The Poisoners of the Seventeenth Century

by George Hogarth

No. II.

Our Scottish Solomon, King James the First, amongst other instances of wisdom, was especially addicted to favourites. During his whole reign he was governed by a succession of minions. His prime favourite, Buckingham, (the celebrated "Steeny,") was preceded in his affections by a man little less remarkable, the Earl of Somerset. Robert Carr, a young man of a respectable Scotch family, appeared at court very soon after James's accession to the English crown. At a tilting-match, where the king was present, Carr by an accident was thrown from his horse, and had his leg broken. The king, who had been struck with his handsome figure, made him be attended by his own surgeons, visited him daily, and soon became immoderately fond of his society. The young favourite did not neglect the means of advancement; before many months were over he was knighted and made a gentleman of the bedchamber, and from that time became all-powerful at court. There is a letter from Lord Thomas Howard to Sir John Harrington, written about the year 1608, which shows the feelings of the courtiers upon the subject. "Carr," says the writer, "hath all the favours, as I told you before. The king teacheth him Latin every morning, and I think some one should teach him English too; for he is a Scottish lad, and hath much need of better language. The king doth much covet his presence: the ladies, too, are not behind hand in their admiration; for, I tell you, good knight, this fellow is straight-limbed, well-favoured, and smooth-faced, with some sort of cunning and show of modesty, though, God wot, he well knoweth when to show his impudence. Your lady is virtuous, and somewhat of a good housewife; has lived in a court in her time, and I believe you may venture her forth again; but I know those would not so quietly rest, were Carr to leer on their wives, as some do perceive, yea, and like it well too they should be so noticed. If any mischance be to be wished, 'tis breaking a leg in the king's presence; for this fellow owes all his favour to that bout. I think he hath better reason to speak well of his own horse than the king's roan jennet. We are almost worn out in our endeavours to keep pace with this fellow in his duty and labour to gain favour, but in vain; where it endeth I cannot guess, but honours are talked of speedily for him." These honours speedily followed, Carr having been soon afterwards created Viscount Rochester.

Robert, Earl of Essex, the son of the unfortunate favourite of Queen Elizabeth, had married, in the year 1603, the Lady Frances Howard, eldest daughter of the Earl of Suffolk. The earl was only fourteen, and his bride a year younger. Immediately after the marriage the young earl was sent abroad on his travels, the countess remaining at court,—of which she was one of the brightest ornaments. Under a form, however, of singular loveliness, she concealed a mind of not less singular depravity. When Essex returned, after a few years' absence, he found her affections quite estranged from him. She had conceived a passion for the handsome favourite, and received her husband with contemptuous coldness; while she endeavoured, by her arts and allurements, to captivate the object of her guilty flame. To these means she added others more peculiarly characteristic of the age. There was a woman of the name of Turner, a servant or dependant of the countess's family, and with whom she appears to have associated much in her childhood and youth. This woman was of an atrocious character, and soon succeeded in making her patroness as wicked as herself. Mrs. Turner, as well as the countess, had an illicit amour; and they were in the habit of resorting to a Dr. Forman, a celebrated quack and dealer in magic, in order, by means of love-philters and conjurations, to obtain the objects of their wishes.

Whether Dr. Forman's charms prevailed, or the countess's own were sufficient, Rochester was soon caught; and a guilty liaison was formed between them.

Sir Thomas Overbury was then Lord Rochester's secretary. He was an able and accomplished man, in the prime of life, of a bold and aspiring disposition; and, being high in the good graces of the reigning favourite, appeared to be on the road to political distinction. To the raw youth, who had had "greatness thrust upon him" so rapidly, the services of a man of parts and experience were invaluable; and Overbury, by acting as the guide and counsellor of the favourite, directed, in a great measure, the movements of majesty itself.

Rochester made Overbury the confidant of his intrigue with Lady Essex; and the secretary, in order to pay his court to his patron, encouraged and assisted him in the prosecution of it. He even composed the billets-doux which the illiterate lover sent to his inamorata.

The countess, not content with the clandestine indulgence of her adulterous passion, now conceived the idea of getting rid of her husband. The intercourse between her and Rochester had become so shameless and open that it was loudly talked of by the world; and it appeared evident that a divorce from her husband, followed by a marriage with her lover, was the only way to prevent their separation. The countess, therefore, instituted proceedings against her husband for a divorce, on grounds to which only a shameless and abandoned woman could think of resorting. The favourite gained the king's sanction and support to this scandalous suit; and, after a course of procedure which is a disgrace to the judicature of that age, a sentence of divorce was pronounced by judges influenced and intimidated by the king himself, whose interference was grossly arbitrary and indecent. Within six weeks after the divorce, Lady Essex was married to Rochester, whom the king had previously created Earl of Somerset.

While his patron's connexion with Lady Essex was merely an adulterous intrigue, Overbury had no objection to it; but he seems to have been shocked and frightened at the idea of Lord Rochester's marrying a woman of whose atrocious character he was well aware. He, therefore, earnestly dissuaded Rochester from this marriage. One night, when they were walking together in the gallery at Whitehall, Overbury made use of the most earnest remonstrances.

"Well, my lord," he said, "if you do marry that base woman you will utterly ruin your honour and yourself. You shall never do it by my advice, or with my consent; and, if you do, you had best look to stand fast."

"My own legs are strong enough to bear me up," cried Rochester, stung with such language applied to a woman whose fascinations retained all their power over him; "but, in faith, I will be even with you for this." So saying, he flung away in a rage, and left the place. The conference was terminated with such heat that the words of the speakers were overheard by persons in an adjoining room, who soon had cause to remember them.

Rochester allowed his resentment apparently to subside, and treated his secretary as before. He even requested the king, as a mark of favour, to appoint Overbury ambassador to Russia. The king complied; and Overbury accepted the appointment with great alacrity. But this act of kindness, as it seemed to be, on the part of Somerset, was the first step to a deep and deadly revenge for the insult to the woman whom he had resolved to marry, and whose fury he had roused by informing her of what had passed.

