His Sacred Majesty King James I of England was the royal equivalent of the "Illustrated Police News": the blogger's gift that never stops giving The Weird. Not content with having his reign as King James VI of Scotland characterized by those classic bizarre episodes known as the "Gowrie Conspiracy," and the "Witches of Berwick," once he moved to England, things got only more peculiar. While the death of Sir Thomas Overbury was not quite as enigmatic as the demise of the brothers Ruthven, it boasted a larger, and far more sinister, cast of characters.
The opening scene of our real-life Jacobean drama was a wedding. On January 5, 1606, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was married to Lady Frances Howard in a grand ceremony attended by the entire court. He was well-bred and rich; she, already showing signs of becoming one of high society's great beauties. It was a uniting of two of the country's leading families.
As the groom and his bride were only fourteen and thirteen at the time (dynastic ambitions could not wait,) the couple lived apart for several years after the ceremony. Young Essex was sent abroad to learn the art of being a soldier, while little Frances returned to her education. (And quite an education it was, if later events were any indication...)
The following year, the third major figure in the story made his entrance onstage. King James attended a tilting match where one of the players was a young Scot named Robert Carr. Carr was about twenty, and unusually attractive. Where handsome young men were concerned, James, in the words of a contemporary, "was very flowing in affection." The comely young visitor immediately caught the king's eye, and when the youth was fortunate enough to fall off his horse, James insisted that Carr take lodgings in the palace, so his injuries could be attended by the king's personal physicians. During his recuperation, James visited his bedside every day, and upon his recovery had him appointed a Gentleman of the Bedchamber. The court soon realized that Carr had been given a more unofficial, but even higher honor: that of the newest King's Favorite. Naturally, everyone around the king all clustered around this "rising sun, every man striving to investe himselfe into this man's favour, not sparing for bounty nor flattery." James, we are told, was so besotted that he could not refuse the lad anything. Carr swiftly went from knight to Viscount Rochester to the king's private secretary to Knight of the Garter to Baron of Brancepeth to Earl of Somerset to Lord High Treasurer of Scotland to Lord Chamberlain to Lord Privy Seal. This young man--who had no assets other than a pretty face and an agreeably empty brain--became James' unofficial Secretary of State, the second most important person in the realm. Not to mention the second-richest. James loaded the Favorite with gifts of land and money--all of which, of course, the king had appropriated from less favored subjects. (A court observer noted dryly that the king "was very liberall of what he had not in his owne gripe.")
The only two people at court who declined to join in the universal groveling and flattering of Carr were the king's wife and his eldest son. Queen Anne, although usually indifferent to anything her husband said or did, heartily disliked the new favorite and his unprecedented hold over the king. Prince Henry, who, in the words of William Roughead, "was mentally, morally and physically so unlike his Royal sire as to give some colour to contemporary scandal," saw Carr as merely one more black mark against a father he had long held in contempt. Relations between Carr and the heir to the throne became so openly hostile that on one occasion, the prince walloped the Favorite with his tennis racket.
Carr's meteoric rise to power was shared, albeit far more unobtrusively, by Thomas Overbury. Overbury was an ambitious, clever lawyer and man of letters who had in 1601 entered into a close friendship with the young Scot. In 1608, the Favorite had Overbury knighted and made a Gentleman of the Household, and from then on, Sir Thomas quietly became a key player at court as Carr's personal advisor, supplying the brainpower and cunning his friend conspicuously lacked, and guiding the Favorite in everything he did. He even wrote all of Carr's letters. Overbury boasted of his access to all state secrets, crowing that he knew more about government affairs than the Privy Council. If Carr was the power behind the throne, Overbury was the power behind Carr.
So much for Act One. Act Two opens with the return of Frances Howard, who was by now old enough to take her proper place in court life. She was described as "a Beauty of the greatest Magnitude," of a "lustfull appetite...covetous of applause...light of behaviour." She was, in short, the type of young lady just born to cause trouble.
The trouble started when she and Carr entered into a love affair. The trouble escalated when the Earl of Essex returned from his military training in the Low Countries, expecting that he and his bride would finally live together as man and wife.
