The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury

A Jacobean Melodrama

Chapter 2 : Act I: Romance

Scene One: A Wedding at the Royal Court 1606

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young lady, by the name of Lady Frances Howard. Born from a long line of attractive women, she promised to be something of a femme fatale. Lady Frances was not only beautiful, she was also rich, and well-connected: her father and great-uncle being two of the King’s most trusted servants.

To ensure that the beautiful Lady Frances and her fortune were well-bestowed, a marriage was arranged for her with a young man both ‘grave and graceful’, Robert Devereux. Although only fifteen, Devereux was already an Earl (his father, the 2nd Earl of Essex having had his head cut off for offending Queen Elizabeth).

The new Earl and Countess were entertained and feted, given extravagant presents – including precious gems and plate. The King and Queen themselves graced the wedding. All, it seemed, was set fair for another generation of little lords and ladies to be born, although an interval of separation was decreed before the young couple could start on their task of populating the nurseries of the stately homes of England.

The husband was sent abroad to continue his education, and the bride, now with all the honours due to a married woman, took her place at court. Perhaps Lord Essex pined for his bride – he sent her a valuable ring – but not enough to write her a letter. Lady Essex, at any rate, was far too busy enjoying herself to think about her distant husband.

Lady Essex did not perhaps, have the most virtuous example in front of her – her mother, possibly the mistress of the Earl of Salisbury, entered on a scheme of embezzlement with her husband, now Lord Treasurer, for which they were both later found guilty – in between times, she passed information to the Spanish court in return for cash. 

Whether or not Frances grew in virtue or in infamy under her mother’s care is moot – she certainly grew in beauty - ‘every tongue grew an orator at that shrine’.

Scene Two: The Tiltyard. In front of King James. 1607

Into the royal tiltyard rode a handsome young man of twenty, by the name of Robert Carr. He had come to London to seek his fortune, along with his close friend, Thomas Overbury, who provided the brains to support Carr’s charm and looks.

Carr, capering on his horse, fell, and broke a leg. Was this to be the end of all his hopes – carried out of the King’s presence on a stretcher – a laughing stock?

No, the King summoned the physicians and had the young man carried to a bed in the palace. He went with them, and struck by the young man’s beauty, became instantly attached to him – much to the anger and irritation of his wife, Queen Anne, and to the not-altogether-disguised distaste of his courtiers, who thought the lad brash and arrogant.

But, in King James’ eyes, Carr could do no wrong, and he was showered with money, lands and position – as well as kisses from the King, to the astonishment of the court. As Carr climbed the greasy pole – Gentleman of the Bedchamber, a knighthood, and eventually Viscount of Rochester - Overbury remained at his side, advising and encouraging his friend on the best way to keep in the King’s favour. He even advised Rochester to play hard to get, telling him to respond to James’ jealousy of their friendship coolly, recommending that James be told ‘you (Rochester) are no old man yet, nor can delight in old company continually.

Overbury may have regretted that advice when, through mischance, Queen Anne overheard the pair laughing together – and assumed it was at her. She insisted on their instant dismissal. James fought for his favourite, but Overbury was banished to placate the offended lady. It never did anyone any good to offend the Queen. James had his friends, but he still loved his ‘Dear Heart’.

It was not only Queen Anne who disliked Overbury, the whole Howard clan despised him – they could hardly contain their glee at his banishment.

Scene Three:  The Husband’s Return 1609

The lucky Lord Essex returned to England, hoping to settle to domestic bliss, whilst delighting in the jealousy of all the young men of the court. Lady Essex perhaps was less enamoured of the idea of settling down to the duty of brood mare that awaited her, but her mother had taken it in her stride so perhaps Frances could too. But whether or not she looked forward to connubial bliss, it was not to be hers. Poor Lord Essex could not rise to the occasion. Ever.

Meanwhile, Rochester, full of money and youthful energy, cast his eye on the court beauty. He consulted Overbury, who had wormed himself back to court, provided Queen Anne did not have to breathe the same air as him. Overbury claimed to know a thing or two about seducing women (although he seems rather to have belonged to the theoretical, rather than the practical school). He penned a series of love letters on his friend’s behalf that overcame the lady’s coyness.

Scene Four: The Wizard c. 1611

If Lady Essex could not consummate her marriage, she was eager to consummate her affair – but all must be kept secret. If her family or husband discovered it, she might end up banished to the country with only the parson to keep her company. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and Lady Essex’ friend Mistress Anne Turner was just the person to help.

Mrs Turner had managed to bear three children to her lover, Sir Arthur Mainwaring, with such panache that her husband left £10 in his will for a wedding ring for them – but Mainwaring, having milked the cow, saw no reason to buy it. In desperation to be respectably married (her income from starching ruffs to the fashionable shade of yellow not giving her enough support) Mrs Turner turned to Dr Forman who had a wide clientele amongst the nobility both for medicine, and for casting of spells…

All Dr Forman’s powers could not bring Mainwaring to the point (although Mrs Turner admitted that his potions had roused the gentleman to a frenzy of lust) nevertheless, Mrs Turner was sufficiently impressed to introduce him to Lady Essex.

Scene Five: Country Matters 1611 - 12

Lady Essex needed two spells – one to prevent Lord Essex suddenly being able to claim his marital rights and one to keep Rochester infatuated. It would have been better for all concerned if Forman had mixed them up – and perhaps he did, for in 1611, Essex decided to whisk Frances off to their country home to see if a little fresh air and exercise would do the trick. Lord and Lady Suffolk had no intention of interfering – it was their daughter’s job to satisfy her husband, in bed and out, and they would not prevent him exercising his rights.

Frances was almost demented at the thought of being forced to submit to Essex. She shut herself in her room, coming out only at night (perhaps Forman’s spells were beginning to have another effect?) and sending emotional screeds to Mrs Turner and to Forman, begging him to keep sending the ‘jellies’ to her. Were they laced with something to keep Lord Essex in check?