Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613) is perhaps best remembered for his collection of Theophrastan characters—brief sketches of persons who typify particular human traits. But he is also remembered for the horrible way in which he died.
Overbury was the close friend of Robert Carr, who later became a favorite of James I. Due to his relationship with the king, Carr eventually rose to become one of the most powerful men in England. Yet Carr still listened to the advice of his far more intelligent and resourceful friend, even though Overbury’s advice sometimes ran counter to the king’s wishes.
Carr began an affair with Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, and wanted to marry her. A member of the powerful Howard family, she was already married at the time and had the reputation of being a devious and dissolute woman.
Overbury violently opposed Carr’s matrimonial plans, telling his friend that marrying Frances Howard would only entangle him in court intrigues and bring him much personal grief. Overbury wrote a popular poem, A Wife, to try and convince Carr to make a better choice than the countess. But with King James’s cooperation, Lady Frances won an annulment from her husband and married Carr.
Frances Howard, Countess of Essex
The Howard family meanwhile did all it could to turn the king against Overbury, for they regarded him as an impediment to their political ambitions. They helped persuade James, who resented Overbury’s influence over Carr, to offer Sir Thomas the ambassadorship to Russia, thus getting him out of the way, but Overbury declined the king’s offer, which so outraged the king that he threw Overbury into the Tower.
Carr, now part of the Howard faction, then turned on his former friend and sought his permanent removal. Lady Frances arranged to have agents posted in the Tower, and they proceeded to slip poison into Overbury’s food. A contemporary familiar with the situation wrote that “for the space of three months and six days, he [Overbury] had several poisons administered unto him in tarts, jellies, physic, and almost in everything he took; so as the stronger his body and constitution were, the more horrible were his torments; having sometimes, upon the taking of one only fascinated potion, threescore stools and vomits, and divers of them mixed with blood.”
Another source states that the assassins eventually grew impatient with their slow-working poisons and resorted to a more powerful drug: “Sir Thomas’s sufferings were at length terminated by the administering [by way of a clyster] of corrosive sublimate [mercury chloride]. His corpse, disfigured by sores and ulcers, was wrapped in a sheet, and secretly interred in the Tower Chapel on the very day of his decease; and this effected, the murderers rested for some time in fancied security.”
But suspicions circulated, and inquiries followed. A series of trials took place in which Carr and his wife were found guilty of murder and were sentenced to death, but the king quickly pardoned them. The court found four other conspirators guilty, and they were hanged. It remains unclear how much of a role, if any, the king played in the actual murder, but it is certain that he had no use for Overbury and was pleased to have him gone.
Another person King James wanted out of the way was Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618). Raleigh was a truly remarkable person—among other things a courtier, soldier, adventurer, explorer, and writer. He helped colonize North America, introduced tobacco into Europe and the potato into Ireland. He was an accomplished chemist, a learned historian, and an excellent poet.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Raleigh had been a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, for he was tall, handsome, intelligent, self-confident, and somewhat difficult to control. While the queen found his brashness intriguing and challenging, others found it offensive. John Aubrey wrote in his Brief Lives that it was “a great question who was the proudest, Sir Walter, or Sir Thomas Overbury, but the difference that was, was judged on Sir Thomas’ side.”
Raleigh was not the sort to appeal to King James. As Aubrey also noted, Raleigh “was such a person (every way) that a prince would rather be afrayd of then ashamed of,” and Raleigh had an “awfulness and ascendency in his aspect” that James found intimidating.
King James I
Not only did the king suspect Raleigh of atheism, but also of having opposed his succession to the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603. The king furthermore took a less accommodative view of Raleigh’s assertive character than Elizabeth had done. James, who was Scots, remarked to Raleigh at their first meeting that he entertained no doubt but what he possessed sufficient military strength to have claimed the throne had the English tried to keep him out, and Raleigh replied, “Would to God that had been put to the tryall!”
“Why doe you wish that?” asked the king.
“Because,” said Raleigh, “that then you would have knowne your friends from your foes.”
The king never forgot the remarks nor forgave the impertinent manner in which Raleigh delivered them. Years later, when Raleigh returned to England after a failed expedition to Guiana, James reinstated earlier charges of treason against him and had him committed to the Tower. Sir Walter was subsequently beheaded in the Old Palace Yard, Westminster, on October 29, 1618.