|Sir Thomas Overbury|
But this didn’t satisfy the vindictive Frances - “He shall return no more to this stage,” – and she had her great-uncle Northampton persuade the King to replace Sir William Wade, the trustworthy and incorruptible Lieutenant of the Tower, with Sir Gervase Helwys, a compliant tool of the Howard family. The gaoler was the next to be replaced, by Richard Weston, “a man well acquainted with the power of drugs,” and barely two days into his new appointment, on May 19th, he had a little glass of rosaker (arsenic disulphide) sent to him, with which he poisoned Overbury’s broth, and over the next three months almost all of his food was poisoned.
|Mrs Anne Turner|
The Countess and her confidante, Mrs Anne Turner, supplied a variety of poisons to Weston, but there is some doubt that he used them all (it is possible that he was selling them on and pocketing the profits), and Helwys, suspicious that Overbury was being poisoned, would sometimes substitute food from his own kitchen for that sent to the Tower by the Howards. Anne Turner was another nasty character, she was the widow of Dr George Turner, a quack doctor from whom she had gained her knowledge of poisons (and who had once employed Weston), and she had supplied the charms and philtres to Frances when she sought to dampen the ardour of the Earl of Essex and quicken instead that of Carr.
|The Yellow Ruff|
Outwardly respectable, she was the owner of several brothels, a provider of drugs and aphrodisiacs to the aristocracy, and had a virtual monopoly on the supply of saffron-coloured starch for dyeing lace and ruffs a vivid yellow, a fashion very much in vogue at the time. Turner worked with James Franklin of Tower Hill, an evil man steeped in sin, poisonous both within and without, and said to have poisoned his own wife. Frances began to grow impatient as Overbury lingered on, emaciated and covered in sores, passing up to sixty bloody stools in a day and vomiting blood, but tenaciously refusing to die. Weston, who said he had administered enough poison to kill a dozen men, was told that his money would be withheld until the deed was done, and Helwys, still unsure of just what was going on, summoned a Dr Paul de Lobel of Lime Street to attend Overbury, who was diagnosed with consumption due to melancholy. On September 14th 1613, Weston bribed ‘William’, Lobel’s apprentice, to inject Overbury with a clyster of corrosive sublimate (mercuric chloride) and at five o’clock on the next morning he finally died.
|The Poysoned Knight's Complaint|
A verdict of death by natural causes was declared on the following day, and it was said that his body was buried in the choir of the Tower church on that very afternoon, although this seems unlikely, as evidence of the crime would sensibly have been concealed. Ten days later the marriage of the Earl of Essex and Frances Howard was annulled by Royal edict and on December 26th 1613, she married Robert Carr. All was, it seemed, done and dusted.
|Thomas Overbury - A Wife and other Works - 1616|
The King himself blessed the marriage in Westminster Chapel – the bride was married ‘in her hair’ (a custom where a bride wore her hair long and unbound, to signify her virginity), and John Donne wrote the epithalamium ‘Blest Pair of Swans’ in their honour. In quick succession, Carr was raised to become the Treasurer of Scotland, the Earl of Somerset and the Lord Chamberlain. It was impossible for him to go any higher, for there was nowhere higher to go.
|John Donne - Blest Pair of Swans|
And then, after a couple of years, it started. Whispers first, and half heard conversations. Sudden awkward silences and second glances. Excuses and half-truths, pointed fingers and stares. Accusations and allegations, and always, everywhere, whispers.
