The most famous murder committed with mercury was that of the poet Thomas Overbury. He survived four attempts to poison him and was only killed when he was given an enema containing corrosive sublimate. He was dead within hours. Rapid death from mercury can occur and there are cases on record of people dying of heart failure after being given a mercury-based medicine. Clearly some people are particularly sensitive to this metal, but Overbury was not one of them. He had already survived at least one dose of this poison, and indeed may have eaten several meals to which it had been added.
Sir Thomas Overbury was thrown into the Tower of London by order of
Overbury's most famous work was a book called Characters which was published after his death and became a best-seller of its day. It consisted of 77 short sketches of different personality types, some of which are still recognizable, such as 'The Arrant Horse-Courser' who was the equivalent of the second-hand car-dealer today, and 'The Mere Pettyfogger' who delights in malicious gossip. Overbury's most admired character was 'The Milkmaid' with her simplicity and natural goodness. Overbury even wrote some of the book while he was imprisoned in the Tower in 1613, hence the entries entitled 'The Sergeant', 'The Jailer', and 'The Prisoner'. The essay that caused most controversy was 'The Wife' in which he summarized the qualities of the perfect partner, but it also had an overtly political message in that all the qualities that a perfect wife was supposed to possess were clearly lacking in the woman who was eventually to become the wife of Robert Carr - and Overbury's murderer.
King James I on 21 April 1613, despite being an intimate friend of Robert Carr who was the King's 'favourite'. All three men are believed to have had homosexual inclinations and there may well have been sexual relations between the King and Carr, and Carr and Overbury. However, both the King and Carr were capable of normal sexual relations, and both of them fathered children, although there is no evidence that Overbury ever had sex with a woman.
Thomas Overbury was born in 1581 at Bourton-on-the-Hill in Gloucestershire. He was educated at the local grammar school, then went to university in the autumn of 1595 to Queen's College, Oxford. He graduated in 1598 with the degree of Bachelor of Arts and moved to Middle Temple in London, which in those days was not solely a centre for lawyers as it is today, but was the home of poets and courtiers. Indeed, Overbury wrote prose and poetry, with some success, but he was intent on a career in government and he secured a position in the Lord Treasurer's office. In the summer of 1601 Overbury was sent to Edinburgh with important letters to King James, who was then King of Scotland, and it was there that he first met Robert Kerr, a 14-year-old pageboy. Kerr and Overbury returned to London together and thenceforth kept in regular contact. (Kerr changed the spelling of his name to Carr when he moved to London.)
On 24 March 1603 Queen Elizabeth died and King James VI of Scotland succeeded to the English throne. This very much affected the fortunes of the Howard family. They had suffered in the past because of their Catholic leanings but under the new king their fortunes improved greatly, particularly those of the 63-year-old Henry Howard, who was Earl of Northampton, and his 42-year-old nephew Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk; Thomas was married to Katherine and they had a beautiful daughter, Frances. In 1606, when Frances was only 13, she was married to the 15-year-old Earl of Essex, a political marriage that was meant to unite two great families. The marriage was not consummated because the bride was too young, and in any case Essex had to complete his education. While they were apart, Frances spent most of her time at Court, and by the time her husband returned to London in January 1610 she had already had an affair with Prince Henry, heir to the throne, and had now fallen in love with Robert Carr the King's favourite.
The relationship between Carr and the King had begun three years earlier on 24 March 1607, at a tournament held to celebrate the fourth year of the King's accession to the throne. It was Carr's role to present a shield to the King, but as he rode forward to do this he fell off his horse and broke his leg. The King was immediately attracted to the tall, handsome 20-year-old, and when the games were over he went round to the room where Carr had been taken and sent for his personal physician Mayerne to attend to the broken leg. Over the next few weeks the King made many visits to the young man and even spent time teaching him Latin - or so it was said.
Whatever went on between master and pupil, Carr became the King's favourite. He was now in a position to help his friend Overbury, and he succeeded in arranging an income of £600 per year for him, plus a position as Server at the King's table. This gave him access to the King's after-dinner talk, and Overbury jotted down many of the King's off-the-cuff remarks about religion, state policy, manly virtues, and the obligations of a monarch. These were eventually published many years after Overbury's death as Crumbs Fallen from King James's Table. On Christmas Eve 1607, Carr was knighted and made Gentleman of the Bedchamber. (Overbury was knighted six months later on 19 June 1608.) As that year progressed, Carr and Overbury became more and more influential, the former becoming an advisor to the King, the latter often supplying that advice.
