a few years until he was older to marry.
It can be understood why Frances had fallen for Robert Dudley, as he was probably very much like his father; he had been raised in his father's household and inherited his good looks and charm. Robert was educated at Oxford University, stood alongside his father during the Spanish Armada, and also received a large inheritance from his father in the shape of Kenilworth Castle; by sixteenth century standards he was an ideal husband.
No marriage to Robert Dudley took place, as later in 1591 Frances had married in secret to Sir Thomas Shirley (1564-1633), and Robert Dudley went on to marry Margaret Cavendish (d.1595). Thomas' father did not approve of the match with Frances, perhaps providing a reason for the secrecy of the marriage. Whilst Frances' marriage was still a secret, her husband Thomas publicly courted the widowed Frances Brooke, Lady Stourton (b.1561), behaving as if he were free to marry her.
Frances Brooke, was the sister to Elizabeth Brooke who married Sir Robert Cecil. Frances and Elizabeth were the daughters of Lord Cobham. The behaviour of Thomas Shirley had greatly offended the family of Frances Brooke, and by extension also Robert Cecil. Thomas wrote to Thomas Heneage in order to ask him to reconcile himself with the Cobham family, that he had caused so much offense to.
"I do hold myself much bounden unto your honour in that you will please to do your best to reconcile me unto Sir Robert Cecil and my Lady Cobham both which I have mightily wronged in the carriage of my marriage. For in very truth I, being moved with the worth of my Lady Sturton, and the great honour of her house, had a desire to make her possessor of all my love and thoughts, till love (whose quality I doubt not but your honour is acquainted withal) forced me to settle all my fancies and resolutions on another, whose love I now possess. Yet during the time of my affection unto her I was often wandering, sometimes being shaken with the slanders she was subject unto, some other time deeply continuing the inestimable worth of my Lady Sturton; all which things rightly weighted, I hope that Sir Robert Cecil and all those honourable ladies, who I have thus wronged will be pleased rather to blame love. Yet is there behind a greater offence which I will unfold unto your honour that when you know it you may the better excuse it; that is, that being married I continued going to my Lord Cobham, which I assure your honour I did for fear of offending my father with my double dealing, neither durst in outward shew to him seem to leave my first desires till I had found some good means to win to like the second. In which course though I did very ill yet no so badly as some do think, for I never spake unto that lady of marriage, neither indeed would her honourable father suffer me to do, being moved by some holy influence that I was not fit for such a motion. Now your honour perceiveth the depth of my case. I humbly beseech you to hold such a course as may win the whole noble family once again to think me honest and I will ever hold those direst courses and be so thankful unto your honour as you shall have no cause to be ashamed of that you shall do fore me." - Thomas Shirley to Sir Thomas Heneage, 6th September 1595.
Frances and Thomas had seven children together;
+ Cheyney Shirley (d.1605)
+ Henry Shirley (1591-1627)
+ Thomas Shirley (1597-1664) m. Ann Blundell
+ Frances Shirley (1598-1639) m. John Mole
+ Elizabeth Shirley m. Arthur Daking
+ Catherine Shirley
+ Dorothy Shirley
|Wiston House, owned by Thomas Shirley|
Married life was not to be any less eventful for Frances and Thomas. Due to the dire financial situation of his father, Thomas sold his company to Thomas Vavasour, Frances' brother, and went into privateering hoping to improve the family fortunes. In 1600 he came under attack from his creditors, and one incident involved supporters of Sir Richard Weston breaking into Thomas' father's house in Blackfriars in London, and threatened both father and son, demanding payment. Early in 1602, Thomas pillaged two small hamlets in Portugal, each containing only a dozen houses; this event seems to be a typical example of his unsuccessful privateering career. In 1602 Thomas took two ships to the Levant to strike a blow against the Turks, however in January 1603 he was captured by Turks and held prisoner in Constantinople. He was not released until ransom was paid in December 1605, and he did not return to England until a year later, by which time his wife Frances had died. In 1607 he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for interfering in the actions of the Levant Company. Thomas remarried in December 1617 to Judith Taylor, nee Bennet, with whom he went on to have eleven children. In 1627, Frances and Thomas' son Henry Shirley, a playwright, was murdered in London. The high costs of Thomas' failed expeditions at sea, as well as the family debts he had inherited, meant that much of the Shirley inheritance had been sold or lost. The last property left was the Park on the Isle of Wight, which he permitted to keep due to his age and infirmity, and he died there.