Having allowed Overbury to accept the office which he had procured for him, Somerset now advised him to decline it. "If you serve as ambassador," he said, "I shall not be able to do you so much good as if you remain with me. If you are blamed, or even committed for refusing," he added, "never mind: I will take care that you meet with no harm." Overbury, in an evil hour, listened to this perfidious counsel, sent his resignation to the king, and was instantly sent to the Tower.

Sent to the Tower for declining to accept an office! Even so. Such was the "Divine right" of an absolute king, in England, in the seventeenth century. Without even the shadow, or the accusation, of a crime, Sir Thomas Overbury was immured in a dungeon, because he declined the honour of being sent as ambassador to Russia.

This act of tyranny was committed at the instigation of the favourite; and Overbury, in the Tower, was entirely in the hands of his enemies. Somerset, in the first place, obtained from the king the dismissal of the lieutenant of the Tower, and the appointment, in his stead, of Sir Jervis Elwes, one of Somerset's creatures. One Richard Weston, who had been shopman to an apothecary, was made under-keeper, and specially charged with the custody of Overbury. This man had been an agent of Lady Essex in her secret transactions with Dr. Forman and Mrs. Turner, and in affording opportunities for her guilty meetings with Lord Rochester at Mrs. Turner's house, and elsewhere, and was quite ready to perpetrate any deed of darkness which they might desire. Weston, thus become Overbury's keeper, confined him so closely that he was scarcely permitted to see the light of day; and debarred him from all intercourse with his family, relations, and friends.

The associates in wickedness lost no time in commencing their operations on their victim, whom they had determined to destroy by degrees, so as to prevent suspicion. Weston, on the very day he became Overbury's keeper, administered to him a slow poison, provided by Mrs. Turner; and, from that time, some poisonous substance was mingled with every article of food or drink which was given him. "He never ate white salt," said one of the witnesses on the trials which afterwards took place, "but there was white arsenic put into it. Once he desired pig, and Mrs. Turner put into it lapis costitus (lunar caustic). At another time he had two partridges sent him from the court; and water and onions being the sauce, Mrs. Turner put in cantharides instead of pepper; so that there was scarce any thing that he did eat but there was some poison mixed."

Under such treatment Overbury's constitution (which seems to have been of extraordinary strength) began to give way. Relying on Rochester's promise, that his refusal to accept the embassy should bring him to no harm, he daily expected his release. After remaining in this state for three or four weeks, he wrote to Rochester, urging him to remember his promise, and received for answer that "the time would not suffer; but, as soon as possible might be, he would hasten his delivery;" a promise which he certainly intended to fulfil, though not in the sense in which it was meant to be understood. By way of "hastening his delivery," Rochester sent him a letter, containing a white powder, which he desired him to take. "It will," he said, "make you more sick; but fear not: I will make this a means for your delivery, and the recovery of your health." Unsuspicious of treachery, Overbury took the powder, which acted upon him violently, and (as he indeed expected) increased his sickness. Weston afterwards confessed that it was arsenic.

In this situation Overbury languished for two months, growing worse and worse. His suspicions being now, to some extent, awakened, he wrote to Rochester: "Sir,—I wonder you have not yet found means to effect my delivery; but I remember you said you would be even with me, and so indeed you are: but, assure yourself, my lord, if you do not release me, but suffer me thus to die, my blood will be required at your hands." Overbury appears to have remembered Rochester's threat that he would be even with him for the manner in which he had spoken of Lady Essex; but never seems to have dreamed that more was meant than to punish him by a protracted imprisonment. He therefore was satisfied with the explanations and excuses sent him by Lord Rochester, who affected, at the same time, to show the utmost anxiety for his comfort. He was daily visited by creatures of Lord Rochester and Lady Essex, who delivered him encouraging messages from Rochester, and pretended to furnish him with various comforts in the articles of food and drink, which he could not otherwise have had in the Tower. To gratify a sickly appetite he expressed a wish for tarts and jellies, which were provided by Mrs. Turner, and sent to Elwes, the lieutenant of the Tower, to be given to Overbury, by Lord Rochester and Lady Essex. These sweetmeats were not poisoned at first; but the poisoned ones were accompanied by a letter from Lady Essex to Elwes, in which she said, "I was bid to tell you that in the tarts and jellies there are letters, but in the wine none; and of that you may take yourself, and give your wife, but, of the other, not. Give him these tarts and jelly this night, and all shall be well." The meaning of the word, letters, is sufficiently evident; but the countess afterwards removed any doubt on the subject, by confessing, on her trial, that "by letters she meant poison." Rochester appears to have been then residing at some little distance from town; for Lady Essex was the immediate agent in these transactions, and carried on a correspondence with Rochester on the subject. In one of his letters to her he expressed his wonder "that things were not yet despatched;" on which she sent instructions to Weston to despatch Overbury quickly. Weston's answer was, that he had already given him as much as would poison twenty men. Still, however, the victim survived. He was now reduced to extremity; but the patience of his destroyers was exhausted, and they put an end to his sufferings by a dose of corrosive sublimate. He died in October 1613, having been for nearly six months in their hands. His body, carelessly wrapped in a sheet, was buried in a pit on the very day of his death, without having been seen by any of his friends, or the holding of a coroner's inquest; though, as Elwes admitted on his trial, the duty of the lieutenant of the Tower was, that if any prisoner died there, his body was to be viewed, and an inquisition taken by the coroner. These circumstances excited suspicion, and Overbury's relations were persuaded to take some steps towards the prosecution of an inquiry: but the attempt was defeated by the power and influence of the noble criminals.

The marriage between Rochester, now Earl of Somerset, and Lady Essex, took place in February 1614, four months after the close of this tragedy. It was celebrated with a pomp and splendour more befitting the nuptials of a prince than those of a subject. The king himself gave away the bride. A masque, according to the fashion of the times, was exhibited by the courtiers, and another by the gentlemen of Gray's Inn; their repugnance to this act of sycophancy having been overcome, it is said, by the persuasions of Bacon,—a man whose moral deficiencies formed a strange contrast to his almost superhuman vastness of intellect. A splendid banquet, too, was given by the City, at which the king, queen, and all the court, were present. But the public knew enough of the open profligacy of this brilliant pair to look upon them with indignation,—a feeling accompanied with abhorrence of the dark deeds already strongly suspected.

