The ‘troubled nature’ of Francis Norris, earl of Berkshire: a Jacobean peer’s battle with depression

As public debate intensifies about the impact of the coronavirus lockdown on mental health, Dr Paul Hunneyball, assistant editor of the Lords 1558-1603 section, considers a poorly documented aspect of early modern medicine…

If ever there was an era when despondency was in vogue, it was surely the early seventeenth century. Shakespeare’s plays exploited mental anguish to great dramatic effect, from the love-sick Romeo to the tortured Hamlet.  Robert Burton’s 1621 best-seller, The Anatomy of Melancholy, identified potential causes in everything from spiritual conflict to a physical imbalance in the four ‘humours’ then thought to govern all aspects of health, presenting the condition as an almost universal state. And yet, this increased interest in negative emotions did little to improve the treatment of mental disorders. Medical responses, premised as they were on an inaccurate understanding of these problems, were generally unsuccessful for peers and commoners alike. A mentally incapable aristocrat, such as the 2nd Lord Boteler, could at least expect to be assigned guardians and a financial settlement, and to be left in peace. Less fortunate was Viscount Purbeck, elder brother of the royal favourite, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, who was locked up during his intermittent lapses into insanity and subjected to violent but ineffectual purges.

These two scenarios were the most widely recognized forms of mental incapacity, conditions which incontrovertibly prevented sufferers from pursuing a normal existence. By comparison, depression was generally confused with mere melancholy, and the warning signs of this serious clinical illness were frequently ignored, or even dismissed. The career of Francis Norris, 2nd Lord Norreys and latterly earl of Berkshire, is a case in point. Despite being born into a life of privilege, with an intelligent and inquiring mind, Norris experienced numerous setbacks during his career, which he increasingly struggled to deal with. He lost his father when just a few months old. When he was seven his mother remarried, at which juncture he was placed in the care of his grandmother, the dowager countess of Bedford. Norris’s stepfather, Henry Clinton, 2nd earl of Lincoln, a man noted for his violent temper, subjected his new wife to years of domestic abuse, and then virtually imprisoned her when she requested a formal separation.

Stained glass portrait, said to be of Francis Norris

Norris apparently saw little of his mother during these years, though he was close to his grandmother, who almost certainly arranged his marriage to Bridget de Vere, daughter of the 17th earl of Oxford. This should have been an advantageous match, as Bridget’s uncle was the powerful Sir Robert Cecil (subsequently 1st earl of Salisbury), chief adviser to both Elizabeth I and James I. However, Norris rapidly fell out with his bride, and although the couple had a daughter, they separated after seven years, Bridget obtaining custody of the child against her husband’s wishes. This disastrous relationship also turned Salisbury against Norris, who found his hopes of public advancement blocked.

In 1601, aged just 21, Norris succeeded his grandfather as 2nd Baron Norreys, simultaneously inheriting more than 100,000 acres. Nevertheless, the new peer was soon embroiled in lawsuits with rival claimants to portions of this property and struggled with debt for the rest of his life, ultimately selling around half of his estates to satisfy his creditors. These problems damaged his local standing, further reducing his chances of high office. Even so, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Norris’s own personality contributed to his difficulties. While he could be a generous and amusing host, he was notoriously sharp-tongued and undiplomatic, even with his friends. He alienated potential allies by his vindictive treatment of his estranged wife, and, much like his step-father, pursued bitter feuds against his perceived enemies. These included two of Bridget’s cousins, the 14th Lord Willoughby de Eresby and his brother Sir Peregrine Bertie. Norris twice fought duels with the latter, emerging victorious. However, a public spat with Lord Willoughby in 1615 led to a violent brawl in the precincts of Bath Abbey, during which Norris killed one of Willoughby’s servants. His plea of self-defence was ultimately accepted, and he escaped punishment, but this incident further reduced his chances of a significant public career.

Despite this dubious track record, Norris was in fact given frequent encouragement to improve his behaviour. In 1605, prior to the final breakdown of his relationship with Salisbury, he was created a knight of the Bath and sent on a prestigious embassy to Spain. The king visited him several times at Rycote, his Oxfordshire seat, while in 1616, just months after the manslaughter case, he was chosen as an assistant when the new royal favourite, George Villiers, was created a viscount.  However, he consistently failed to capitalize on these openings, and after each new setback he retired to Rycote to lick his wounds, isolating himself from friends and foes alike, and burying himself in his books and estate papers to suppress his disappointment.

Rycote chapel (copyright V. Larminie)

Early in 1621, Norris received yet another promising break. In return for agreeing to marry his daughter to one of Villiers’ protégés, Edward Wray, he was created earl of Berkshire. However, once again Norris managed to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. Barely a fortnight after his elevation, while attending the House of Lords, he took offence at a perceived slight by a fellow peer, the 11th Lord Scrope, and shoved him so violently that Scrope nearly fell flat on his face. For this blatant breach of decorum, Norris was promptly sent to the Fleet prison to contemplate his error and released only when he agreed to make a humiliating public apology. Two weeks later he requested leave of absence from the Lords, and retreated once again to Rycote, being noted prior to his departure as ‘per fits melancholy’ [Diary of Sir Richard Hutton 1614-39 ed. W.R. Prest (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. ix), 30-1]. He never returned to Westminster. Insignificant as the Scrope episode was in real terms, it proved enough to push Norris over the edge psychologically. In January 1622, after months of contemplating his disgrace, he committed suicide, shooting himself with a crossbow. As one commentator observed, there could be only one explanation, namely ‘laesum principium’, his troubled nature [Letters of John Chamberlain ed. N.E. McClure (1939), ii. 423]. The depression which had by now been building for years, apparently without Norris seeking any kind of help, had finally proved fatal.


Further reading:

M. MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England (1981)

Biographies of Francis Norris, earl of Berkshire, John Villiers, Viscount Purbeck, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, Henry Clinton, 2nd earl of Lincoln, Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury, Robert Bertie, 14th Lord Willoughby De Eresby (later 1st earl of Lindsey), and Emanuel Scrope, 11th Lord Scrope (later 1st earl of Sunderland) will appear in our forthcoming volumes on The House of Lords, 1604-1629.  A biography of Norris’s illegitimate son Sir Francis Norreys is being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 section.

6 thoughts on “The ‘troubled nature’ of Francis Norris, earl of Berkshire: a Jacobean peer’s battle with depression

  1. Following his separation from his wife, he denied their daughter was his and spoke of disinheriting her. He didn’t do so but it damaged his reputation further.

    1. More of the Norreys estate was in Berkshire and there already was an earl of Oxford, as mentioned above.

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