The children of Thomas Shirley and his second wife Judith Taylor were;
+ John Shirley
+ Hugh Shirley
+ Thomas Shirley (d.1658)
+ Robert Shirley
+ Richard Shirley
+ Judith Shirley
+ Anne Shirley
+ Judith Shirley
+ Elizabeth Shirley
+ Bridget Shirley
+ Elizabeth Shirley
|Robert Dudley, c.1590's|
In 1605 Robert Dudley tried to use his previous relationship with Frances to sort out his own marital problems. He claimed that he had in fact been married to Frances, and therefore both of his first two marriages - to Margaret Cavendish and Alice Leigh (1579-1669) - had not been legal as Frances had still been alive. His reason behind this was that he wished to get an annulment of his second marriage to Alice Leigh, in order to marry his cousin and lover Elizabeth Southwell (1586-1631). Elizabeth Southwell had arrived at court in 1599 to become a maid of honour to the queen, she was a great-granddaughter of Henry Carey (1525-96), and therefore related to Robert through his Howard mother. The claim of the previous marriage to Frances was not accepted, and so Robert Dudley and Elizabeth Southwell - disguised as a male page - left England on July 2nd 1605 and travelled first to France, and then on to Tuscany in Italy. They were married in Lyon in 1606 in the Catholic faith - this may also have been done as a means to nullify his married to Alice Leigh as it would not have been recognised by the Catholic church due to the fact it had ben a Protestant marriage - after being granted a papal dispensation due to the fact that they were close blood relatives, and went on to have thirteen children. After using his skills as a navigator and ship builder for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Robert went on to become a grand chamberlain at the Medici court in Florence. The couple never returned to England.
"The Queen...is much put out because a married cavalier, Sir Robert Dudley, who they say is a natural son of the Earl of Leicester, has last night carried off a maid of honor of whom he was enamoured. Strict orders were promptly given out, but at present we have heard no news. This gentleman is about 35 years of age, of exquisite stature, with a fair beard, and noble appearance. The fact has created great scandal." - Ottaviano Lotti to Ferdinand I, Grand Duke of Tuscany
Robert had married his first wife Margaret Cavendish in 1591, which lasted until her death from the plague in 1595. The couple had no children together. Robert soon remarried to Alice Leigh on the 11th September 1596. Robert and Alice had seven daughters together, only five of which survived to adulthood;
+ Alice Dudley (1597-1621)
+ Douglas Dudley
+ Katherine Dudley (1598-1673) m. Richard Levenson
+ Frances Dudley m. Gilbert Kniveton
+ Anne Dudley m. Robert Holborne
After Robert left England and abandoned his wife and daughters, King James I ordered him to return and when he failed to do so, James confiscated his lands and declared him and outlaw for deserting his family.
Robert and Elizabeth had the following children together;
+ Maria Dudley (b.1609)
+ Cosimo Dudley (b.1610)
+ Anna Dudley (1611-29)
+ Carlo Dudley (1614-1686) m. Mary Magdalen of Picardy
+ Teresa Dudley (b.1623) m. Earl of Carpegna
+ Maria Christina Dudley (b.1628)
+ Enrico Dudley (b.1631)
+ Ambrogio Dudley
+ Ferdinando Dudley
+ Maria Magdalena Dudley
+ Antonio Dudley
+ Giovanni Dudley
+ dau Dudley m. Duke of Castillion del Lago