Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Remarkable Rise of the Courtly Companions

He cometh upon you with a tale, which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney-corner.
Sir P. Sidney Defence of Poesy.

                      There are stories told of intrigue, romance, and murder in high places and then there is the story of Thomas Overbury. He was born in 1581 at the splendidly named manor of Compton Scorpion, Warwickshire to a well-placed family, entered Oxford University as a gentleman commoner at 14, graduated in 1598 and followed his father’s lead in entering the legal profession. 

Sir Thomas Overbury

In 1601, he went to Edinburgh on a pleasure trip, where he was introduced to Robert Carr, then Earl of Dunbar, and immediately the two youths formed an inseparable friendship. Carr was a minor but accomplished aristocrat, charismatic and astonishingly handsome, yet seriously lacking in intellect whereas Overbury was cultured, ambitious, worldly and fiercely intelligent. 

Sir Robert Carr

The pair returned to London together and moved easily in the court circle of the new King, James I, where Carr’s charm, aided by Overbury’s wit, ensured his rapid advancement. In 1606, Carr had the good fortune to break his leg when his horse fell on him in the tilting yard – good fortune indeed, as this brought him to the attention of the King, who fell in love with the young courtier, nursing him himself and teaching him Latin in the meantime. The court of James I ran largely on a system of patronage and favouritism, and James had a number of male favourites, his relationship with whom may or may not have been physical – this is question where there are far too many grey areas to examine at present – but thereupon Carr’s advancement was meteoric. 

King James I

He was knighted in 1607, and became a Gentleman of the Bed Chamber, was created Viscount Rochester in 1611, made a Knight of the Garter, and in 1614 became the Earl of Somerset and was made Privy Councillor. And it was said, in private and in whispers, that whilst Rochester ran the King, Overbury ran Rochester. As Carr rose, so rose Overbury; he was knighted in 1608, and made a number of diplomatic missions to Europe. It is a measure of how favouritism worked that the manor of Sherborne, formerly the home of a former royal favourite Sir Walter Raleigh and granted to be the hereditary inheritance thereof, was conferred instead on Carr at the suggestion of Robert Cecil, and when Raleigh’s widow challenged this in law, a rigged bench of bishops found in favour of the Crown and Lady Raleigh was paid derisory compensation in recompense. Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, was the King’s spymaster and the power behind the throne, making him the most powerful man in England. His death, in 1612, created a power vacuum, and there was an unsightly scramble to take Cecil’s place. At this point, it is necessary to introduce the Howard family into the story. 

Frances Howard

On January 5th 1606, the fourteen-year-old Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was married to the thirteen-year-old Frances Howard, daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, and following the ceremony the young Earl was sent to Europe to complete his education and his bride accompanied her mother to the royal court, which was not really the best location for the moral education a thirteen-year-old girl, especially one destined to grow into a notable beauty. When Essex returned some five years later, hoping for matrimonial satisfaction and conjugal bliss, he was dismayed to find she had no desire to pass the remainder of her days with her ‘homely’ husband in his remote country pile. She had other plans, which included the King’s favourite, Robert Carr, and she was aided in her schemes by her great-uncle, Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, in working towards divorcing Essex. 

Henry Howard - 1st Earl of Northampton

There were rumours of love-philtres and wax figures, as belief in witchcraft was rife in James’s realm, and further rumours of Essex’s impotence were heard; Frances underwent an ‘examination’ by ten matrons to prove her virginity, although the woman who was examined was heavily veiled to ‘preserve her modesty’ and she is thought instead to have been the daughter of Sir Thomas Monson. At first Overbury was only too happy to help his friend Carr in his amorous adventures with the flighty Frances, but his mind was changed when Carr announced his intentions to marry her. He tried persuading Carr by telling him about Frances’s previous dalliances, but Carr was having none of it, so Overbury did what any good friend would do under the circumstances – he wrote a poem.  

Thomas Overbury - A Wife

A Wife describes what qualities a good wife should possess and, oddly, they are exactly the opposite of the qualities possessed by Frances Howard, (it also contains the line, 
And all the carnall beauty of my wife, 
Is but skin-deep,” 
the first use of a ‘beauty is only skin deep’ adage in English). Overbury hoped his poem would add weight to his warnings, but there was more to it than just trying to dissuade his infatuated friend from an ill-advised marriage. If Carr became involved with the Howards and their factional power-broking, it would mean a proportionate decline in Overbury’s own power and influence, and Thomas Overbury was still a proud and ambitious man. The matters of state that passed before Carr were far beyond his intellectual abilities and it was Overbury who dealt with them instead, giving him much greater access to power than he could ever have desired. On the other hand, it also made him the repository of the secrets of the King, Carr and the Howard family, which were secrets that those involved wished to remain very secret.

Frances Howard
But Overbury soon discovered the price of opposing the Howards, as Northampton, the most sinister of men in a particularly sinister time, drew his dark plans to remove this source of opposition. A scheme was made to assassinate Overbury, but as a prior pardon for the killer could not be assured, this was laid aside. One day, Carr and Overbury were walking past the Queen’s chamber, who saw them and quipped, “There goes Rochester and his governor,” and soon afterwards Overbury was heard laughing. The Queen thought he had overheard the comment and was laughing at her, so Overbury was detained, but he managed to persuade the authorities that he had been laughing at a jest made by the King at dinner on the previous day, so he was released. 

Queen Anne - wife of James I

Then it was planned that Overbury was to be offered the position of ambassador to France, but since he had no reason not to take the post, he was offered instead the position of ambassador to Muscovy, which he did refuse, saying he could not speak the language there. His former, and now false, friend Carr had counselled him to refuse, insisting that he remain with him in London and Overbury’s pride did the rest. The refusal was tantamount to treason, by opposing the King’s wishes he made a traitor of himself and on April 21st 1613, he was sentenced to be held at the King’s ‘request’ in the Tower of London.

Sir Thomas Overbury

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