Through 1610 and 1611 all went well for Overbury although he managed to upset many people at Court, including the Queen. However, he was protected by Carr, whose influence with the King continued to grow to the extent that he became Viscount of Rochester on 25 March 1611 and was made a Knight of the Garter two months later. In June of that year he was entrusted with the King's Signet, which in effect made him James's private secretary. Important state letters now passed through his and Overbury's hands. Some of these documents dealt with highly confidential affairs and these he showed to Overbury, including those relating to the Queen's enormous debts. Overbury boasted to others of what he knew, and when the Queen heard of this she complained to the Lord Treasurer. The upshot was that in September Overbury was banished from Court, and sent to France on official business, where he stayed for five months, returning in May 1612 when the affair had blown over and the Queen's debts had been paid.
By then Overbury was needed at Court to help Carr draft important letters and documents. Overbury's finest hours were about to begin, but the Court to which he returned had changed in subtle ways that were eventually to ruin him. For the time being though, Overbury revelled in his new found power and influence. He became noted for his arrogance and overbearing ways, not least towards Carr himself as he realized how much the King's favourite depended on him.
Overbury and Carr also made an enemy of the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, but in October 1612 he fell ill with typhoid fever* and died on 6 November, despite being given Sir Walter Ralegh's famous Elixir of Life. This was reputed to cure any fever except that due to poison, and as a result the Queen openly said that she thought Carr and Overbury had killed her son. The King refused to believe her, but the Queen's suspicions were not without some substance because both Prince Henry and Carr were vying for the favours of Frances Howard; indeed it was generally believed that she and the Prince were lovers, but that she had recently transferred her affections to Carr. Overbury had helped his friend woo Frances by composing love letters for him to send to her. He may have imagined that it was little more than a harmless affair, and that nothing would come of it because Frances was already married, and divorce in those days was impossible. Little did he realize that she was thinking the impossible and knew that a marriage might be annulled if it had not been consummated within 3 years of living together as man and wife. So far Frances had kept her young husband at bay with
* His symptoms were diagnosed as typhoid fever by a Victorian physician in 1885.
various excuses and when Essex finally insisted on sleeping with her she always managed to ward off his sexual advances.
She had also turned for help to a Mrs Ann Turner who was the wife of a successful London doctor, and who enjoyed a position in society, having patented a yellow starch for ruffs, a must-have fashion accessory of the day. She was officially the Court dressmaker and costume designer, but was known to be able to arrange other services through her many useful contacts. She introduced Frances to the famous astrologer Simon Forman,* who provided her with various spells, one for bewitching her husband Essex, consisting of a miniature male doll into whose penis she stuck thorns, and one to charm Carr into loving her, consisting of two dolls that would lock together in a sexual embrace. Later on, when the Overbury scandal erupted, Mrs Turner went back to Mrs Forman, who by then was a widow, and retrieved from her many of the compromising letters that Frances had written. Nevertheless, Mrs Forman kept back two highly incriminating letters, one written by Frances and the other by Mrs Turner herself.
Essex finally despaired of ever having sex with his wife and in the summer of 1612 he departed to his country estate, leaving Frances in London. With her husband out of the way, the secret love affair between Frances and Carr became intense and continued until December 1612, when Essex returned determined to have a final try at consummating his marriage. That Christmas the couple again shared the same bed, but again nothing happened, and for Frances it was crucial that it didn't because she knew that the following month, January 1613, it would be possible to annul their marriage on the grounds of non-consummation.
Overbury now realized what this might mean for him. Were Frances to obtain an annulment and marry Carr, then the favourite would be drawn into the Howard circle and no longer be in need of Overbury's advice and help. Overbury began a subtle campaign to vilify Frances and her mother, going so far as to refer to Frances as a base and filthy woman and calling her mother a bawd. Overbury's words had the opposite effect to the one he intended: Carr and he began to quarrel. They had a spectacular row one night when Carr returned to his rooms to find Overbury waiting for him.