Somerset was now at the height of his greatness; but he no longer possessed the qualities which had gained him the king's favour. His appearance and manners underwent a total change. His countenance became care-worn and haggard; his dress neglected; his manners morose and gloomy. The alteration was apparent to all; and the king became weary of one who no longer ministered to his amusement. His majesty had now, too, found a new favourite,—George Villiers, afterwards the famous Duke of Buckingham, who gained James's affections by the same means as Somerset himself had done,—a handsome person, graceful manners, quick parts, and courtly obsequiousness. These two men became rivals and enemies. Somerset was universally odious from his arrogance and rapacity; and Villiers was looked upon with favour as the probable instrument of his fall. Somerset, now aware of his danger, and trembling for the discovery of his guilt when he might no longer have the king for a protector, availed himself of his remaining influence with James to obtain from him a pardon for all past offences. This he begged as a safeguard against the consequences of any errors into which he might have fallen in the high offices which he had held, and the secret and important affairs with which it had been his majesty's pleasure to intrust him. Strange to say, the king signed a document, whereby he pardoned "all manner of treasons, misprisions of treasons, murders, felonies, and outrages whatsoever, committed, or to be committed," by Somerset. But, when this deed was carried to the Lord Chancellor, he absolutely refused to affix the great seal to it, declaring it to be absolutely illegal. No importunity could prevail on him to yield; and Somerset remained without the shield with which he had endeavoured to provide himself.

The rivalry between the favourites went on increasing; but the Earl of Somerset's rank and standing still gave him the ascendancy. The king wished them reconciled; and, for this purpose, desired Villiers to wait on Somerset with a tender of his duty and attachment. But the haughty earl, though he had received a hint that the king expected this offer to be graciously received, spurned at it. "I will none of your service," was his answer, "and you shall none of my favour. I will, if I can, break your neck, and of that be confident." It was immediately after this interview that an inquiry was set on foot into the circumstances of Overbury's murder; and the supposition of a contemporary writer is not improbable, that, "had Somerset complied with Villiers, Overbury's death had still been raked up in his own ashes."

The first step that appears to have been taken in this inquiry was a private examination of Sir Jervis Elwes, the lieutenant of the Tower, by the king himself, who piqued himself on his skill in conducting judicial investigations; in which, indeed, he had acquired great experience during his turbulent reign in Scotland. Pressed by the king's questions, Elwes admitted his knowledge of Weston's intention to poison his prisoner, but denied his own participation in the crime. Weston, being apprehended and examined, admitted circumstances which involved Mrs. Turner, and the Earl and Countess of Somerset. The king issued his warrant for the commitment of the earl and countess to private custody, which was executed on the 15th October 1615. The circumstances attending this arrest, as related by a contemporary, Sir Anthony Weldon, in his "Court and Character of King James," are curious, and characteristic of that monarch.

"The day," says this writer, "the king went from Whitehall to Theobald's, and so to Royston, the king sent for all the judges, (his lords and servants encircling him,) where, kneeling down in the midst, he used these words:—'My lords the judges, it is lately come to my hearing that you have now in examination a business of poisoning. Lord, in what a miserable condition shall this kingdom be, (the only famous nation for hospitality in the world,) if our tables should become such a snare as none could eat without danger of life, and that Italian custom should be introduced among us! Therefore, my lords, I charge you, as you will answer it at that great and dreadful day of judgment, that you examine it strictly, without favour, affection, or partiality; and, if you shall spare any guilty of this crime, God's curse light on you and your posterity; and, if I spare any that are guilty, God's curse light on me and my posterity for ever!'"

We shall presently see how his majesty kept this solemn vow, uttered in such awful terms. "The king, with this," continues Weldon, "took his farewell for a time of London, and was accompanied with Somerset to Royston, where, no sooner he brought him, but instantly took leave, little imagining what viper lay among the herbs; nor must I forget to let you know how perfect the king was in the art of dissimulation, or, to give it his own phrase, kingcraft. The Earl of Somerset never parted from him with more seeming affection than at this time, when he knew Somerset would never see him more; and, had you seen that seeming affection,—as the author himself did,—you would rather have believed he was in his rising than setting. The earl, when he kissed his hand, the king hung about his neck, slabbering his cheeks, saying, 'For God's sake, when shall I see thee again? On my soul I shall neither eat nor sleep until you come again.' The earl told him 'On Monday,'—this being the Friday. 'For God's sake, let me!' said the king. 'Shall I? shall I?' then lolled about his neck. 'Then, for God's sake, give thy lady this kiss for me!' In the same manner at the stairs' head, at the middle of the stairs, and at the stairs' foot. The earl was not in his coach when the king used these very words in the hearing of four servants, one of whom was Somerset's great creature, and of the bed-chamber, who reported it instantly to the author of this history; 'I shall never see his face more.'"

It afterwards appeared that, when Somerset returned to London, he found that his wife had received the fatal tidings of Weston's apprehension. There was an apothecary of the name of Franklin who had been employed by the countess and Mrs. Turner to procure the poisons. At a late hour in the night Mrs. Turner was despatched to bring this man to the earl's house. When he arrived, he found the countess in a state of violent agitation. "Weston," she said, "was taken; he should likely be seized immediately, and they should all be hanged." She went into an inner room, where Franklin heard her conversing with her husband. On her return she again urged Franklin to be silent, and made him swear not to reveal any thing. "The lords," she told him, "if they examine you, will put you in the hope of a pardon upon confession: but believe them not; for, when they have got out of you what they want, we shall all be hanged." "Nay, madam," said Mrs. Turner, who was in the room, "I will not be hanged for you both." That same night, or next morning, the earl and countess, with Mrs. Turner, were arrested, and committed to prison.

