The poison tart

UNNATURAL MURDER by Anne Somerset Weidenfeld pounds 20

The Sex Life of James I - the most recent king of England to be openly homosexual - was a more political business than any later monarch's. If royal mistresses occasionally wielded behind-the-scenes power, none held the kind of high office insisted on by James's boyfriends. But a pretty face and good legs are poor credentials for lasting success in politics, as the rise and helter-skelter fall of James's Scots darling Robert Carr (who peaked in 1615 as Lord Chamberlain and Earl of Somerset) amply show.

The known facts of his fall are that Sir Thomas Overbury, Carr's sometime best friend, died as a prisoner in the Tower in 1613, after receiving tarts and jellies from Lord and Lady Somerset, as well as "glysters" and other powders from various hands. Within two years the buzz was that Overbury had been imprisoned, then poisoned, for opposing Carr's marriage to Frances Howard, formerly the Countess of Essex and acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful women in England. The authorities acted on these rumours and a friend of Frances called Ann Turner, Sir Gervase Elwes, Lieutenant of the Tower, and two others were tried and executed. The Somersets too were tried and convicted but, receiving the benefit of James's sentimental heart, were permitted to disappear into obscurity. History and her contemporaries branded the Countess a whore and a witch.

As is clear from this engrossing account of the case, Overbury himself was no saint. The Somersets' prosecutor, Francis Bacon, called him a "man of insolent and Thrasonical disposition" and "possessed with ambition and vain-glory". But his good brain and savoir-faire supplied his friend with qualities that the dense, uncouth Carr sorely needed in the piranha pool of Jacobean court politics. For a while, they made an effective team. Overbury operated as Carr's man of business while Carr played the front man, exploiting his access to the king's ear, not to mention other parts of the royal anatomy.

But Overbury and Carr fell out over Carr's marriage into the Howard family, a tribe of grandees who regarded Overbury as a verminous upstart. When they maliciously engineered his quasi-exile as ambassador to Russia, Overbury fatally overvalued his own political stock, refused to comply and landed in the Tower.

What followed was almost certainly a murder plot with Frances Howard at its heart, but from this distance it is impossible to know how far it succeeded. Even if the famous tarts, jellies and glysters were really poisoned (and actually consumed) it is equally possible that Overbury was smothered, died of natural disease or, indeed, succumbed to the evil effects of Jacobean medicine. There was, anyway, little point left in the death. Overbury was a spent force, while Carr's marriage had become a fact .

So many interesting aspects of 17th- century politics and society coalesce in the Overbury case. Carr's stupidity is exposed at almost every turn, while incidental players in the drama include the Earl of Northampton, Frances's Machiavellian uncle, the wizard Simon Forman, Sir Edward Coke, the irascible Lord Chief Justice who played detective before bringing the case successfully to court, and the unfortunate 3rd Earl of Essex, Frances's first husband, who fought furiously to stop their marriage being annulled on the humiliating ground of his impotence.

Brewed out of witchcraft, poison, lust and ambition, this was a drama in the best Jacobean tradition of personal and dynastic passions overmastering reason with bloody consequences. Indeed it happened to coincide with the more politically explicit tragedies that were then being staged at two new public theatres, the Red Bull and the Blackfriars, notably the blood-soaked plays of Webster and Middleton. These writers specialised in sexual politics: high-born women asserting themselves and being brought down by misogyny. Anne Somerset is inclined to see Frances Howard as a tragic victim of the same forces - the joyless arranged marriage leading to an affair that was offensive to patriarchy and puritanism, drawing her into a desperate criminal compact with devious servants and friends.

The case is not entirely persuasive, since Frances looks more as if she were the crime's instigator than its dupe and should, in all justice, have followed her co-conspirators to the gallows. But who would deny a tragic dimension to a once-beautiful noblewoman, living out her days in rustic obloquy? If you really stretch you might even hear her voice, echoing Webster's Duchess of Malfi: "I am Countess of Somerset still."

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis