The poison tart
UNNATURAL MURDER by Anne Somerset Weidenfeld pounds 20
Sunday 06 April 1997
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."
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 UK's biggest male rape charity Survivors UK has state funding slashed to zero despite 120% rise in men reporting sexual violence and seeking help
- 2 'Don't blame all men for rape' campaign backfires spectacularly
- 3 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
- 4 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 5 Charlie Charlie Challenge explained: not a Mexican demon being summoned — it's gravity
Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman
Thrill of the chaste: The truth about Gandhi's sex life
Suicide Squad: leaked footage shows first look at Batmobile chasing Joker through city streets
Game of Thrones, Season 5, Episode 7: Why two of the show's most iconic characters just met
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote