The murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London was a Stuart court scandal which makes any sleaze sensation of modern times pale in comparison. While James I (James VI of Scotland) was not directly involved in the killing, the events which led to Overbury dying started with him and came back to plague him as he mishandled events in ways underlinng his reputation as ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’. But intially hardly anyone raised an eyebrow at Overbury being sent to the Tower.
Overbury’s imprisonment on 21st April 1613 was not unusual in a political system where the King had total power. It appeared no more than the fall from grace of a clever but obnoxious man. Overbury had been knighted by the King as he rose from obscurity to a top position in the court, but had refused to become an Ambassador. That was enough to destroy his status in the court. Stuart monarchs – and the Tudors before them – did not give a people a choice of accepting posts offered to them, so Overbury’s fate was to be sent to the Tower for contempt. This was normal practice, and his death raised few eyebrows at a time when goal fever (typhus) alone killed many prisoners. But later a darker story was to emerge.
Overbury was a clever but arrogant man. He had assumed that his friendship with the King’s favourite, Robert Carr, was a road to power and wealth, which was the case for several years. Carr was Scottish and had become the King’s favourite on arriving in England in 1603, becoming Groom of the Bedchamber and Privy Councillor, but his good looks did not go with brains. He relied on his friend Overbury to handle government business, allowing Overbury to read secret documents and organise his affairs. Overbury came to know Carr’s deepest secrets, which was a dangerous practice given the court was riven with factions.
Loyalty was short lived. By 1612 Carr thought his own position as the King’s favourite was fragile so looked to strengthen it by marrying Frances, the daughter of Thomas Howard, First Earl of Suffolk. The Howard dynasty was rising in Court politics following the death of Robert Cecil, the ex-Secretary of State, and both Carr and the Howards saw they would benefit from a marriage. Overbury realised this put his own position at risk as Carr would no longer rely on him, but saw a way to stay in power. He would use his knowledge of Carr’s secrets to block the marriage. This was the first and most serious of a number of catastrophic errors of judgement.
Carr was seeking the political advantages of linking with the powerful Howard dynasty and reducing his reliance on the King and Thomas Overbury, but was genuinely in love with Frances Howard. However he faced the major obstacle that she was already married. Robert Devereux third Earl of Essex had wed Frances in 1606. An annulment was the only way to divorce in the Jacobean period but this meant proving the marriage had not been consumated. But was Frances a virgin? If Frances was not virgo intacta, the annulment would fail. Overbury implied he knew secrets about Frances and her liasions at court that would imperil the legal process. Carr was uncomfortably aware Overbury knew of secret meetings with Frances Devereux, as she had become once married to the Earl.
Her behaviour had been very curious, notably that she had had bought aphrodisiacs and anaphrodisiacs via a friend, Anne Turner from Simon Forman, a quack doctor. After his death in 1612 Frances found an apothecary who would supply poisons. It was another mistake of Overbury that he did not take Frances seriously, and never realised that in threatening to block the anulment by exposing intimate secrets, he was turning Frances into a dangerous opponent.
Overbury fails to stop the marriage.
Carr and the male Howards realised they had to remove Overbury, though no evidence has ever been found that they planned to kill him His vocal opposition to the marriage annoyed not only the plotters but the King, who offered an Ambassadors post to get him out of the country. When Overbury refused to go, putting him in the Tower effectively removed him from the scene. Overbury was placed in solitary confinement and constantly offered his freedom if he would drop his opposition to the annulment. With yet another astonishing error of judgement, Overbury consistently refused and remained in prison, isolated and sickening.
Carr had conspired with the King to have Overbury put in the Tower, but how much he knew about the machinations of the Howards is unclear. Carr and the Howards wanted Overbury silenced over the annulment, but the Howard family had the resources to act. Frances’ great uncle, Henry Howard, first Earl of Northampton, had the governor of the Tower replaced by his client Sir Gervase Elwes, who would follow orders. Northampton probably did not want Overbury dead, but was determined Elwes would pressurise Overbury to retract his opposition to the marriage. Frances wanted a more permanent solution, but whether Carr knew this is not at all clear. What is clear is that Frances used her uncle’s name to give orders to the goaler, Richard Weston.
The orders were to allow pies and tarts to be taken into Overbury’s cell, ostensibly to supplement the dreadful prison diet. In fact these were poisoned and Overbury fell ill.
Overbury in the Tower ws sidelined, but not invisible and his growing sickness alarmed both Carr and the King, who sent in drugs and medical help. He remained sick, and to deal with digestive problems not uncomon in the prisons of the time, he was prescribed enemas to purge his system. But the final enema was poisoned and the intake of strong poison directly into his gut killed him. Any secrets about Frances Devereux, nee Howard he might have had died with him.
When Overbury died on 15th September 1613, few people noticed. Death in prison was common. As the corpse was smelling particularly foul it was suspected he died of the pox. The Governor of the Tower of London nevertheless delayed burying the corpse as he wanted witneses to the state of Overbury’s body. He had suspicions. For the moment he kept them to himself.
Overbury made many serious mistakes, the most astonishing being his decision to reveal the secrets he claimed would stop the annulment – from his prison cell. After months in prison he wrote to Carr threatening that he would finally write an account revealing all if he were not released. Two days later he was dead.
Even without Overbury’s secrets, the annulment proceedings were deadlocked. A commission to investigate the annulment tied 5-5. Evidence that Frances was virgo intacta after 6 years of marrriage was, shall we say, implausible. However it was clear that when Essex had taken his bride to the family estate at Stowe by Chartley in Staffordshire, the relationship broke so completely that no children would come from the marriage.
