The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury

A Jacobean Melodrama

Chapter 6 : Act V: Retribution

Scene One: Suspicions

In late summer of 1615, it began to be whispered that Sir Thomas Overbury’s death had not been from natural causes. Soon, matters were running out of control. Weston and Mrs Turner got together to discuss how they would answer any questions about his initial appointment as Overbury’s gaoler, and also agreed that Weston would visit Elwes to find out whether the rumour had spread. They would have been better advised to leave well alone.

Suddenly, Somerset asked James for a general pardon. This was a document granting pardon for any unspecified crimes that might have been committed before that date. It was a fairly routine matter, and Somerset may just have been feeling nervous about charges of corruption, but it could bear a more sinister interpretation. James was quite willing, but the Lord Chancellor, Ellesmere refused to do affix the Great Seal.

After argument in Council on the matter, James gave the Chancellor a direct order, but he still refused. At this point Queen Anne intervened, and persuaded James to drop the matter.

Somerset continued to stamp his foot, refusing overtures of friendship from Villiers in harsh and threatening language.

Scene Two: Arrest

Sir Ralph Winwood, James’ secretary, whom Somerset had also alienated, heard rumours about the death of Overbury, and laid a plot to discover the truth, and hopefully, sully Somerset’s name forever. He let it be known that he wanted a secretary of his own, and the Earl of Shrewsbury told Elwes to apply for the post. Elwes was then informed that Winwood could have no dealings with a man whom he suspected had had a hand in Overbury’s death.

Elwes’ hair stood on end. Not only would such rumours prevent him ever getting another job, what if other people believed him guilty? He might end up hanged. He immediately penned a missive directly to the King, exonerating himself from any responsibility for Overbury’s death -  in fact, he had prevented it by stopping Weston from poisoning him, and not allowing any foodstuffs sent by Rochester to be given to the prisoner.

It was only after the event that he had cause to suspect that Weston had confided that the final enema insinuated into poor Overbury’s posterior had been tainted. He thought that the person behind the plot might be a certain Mrs Turner.

Scene Three: The King’s Palace

James was appalled – a man whom he had illegally imprisoned had died of poison. Whilst not dwelling too much on the first crime, he needed to salve his conscience by getting to the bottom of the second. Orders went out for Weston, Mrs Turner, Overbury’s doctor and the apothecary to be hauled in for questioning.

Weston had a few days in solitary confinement to think before being questioned by the Privy Council. He first suggested that Overbury had died of a chill, then admitted that he knew Overbury had taken poison deliberately, as part of the campaign to stir the King to mercy. The potion had caused Overbury to pass ‘three score stools and vomits’. When pressed, Weston could not confirm the exact number of stools. But there were lots.

Pushed further, he admitted that the liquid he had intended to give Overbury, before being prevented by Elwes had been procured from Dr Franklin – or perhaps Mrs Turner. It might even be that he could remember Lady Essex’ name being mentioned.

Scene Four: The Somersets’ Apartments, Whitehall

Frances was panicking. She summoned Franklin and Mrs Turner to discuss tactics. After Somerset left the room, Frances urged Franklin not to confess – if he did, he would be hanged and if he mentioned her name at all, he certainly would be hanged as she herself had no intention of ending on the gallows. As for Mrs Turner, she saw the truth of the matter immediately – ‘Alas Madam, I will be hanged for you both.’ Frances warned them both not to listen to stories that, if they confessed, they would be reprieved. One word of poison, and they would all hang.

Scene Five: Examination

James was certain that only the truth could be tolerated. The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke, who, the King thought, did nothing but ‘eat, drink and evacuate …the law’ was the man to get to the facts.  Although there were some who thought that Coke liked the law better than he liked justice. His case against Sir Walter Raleigh had had to rely on personal abuse and vitriol to be made to stick.

The Overbury case was just the sought of thing Coke would enjoy – within days, he was described as ‘excited and bloodthirsty’. His former friendship with Somerset was certainly no bar to investigation especially when it became known that Franklin, Turner and, of course, Frances’ Howard family, were Catholic sympathisers. In Coke’s eyes ‘poison and popery’ were close bedfellows. He was also sure that ‘poison and adultery [went] together.’

Weston, Franklin and Mrs Turner were all arrested. Frances persuaded Somerset to ask for Mrs Turner to be bailed, and James obliging suggested to Coke that she be bailed if it were customary to do so. But the king would not interfere with justice and Coke had the bit between his teeth.

More people were questioned, and eventually it emerged that Somerset had once sent a letter to Overbury with a white powder in it. At this, Coke asked for others to share the burden of deciding whether to arraign the King’s favourite for murder. Three more commissioners were added – a friend of Somerset’s, an enemy (Lord Chancellor Ellesmere), and a neutral.

Somerset hotfooted it to James, taking in a few days’ hunting at Royston. He asked for Ellesmere to be removed from the panel. James was not impressed. How could he be seen to impede justice in such a way? In fact, he had noticed that Somerset and his father-in-law were doing their best to obfuscate matters.

Scene Six: Arrests

Somerset panicked, and went on an orgy of document burning – including letters he had once written to Northampton. He also, as a councillor, authorised a messenger to break into the house where Weston’s son lived to fetch a trunk away. The trunk and its contents disappeared.

Somerset and a heavily pregnant Frances were placed under house arrest, in separate locations, and two days later Weston’s trial for murder began.