Weston was first tried. At first, by the direction of Serjeant Yelverton, "an obliged servant of the house of Howard," he stood mute, and refused to plead; but, after a few days, the terror of being pressed to death overcame his resolution, and he pleaded "Not guilty." The circumstances already detailed, in which he was concerned, were fully proved. He himself confessed that he had been the medium of the correspondence carried on between Lord Rochester and Lady Essex, not only in regard to the poisoning of Overbury, but during their adulterous intercourse; and he also confessed that, after Overbury's death he had received, as a reward, one hundred and eighty pounds from the countess, by the hands of Mrs. Turner. He was convicted, and executed at Tyburn. At the time of his execution, Sir John Holles and Sir John Wentworth, friends of the Earl of Somerset, went to Tyburn, and urged Weston to deny what he had before confessed; but he refused to do so: and these gentlemen were afterwards prosecuted in the Star-Chamber for traducing the king's justice in these proceedings.

The next trial was that of Mrs. Turner. It excited intense interest, as it involved, besides the murder of Overbury, the circumstances of Lady Essex's connexion with Rochester. Some letters from the countess to Mrs. Turner, and Forman the conjuror, were read, and are preserved in the record of the proceedings. To Mrs. Turner, (whom she addresses "Sweet Turner,") after complaining of her misery in her husband's society, and giving vent to her passion for Rochester, she says, "As you have taken pains all this while for me, so now do all you can, for I was never so unhappy as now; for I am not able to endure the miseries that are coming upon me, but I cannot be happy so long as this man liveth: therefore, pray for me,(!) for I have need, and I should be better if I had your company to ease my mind. Let him know this ill news" (her husband's insisting on cohabiting with her); if I can get this done, you shall have as much money as you can demand: this is fair-play. Your sister, Frances Essex." In a letter to Forman, she says, "Sweet father,—I must still crave your love, although I hope I have it, and shall deserve it better hereafter. Keep the lord [Rochester] still to me, for that I desire; and be careful you name me not to anybody, for we have so many spies that you must use all your wits,—and all little enough, for the world is against me, and the heavens favour me not. Only happy in your love, I hope you will do me good; and, if I be ungrateful, let all mischief come unto me. My lord is lusty and merry, and drinketh with his men; and all the content he gives me is to abuse me, and use me as doggedly as before. I think I shall never be happy in this world, because he hinders my good; and will ever, I think so. Remember, I beg, for God's sake, and get me out from this vile place. Your affectionate loving daughter, Frances Essex." Some of the magical implements made use of by these wretches, such as images, pictures, &c. were exhibited in court. "At the showing of these," says the account in the State Trials, "there was heard a crack from the scaffolds, which caused great fear, tumult, and confusion among the spectators, and throughout the hall; every one fearing hurt, as if the devil had been present, and grown angry to have his workmanship showed by such as were not his scholars. There was also a note showed in the court made by Dr. Forman, and written on parchment, signifying what ladies loved what lords in court; but the Lord Chief Justice would not suffer it to be read openly in court." The scandal of the day was, that Coke suppressed the note because he found his own wife's name at the beginning of it.

Mrs. Turner's share in the death of Overbury was amply proved; and Coke pronounced sentence upon her, telling her that she had been guilty of the seven deadly sins, among which he enumerated witchcraft and popery. "Upon the Wednesday following," says the account of the trial, "she was brought from the sheriff's in a coach to Newgate, and was there put into a cart; and, casting money often among the people as she went, she was carried to Tyburn, where she was executed, and whither many men and women of fashion came in coaches to see her die; to whom she made a speech, desiring them not to rejoice at her fall, but to take example by her. She exhorted them to serve God, and abandon pride and all other sins; related her breeding with the Countess of Somerset, having had no other means to maintain her and her children but what came from the countess; and said further, that, when her hand was once in the business, she knew the revealing it would be her overthrow. The which, with other like speeches, and great penitency there showed, moved the spectators to great pity and grief for her."

Immediately after Mrs. Turner's execution, Sir Jervis Elwes, the lieutenant of the Tower, was brought to trial. He was convicted upon the evidence of the correspondence which he had held with the Earl and Countess of Somerset, and also with the Earl of Northampton, the countess's uncle; from which it appeared that that nobleman had been deeply implicated in Overbury's murder. By the letters read on this and some of the other trials it was shown that Northampton was not only aware of Somerset's adulterous intercourse with his niece, but had aided them in carrying it on; that he had been a principal promoter of the scandalous divorce, and the equally scandalous marriage which followed it; and that he was not only privy to the murder, but actively instrumental in the steps taken to conceal the crime. He was, however, freed by his death the preceding year from the earthly retribution which would now have overtaken him. In the course of this trial the name of Sir Thomas Monson, the chief falconer, was also implicated; it having appeared that through his recommendation Weston had been employed as Overbury's keeper, and that he was at least aware of the crime. One of the principal pieces of evidence was the voluntary confession of Franklin the apothecary, who had been employed to provide the poisons. This man, among many other things, said, "Mrs. Turner came to me from the countess, and wished me from her to get the strongest poison I could for Sir Thomas Overbury. Accordingly I bought seven, viz. aquafortis, white arsenic, mercury, powder of diamonds, lapis costitus (lunar caustic), great spiders, and cantharides: all these were given to Sir Thomas Overbury at several times." He declared also, that the lieutenant knew of these poisons: "for that appeared," he said, "by, many letters which he writ to the Countess of Essex, which I saw, and thereby knew that he knew of this matter."—"For these poisons," he further said, "the countess sent me rewards. She sent many times gold by Mrs. Turner. She afterwards wrote unto me to buy more poisons. I went unto her, and told her I was weary of it; and I besought her upon my knees that she would use me no more in these matters: but she importuned me, bade me go, and enticed me with fair speeches and rewards; so she overcame me, and did bewitch me." The cause of the poisoning, he said, as the countess told him, was because Sir Thomas Overbury would pry so far into their suit (the divorce) as he would put them down. He added, that, on the marriage-day of the countess with Somerset, (which was after Overbury's death,) she sent him twenty pounds by Mrs. Turner, and he was to have been paid by the countess two hundred pounds per annum during his life. The Lord Chief Justice, when he produced Franklin's confession upon this trial, prefaced his reading of it by informing the court that this poor man, not knowing Sir Jervis should come to his trial, had come to him that morning at five o'clock, and told him that he was much troubled in his conscience, and could not rest until he had made his confession: "and it is such a one," added the Chief Justice, "as the eye of England never saw, nor the ear of Christendom ever heard." Sir Jervis, who had defended himself strenuously against the other articles of evidence, was struck dumb by this unexpected disclosure. He was found guilty, condemned, and executed, after having at the place of execution made a full confession of his guilt.

