Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, Countess of Hertford, née Howard (27 July 1578 – 8 October 1639) was the daughter of a younger son of the Duke of Norfolk. An orphan of small fortune, she rose to be the only duchess at the court of James I of England. She married the son of a London alderman who died in 1599, leaving her a wealthy widow at a young age. She became, for 20 years, the third wife of the ageing Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford, nephew of Jane Seymour, third queen consort of Henry VIII. Within months of Edward's death she married a cousin of James I, Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox and 1st Duke of Richmond. One of the great beauties of the Jacobean court, she was also the patron of Captain John Smith of the Virginia Colony.
Frances Howard was the daughter of Thomas Howard, 1st Viscount Howard of Bindon (c. 1520–1582) and his wife Mabel Burton, daughter of Nicholas Burton. Lord Howard was the third and youngest son of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, by his second wife Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham.
Orphaned at a young age, Frances Howard "was married off" to Henry Pranell, the son of a rich wine merchant and alderman and a patron of the Virginia Company, in early 1592. The marriage apparently displeased Lord Burghley, who had other plans for the descendant of two Dukes than marriage with a vintner; Pranell was moved to write a letter of apology to Burghley:
Right honorable and my verie good Lorde, being to my greate griffe [grief] certified, how your Honor by misinformacon shoulde be incensed ageinste me, and daring not presume into your Lordshipps presence, either to excuse my self, or to craue pardon for my amisse, I thought it my dutie in these fewe lines with submission to acknowledge my faulte, and vnder your Honors fauoure with all humilitie to alledge somewhat for my selfe. True it is, my Lorde, that I haue maried Mw. Fraunces Howarde, daughter to the Lorde Thomas Howarde, Viscount Howarde of Bindon deceased, but I protest (as I desire your Honors patronage) I did not begine my sute without the liking of her freindes, I proceeded not without their furtherance, neither can they justifie I maried her ageinst their wills. The gentlewoman I haue a longe time loued dearlie, being bounde therevnto by her mutuall liking of me: litle or nothing I expected with her, considering she had litle or nothing to mainetaine and preferr her self; she being destitute of freindes and abilitie I thought it a most frindlie parte (with her good acceptance) to present her my selfe, and therbie to make her partaker of all wherwith God hath blessed me: wherbie (as latelie I vnderstoode) I haue (though not willfullie offended), jet [yet] ignorantly incurred your Lordships just displeasure, as not knowing that your Honor minded otherwise to haue preferred her…
Pranell died in 1599, leaving his wife a wealthy widow at the age of 20 or 21. "A woman of enormous social ambition", she abandoned a suitor, Sir George Rodney, and secretly married the widowed Edward Seymour, 1st Earl of Hertford (1537–1621) on 27 May 1601. Hertford was some forty years older than his third wife, and was the son of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector in the reign of Edward VI, and the nephew of King Edward's mother, queen Jane Seymour. The marriage was performed clandestinely by Thomas Montfort without banns or license, for which Monfort was suspended for three years by Archbishop John Whitgift.
When the secret marriage became public, the distraught Rodney shut himself up in a chamber at an inn, wrote a "large paper of well-composed verses" to the Countess in his own blood, and "ran himself upon his sword."
Hertford died in 1621, and some two months later his widow married Ludovic Stewart, 2nd Duke of Lennox in the peerage of Scotland. Stewart was the cousin of King James, a Privy Councillor, and Steward of the Royal Household. He was created Earl of Newcastle upon Tyne and Duke of Richmond in the peerage of England on 17 August 1623, and Frances Stewart became known as the "Double Duchess".
The duke died suddenly in bed in his lodging at Whitehall, on the morning of 16 February 1623/24. Stewart left no children, and the dukedom of Richmond and earldom of Newcastle upon Tyne became extinct upon his death. The dukedom of Lennox was inherited by his younger brother Esmé Stuart, 3rd Duke of Lennox (1579–1624). His wife retained the title Duchess of Richmond until her own death on 8 October 1639. She was buried in Westminster Abbey next to her third husband, in the "magnificent" tomb she had had erected in his memory.
The widowed Duchess of Richmond provided financial support for the publication of Captain John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, which was issued in 1624 with a dedication "to the Illustrious and Most Noble Princesse, the Lady Francis, Duchesse of Richmond and Lenox."
"[A] typical Howard woman, fair-haired and beautiful", Frances Stewart was painted by leading artists of the age, including Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, William Larkin (a protégé of her second husband, the Earl of Hertford), and Anthony van Dyck. Several portraits of her survive, as originals or copies.