Frances, engrossed in her dallyings with Carr, flatly refused to have anything to do with her husband. Her parents finally forced her to live under the same roof with Essex, but she did so with a notably bad grace. According to her later testimony, at least, she refused to consummate their marriage. She so resented the very existence of her husband that she consulted a "wise woman" named Mrs. Anne Turner. Frances' witchcraft requirements were twofold: to keep Carr's love, while repelling the advances of her husband. Mrs. Turner referred her to a Dr. Simon Forman, who was known "to have skill in the Magick Arts." Forman supplied the Countess of Essex with various Satanic charms and powders to be used on the two men in her life, but, alas, they proved of little efficacy.
Frances did not take this failure well. She was entirely prepared to escalate her efforts. She wrote to Mrs. Turner that "I cannot be happy so long as this man [her husband] liveth...If I can get this done, you shall have as much money as you can demand." In a related story, another "wise woman" known as "Cunning Mary" later claimed that the Countess of Essex offered her £1000 pounds if she could furnish a slow-acting poison for the Earl. Mary was cunning enough to flee town instead.
In November 1612, Prince Henry died suddenly, in circumstances curious enough for murder to be widely assumed. Although the cause of his demise is still debatable, it is unquestioned that it was a very good thing for his enemy, Robert Carr. With the prince out of the way, the Favorite's power at court was completely unchallenged. Lady Essex decided that this was the time to make her move. She wished to divorce her husband and replace him with her now-omnipotent lover. In those days, her only possible grounds for ending her marriage was on the grounds of non-consummation. Although she and her husband had lived together for three years, she now insisted that they had never shared a bed. Frances also declared that she was still a virgin, which provided the court with a good deal of amusement.
Frances' ambitious parents were all for her jettisoning her husband in favor of a far more glittering match, and the king was also expected to be complaisant in the matter. The sole obstacle to the divorce proved to be Sir Thomas Overbury.
Carr's secret puppetmaster was horrified to learn that the puppet intended to actually marry Lady Frances. He had loathed her from the start as a woman "known for her injury and immodesty." Overbury realized that once Carr had a strong-minded wife controlling him, he, Overbury, would be supplanted. Even more importantly, Overbury was deeply opposed politically to the powerful Howard clan. (He was a staunch Protestant, while the Howards had pro-Catholic, pro-Spain sympathies.) Sir Thomas lost his temper and told Carr a good many things about his intended wife--the fact that they were all quite accurate just made things worse--with the result that the two former friends fell out completely. Overbury was even indiscreet enough to circulate a scurrilous poem, "A Wife," which was recognized as a public attack on Carr's mistress.
Lady Frances realized that Sir Thomas just had to go. She was infuriated that he had dared to publicly describe her as a conniving, unprincipled whore. Besides, he knew so much about her liaison with Carr--not to mention her efforts to poison her husband--that his mouth needed to be shut for good. And quickly.
Carr, with the aid of some of Lady Frances' relatives, came up with a beautifully Machiavellian scheme to rid themselves of Overbury. They urged the king to name him ambassador to Russia. Carr then, in the guise of offering helpful advice, persuaded Overbury to reject the post. James had long wanted to remove Overbury's influence over Carr--the king saw it as "a dishonour to him that the world should have an opinion that [Carr] ruled him and Overbury ruled [Carr]"--so this defiance of the royal command have him the perfect opportunity to send Overbury to the Tower. In prison, Sir Thomas was now at the mercy of all his enemies.
While Overbury sulks in the Tower, we move on to the comic interlude of our melodrama: the Essex divorce case. While by this point the Earl was quite willing to rid himself of Frances, he refused to humiliate himself by asserting he had been unable to consummate his marriage. A compromise was finally worked out, where he would agree that he had been only temporarily impotent, so to speak. "Seven noble women," led by the Countess' own mother, testified that they had examined Lady Frances, and determined that she was indeed still "untouched." It is generally assumed the women were all cheerfully perjuring themselves, but it was said that a girl "too young to be other than virgo intacta" was brought in, heavily veiled, to act as a ringer for the Countess during the examination. After a good deal of pressure from King James himself, the Royal Commission who had been assigned to preside over this distasteful matter reluctantly voted for the nullity of the marriage.
