The Thomas Overbury affair was the greatest scandal of seventeenth century England featuring a heady mix of adultery, murder and necromancy, and has been described as "one of the most sensational crimes in English history".

Frances and the two Roberts

The story began on the 5th January 1606 with the marriage of Frances Howard to Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex. The thirteen year old Frances was the daughter of Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, and already attracting a reputation as a society beauty, whilst Robert was the son of former queen Elizabeth I's favourite who had been executed for treason only a few years previously in 1602. The match had been promoted by Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton with the blessing of king James I, as a means of allying the arriviste Howards with the more illustrious name of Devereux.

As was common at the time, the marriage ceremony was merely the confirmation of the agreed dynastic alliance; with Robert Devereux being sent abroad to continue his education whilst Frances remained at court to complete hers. It was not therefore until the year 1609 when Robert returned to England that it was intended that the two should live together as man and wife.

Whatever Frances had initially felt about the choice of husband that had been made on her behalf, after the passage of three years spent in the midst of the decadence of the Jacobean court she had become most decidedly of the opinion that Robert Devereux was not the man for her. Known as 'grumbling Essex' Robert was not interested in the frivolities of court life and only wished to retire to his country house and spend his time hunting with his friends, and simply wished his wife to join him. This was not thelife to which Frances had become accustomed and what is more Frances had indulged herself in a romance with a certain Robert Carr.

This Robert Carr was an up and coming young Scot in the service of James I. Having first come to the attention of the king by breaking his leg at a tournament Robert was now a rapidly rising influence at court and a clear favourite of the king. To the young Frances Howard, Robert Carr was more to her taste and thus when her husband returned from France to claim his bride, Frances resolved to refuse to cohabit with Robert Devereux in defiance of scripture and indeed the law.1

When her husband Robert Devereux began to insist on exercising his rights, Frances fled to her parent's house, only to find that her immediate family took her husband's side and urged her to do her duty. Frances therefore fled once more to to her great-uncle's home at Northampton House. There she found a more sympathetic hearing as Henry Howard now saw Frances' entanglement with Robert Carr as an opportunity to link the Howard name to the rising young star of the Jacobean court.

Black Magic in Jacobean London

Unfortunately Frances was very much married to the Earl of Essex and in the end Frances was obliged to join Robert Devereux and travel back with him to his country house at Chartley in Staffordshire. There she persisted in a stubborn refusal to sleep with her husband thereby hoping no doubt to have the marriage annulled on the grounds on non-consummation.

It seems that at this time that her relationship with Robert Carr had not developed much beyond the exchange of romantic correspondence. Whilst Robert Carr may have been satisfied with this state of affairs Frances wished to take matters further. She was therefore faced with the double dilemma of encouraging one Robert's ardour whilst protecting herself from the attentions of another. Fortunately help was at hand as Frances had found a friend and ally in a woman named Anne Turner.

Although a widow and outwardly respectable. Mrs Turner was in fact an independent businesswoman who ran her own houses of ill-repute at Paternoster Row and Hammersmith, where ladies and gentlemen could indulge themselves together in comparative secrecy. She was also running a lucrative monopoly in the supply of a saffron based starch which provided the yellow colouring to collars and ruffs which was then the height of fashion. Mrs Turner was therefore well connected with both the court and the less savoury sections of London society and was able to put Frances in touch with an apothecary cum astrologer named Simon Forman.2

Banned from from practising medicine within the city of London by the College of Physicians, Simon Forman had simply relocated outside the city limits at Lambeth and continued to ply a lucarative trade in the supply of love potions to the fast set of Jacobean London. Mr Forman was able to provide Frances with a lead figurine of copulating couple, designed to supply the necessary sympathetic magic to encourage the appropriate response from Robert Carr. Frances also returned from her consultation with Simon Forman armed with a number of love-potions. Through bribery Anne Turner was able to persaude Carr's servants to introduce these concoctions into their master's diet.

Of course as well as encouraging her lover, Frances wished to discourage her husband and the ever obliging Mr Forman was also able to assist in this regard. Supplied with a wax model of her husband, every evening Frances would twist a thorn embedded into the groin of this effigy in an effort to cool his ardour, and once again she was armed with a supply of suitable potions to administer. And just to make absolutely certain that her husband would be unable to exercise his conjugal rights, Frances also wore an unspecified internal device designed to prevent penetration.3

Whether any of this hocus-pocus actually worked or not is unknown, but as far as Frances and Devereux were concerned, after spending the winter of 1611-12 together in London, in the spring of 1612 Robert was persuaded to return to the country and left his wife to her own devices in town. Now free of her husband and able to pursue an independent existence, during the summer of 1612 Frances was finally able to entice Robert Carr into her bed which of course, made her only the more determined to procure the necessary annulment of her marriage.