Franklin was then tried, convicted, and executed, on his own confession alone, to which, as it was entirely voluntary, he seems really to have been prompted by remorse. In passing sentence upon him, the Lord Chief Justice said, that, "knowing as much as he knew, if this had not been found out, neither the court, city, nor any particular family, had escaped the malice of this wicked cruelty."

Sir Thomas Monson was next arraigned, and strongly exhorted by the crown lawyers to confess his crime; one of them (Hyde) declaring him to be "as guilty as the guiltiest." The trial, however, was brought to a strange and abrupt conclusion. In the middle of the preliminary proceedings the culprit was suddenly carried off from the bar by a party of yeomen of his majesty's guard, and taken to the Tower, from whence he was soon afterwards liberated without further trial. This singular interference is ascribed to some mysterious expressions dropped by the Lord Chief Justice. "But the Lord Chief Justice Coke," says Sir Anthony Weldon, "in his rhetorical flourishes at Monson's arraignment, vented some expressions as if he could discover more than the death of a private person; intimating, though not plainly, that Overbury's untimely remove had in it something of retaliation, as if he had been guilty of the same crime towards Prince Henry; blessing himself with admiration at the horror of such actions. In which he flew so high a pitch that he was taken down by a court lure; Sir Thomas Monson's trial laid aside, and he soon after set at liberty; and the Lord Chief Justice's wings were clipt for it ever after." There can be no doubt that the conduct of Coke on these trials was used as a handle against him by his rival and enemy, Bacon, to deprive him of the royal favour; and, that the manner in which his language on the above and other occasions was represented (or misrepresented) to the king, was one cause, at least, of his removal from his office a few months afterwards. But this was not the only mystery connected with this matter.

All these trials took place in close succession between the 19th of October and the 4th of December 1615; but the principal criminals were not tried till May following. During this interval the earl and countess were frequently examined, and many efforts were made to bring them to confession. On the 24th of May the countess was arraigned before a commission of the peers. A graphic account of her demeanour is given in the State Trials. The Clerk of the Crown addressed her:

"'Frances, Countess of Somerset, hold up thy hand!'

"She did so, and held it till Mr. Lieutenant told her she might put it down; and then he read the indictment. The Countess of Somerset, all the while the indictment was reading, stood, looking pale, trembled, and shed some tears; and at the first naming of Weston in the indictment, put her fan before her face, and there held it half covered till the indictment was read.

"Clerk.—'Frances, Countess of Somerset, what sayest thou? Art thou guilty of this felony and murder, or not guilty?'

"The Lady Somerset, making an obeisance to the Lord High Steward, answered, 'Guilty,' with a low voice, but wonderful fearful."

After the proceedings consequent on this confession, she was asked in the usual form what she could say for herself why judgment of death should not be pronounced against her. Her answer was,

"I can much aggravate, but nothing extenuate, my fault. I desire mercy, and that the lords will intercede for me with the king."

"This," says the account, "she spake humbly, fearfully, and so low, that the Lord Steward could not hear it; but Mr. Attorney repeated it."

The Lord High Steward then sentenced her to the punishment of the law.

The earl's trial took place on the following day. He refused to follow his wife's example, and pleaded Not guilty. The most remarkable feature of this trial is the correspondence between Somerset and his victim. The following passages are striking.

In Overbury's first letter to Somerset, after his imprisonment, he said,

"Is this the fruit of my care and love to you? Be these the fruits of common secrets, common dangers? As a man, you cannot suffer me to lie in this misery; yet your behaviour betrays you. All I entreat of you is, that you will free me from this place, and that we may part friends. Drive me not to extremities, lest I should say something that you and I both repent. And I pray God that you may not repent the omission of this my counsel in this place whence I now write this letter."

Overbury afterwards writes,

"This comes under seal, and therefore I shall be bold. You told my brother Ledcate that my unreverend style might make you neglect me. With what face could you do this, who know you owe me for all the fortune, wit, and understanding that you have."


"Yet this shall not long serve your turn; for you and I, ere it be long, will come to a public trial of another nature,—I upon the rack, and you at your ease, and yet I must say nothing! When I heard (notwithstanding my misery) how you went to your woman, curled your hair, and in the mean time send me nineteen projects how I should cast about for my liberty, and give me a long account of the pains you have taken, and then go out of town! I wonder to see how much you should neglect him to whom such secrets of all kinds have passed."


"Well, all this vacation I have written the story between you and me; how I have lost my friends for your sake; what hazard I have run; what secrets have passed betwixt us; how, after you had won that woman by my letters, you then concealed all your after proceedings from me; and how upon this there came many breaches between us; of the vow you made to be even with me, and sending for me twice that day that I was caught in the trap, persuading me that it was a plot of mine enemies to send me beyond sea, and urging me not to accept it, assuring me to free me from any long trouble. On Tuesday I made an end of this, and on Friday sent it to a friend of mine under eight seals; and if you persist still to use me thus, assure yourself it shall be published. Whether I live or die, your shame shall never die, but ever remain to the world, to make you the most odious man living."

Overbury is aware that he has been betrayed and entrapped, and is left by his treacherous patron to languish in a dungeon. He addresses him in the bitterest and most indignant language, and threatens him with a desperate and fatal revenge. He remembers, too, the threat which had been applied to himself; knows himself to be in the power of the man who used it; feels himself to be dying by inches, of maladies which the most rigorous confinement could not have produced; and yet it never enters his mind that his unscrupulous enemy may have determined, by his death, to get rid of him and his dangerous secrets!