* Forman was reputed to have forecast his own death on 1 September 1611, saying to those present at dinner that he would die seven days hence, and this he did, while rowing on the Thames he had a heart attack and died.
'What do you at this time of night?' he demanded, knowing full well where Carr had been. 'Will you never leave the company of that base woman!' he shouted and threatened: 'I will leave you to stand on your own legs!' To this Carr replied: 'My legs are strong enough to bear myself!'
They parted that night, but what Overbury had said was true. Without him, Carr would be unable to cope with the mass of official business that now came his way. He had even let Overbury read correspondence destined for the King's eyes alone. Overbury was in a position to threaten Carr and Carr knew it. A few days after this row the two friends made it up and to outwards appearances they were reconciled, but by now Carr was thinking of a way to remove the troublesome Overbury from his life.
Meanwhile Frances had her own schemes for dealing with Overbury. She approached a certain Sir David Wood, whom she knew also had a personal grudge against Overbury. Frances offered him £1000 if he would waylay Overbury one evening and kill him. Wood agreed to the plan but only on condition that Carr would guarantee his protection when Overbury had been killed, in what he would claim had been a duel. Nothing came of Plan A.
Plan B was more subtle and would also remove Overbury but it required Carr to get the King to offer Overbury an overseas posting, as an ambassador to a remote country. The King agreed, and on Wednesday, 21 April the plan was put into operation. Overbury knew nothing of this and indeed that very morning he had said to a colleague that his 'fortunes and ends were never better'. But by six o'clock that evening he was under arrest and on his way to the Tower.
The first Overbury knew about the matter was when he was informed that George Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wanted to see him. Abbott offered Overbury a special mission to Moscow, but Overbury refused the post, and immediately went to see Carr to get a release from the offer, which technically Overbury could not refuse because it came from the King. Carr said that he could refuse the Moscow appointment and that another offer would be made. That afternoon a deputation headed by the Lord Chancellor, went to Overbury to inform him that he need not go to Moscow but could choose between the embassy in Amsterdam, Holland or that in Paris. He refused both. When his decision was reported to the King, James brought it to the attention of the Privy Council, which was then in session, and the Council ordered Overbury to appear before them straight away, which he did at 6 p.m. When he still refused to accept the appointment he was committed to the Tower for contempt.
With Overbury locked up, Frances could now put Plan C into action: to poison him and to do so in a way that would make it appear that he had died of natural causes. After her arrest there was found in her possession a list of poisons which she no doubt intended to use. This read:
Realgar Aqua fortis White arsenic Corrosive sublimate Powder of diamonds Lapis causticus Great spider Cantharides
We can identify these compounds as arsenic sulphide (realgar), nitric acid (aqua fortis), arsenic trioxide (white arsenic), mercury(II) chloride (corrosive sublimate), and potassium hydroxide (lapis causticus), while cantharides is still the name given to the powder of the dried beetle Lytta vesicatoria, popularly known as Spanish fly. What 'great spider' was remains a mystery, but may well have been simply a powder made of dried spiders.
Living in the street at the back of the Exchange in the City of London was an apothecary James Franklin, a Yorkshireman. He was a tall, well-built man with ginger hair, a lock of which he allowed to grow long and hang down his back and which he called his elf-lock. His appearance was not improved by his pox-marked face. It was to this man of shady reputation (he had already been suspected of poisoning his wife) that Frances Howard and her accomplice Mrs Turner went to in order to secure supplies of the compounds on their list. Franklin supplied them with aqua fortis, which they gave to a cat that 'languished and pitifully cried for two days and then died'. Clearly that was no use, nor was diamond dust, which they gave to another cat, which showed no ill effects.
Franklin then sold them some realgar. This killed the cat quickly and so they decided to use it on Overbury - but there was a slight problem. Over-bury was being kept in close confinement by the Lieutenant of the Tower, who permitted him neither the services of a servant, nor to see visitors, nor even to send or receive letters. That obstruction to Frances's plan came to an end on 6 May when the Lieutenant was replaced by Sir Gervase Elwes, who had paid £2000 for the post which he secured as a result of Carr's influence. Elwes' first act on assuming his new post was to restore to Overbury the services of a servant. He was also allowed contact with a Richard Weston, a man who had been in Mrs Turner's employ; Weston told Overbury that he could smuggle letters in and out of the Tower for him. Consequently he wrote to Carr, whose friendship he thought he still had, believing he could secure his release. Carr wrote back that he was going to bring this about, but in fact he was doing no such thing.