Sir Gervase Helwys, ever ambitious and obsequious, was invited to dine with Sir Ralph Winwood, Secretary of State, and hoping to gain favour, he had a private conversation with this great man, hoping to clear the air about the rumours that he had, somehow, been involved in the poisoning and murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. This was news to Winwood, but a welcome confession anyhow, and Winwood resolved to make the best of this delicious titbit. Coincidentally, at the same time, Winwood received a communication from the Netherlands, which said that one William Reeve, an apothecary’s apprentice, had made a deathbed confession that he had administered a poisoned clyster to Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London.
|King James I|
The King was then on a Royal progress and had arrived at Royston, where he stayed for a week. Carr was with him, but when the King announced his desire to go on to Newmarket, Carr returned to London. Winwood came to Royston and told the King what he had heard, and the King, expressing surprise, sent a letter to Sir Edward Coke, the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, ordering him to arrest Carr. But why, you might ask, was the King so quick to order the arrest of his favourite. Quite simply, because he was tired of him. James had a new love in his life, George Villiers, and he wanted rid of the old flame.
So Carr was taken into custody at Whitehall and his wife was also arrested, both on suspicion of murder. An investigation began and the first victims were Weston, Turner, Franklin and Helwys. They were tried before Sir Edward Coke and Sir Francis Bacon, the Attorney General, and were convicted of poisoning Overbury. Weston, the gaoler who had administered the poisons, went to the gallows asking that the judges should not, “… make a net to catch the little fishes, and let the great go.” Franklin, supplier of the poisons, acted strangely on the gallows, boxing the hangman’s ears and beating the coffin with his hands, seemingly mad or drunk, and spoke often about ‘the three great ones.’
Anne Turner, the go-between and organiser, went to Tyburn wearing her famous yellow ruff, some saying (wrongly), on the orders of Sir Edward Coke, who hated the fashion and hoped that her execution whilst wearing one might put an end to the wearing of them. She admitted her guilt, a veil was pulled over her face, the cart was driven away from under her and, before a great crowd of courtiers, she died almost without a twitch. Helwys, the Lieutenant of the Tower, denied all knowledge of the poisoning but one sentence in a letter to Northampton condemned him, and on November 20th 1615, he was taken to Tower Hill and hanged.
|Sir Gervase Helwys|
The Earl and Countess of Somerset tried to cover their tracks, destroying letters and, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, they ‘sewed fig leaves’ but there was no escape. On May 24th 1616, the Countess of Somerset was brought to Westminster Hall, and pleaded guilty to murdering Overbury. She was sentenced to death but being pregnant was told that the Lords would intervene on her behalf.
Robert Carr was to be tried on the following day but at first he refused to attend, blackmailing the King with threats of public revelation of what had occurred between them in the Royal bedchamber, until he was eventually persuaded to go to Westminster. Just to be on the safe side, the King had men with blankets sit either side of the accused, ready to muffle him if he said anything untoward. Like his wife, he too was found guilty and sentenced to death. Sir Edward Coke, by the way, had declared them both guilty before their trails had even taken place.
|The Earl and Countess of Somerset|
The 1st Earl of Northampton, Henry Howard, had died on June 15th 1614, and was the third of the ‘great ones’ involved in the murder. From his letters, it is clear he knew exactly what was being done to Overbury in the Tower, but his death prevented him being brought to trial.
The ‘little fish’ went to the gallows, as Weston had suspected they would, the ‘great fish’ escaped, in part at least. James I showed the King’s mercy and had the pair sentenced instead to the Tower of London. Frances Howard’s only request was that she should not be housed in the same cell that had held Overbury, as she feared his vengeful ghost. They were stripped of all the honours and titles that had been heaped upon them, their belongings were forfeited, and when, in January 1622, they were eventually released, they were landless and friendless.
Their only daughter, Anne, was born in the Tower of London on December 9th 1615, and grew to be as great a beauty as her mother. She was told nothing about her parents’ crimes and grew up in total ignorance of their offences. The Earl of Bedford fell in love with her and, although his father at first opposed the match, they were married. Her son, William, was involved in the Rye House Plot, a conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II, and was beheaded for his part in the plan. It was only then, by accident, that she found and read details of her mother’s crime and, it is said, the revelation broke her heart, for she died at Woburn Abbey soon afterwards.
So, if this tale of friendship and betrayal, poisoning and witchcraft, adultery and a gay King, executions and poetry doesn't appeal to you, how about a man who returned from the dead?