The evidence of Overbury's father is affecting. "After my son was committed," he said, "I heard that he was very sick. I went to the court and delivered a petition to the king, the effect whereof was, that, in respect of my son's sickness, some physicians might have access unto him. The king answered, that his own physician should go to him; and then instantly sent him word by Sir W. Button that his physician should presently go. Upon this, I only addressed myself to my Lord of Somerset, and none else, who said my son should be presently delivered, but dissuaded me from presenting any more petitions to the king; which notwithstanding, I (seeing his freedom still delayed) did deliver a petition to the king to that purpose, who said I should have present answer. And my Lord of Somerset told me he should be suddenly relieved; but with this, that neither I nor my wife must press to see him, because that might protract his delivery, nor deliver any more petitions to the king, because that might stir his enemies up against him; and then," added the poor old man, "he wrote a letter to my wife, to dissuade her from any longer stay in London."

This letter was, "Mrs. Overbury,—Your stay here in town can nothing avail your son's delivery; therefore I would advise you to retire into the country, and doubt not before your coming home you shall hear he is a free man."

Thus did this monster amuse the unhappy parents with delusive hopes till all was over; and he then wrote to the aged father the following unparalleled letter:

"Sir,—Your son's love to me got him the malice of many, and they cast those knots on his fortune that have cost him his life; so, in a kind, there is none guilty of his death but I; and you can have no more cause to commiserate the death of a son, than I of a friend. But, though he be dead, you shall find me as ready as ever I was to do all the courtesies that I possibly can to you and your wife, or your children. In the mean time I desire pardon from you and your wife for your lost son, though I esteem my loss the greater. And for his brother that is in France, I desire his return, that he may succeed his brother in my love."

Somerset defended himself stoutly. His desperate situation seems to have sharpened his faculties. He cross-examined the witnesses with much acuteness and presence of mind, made ingenious objections to their testimony, and laboured to explain away the facts which could not be denied. From eight in the morning till seven at night he exerted himself with an energy worthy of a better cause; but in vain. He was found guilty by the unanimous voice of his judges. He then desired a death according to his degree; but this was denied him, and he received the usual sentence of the law.

Thus were these great criminals brought to justice; and they received, it may be supposed, the punishment of their crimes. No: they were pardoned by the king,—nay more, received especial marks of royal favour! They were imprisoned in the Tower till January 1621, when the king, by an order in council, granted them the liberty of retiring to a country-house. "Whereas his Majesty is graciously pleased," thus ran the order, "to enlarge and set at liberty the Earl of Somerset and his lady, now prisoners in the Tower of London, and that nevertheless it is thought fit that both the said earl and his lady be confined to some convenient place; it is therefore, according to his majesty's gracious pleasure and command, ordered that the Earl of Somerset and his lady do repair either to Greys or Cowsham, the Lord Wallingford's houses in the county of Oxon, and remain confined to one or other of the said houses, and within three miles' compass of either of the same, until further order be given by his majesty." In 1624, they both obtained full pardons; the lady, on the ground that "the process and judgment against her were not as of a principal, but as of an accessory before the fact;" and the earl, merely on the ground of the king's regard for his family. Nor was this all: his majesty granted the earl an income of four thousand pounds a-year out of his forfeited estate; and, what was still worse, in order to save this minion from disgrace, committed a gross outrage on the order of knighthood to which he belonged. "The king," says Camden, "ordered that the arms of the Earl of Somerset, notwithstanding his being condemned of felony, should not be removed out of the chapel at Windsor, and that felony should not be reckoned amongst the disgraces for those who were to be excluded from the order of St. George; which was without precedent." Without precedent indeed!

Remembering the king's solemn vow when, kneeling in the midst of the judges whom he had summoned into his presence, he exclaimed, "If you shall spare any guilty of this crime, God's curse light on you and your posterity; and, if I spare any that are guilty, God's curse light on me and my posterity for ever!" how are we to account for so flagrant a violation of it? Even had he not so earnestly called down the curse of Heaven upon his head, he was bound by the strongest obligations of public justice not to screen from condign punishment criminals so atrocious. Nor can we ascribe his failure in so sacred a duty to personal regard for Somerset. His attachment to him was long since extinguished; a newer favourite had engrossed his capricious affection. Fear, not love, seems to have been the cause of his forbearance.

Before Somerset's trial, mysterious circumstances were remarked, both in his conduct and in that of the king. It is stated by several historians that the earl, while in the Tower, loudly asserted that the king durst not bring him to trial; and there is still extant a letter from him to the king, written immediately after his condemnation, in which he desires that his estate may be continued to him entire, in a style rather of expostulation and demand than of humble supplication. There is a studied obscurity in the style of this letter, as if it darkly hinted at things meant to be understood only by him to whom it was addressed; but its tone indicates that it was meant to impress the king with the dread of a secret which the writer had it in his power to reveal.

The king, on the other hand, showed the most extreme anxiety about the earl's behaviour and the event of the trial. He himself selected certain persons to examine Somerset in secret, among whom was Bacon. They had the king's instructions to work upon the earl's obstinate temper by every method of persuasion and terror; now to give him hopes of the king's compassion and mercy, and now to impress him with the certainty of conviction and punishment. Moreover, the king ordered Bacon (then Attorney-General) to put in writing every possible case which might arise at the trial out of Somerset's behaviour. Bacon accordingly drew up a paper of this sort, on which the king with his own hand made some marginal notes. Bacon having said, "All these points of mercy and favour to Somerset are to be understood with this limitation,—if he do not, by his contemptuous and insolent carriage at the bar, make himself incapable and unworthy of them," the king's remark in the margin was, "That danger is well to be foreseen, lest he upon one part commit unpardonable errors, and I on the other part seem to punish him in the spirit of revenge." Why this solicitude to prevent the "danger" of Somerset's adopting a "contemptuous and insolent carriage at the bar?" And what were the "unpardonable errors" it might lead him to commit? No error could be so unpardonable as the crime he had already committed; and we are led, therefore, to the inference that the king wished it to be understood, that though he was ready to pardon the crime of which Somerset should be convicted, provided he conducted himself discreetly on his trial, yet an error on this score should be held as unpardonable.