Frances now began pressing her great-uncle Henry to intercede with the king, alleging that her husband was impotent and that the marriage had therefore not been consummated. Whether or not Devereux was impotent seems neither here nor there, as it seems that by the autumn 1612 Robert had clearly had enough of his young wife. Whatever public embarrassment that the Earl of Essex might suffer as a result of the gossip that would inevitably arise as a result of the annulment process was likely overshadowed by the relief at riding himself of Frances.

Frances was faced with one minor technical problem; in order to obtain the annulment on the grounds of non-consummation she had to demonstrate that she was still virgo intacta. Since this involved a physical inspection by a panel of matrons and midwives and Frances clearly did not meet the required physical standard a little deception was in order. It was therefore necessary for Frances to engage a suitably qualified stand in to take her place.

There was however another obstacle to the projected marriage to overcome in the form of one Thomas Overbury.

Sir Thomas Overbury

Born at Compton Scorpion in Warwickshire in 1581, Thomas Overbury attended the University of Oxford before studying law at the Middle Temple in London where he soon came to the attention of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. This brought Thomas into the fringes of the court circle where he soon made the acquaintance of Robert Carr. The two young men developed a friendship and when Robert embarked on his career at court, Thomas took the position of mentor, secretary and political advisor to his more charismatic friend and became the brains behind his steady rise to prominence.

Whilst the Earl and Countess of Essex were occupied with their little matrimonial dispute, Robert Carr was busily climbing the greasy pole; raised to the peerage as Viscount Rochester in 1611 and appointed a privy councillor soon after, with the death of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury in 1612, Robert Carr emerged as the man most likely to take over Salisbury's position at the head of the king's government.

Thomas was initially unconcerned about his friend's relationship with a married woman and had even composed many of the letters and sonnets which Robert had sent to Frances. This sort of romantic dalliance was one thing and part and parcel of court life at the time, but Thomas soon became concerned at the way that the relationship had developed and was fundamentally opposed to the idea of the marriage. Thomas simply did not regard Frances Howard as entirely suitable for a minister in his majesty's government and bluntly referred to her as a "filthy, base woman". (It is by no means certain that Robert Carr was the first to share Frances' bed.)

Thomas Overbury was thus openly and virulently opposed to their plan to marry, and since he was well acquainted with the truth, he was in a position to undermine all of Frances' carefully laid plans. For this reason Thomas Overbury found himself charged with the offence of having insulted the king and thrown into the Tower of London on the 22nd April 1613. Whilst his arrest and incaceration where almost certainly as a result of the machinations of the Earl of Northampton and his great-niece Frances, the exact extent of Robert Carr's involvement in this act remains unclear.

With Thomas now safely under lock and key, the Earl of Northampton ensured that one of his agents named Gervaise d'Elwes was appointed as Lieutenant of the Tower, which in turn enabled Frances to get one of her own servants named Richard Weston employed at the Tower and given the responsibility for the care of the new prisoner. It seems that from the beginning Frances was not satisfied by the mere incarceration of her enemy and that it was now her intention to permanently silence Thomas Overbury. So Frances turned to her old friend Anne Turner who procured on her behalf a range of poisons, including arsenic, catharnides and sublimate of mercury from an apothecary called Franklin. Said poisons were then included in a tasty selection of tarts and jellies which were delivered to Richard Weston and then left with Gervase d'Elwes, before they were consumed by the unfortunate Thomas.

Whatever involvement Robert Carr might or might not have had in the initial arrest of his old friend he now appears to have decided to try and get his friend released. Believing that the king would take pity on Thomas if he was ill, Robert regularly supplied him with a series of enemas and purgatives designed to induce the outward appearance of sickness.

So whilst Frances Howard was attempting to end Overbury's life, Robert Carr was unwittingly frustrating her plans as it appears that these puragtives had the result of counteracting the effect of the posioned food administered. This was of course a source of great frustration and annoyance to Frances, but determined to see an end to Thomas Overbury she followed the example of her future husband and prepared an enema containing a lethal dose of sublimate of mercury. It was this concoction that finally did for poor Thomas, and on the 15th September 1613 he suffered an agonisingly painful and protracted death.

At the time no one was any the wiser regarding the true cause of Thomas' death as everyone assumed that it was syphilis, with the various blisters and abrasions that appeared on his skin interpreted as being clear indications of that particular disease.