An attempt to poison Overbury was made the very day that Elwes became the new Lieutenant of the Tower. Frances gave Mrs Turner the phial of poison prepared by Franklin from realgar, and she handed it over to Weston's son to give it to his father. On the evening of 6 May Weston senior met Elwes as he was on his way to Overbury's cell. He was carrying a bowl of soup in one hand and the phial of poison in the other and asked: 'Shall I give it him now?' Elwes clearly did not want to be involved and dissuaded him from adding it to the soup. In fact it was not added to Overbury's food until three days later, on 9 May, when Weston stirred it into some broth.
Weston reported to Mrs Turner that the poison had caused Overbury to be very sick with vomiting and diarrhoea, but that he had recovered, whereupon he was told to give Overbury a larger dose, but that did not kill him either, although again it made him very ill. In fact Overbury believed that by being ill it would allow Carr to soften the King's heart and get him released, and he wrote a letter to Carr to that effect. Carr took no action and in his reply he said that the King was very angry and could not be placated. Nor did Carr do anything when he was approached by Overbury's father and mother, who had come up to London to try to obtain the release of their son, although he promised them he would do all he could.
Meanwhile Overbury continued to be very ill and on 14 June a doctor was allowed to visit him. He diagnosed consumption and prescribed aurum potabile [drinkable gold] which was an expensive cure-all. During that June, Overbury was also visited by two other doctors, including Mayerne. The latter was called in as a result of Overbury's father directly petitioning the King. Mayerne prescribed various medications for Overbury and these were made up by an apothecary living near the Tower, who delivered them, accompanied by his apprentice William Reeve, on Friday, 23 June. We will hear more of Reeve.
Despite Overbury's apparent ill health, no release from the Tower was forthcoming. The Privy Council was due to meet on 6 July and Overbury pinned his hopes for a release on this meeting, which the King would attend. He wrote to Carr that he planned to make his illness seem even more convincing by taking an emetic powder, and asked his friend to send him one. In fact this gave his poisoners a chance to strike again.
Frances and Mrs Turner sent some white arsenic to Weston to give to Overbury, and we know from Weston's confession that on Thursday, 1 July he mixed this with the emetic powder that Carr had sent. For the next four days, Overbury was very ill indeed and as far as we can judge his symptoms were consistent with arsenical poisoning. He was continually vomiting and had diarrhoea and Weston reported that he had evacuated his bowels between 50 and 60 times. A doctor was called in to attend to him, finding Overbury very feverish and he ordered him a cooling bath, despite which he continued to suffer from a high temperature and raging thirst. This, and more, Overbury related in a letter to Carr, which he wrote on Monday, 5 July:
This morning (notwithstanding my fasting till yesterday) I find a great heat continues in all my body and the same desire of drink and loathing of meals, and my water is strangely high. [. . .] The distemper of heat, contrary to my constitution, makes me fear some fever at the last, and such an one, meeting with so weak a body will quickly end it. And in truth I never liked myself worse, for I can endure no clothes on, and do nothing but drink.
Overbury's hope that the Privy Council would release him from the Tower the following day was in vain. That was the bad news. The good news, although he was not aware of it, was that by surviving five days after a large dose of arsenic he was not likely to die, and during the second week of July Overbury slowly recovered his health. Frances had failed again. Indeed she was forced to suspend Plan C temporarily because she had more pressing problems to attend to that month. On Saturday 17 July she was to be subjected to the indignity of a medical examination to see whether she was, as she maintained, still a virgin. That had to be proved if she was to secure an annulment of her marriage. The inspection of a heavily-veiled Frances was undertaken by midwives in the presence of several ladies (who were too embarrassed to actually look) and they confirmed that she was still a virgin. This fact seemed so at variance with her reputation that few believed it to be true, with some asserting that the midwives had been bribed, others saying that the young girl they examined was not Frances but a substitute. Nor was the annulment commission, set up by the King to look into the Essex marriage, much impressed with this apparently incontrovertible proof of non-consummation. The ten members of the committee were equally divided, with the most prominent member, the Archbishop of Canterbury, against the annulment.