By the time the Essex marriage was declared a non-starter, Sir Thomas Overbury had died in his cell. Lady Frances, after consulting with Mrs. Turner and yet another reputed wizard named Dr. James Franklin (Dr. Forman had since died,) saw to it that a youth named Richard Weston was appointed to act as Overbury's jailer. Then, Weston was given various poisons to slip into his prisoner's food. Both Carr and Lady Frances sent to the Tower various delicacies for Overbury's benefit--all of which, of course, were also full of various toxic substances. King James even sent his personal physician, Sir Theodore Mayerne, to look after the prisoner. (Mayerne largely deputized this task to a shady apothecary named Lobell.) One can only assume that Mayerne was not instructed to ensure that Overbury lived a long and healthy life.
Sir Thomas lasted a surprisingly long time in the Tower--five months--but he inevitably succumbed to the poison onslaught. On his deathbed, he wrote a letter to Carr bitterly reproaching him for his treachery. He added the highly ominous information that he had put into writing "the story betwixt you and me," and sent this document to a friend for safe-keeping. If he, Overbury, died, this document was to be published, with the result that "your shame shall never die, but ever remain to the world, to make you the most odious man living." Predictably enough, the king saw to it that this manuscript never saw the light of day, which is a great pity. It would have made highly edifying reading.
Within weeks of the nullification, James created his Favorite Earl of Somerset, and soon afterward Carr and Lady Frances were married. Carr had gotten everything he wanted, and it would prove to be his downfall. Without Overbury's guidance, he was utterly lost in the complex world of statecraft. Left on his own, he made a bungle of everything he touched. Worse still, success had gone to his head. He had become arrogant, overbearing, and insolent--even to James, which showed the full measure of his stupidity.
This was particularly unwise of Carr, as his enemies had found a rival for the king's affections. George Villiers, a graceful young man just as decorative as Carr but far brighter, was brought to court and deftly paraded before James. The king took an immediate fancy to the charming newcomer and gifted him with an appointment as the King's Cupbearer, a knighthood, and a pension. The cry began to be heard of "The old Favorite is dead, long live the new Favorite!"
It got worse for Carr. In 1615, a former apprentice of Lobell the apothecary was on what he thought was his deathbed. The apprentice confessed all he knew about the murder--which was plenty. Among other things, he claimed that Lobell supplied the poisons that finally finished Overbury off. Carr's enemies at court used this to persuade King James that an investigation had to be done about the matter--word that Overbury had been poisoned had spread so thoroughly that it was impossible to hush it up. James agreed that the scandal needed to be taken under his control. Lord Chief-Justice Coke was made the head of the inquiry.
Unfortunately for the new Earl of Somerset, Coke took his job more seriously than anyone had bargained for. He did not hesitate to call the erstwhile Favorite himself up to be examined before the judges. By now, James had tired of Carr, and was ready to let him meet his fate. An eyewitness left a memorable description of their farewell:
" Earle of Somerset never parted from him with more seeming affection than at this time, when he knew Somerset should never see him more; and had you seen the seeming affection (as the author himselfe did) you would rather have believed he was in his rising than setting. The earle, when he kissed his hand, the king hung about his neck, slabbering his cheeks, saying, 'For Gods sake, when shall I see thee againe? On my soul, I shall neither eat nor sleep until you come again.' The earle told him, on Monday (this being on the Friday.) 'For Gods sake, let me,' said the king, 'shall I, shall I!' then lolled about his neck. 'Then for Gods sake give thy lady this kiss for me.' In the same manner at the stayres head, at the middle of the stayres, and at the stayres foot. The earl was not in his coach when the king used these very words...'I shall never see his face more.'"
He said it with a smile, too.
Although Carr had prudently burned all his incriminating papers, and assumed his accomplices had all done likewise, Mrs. Turner had--presumably for future blackmail purposes--kept certain letters Lady Frances had sent her. Once these fell into Coke's hands, the Earl of Somerset and his wife found themselves under arrest right along with Richard Weston, Mrs. Turner, Dr. Franklin, Lobell the apothecary, and the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Gervase Elwes.
These murder trials could not be described as models of impartial justice. The king, of course, stage-managed everything behind the scenes in order to get results that suited him. The dubious role played in Overbury's death by Dr. Mayerne and Lobell was of course suppressed, as touching far too near to James himself, leaving other, less important souls to take the rap.