Notwithstanding all these precautions and pains taken to bring Somerset to a safe frame of mind, he appears to have been very untractable; and the king's dread of his conduct during his trial, and anxiety to know the result, seem to have amounted to agony. His behaviour cannot be so well described as in the words of Sir Anthony Weldon.

"And now for the last act enters Somerset himself upon the stage, who, being told, as the manner is, by the lieutenant, that he must provide to go next day to his trial, did absolutely refuse it, and said they should carry him in his bed; that the king had assured him he should not come to any trial, neither durst the king to bring him to trial. This was in a high strain, and in a language not well understood by George Moore, [Sir George Moore, lieutenant in the room of Elwes,] that made Moore quiver and shake; and, however he was accounted a wise man, yet he was near at his wit's end. Yet away goes Moore to Greenwich, as late as it was, being twelve at night; bounceth at the back-stairs as if mad; to whom came Jo. Loveston, one of the grooms, out of his bed, inquiring the reason of that distemper at so late a season. Moore tells him he must speak with the king. Loverton replies, 'He is quiet,' which in the Scottish dialect is, fast asleep. Moore says, 'You must wake him.' Moore was called in (the chamber left to the king and Moore). He tells the king those passages, and desired to be directed by the king, for he was gone beyond his own reason to hear such bold and undutiful expressions from a faulty subject against a just sovereign. The king falls into a passion of tears: 'On my soul, Moore, I wot not what to do: thou art a wise man; help me in this great strait, and thou shalt find thou dost it for a thankful master;' with other sad expressions. Moore leaves the king in that passion, but assures him he will prove the utmost of his wit to serve his majesty. Sir George Moore returns to Somerset about three o'clock next morning of that day he was to come to trial, enters Somerset's chamber, tells him he had been with the king, found him a most affectionate master unto him, and full of grace in his intentions towards him. 'But,' said he, 'to satisfy justice you must appear, although you return instantly again without any further procedure; only you shall know your enemies and their malice, though they shall have no power over you.' With this trick of wit he allayed his fury, and got him quietly, about eight in the morning, to the Hall; yet feared his former bold language might revert again, and, being brought by this trick into the toil, might have more enraged him to fly out into some strange discovery, that he had two servants placed on each side of him, with a cloak on their arms, giving them a peremptory order that if Somerset did any way fly out on the king, they should instantly hoodwink him with that cloak, take him violently from the bar, and carry him away; for which he would secure them from any danger, and they should not want a bountiful reward. But the earl, finding himself overreached, recollected a better temper, and went on calmly in his trial, where he held the company until seven at night. But who had seen the king's restless motion all that day, sending to every boat he saw landing at the bridge, and cursing all that came without tidings, would have easily judged all was not right, and that there had been some grounds for his fear of Somerset's boldness. But at last one bringing him word he was condemned, and the passages, all was quiet."

The reader will remember that the abrupt termination of the proceedings against Sir Thomas Monson, who was carried off from the bar by a party of yeomen of the guard, was caused by the Lord Chief Justice's having made some indiscreet allusion to suspicions regarding the death of Prince Henry, the king's eldest son, which had taken place in 1612, about four years before the time of these trials.

This young prince at a very early age displayed talents and virtues which endeared him to the nation. The accounts of his short life are pleasing and interesting. He was thus described when he was twelve years old, in a letter from the French ambassador. "None of his pleasures savour in the least of a child. He is a particular lover of horses, and what belongs to them; but is not fond of hunting; and, when he does engage in it, it is rather for the pleasure of galloping than for any which the dogs give him. He is fond of playing at tennis, and at another Scotch diversion very like mall; but always with persons older than himself, as if he despised those of his own age. He studies two hours in the day, and employs the rest of his time in tossing the pike, or leaping, or shooting with the bow, or throwing the bar, or vaulting, or some other exercise of that kind; and he is never idle. He is very kind to his dependents, supports their interests against all persons whatsoever, and urges all that he undertakes for them or others with such zeal as ensures it success; for, besides his exerting his whole strength to compass what he desires, he is already feared by those who have the management of affairs, and especially by the Earl of Salisbury, who appears to be greatly apprehensive of the prince's ascendency; as the prince, on the other hand, shows little esteem for his lordship." This high-spirited and magnanimous boy could not fail to be aware of the faults and vices of his father's character. He entertained great admiration for Sir Walter Raleigh; was often heard to exclaim, "No king but my father would keep such a bird in a cage;" and his aversion to the Earl of Salisbury was understood to have arisen from that nobleman's share in Raleigh's ruin. His strong sense of religion rendered his father's habit of profane swearing repulsive to him. "Once," we are told by Coke, "when the prince was hunting the stag, it chanced the stag, being spent, crossed the road where a butcher and his dog were travelling. The dog killed the stag, which was so great that the butcher could not carry him off. When the huntsman and the company came up, they fell at odds with the butcher, and endeavoured to incense the prince against him; to whom the prince soberly replied, 'What! if the butcher's dog killed the stag, how could the butcher help it?' They replied, if his father had been served so, he would have sworn as no man could have endured it. 'Away!' replied the prince, 'all the pleasure in the world is not worth an oath.'"

A young prince, who, at twelve years old, was "feared by those who had the management of affairs," must, when he grew up, have been a formidable object to a worthless minion like Carr. He disliked this man from the first; and his aversion grew into a rooted hatred. When Carr was made Viscount Rochester, Henry, then about fourteen, as we are told by Osborn, "contemned so far his father's election of Rochester, that he was reported either to have struck him on the back with his racket, or very hardly forborne it." The prince continued to express on all occasions an abhorrence of favourites, and an utter contempt of Carr; and made no secret of his resolution to humble both him and the family into which he was allied if ever he came to the throne.