Ten days later Frances was granted her annulment and arrangements were soon being made for her marriage to Robert Carr, whose star rose even higher as he was created Earl of Somerset on the 3rd of November 1613. On the 26th December 1613 the two were married at the Chapel Royal at Whitehall Palace, in a lavish ceremony paid for by James I complete with a wedding masque written by Ben Jonson and an epithalamium composed by John Donne.

The Conclusion to the Affair

For the next year the Earl of Somerset and his new bride were free to enjoy married life, but there is a weak link in every conspiracy as they were soon to realise.

Franklin, the apothecary who had supplied the poisons that brought about the end of Thomas Overbury, had employed an assistant by the name of William Reeve, who had since been spirited away to France. Whilst abroad William was taken ill and believing himself to be close to death had taken it upon himself to unburden his soul of his guilty secrets. Foremost amongst these was his confession to being responsible for the transport of the fatal enema to the Tower of London together with the naming of names.

News of the sensational confession soon reached England. Initially the king displayed little interest in the matter, perhaps hoping that the gossips would soon find something else to occupy their interest. But the rumours persisted and there was even talk that James himself had approved of the murder. Thus James was forced to ask the chief justice, Edward Coke, to investigate the claim that Overbury had been poisoned. A number of arrests were made and Coke's investigations soon identified the main culprits and Robert Weston, Anne Turner, Gervase d'Elwes and Simon Franklin were all brought before the court, examined and condemned to death for their complicity in the murder of Thomas Overbury. All four were hanged. 4

Other such as Thomas Monson and Robert Killigrew were also arrested but later released whilst the noted antiquarian Robert Bruce Cotton was imprisoned for eight months without trial before being pardoned and released on payment of a £500 fine.

Finally Frances Howard and Robert Carr were brought before the court to face trial on the charge of murder. There appears not the slightest doubt regarding the guilt of Frances Howard, as she had already confessed to her involvement in the affair and pleaded guilty to the charge. Robert Carr however, steadfastly protested his innocence, but the weight of circumstantial evidence was too great. They were both convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

The sentences were however never carried out. In seventeenth century England it was perfectly possible to get away with murder if you were sufficiently well connected, particularly if your victim was no one of any particular consequence. (It is also worth remembering that both Robert and Frances probably knew a few home truths about the private life of the king.)

Frances was thus pardoned soon after the trial but remained in the Tower with her husband until January 1622, whilst Robert Carr had to wait until 1624 before he was formally pardoned and released. But whereas their lives were spared and they gained their freedom, their reputations were destroyed. They were forced to retire to the country far away from court at Rotherfield Greys in Oxfordshire. There they spent there days living an almost entirely alone in separate wings of the house, and hardly speaking to one another. Frances contracted what is now believed to have been cervical cancer shortly after her trial and eventually died aged 41 in 1632. Robert Carr survived her for thirteen years but similarly died in obscurity in 1645.

Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton died in June 1614 and consequently never stood trial for his role in the murder of Thomas Overbury.

Thomas Overbury achieved some degree of posthumous fame. Having privately published a poem entitled The Wife, the publicity of the trial turned this work into a best-seller and it subsequently became one of the most popular books of the seventeenth century.


NOTES

1 At the time English Law considered that a wife was legally obliged to submit to sexual intercourse with her husband.
2 Simon Forman has been suggested as the real-life model for The Alchemist immortalised by Ben Jonson.
3 I have no idea. Use your imaginations.
4 Edward Coke displayed a certain macabre sense of humour when he ordered that Anne Turner be hanged wearing one of her famous yellow ruffs. Her executioner even joined in the fun and wore his own set of yellow cuffs and ruff to set off his black hood.


SOURCES

  • Geoffrey Bernard Regan, The Alchemist: A saga of illicit love, murder and necromancy at the court of King James I. See www.thehistorian.co.uk/alchemist.html
  • The entries for 'Somerset, Robert Carr, earl of' and 'Overbury, Sir Thomas' from The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th edition (Columbia University Press, 2004)
  • The entries for ROBERT CARR OR KER EARL OF SOMERSET, SIR THOMAS OVERBURY, WILLIAM MONSON, JAMES KILLIGREW, and ROBERT BRUCE COTTON from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Frances Howard (C. Essex/C. Somerset) at http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/FrancesHoward(CEssexCSomerset).htm
  • The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury – 1615 http://www.portfolio.mvm.ed.ac.uk/studentwebs/session2/group12/murderto.htm

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