The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury

A Jacobean Melodrama

Chapter 3 : Act II: Tragedy

Scene One: London – Dr Forman’s House

One evening in September 1611, Dr Forman informed his wife that he would be dead before Thursday night. It seems his magic powers were real, for on that Thursday, he dropped dead whilst rowing himself on the Thames. Mrs Turner, anxious as to what secrets his papers might divulge, rushed to the widow and, whilst threatening her with the stick of an enquiry from the King’s Council into any papers she had relating to Lady Essex, brandished the carrot of a reward from Frances if she handed over everything to Mrs Turner that minute. Prudent Mrs Forman rushed to fetch everything she had and hand it to Mrs Turner – hiding a couple of letters in her bodice ‘just in case’.

Scene Two: The Lovers

Lord Essex could not keep his wife in the countryside for ever. She returned to London, and she and Rochester were soon deep in an affair – further attempts by Essex to keep her at home failed. Contrary to what the cynical Overbury had predicted, Rochester did not lose interest once he had attained his fair one and their affair was widely known.

Scene Three: Rising Man

The King’s right-hand man, Lord Salisbury, having shuffled off this mortal coil, Rochester had more work to do, supporting the King. He made a handsome profit, but maintained that he never took a ‘sweetener’ for securing a comfortable job for a petitioner without first clearing it with James, and considering whether the petitioner was of good character. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Overbury, who undertook to negotiate the level of fees Rochester required. Lacking Rochester’s finesse, he rubbed many people up the wrong way.

Overbury also began to overreach himself in other ways. Rochester, never the sharpest dagger in the sheath, needed a good deal of help to manage the ministerial work that James was giving him and his friend began to point out how much Rochester relied on him, not just to the man himself, but to the other courtiers. James heard the rumour that Rochester ruled him, and Overbury ruled Rochester. Not the sweetest sounding words to a king who liked to think of himself as a new Solomon (yes, he really did).

Scene Four: The Relatives

Frances’ father, Suffolk, loathed Rochester, but her great-uncle, Earl of Northampton, did not. Northampton was a confirmed bachelor – one of very few people, during the whole Tudor period, (excluding Elizabeth I and her faithful Blanche Parry) who never married. From being Rochester’s enemy, be began to shared his great-niece’s affection for ‘Sweet Rochester’. Of course, it is quite possible that Northampton loathed Rochester as much as Suffolk did, but he could spot the road to the King’s heart.

Whatever Northampton’s motives in drawing Rochester close, he was determined to cut Overbury loose. This would not be easy – in a first skirmish between the men, Overbury emerged the victor when Rochester persuaded James to make Northampton back down and apologise for a perceived insult. But the older man had been at court since the days of Queen Mary and was well able to play a long game. He knew, either from observation, or because Frances had confided in him, that his great-niece and Rochester were embroiled in a torrid affair. If Rochester could be detached from Overbury and bound to the Howards, then they could all stand to benefit from the King’s infatuation. Frances was to be ‘the dainty pot of glue that will make the bond more sure.

Scene Five: The Marriage Bed 1612

In December 1612, the Earl of Suffolk came to the conclusion that his daughter and son-in-law were just not trying hard enough. They were tucked up in bed together at Salisbury House and left to let nature take its course.

But it did not. Essex claimed not to have tried – although initially willing, he had been put off by Frances calling him ‘coward and beast’.  In the face of such insults, he could not perform. Suffolk was appalled – he had married his daughter to a man who ‘had no ink in his pen’ and whom Northampton now began to term ‘My Lord Gelding’.

Scene Six: More Sorcery

Suffolk sought an annulment for his daughter. Northampton persuaded him that the best outcome would be for her to remarry immediately, to Viscount Rochester. Suffolk took convincing, but eventually came round. After all, even if his prospective son-in-law were an uncouth and uncultured Scot whose accent he could barely understand, he was the King’s favourite and would have access to all sorts of juicy plums. He therefore asked for a nullity suit to be brought before the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Suffolk’s hand might have been forced by the discovery that, with Forman dead, Frances had found a new magician to help her – ‘Cunning Mary’ of Norwich, who had a thriving business selling potions and spells to her neighbours. If they complained that the spells did not work, Mary would denounce the women (her clients were usually women) for plotting to poison their husbands – she had been given a whipping in Norwich for these false allegations. Frances had given Mary the ring that Essex had sent her after they were first marriage as a down-payment for services to be rendered.