Very few accused were ever acquitted – there was no presumption of innocence, no access to legal counsel, the very fact of an arrest was an indication of guilt and the accused had no information about the case against them before the trial opened. There was nothing to stop the investigator, Coke, from sitting as the Judge, either.

Scene Seven: Consternation

Weston pleaded ‘Not Guilty’, but then he refused to accept the court process. Effectively, he had not entered a plea. He could be subjected to the terrible punishment of ‘pressing’ by weights to force him to change his mind, but if he did not, he could not be convicted of poisoning – and nor could any accomplices. The infuriated Coke overrode legal precedent by continuing with the case.

For several days, Weston refused to plead, but eventually was worn down. The trial proceeded, he was found guilty and taken to be hanged. Even then, he was not left alone, but two friends of Somerset’s harassed him to proclaim the Earl’s innocence from the ladder.

Scene Eight: More Arrests

Elwes, Monson, and, eventually, Somerset and Frances were arrested. Mrs Turner was arraigned and appeared before Coke on 17th November. Amongst the evidence brought were wax figures, allegedly used for spells and a list that purported to name the lords and ladies of the court who were indulging in adulterous affairs. Coke swiftly suppressed this – it was thought because his wife’s name was at the top! Having established that Mrs Turner dabbled in sorcery, her guilt in relation to poisoning was self-evident, according to the prosecution. Anne Turner admitted that she knew there were machinations afoot to Overbury’s detriment, but not that she had had any hand in it, and her post-conviction statements suggest she thought he was suffocated, rather than poisoned.

Guilty or not, she was convicted of being an accessory to murder, and hanged. In her last speech, she regretted having encouraged courtiers’ vanity by supplying the fashionable yellow ruffs – obviously they were an incitement to sin.  

Elwes was next – accused of concealment and collusion. To spice matters up, letters from Northampton to Somerset were quoted in court. One in particular shocked the court – in it, Northampton reassured Somerset that reading the younger man’s terrible handwriting was no more troublesome than ‘my niece’s pain in the silver dropping stream of your pen.’

Despite an eloquent defence, Elwes, too, was convicted – being surprised at the last moment by revelations from Dr Franklin that named everyone he could think of as an accessory – including the Earl and Countess of Somerset.

Elwes was hanged, with James taking pity on him and agreeing that his children could inherit his possessions.

Scene Nine: Trial of a Peer

The Earl of Somerset could only be tried by his peers. In order to present the case, the Attorney General, Sir Francis Bacon, became involved. Bacon and Coke were at daggers drawn and Bacon believed that Coke’s attempts to claim that the Somersets were at the heart of a vast, Popish, Spanish conspiracy would fall flat in front of the Lords. In particular, wild accusations that the Earl had poisoned the Prince of Wales should not be allowed to turn the trial into a farce.

James was reluctant to put the Earl and Countess on trial, but he was even more reluctant to tamper with the law. Delay followed delay, but, eventually, since Frances had confessed, although Somerset had refused to admit any involvement, trials were inevitable. Once she had pleaded guilty in court, it would be permissible to pardon Frances.

Pressure was put on Somerset to confess, even by letters from the King, but he refused, and went so far as suggesting that to try him might result in embarrassing revelations about James.

Frances was tried first, and her pretty face and winning ways made her peers sympathetic. She pleaded guilty and the death sentence was pronounced, but no-one thought it likely to be implemented.

Somerset’s trial followed, and although he continued to protest his innocence, he too was convicted. It was generally thought that he would be executed.

The trials took place in May, and in July Frances was pardoned, although she was still confined to prison. Somerset remained under sentence, but the terms of his imprisonment were relaxed. With Weston, Franklin, Mrs Turner and Elwes all executed, it was hoped the public would accept that Overbury’s death had been paid for. But in this James and his Attorney General were wrong. It was seen as manifestly unfair that the instruments should be punished whilst the instigators went free.

Scene Ten: Exeunt

Whether or not Somerset was a murderer, he was certainly an arrogant fool. Under sentence of death all his titles and lands were forfeit to the crown, yet he refused an offer from James to restore a very significant amount of property, in return for quietly accepting the loss of some of it. He had astonished James before with his arrogance, now the King left him to rot in the Tower whilst he lavished affection on George Villiers, who had supplanted Somerset in his affections.

Yet the Somersets will still treated well. They were allowed to live together in the Tower and receive visitors. In due course, they began to get on each other’s nerves and it was rumoured that they had  begun to hate each other. Eventually, the couple were released, and regained some semblance of normal life, although they were not welcomed at court.

Frances died in 1632, of symptoms consistent with both breast and uterine cancer – moralists were delighted that she was punished in that part of her anatomy that they thought had led to all the trouble – we have the information from an autopsy paid for by none other than that husband whom she had rejected for his own inability to make headway in that very same part of her anatomy.  Somerset lived another thirteen years, dying during the Civil War, as little remembered by his former friends as Overbury had been once confined to the Tower.

Sources and Further Reading

Nichols, John, The progresses, Processions, and magnificent festivities, of king James the First, his royal Consort, family, and court: Collected from original Mss., scarce pamphlets, corporation records, Parochials registers, &C., &C volumes 1-3(United States: Arkose Press, 2015)

Somerset, Anne, Unnatural murder: Poison in the court of James I: The Overbury murder (London: Phoenix (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd ), 1998)