Magazine article The Spectator

Did the Doctors Do It?

Magazine article The Spectator

Did the Doctors Do It?

Article excerpt

The death of Sir Thomas Overbury, apparently from poison, in the Tower of London in 1613, and the subsequent trials for his murder, are the most sensational scandal in English history. The trial of Jeremy Thorpe, with which the Overbury case has its parallels, might have matched it in impact had Thorpe been Prime Minister rather than merely the leader of a small party. Yet where the charges against Thorpe discredited an individual and his personal entourage, the Overbury trials made a whole system of power look rotten.

It took time for the allegations of poison to surface. In 1615-16 six people were found guilty of plotting or executing Overbury's murder. Four, the small fry, instruments not initiators, were hanged. The others were pardoned by the king: his favourite, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, and Somerset's wife Frances, daughter of the Lord Treasurer, Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk.

The Somersets were sensational people already. Carr, the youngest son of a Scottish knight, had risen spectacularly, by virtue of his physical appeal to King James I, to the place of first influence in England. Frances, a strikingly beautiful woman, had been married at the age of 15 to the 14-year-old Earl of Essex, the son of Elizabeth's favourite. In the month of Overbury's death, after a much-publicised commission headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury had accepted her claim that Essex was impotent, a nullity was granted and the path cleared for her to marry her lover, Carr.

Overbury, Carr's intimate friend and possibly at some stage his lover, had risen to influence alongside him. More intelligent than Carr, he was able to summarise for him the state papers Carr found so wearisome and perplexing. Overbury also seems to have known incriminating things about Carr's past, though it is impossible to discover what they were. A man of overweening arrogance, he was not afraid to use his power when Carr's relationship with Frances set the two men at odds. The Howards, Frances' family, turned on Overbury. So did the king, who with questionable legality sent him to the Tower for refusing the diplomatic post that had been intended to get him out of the way.

There Overbury was given allegedly poisoned tarts and jellies and, when those failed, the enema of mercury sublimate that supposedly killed him. …

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