Mary was not called cunning for nothing, and she immediately sold the ring and returned to Norwich. Frances panicked, and had Mary tracked down. On enquiry, Mary claimed first that Frances had asked for something to poison Essex with, but then changed her story to say that the Countess had asked for a potion to get ‘with child’.  Mary’s previous history of being whipped told against her, but Frances’ name was tarnished.

Scene Seven: Allies in High Places

With Suffolk seeking to have Frances’ marriage dissolved, the infatuated girl wanted Rochester to confirm that they would be married as soon as she was free. But Rochester had taken a leaf out of Mainwaring’s book and was remarkably reluctant to commit himself. He hummed and haa’d and said that the King would not like it, but Suffolk and Northampton put pressure on him to broach the subject with the still-affectionate king.

Contrary to Rochester’s hopes, James thought it a wonderful idea – Rochester and the Howards would be on good terms, Overbury would lose influence, and everyone would be happy. Whether James and Rochester had a sexual relationship has never been conclusively proven but James was certainly an affectionate husband and father, and might well have wished the same for his friend.

Scene Eight: Enemies in Low Places

Overbury was horrified at the thought of a marriage between Rochester and Frances. He railed against that ‘base woman’ and told Rochester that he would ‘overthrow [him]self and all {his] fortunes’ by consorting with her. Rochester was furious at such language being used of his lady love and the two men quarrelled bitterly, with Overbury suggesting he would leave Rochester to fend for himself at court. Rochester backed down – perhaps afraid that Overbury would spill the beans to the Archbishop of Canterbury about Frances and him committing adultery. If he knew that Frances was a scarlet woman, Archbishop Abbot would never grant an annulment

Northampton, Rochester and probably Frances, now met to decide what to do about Overbury – the man was a loose cannon who could scupper all their plans. An idea of paying someone to provoke him to a duel was rejected – Overbury had previously refused a challenge. Frances, probably without the knowledge of the other two, sought out an enemy of Overbury’s, Sir David Wood, and offered him £1,000 to murder him. The offer was rejected out of hand, but a compromise was reached. If Frances could promise that Rochester would not pursue him, Wood would beat the living daylights out of Overbury.

Frances did not feel able to give him the reassurance he needed, but she comforted Wood with the thought that if Overbury died from the beating, Rochester would arrange for Wood to escape before being accused of murder. Wood weighed up the likelihood of being hanged against the beauty of Frances’ eyelashes and declined further involvement.

Scene Nine: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Soon, a more eligible scheme presented itself. James offered Overbury the post of Ambassador – to France, to the Netherlands, or even to Russia. Archbishop Abbot was deputed to give Overbury the good news. Surely, the man would be grateful and make himself scarce? Nobody wanted him at court.

But Overbury did not want to go – ambassador’s jobs were not attractive – the pay was poor, the hours were long, and the waters soon closed over at court once your face was no longer to be seen. He thanked the king, in a rather half-hearted fashion, and declined.

James, a good-tempered man, was astonished. Offers from the King were not requests, they were commands. Perhaps the man was mistaken. Two other emissaries were sent to explain that Overbury was being offered a prestigious post, and ought to thank heaven, fasting, for such an honour.

Overbury was obdurate. He would not go – he spoke nothing but English, he was too ill to write long letters. Nonsense, cried the King’s messengers. He was young enough to learn new languages, and change of air would be just the thing for his health.

Still the man would not listen, but responded with ‘undecent and unmannerly speeches’ that finally aroused the wrath of the Lord’s Anointed. Not being Henry VIII, James did not have him instantly beheaded, but a trip to the Tower was the upshot, to let Overbury consider the meaning of loyalty and gratitude. James had no right in law to imprison Overbury, but no-one cared enough for the man to interfere.

Rochester claimed later that he was very keen for Overbury to go abroad, both to get him out of the way of Frances, and because he was tired of the man’s ‘insolence’. He denied absolutely encouraging Overbury in his disobedient ways, with the sole purpose of isolating him so that he would have leisure to make a more permanent end of his old friend.

Overbury was confident that he would soon be released. After all, James could refuse Rochester nothing, and Rochester was Overbury’s friend. Or was he? Rochester did not seem in any hurry to plead for him, and by June 1613, Overbury had been forgotten by everyone.