Richard Weston was the first to face the tribunal. His role in feeding poisons to Overbury was too obvious to be denied, and he was far too insignificant for anyone to bother protecting him. He was soon hanged at Tyburn.
Mrs. Turner was the next to face the gallows. She was admittedly Weston's accomplice, so once he was convicted, her fate was obvious.
A week after her execution, Sir Gervase Elwes was brought to trial, charged with "the malicious aiding, comforting, and abetting of Weston." Elwes was probably guilty of nothing more than turning an obedient blind eye to the doings of those far above him in rank and power, but this did not save him. He too was executed.
When, in his turn, Dr. James Franklin faced trial and the inevitable gallows, he made the most interesting end of the lot. Before being hanged, he stated that "there were greater persons in this matter than were yet known," and that Overbury had not been the only victim of the murder squad that clustered around the king. Franklin declared that Dr. Mayerne and Lobell the apothecary had poisoned Prince Henry.
Then, the hangman shut his mouth for good.
It is now that we reach the denouement of our play: The trials of Lord and Lady Somerset. Frances (who had given birth to a daughter during her house arrest) stood in the dock in May 1616. It was, I fear a complete dramatic anticlimax. As she pled guilty, there was virtually no trial at all (a great disappointment to those who had paid as much as £50 for admission to the courthouse.) She was duly sentenced to death and escorted back to the Tower.
Somerset proved considerably more troublesome. He resisted all the royal pressure to follow his wife's example of meekly confessing and begging for royal mercy. He was willing to gamble that he knew so much about James that the king would not dare convict him. In fact, he told his judges that if he was not freed, he would make certain unpleasant disclosures about the monarch. James was deeply unnerved by this. During Somerset's trial, the king ordered that two servants be placed on each side of him, ready to smother the defendant with a cloak and carry him out of the courtroom if he should begin to speak. As it turned out, this was not necessary. By then, he and James had apparently come to some sort of a private deal. Although both Lord and Lady Somerset were found guilty, they did not pay the legal penalty. Instead, they were kept in the Tower until January 1621, and then quietly released.
This is not to say that the Somersets did not suffer for their misdeeds. By Order of Council, they were forced to live together in one of two remote country houses, in a "private and obscure condition." It proved to be a cruel fate. Long before this, the couple--who had committed so many sins in order to be together--had, in the old way of thieves falling out, become bitterly estranged. Each, it seems, blamed the other for their downfall. And, in a sense, they were both correct. They continued in this mutually loathed propinquity until the Countess' slow, painful death from cancer in 1632. The once all-powerful Earl of Somerset lingered on in unhappy obscurity until 1645.
Overbury's murder was in itself not very mysterious, but there is still one great, lingering puzzle at the heart of this story: What exactly was this secret Carr threatened to reveal about James, this bit of hidden knowledge that, from all accounts, the king was terrified might become public? James' (presumed) homosexuality, the suspicious death of his son Henry, or his involvement in Overbury's murder have all been named as possible answers. These suggestions are unconvincing, for the simple reason that they were no secrets. Everyone at court knew of James' partiality for attractive young men, his own wife Queen Anne had accused Somerset of poisoning Henry, with, it was clearly implied, the father's blessing, most people assumed that James had been an accessory in Overbury's death--and nobody cared! Any allegations Somerset might make on any of these matters would just be one more drop in a very full bucket. Certainly, they were nothing to inspire the mortal dread of Somerset's possible revelations James displayed.
It is a question we will never see satisfactorily answered.
[Note: The idea that James' eldest son was murdered is not as outlandish as one might think. The handsome, cultured, high-minded, courageous Prince Henry was wildly popular. Everyone in England looked forward to the anticipated Golden Age when he finally supplanted his largely disdained father. In fact, once Henry reached young adulthood, there was a growing faction who talked of forcing James to abdicate in favor of the heir. Henry himself appears to have been all in favor of the idea. After what had happened to his mother Mary Queen of Scots, James was understandably highly paranoid about the thought of relinquishing power, and he vowed that he would never step down from the throne.
Then Henry suddenly dropped dead, and the whole issue instantly became moot. And the king's most influential subject, Robert Carr, was rid of his most dangerous enemy. It does make one wonder.]