Carr, then, must necessarily have feared and hated the prince; and it is hardly to be supposed that such feelings would remain passive in a mind like his. Henry did not enjoy his father's favour. The king's "genius was rebuked" in the presence of a son so much his superior in every moral and intellectual quality; and he was jealous of the esteem and admiration in which the youth was held by the nation. "The vivacity, spirit, and activity of the prince," says Dr. Birch, "soon gave umbrage to his father's court, which grew extremely jealous of him."—"The king," says Osborn, "though he would not deny any thing the prince plainly desired, yet it appeared rather the result of fear and outward compliance than love or natural affection; being harder drawn to confer an honour or pardon, in cases of desert, upon a retainer of the prince, than a stranger." The prince himself, in a letter written within a few weeks of his death, excused himself from applying on behalf of a friend, for some piece of court favour, "because, as matters now go here, I will deal in no businesses of importance for some respects." At this time Carr was in the height of his power; and this position of the prince at his father's court must be ascribed in no small degree to the influence of the favourite.

Prince Henry died on the 6th of November 1612, (at the age of eighteen,) of an illness under which he had laboured for two or three weeks. The symptoms (as detailed by Dr. Birch in his Life of the prince) were of the most violent kind; dreadful affections of the stomach and bowels, excessive thirst, burning heat, blackness of the tongue, convulsions, and delirium. The physicians "could not tell what to make of the distemper," were confounded by "the strangeness of the disease," and differed in their opinions as to its treatment. The day after the prince's death his body was opened by order of the king; and the report of the physicians who examined it does not indicate the operation of poison. They say, in particular, "his stomach was without any manner of fault or imperfection."

The grief of the nation pervaded all ranks, and almost all parties. The king himself, however, manifested the utmost insensibility. Only three days after the prince's death, Carr (then Lord Rochester) wrote, by the king's orders, to the English ambassador at Paris, directing him to resume the marriage treaty, which had been begun for Prince Henry, in the name of his brother Charles. After a very short interval, all persons were prohibited from appearing in mourning before the king; and orders were given that the preparations for the Christmas festivities should proceed without interruption. The Earl of Dorset, in a letter written at this time to the English ambassador in France, uses these expressions: "That our rising sun is set ere scarcely he had shone, and that with him all our glory lies buried, you know and do lament as well as we; and better than some do, and more truly, or else you are not a man, and sensible of this kingdom's loss."

Suspicions that the young prince had come foully by his death became prevalent immediately after that event. They were by no means of that vague and unmeaning kind which the untimely end of an illustrious person is apt to occasion among the vulgar. "The queen," says Dr. Welwood, "to her dying day could never be dissuaded from the opinion that her beloved son had foul play done him." Bishop Burnet, in his History of his own time, says, that Charles the First declared that the prince, his brother, had been poisoned by the means of the Viscount Rochester, afterwards Earl of Somerset. And contemporary writers afford innumerable proofs of this opinion having been entertained by persons engaged in public affairs, and conversant with the transactions of the time.

The opinions of modern writers, as may be supposed, are divided on a question so dark and mysterious. "Violent reports were propagated," says Hume, "as if Henry had been carried off by poison; but the physicians, on opening his body, found no symptoms to confirm such an opinion. The bold and criminal malignity of men's tongues and pens spared not even the king on the occasion; but that prince's character seems rather to have failed in the extreme of facility and humanity, than in that of cruelty and violence." Hume's facts, it is notorious, often assume the colouring of his political feelings; of which a pretty strong instance occurs in this very case of Sir Thomas Overbury, whose imprisonment in the Tower, says this historian, "James intended as a slight punishment for his disobedience" in refusing to go as ambassador to Russia. James ordered Overbury to be most rigorously confined, and even sent a gentleman to the Tower for having simply exchanged a word with the prisoner. Nay, more: James knew all along that Overbury was languishing in his dungeon; having received, and disregarded, repeated petitions from his afflicted father for his release. And this, according to Hume, was intended by James as a slight punishment for what was, in truth, no offence.

In the preface, by Lord Holland, to Fox's History of the early part of the reign of James the Second, we find the opinion of that illustrious statesman upon the subject. Lord Holland, speaking of Mr. Fox's historical researches, and his correspondence with the Earl of Lauderdale and others of his friends respecting them, says: "Even while his undertaking was yet fresh, in the course of an inquiry into some matters relating to the trial of Somerset, in King James the First's reign, he says to his correspondent, 'But what is all this, you will say, to my history? Certainly nothing; but one historical inquiry leads to another: and I recollect that the impression upon my mind was, that there was more reason than is generally allowed for suspecting that Prince Henry was poisoned by Somerset, and that the king knew of it after the fact. This is not, to be sure, to my present purpose; but I have thought of prefixing to my work, if ever it should be finished, a disquisition upon Hume's history of the Stuarts; and in no part of it would his partiality appear stronger than in James the First.'"

For ourselves, we shall not pretend to penetrate a mystery which is now, perhaps, for ever inscrutable. But the events which we have related form an impressive and instructive page of the great book of human life.

The guilty pair, who were the chief actors in these tragic scenes, though they escaped the death which they had merited, did not escape, even in life, the retribution of their crimes. They suffered "a living death." For many years they resided together, in the house allotted to them as their place of banishment, detested by the world and by each other. The unceasing torments of an evil conscience were embittered by mutual hatred so rancorous and implacable, that they passed year after year in the same dwelling without the interchange of a single word. Their doom may be likened to that so fearfully described in the tale of the Caliph Vathek. It seemed as if their punishment was begun ere yet they had tasted of death. The everlasting fire was already burning in their hearts; hope, the last and most precious of Heaven's blessings, had forsaken them for ever; and they read in each other's eyes nothing but rage, aversion, and despair. So they lived, in seclusion and solitude, till their existence was forgotten; and, of those who have commemorated their crimes, hardly any one has cared to record the periods when, one after the other, they dropped into eternity.