Even though the King addressed the committee the following day, and let them see there was no doubt in his mind that they should grant the annulment, the commission voted five for and five against. The King thereupon adjourned the commission until 16 September, but not before appointing two extra members whom he knew would be in favour of granting it.
Meanwhile, Overbury's parents were growing more and more alarmed and were doing their best to have him released. Again they went to see Carr who reassured them that he was doing all he could, saying that their son was receiving the best medical treatment possible. Carr did get permission for Overbury's brother-in-law to visit him on Wednesday, 21 July. By then, however, Overbury had been poisoned again.
Arsenic having failed, Frances decided to try corrosive sublimate. This was added to some tarts that were baked by Mrs Turner, and taken by Weston to the Tower on 19 July with a covering letter to Elwes telling him not to taste the tarts or jellies or give them to his family. They must only be given to Overbury, because they contained 'letters' which the conspirators later admitted was their code word for poison. This warning was necessary because it was Overbury's habit to pass on food he did not want to the Lieutenant and his wife. Frances's letter read:
Sir, I pray deliver not these things till supper. I would have you change the tarts in place of these now come, and at 4 of the clock I will send a jelly to him as it was sent to me; the tarts or jelly taste you not of, but the wine you may drink, for in it is no letters, I know. Do this at night I pray you.
The effect of the poisoned tarts and jellies was dramatic, as one might expect on a body just recovering from an attack of arsenic poisoning. We have independent evidence for the date because a letter written from the Tower by Thomas Bull, and dated 20 July, reported 'Overbury is still here in prison, shut up close and very sick.' The following day Sir John Lidcote, Overbury's brother-in-law, hearing of his turn for the worse, obtained a warrant from the Privy Council for him to be allowed to see Overbury so that he might draw up Overbury's will. On Wednesday, 21 July, Lidcote found the prisoner to be 'very sick in bed, hand dry, speech hollow'. A condition of the visit was that the Lieutenant of the Tower must be present at all times. Nevertheless, Lidcote contrived to have a few private words with his brother-in-law, who asked him whether his friend Carr was 'juggling' with him. Lidcote replied that as far as he knew, Carr was being faithful to him. Brief though this exchange was, the Lieutenant noted it and reported it, with the result that Lidcote's warrant to visit was withdrawn.
As a result Lidcote became suspicious of what was going on and he discovered that Carr was being duplicitous in his dealing with his former friend. He managed to get a message to Overbury telling him what he had discovered and he advised him to start writing conciliatory letters to the powerful members of the Howard family, pleading for their help. Overbury acted on Lidcote's advice and wrote to Henry Howard saying that he was very sorry for what he had done in the past and promising to be 'as faithful to you as your lordship's own heart' when he was at liberty again. What is most illuminating about this letter is not what it said but Overbury's handwriting, which had degenerated to a shaky shawl. This is a typical symptom of mercury poisoning.
Overbury also wrote to Lord Suffolk, Frances's father, again in a conciliatory tone and again it is not the message which holds our attention but the footnote: 'Good, my lord, excuse my blotting by reason of my weakness at this time.' But it was all to no avail, because on Friday, 27 August, all correspondence to and from Overbury was stopped by order of the Lieutenant, and the prisoner was moved to a smaller cell, with Weston alone being allowed contact with him. A final attempt on his life was about to be made.
By the beginning of September Overbury was becoming desperate and he resolved to have one last attempt to influence Carr. To this end he wrote a long letter, in which he recounted all that he had done for Carr and threatening to expose him on a matter 'of another nature'. He ended the letter by saying that on Tuesday, 7 September he had completed a 'large discourse' setting down everything which had happened between the favourite and himself, and all of it damaging. He also said that he had sealed this discourse with eight seals and sent it to a friend with instructions to open it if he died. Overbury concluded: 'So thus, if you will deal thus wickedly with me, I have provided that, whether I live or die, your shame shall never die, but ever remain to the world to make you the most odious man alive.'
