The Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, 1613

On our blog today Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of our House of Lords 1558-1603 project, takes a look at an infamous murder that took place in 1613, and asks why foul play wasn’t suspected until two years later…

In the early hours of the morning of 15 September 1613, Sir Thomas Overbury, the former friend and mentor of the royal favourite Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester, died in agony in the Tower of London, where he had been held prisoner for the last six months. Immediately after his death it was noted that his stomach was covered in yellow pustules, his back was an ugly shade of brown and there was an appalling stink. He had been poisoned. As was later to be discovered, arsenic, nitric acid and mercury sublimate were all apparently used, added to Overbury’s food and to his emetics over a long period.

The main responsibility for Overbury’s gruesome murder lay with Rochester’s lover, Frances Howard, wife of Robert Devereux, 3rd earl of Essex. For some time Frances, supported by her father the Lord Chamberlain, Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk, had been pressing for her marriage to Essex to be annulled and to be allowed to marry Rochester instead. In this she enjoyed the support of her great-uncle, Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, the Lord Privy Seal and Rochester’s most important ally. A marriage between Frances and Rochester would lead to the creation of a powerful triumvirate at court consisting of Rochester, Suffolk and Northampton. It would also put an end to a damaging feud between the favourite and the lord chamberlain. However, before he became a royal prisoner, Sir Thomas Overbury was implacably opposed to Rochester’s continued liaison with Frances, whom he described as ‘that base woman’. He wanted Rochester to ally himself not with Suffolk, but with the former adherents of the late 2nd earl of Essex. In March 1613 he threatened to leave Rochester unless the favourite severed his relationship with Frances.

Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613); Marcus Gheeraerts the younger; Bodleian Libraries via ArtUK

It was immediately obvious to Frances, Rochester and Northampton that Overbury posed a serious threat. Frances was on the verge of asking the king, James I, to annul her marriage to Essex. What chance was there that her request would be granted if Overbury revealed what he knew of her adultery with Rochester? What chance, too, was there that Essex would not contest the suit if he discovered that his wife had been unfaithful? Overbury had to be silenced. At Northampton’s suggestion, the king offered him a diplomatic posting. When Overbury, realizing that he was being marginalized, refused he was sent to the Tower for contempt (21 April). However, Frances clearly regarded this as a temporary solution. When the commissioners appointed by the king met in May to discuss annulling her marriage, it quickly became clear that the proceedings were likely to drag on for some time. The longer they went on, the greater was the risk that Overbury might reveal what he knew. The leading commissioner, Archbishop Abbot, was already suspicious that the real reason Frances wanted the annulment was not her husband’s alleged impotence – the only valid legal grounds for dissolving a marriage in this period – but because of a breakdown in the couple’s relationship. Any revelations of adultery with Rochester would merely reinforce that suspicion. Thus Frances, aided and abetted by Northampton, and perhaps also by Rochester (who later burned all his letters to Northampton), set about poisoning Overbury with the help of various servants. Their ultimate success was due in no small part to the negligence of the lieutenant of the Tower, Sir Gervase Elwes, who owed his post to Northampton.

Frances, Countess of Somerset; William Larkin; National Portrait Gallery via ArtUK

In the immediate aftermath of Overbury’s death, few had any idea that there had been foul play. Ten days after Sir Thomas’s death, Frances was granted her annulment. Three months later, she and Rochester, now earl of Somerset, were married with great fanfare at court. However, in the autumn of 1615, the king learned the truth, and the following year Somerset and his wife were tried and convicted of murder. So too was Elwes, who was hanged, along with several servants. (Northampton, though, could not be tried as he was now dead.)

Perhaps the most startling feature of Overbury’s murder is not the murder itself but its discovery. The crime had been perpetrated at the behest of some of the most powerful people in government. Why, then, did it not remain hidden from view? It might well have done, had it not been for Elwes’s loose tongue and Somerset’s shabby treatment of one of the king’s ablest servants, Sir Ralph Winwood.

During the early years of James’s reign Winwood, tiring of his career as a diplomat, sought a position in government. On the death of Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury in 1612 he returned to England in the hope of being appointed secretary of state. However, though he impressed both the king and the then Viscount Rochester, who acted as de facto secretary, the secretaryship remained unfilled. Winwood subsequently learned that this was because Rochester was unwilling to relinquish the secretary’s seals. He therefore determined to win over Rochester, now earl of Somerset, by making himself indispensable to the favourite. On the face of it, this strategy paid off handsomely, because ahead of the 1614 Parliament Winwood received the promotion he desired. However, this actually had little to do with Somerset, who threw in his lot with his father-in-law the earl of Suffolk and tried to get Sir Thomas Lake appointed as secretary instead. Although common gossip had it that Somerset was responsible for Winwood’s advancement, the true reason for Winwood’s promotion was that leading Protestant members of the Privy Council had warned James that nothing would be achieved in Parliament if the crypto-Catholic Lake were appointed instead of the hot Protestant Winwood.

Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset; John Hoskins; National Portrait Gallery via ArtUK

Following the 1614 Parliament, Somerset succeeded Suffolk as lord chamberlain. Winwood naturally expected, therefore, that Somerset would now hand over the secretary’s seals of office. However, to his astonishment, Somerset refused. He also insisted that all diplomatic correspondence should be directed to him. In other words, Somerset continued to behave as though he were secretary. This was so humiliating that Winwood briefly contemplated resuming his diplomatic career. In July 1615 Somerset was finally persuaded to surrender the seals, but at the last moment he refused to part with them – a fatal error.

At around the same time, Winwood visited the countess of Shrewsbury, then a prisoner in the Tower. From her he learned the truth about Overbury’s death, which she had gathered from Sir Gervase Elwes. Winwood therefore had the countess’s husband invite Elwes to dinner. Over the meal table, Winwood declined to become better acquainted with Elwes until Elwes had cleared himself of the suspicion that he was involved in Overbury’s death. Foolishly, Elwes took Winwood aside and told him that he had been forced to connive in Overbury’s murder by Somerset and his wife.

Despite the explosive nature of this discovery, Winwood waited several weeks before revealing his findings to a horrified James. As Alastair Bellany has remarked, the delay perhaps suggests that Winwood was waiting to see whether Somerset would be toppled by the young George Villiers, who had recently emerged as a rival for the position of royal favourite. Only when it became apparent that Somerset’s position remained secure did Winwood lend Villiers a helping hand by revealing what he knew. In so doing, he delivered both the coup de grace and exacted revenge for the ill-treatment he had received at Somerset’s hands.


Further reading:

Anne Somerset, Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of James I (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1997)

Alastair Bellany, The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News Culture and the Overbury Affair, 1603-1660 (CUP, 2002)

Find biographies of Peers & bishops from the early Stuart era in our Lords 1604-1629 publication.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s