The poison tart

UNNATURAL MURDER by Anne Somerset Weidenfeld pounds 20
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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."