But did this mean that Frances was still a virgin? Essex was fighting an uphill battle, less because he wanted to stay married to Frances than because the law demanded evidence of non consummation, and Essex had no desire to be seen as impotent. Indeed, he was rumoured to have had illigitimate children, but this was not admissable evidence. What counted was that the King was on the side of Frances and her intended new husband, and the commission was forced to produce the annulment.
James simply appointed two more commissioners to judge France’s claim the marriage had never been consumated, the majority now voting that the marriage had not been consumated. Essex retired hurt, having been forced to accept a compromise that he was not impotent at all…. except with his wife. Thirty years later he would join the parliamentary army in the civil war to overthrow the Stuart dynasty. However anger over the behaviour of the Stuarts had to be kept private in 1613. The annulment was a success for the King, and rumours Overbury knew secrets were irrelevant. Overbury was dead.
Three months after Overbury’s death Frances and Robert Carr married with Royal approval. Carr was elevated to the rank of Earl of Somerset by an indulgent monarch who allowed the marriage to take place in the Chapel Royal in Whitehall. Thomas Campion wrote a masque for the festivies, the usual choice, Ben Jonson, being sidelined as he had written a masque seven year’s earlier for Frances’s first marriage to Essex.
Three days later he did produce a second masque for a ceremony before the King. On Twelfth Night the poet John Donne, wrote an epithelanium, or poem of praise, which raised his status with the King –helping him become Dean of St Paul’s in 1621. Ambitious poets like these two climbed the greasy pole of court politics. The Howards took over court patronage, pocketing £90,000 per year. No one was thinking about the dead Overbury. But his was an unquiet corpse which would not be forgotten for ever
A murder is discovered
Court life continued, factions dancing round the King as usual. James found Carr less attractive now that he was married, and turned to George Villiers, soon to be made Duke of Buckingham. Carr objected, but had to take solace in the lucrative position he now occupied. He soon found there were worse enemies than Villiers.
During 1615, rumours began to reach the ear of the Secretary of State, Sir Ralph Winwood, that all was not well in the matter of Overbury. One story is that a young apothecary’s assistant who had supplied drugs to Anne Turner for £20 collapsed and died, but on his death bed confessed to supplying poisons. Another story was that the Countess of Shrewsbury, aunt of Arbella Stuart who was confined permanently in the Tower, told Winwood rumours were circulating that the Governor of the Tower, Gervase Elwes, had known Overbury was being poisoned but had done nothing to investigate. The King realised that the rumours were casting a lurid light on his own behaviour, so ordered the Lord Chief Justice Coke to investigate. Coke discovered a major scandal.
Coke interviewed Elwes, who reported that Elwes claimed he suspected that the goaler, Weston, was taking poisoned material into Overbury, but he had merely intercepted and destroyed some tarts going black and drained a suspect water jug, making no attempt to find out who was supplying the suspect material – criminal negligence on his part. He was put on trial as an accessory to murder and hung. The small fry – notably Weston, the goaler, who claimed he was simply obeying orders, though very vague as to who was giving the orders, suffered the same fate.
Anne Turner’s house was searched and an arrray of poisons found. These included Spanish Fly, an aphrodisiac in small doses but a fatal poison in large doses. She was convicted as an accessory and executed. There was now no doubt responsibility ultimately lay with Frances and her husband. Both were arrested, but the King was fearful they would reveal his own incompetence which was as great as that of Elwes. He had put Overbury in the Tower and made no attempt to find out why he was so sick, despite the intervention of his doctor. But Carr, a groom of the bedchamber, had many secrets he could tell in open court. James appointed Sir Francis Bacon, Attorney General, to run the trial of the two principal actors in Overbury’s downfall, with orders to have as little said in the court proceedings as possible. The public was starting to trace developments back to the Royal Bedchamber.
In the investigation Bacon carried out to prepare for a show trial his aim was not so much justice, as keeping the King out of proceedings. The king was prepared to offer both the accused a pardon and money after the trial, if only they would confess to murdering Overbury. This would prevent evidence and cross examination being presented in open court. Frances eventually surrendered and agreed to plead guilty, but refused to involve her husband. Carr was adamant he was not guilty of murder. After the couple were indicted in January 1616 Bacon offered him pardon with his life assured and a sum of money. In a show of courage, Carr replied and answered “Life and Fortune are not worth the acceptance, when honour is gone”. He pleaded Not Guilty and Bacon faced the prospect of his telling home truths in court.
To stop this, Bacon had two men standing by Carr in the dock with cloaks, ready to stop his mouth if he started to accuse the King. Carr realised he gained nothing from an outburst, and confined himself to arguing the powders he had sent in were medicinal. The prosecution argued they were poisoned, and the jury of aristocrats agreed. Both the Countess and Carr were found guilty and sentenced to hang.
But the final twist outraging an increasingly cynical public was that the sentences were suspended and later commuted by Royal order followed by a royal pardon. Six years later, both were released, given a state pension and allowed a house in Oxfordshire, to which they were confined for the rest of their lives. The public noted the different treatment of the Royal Favourites to the small fry, all of whom paid with their lives, and the Stuart monarchy lost yet more of an already tarnished reputation.
Carr and his beloved lived out their lives in obscurity, making what they could of their marriage and their daughter’s upbringing. The Howard family shared in their downfall, losing all their priveleges. Essex never forgot his public humiliation, his hatred of the Stuart monarchy drove him to join the parliamentary forces in the Civil War of the 1640s, fighting against Charles I, who had outdone his father’s many stupidities.
Among these, though partly forgotten as more widespread issues spread discontent across England, was the case of Sir Thomas Overbury. He had contributed to his own downfall by pigheaded stupidity, but nothing justified his brutal and illegal killing. The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury remains one of the most savage injustices ever to take place in an English prison, and one small but deeply odious part of the sordid history of the court of James 1.
Trevor Fisher 15 5 2015
(c) Trevor Fisher 2015