Sir Thomas Overbury’s murder caused a major scandal during James I’s reign. It damaged the monarchy and James’ court was condemned as evil and corrupt.
Robert Carr became the King’s favourite after he broke his leg in a jousting tournament on 24 March 1607. James fancied young handsome men. He rose rapidly—knighted later that year and granted the title of Viscount Rochester in 1611.
Carr was entrusted with government documents and correspondence. Carr lacked intelligence. He was clearly unsuited for the role and his new responsibilities overwhelmed him. Overbury was clever, with a quick decisive mind, and he was adept in administrative matters.
Overbury was not content to remain in the background. He was far too ambitious. He lacked people skills and the tact required of a courtier despite his handsome looks. (Overbury constantly reminded everyone Carr’s success was due to him.) James was furious. He disliked Overbury’s arrogance.
The Countess of Essex
Carr began an affair with Lady Frances Howard. Overbury initially encouraged the affair—even writing letters on Carr’s behalf—as he assumed it wasn’t serious.
Frances Howard was married at thirteen to Robert Devereux, the 3rd Earl of Essex on 5 January 1606. She was the most beautiful woman at court—and an alleged nymphomaniac.
Overbury was furious when he heard of the marriage plans. He urged Carr to end the relationship immediately. He also feared losing his influence to the powerful and influential Howard family.
Frances was determined to marry Carr. She stopped at nothing—even destroyed her husband’s reputation—to achieve her goal. She sought an annulment by claiming her husband was impotent. (Sources claimed Frances denied her husband his marital rights.)
Frances even consulted astrologers and witches for love-potions and powders.
The Tower of London
However, Overbury knew too much. The Howards regarded him as a threat. Overbury was offered a diplomatic post abroad. James was offended when Overbury refused. He sent Overbury to the Tower of London on 26 April 1613.
The Howards were worried Overbury would still talk. His gaolers moved Overbury to a damp windowless cell so he was unable to get messages out.
Overbury died on 15 September 1613. Overbury’s body deteriorated rapidly with a very overpowering obnoxious smell—signs of poisoning. No one mourned his death.
Frances was granted her nullity decree after King James applied undue pressure on the council. She was free to marry.
Carr was created Earl of Somerset on 4 November 1613 as a wedding present.
Frances and Carr married in a lavish wedding on 26 December 1613. The bride wore white and the flowing hair of a virgin.
The King’s relationship with Carr did not lessen after the wedding.
Eventually disgruntled courtiers presented George Villiers to the King, as they wanted Carr removed from favour.
Scandal and downfall
Villiers replaced Carr in James’ affection. Carr resented the newcomer. He sulked and caused several scenes—even accusing the King of disloyalty.
Meanwhile, rumours of Overbury’s murder began circulating.
The scandal broke in 1615 after an apothecary’s assistant made his deathbed confession. Frances paid him £20 to administer a poisoned enema to Overbury, as other poisons had failed to work.
Frances sent jellies for Overbury’s consumption. (Some even turned green upon delivery!)
She confessed but Carr protested his innocence. All commoners involved were hanged.
The Somersets faced a death sentence until the King intervened. It was commuted to life imprisonment until 17 January 1622. They were released providing they retired to the country. Their love did not last, as they gradually loathed each other despite living under the same roof.
Carr was already politically dead. He died in 1645. Frances died from breast and uterine cancer in 1632.
Ashley, Maurice, A Royal History of England: The Stuarts, Cassell & Co, London, 2000
Fraser, Antonia, King James, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1974 (Reprinted 1994)
Fraser, Antonia, The Weaker Vessel, Methuen London Limited, London, 1985
Kenyon, J P, The Stuarts, Fontana, Glasgow, 1966 [Reprinted 1977]
Schama, Simon, A History of Britain Vol 2, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2001
Somerset, Anne, Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of James I, Phoenix, London, 1998 (Reissued 2004)
Stewart, Alan, The Cradle King: A Life of James VI and I, Pimlico, London, 2004
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 27 August 2008.