Although Carr received the above letter, we have no knowledge of the discourse referred to in it. Did Overbury write such an exposé? Probably not. In any case there was no way it could be passed to a third party without Weston's help. Almost certainly Overbury was bluffing, but it was now clear to the conspirators that a final attempt had to be made to silence him for ever. Overbury had to be given another dose of corrosive sublimate: this time it would certainly be large enough to kill him and it would be given in the form of an enema.* Weston learned of this plot to poison Overbury from Franklin, whom he met at the White Lion pub on Tower Hill. He told Weston that the apothecary's young apprentice, William Reeves, had been paid £20 to administer the poisoned enema. To a young apprentice like Reeve, £20 was a truly enormous sum, equivalent to around £10000 (or $20000) today.
The events of Monday, 13 September and Tuesday, 14 September 1613 are fairly well documented. On the Monday, the Lieutenant of the Tower was briefed that another attempt was to be made to silence Overbury. Elwes betrayed his knowledge of this in a rather naïve manner, and in a way that told strongly against him at his trial two years later. On the death of a prisoner in the Tower, the contents of his cell, and only that cell, became the property of the Lieutenant. Elwes knew this and was also aware that when Overbury had been moved from his larger cell he had left many of his belongings behind, and in particular an expensive suit of clothes. On that Monday, Elwes had this taken to his new cell; the next day it became his.
* Chronic constipation is a feature of prison life, as Overbury was to discover and report in his essay 'The Prisoner'. This states: 'Whatsoever his complexion was before, it turns to choler or deep melancholy, so that he needs every hour to take physick to loose his body, for that (like his estate) is very foul and corrupt and extremely hard bound. The taking of an execution of his stomack gives him five or six stools and leaves his body very soluble.'
William Reeves called on the Monday and made up the enema for Overbury which he administered. That evening, Overbury became gradually worse and worse. In the night he was groaning and unable to control himself, and by daybreak it was clear that he was sinking fast. At 6.45 a.m. he asked for a drink of beer and died while Weston was fetching it for him.
The Lieutenant immediately sent a note to Northampton telling him that Overbury was dead. Northampton replied that the body should be buried straight away if it was 'foul', but if it would stand viewing then Lidcote should be allowed to see it. Elwes called in the coroner, who convened a jury of six warders and six prisoners. They found the corpse to be nothing but skin and bone and it stank intolerably. They reported that there was a black ulcer between the shoulder blades, an open sore on the left arm, a plaster on the sole of one of his feet, and blisters on his belly the size of peas and yellow as amber. The verdict of the inquest was death by natural causes and Overbury was swiftly buried at 3.30 p.m. that afternoon, less than nine hours after he had died. Lidcote could not be contacted on that Tuesday and when he arrived at the Tower the following day he was so shocked to find his brother-in-law had already been buried that he refused to pay the burial costs.
As far as Frances was concerned, things were looking up. Not only was the hated Overbury dead, but the Annulment Commission, which reconvened on the Saturday following his death, was about to release her from her equally hated marriage to Essex. The King forestalled a public debate by ordering them to come to a simple yea or nay decision. The members then voted and the result was seven in favour, five against. Frances was free at last. Three months later, on 26 December 1613, she and Carr, who now had the title Earl of Somerset, were married at a lavish wedding ceremony with the royal family in attendance. That same month saw the first edition of Over-bury's poem The Wife published in London. It was immediately sold out and indeed was reprinted five times within a year.
The year 1614 started well for the Howard family, whose grip on the levers of power was now stronger than ever. But their fortunes were about to be undermined by a series of blows that they had not foreseen. In March, a treasonable correspondence between Henry Howard and the Pope was discovered and that marked the end of public life for him, but in any case his own life was about to end as a result of post-operative infection following an operation on his thigh. He died in March. In the reshuffle of public offices that followed Howard's death, Suffolk became Lord Treasurer and Carr took on the post of Lord Chamberlain. The favourite had now reached the pinnacle of his power. Meanwhile copies of The Wife were selling as fast as they could be printed and rumours began to spread about Overbury's strange death.
At this time neither Frances nor Carr was under suspicion of being responsible for his murder, but a more serious threat was on the horizon in the form of a handsome young man, George Villiers who had caught the King's fancy. The remainder of that year saw Villiers slowly oust Carr from his position as the favourite. Then, 18 months later, in June 1615, an event occurred which dramatically reopened the Overbury affair. William Reeve, who had been sent by de Lobell to live in Flushing in Holland, was taken ill and thought he was dying. He decided to confess his crime. The information he revealed was conveyed by the British Consul in Brussels to Sir Ralph Winwood, Secretary of State, in London.
Carr and Frances, who was now three months pregnant,* were oblivious to all this and were staying with friends in the country; Mrs Turner was with them. On their return to London they soon became aware of Reeve's confession and realized the danger they were in. Carr sent his servant round to see Overbury's former servant, and he brought back the letters that Carr had written to Overbury in the Tower, paying him £30 for them. Elwes got drunk at a dinner party in August at which Winwood was present and he revealed that he had known all along that Overbury had been murdered. Winwood informed the King, and the King ordered Elwes to set down in writing his part in the affair, which he did on 10 September. The King set up a commission headed by Lord Chief Justice Coke to look into the death of Overbury, and those suspected of being implicated were arrested.
On 19 October, Weston's trial opened at the Guildhall in London, and at first he refused to enter a plea which meant a jury could not return a verdict. Physical and moral pressure was brought to bear, including being interviewed by the Bishop of London, and eventually on 23 October he agreed to face trial. He was found guilty and hanged two days later at Tyburn, but not before Lidcote and a group of his friends interrupted the execution by riding
up to the gallows and asking Weston to make a public confession of his guilt. (For this they were fined.)
On 7 November, Mrs Turner was tried and this trial brought to light the black arts of Forman, including his model of a couple copulating, and his black book in which he kept details of the love affairs of prominent people. (It was reported that judge Coke's wife was listed in it, and that was why he would not admit it as evidence.) Mrs Turner was hanged on 14 November and the hangman wore a paper copy of the yellow ruffs and cuffs that she had made popular as a fashion item. This piece of mockery was done at judge Coke's suggestion. On 16 November Elwes was tried, found guilty, and hanged on Tower Hill on 20 November. Next it was the turn of Dr Franklin, who supplied the poisons, and he was tried on 27 November and hanged on 9 December.
The trials of Frances and Carr took place on 24 and 25 May at Westminster Hall. She pleaded guilty - in fact she had admitted to her part in the plot in January - and was sentenced to be hanged. Carr pleaded not guilty and his trial lasted all day on the 25 May. Because the King was worried that Carr might use the trial to reveal details of his private life, he had two men with heavy cloaks standing at Carr's side to muffle him if the need arose. However, the prosecution was in the capable hands of Sir Francis Bacon, and he saw to it that the need for silencing Carr never arose. Even so, the trial lasted 13 hours and many in the packed hall fainted, but Carr stood up to his ordeal remarkably well. Carr's defence was no match for Bacon's polished prosecution; he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Neither Frances nor Carr was to pay the ultimate price for their crimes; instead they were imprisoned in the Tower. Frances was pardoned on 13 July 1616, but Carr was not pardoned until 1625. The two of them lived in the Tower until 1621, when they were released on condition that they lived together. This they did, although they rarely spoke to one another. Frances died in 1632 and Carr in 1645.
And what happened to the youth who administered the fatal dose? William Reeve's fear of dying had been unfounded. He recovered his health and is said to have returned to England, but he was never prosecuted.
So who really engineered the plot to kill Overbury? There were many who wanted to see him dead and various authors have attributed his death to the maliciousness of some of these people. Charles Mackay in his Extraordinary Popular Delusions thinks Carr was to blame. Terence McLaughlin in The
Coward's Weapon makes a case against the Queen, who he thinks used her influence with her physician Mayerne to ensure that Overbury was given the fatal enema. McLaughlin thinks it was significant that Mayerne was not called as a witness at the various trials, the reason being that he knew too much. William McElwee in The Wisest Fool in Christendom even suspected the King of being implicated. The best, and most thoroughly researched account of all, is Anne Somerset's Unnatural Murder: Poison at the Court of James I, and she concludes that Frances may have been guilty but that she was certainly acting under Carr's directions. Indeed the only credible suspect was Frances herself, and she confessed as much. Carr was undoubtedly an accessory before the fact, and indeed his behaviour is consistent with his wanting the deed done and of urging his lover to do it. She was only too willing to oblige.
This page intentionally left blank
Was this article helpful?