Odd this day

5 min readSep 15


Well, if it’s 15 September, it must be — yes, of course! The 410th anniversary of Sir Thomas Overbury dying in the Tower of London after being poisoned by his ex-boyfriend’s (by then the king’s boyfriend’s) wife because he wrote a poem she didn’t like.

18th century etching of Sir Thomas Overbury — shows man with swept-back hair, tufty moustache and beard, wearing a ruff

Our story starts in 1601, when Thomas Overbury (about 20) met Robert Carr (about 14 👀), and they became ~ahem~ great friends. A couple of years later, Frances, daughter of the powerful Howard family (14) married the 13-year-old Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex (which may not seem relevant, but we’ll come back to them).

We don’t know the exact nature of Carr and Overbury’s relationship, but, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, their fellow courtier Sir Roger Wilbraham said the older man was the younger’s “bedfellow, minion, and inward councillor”…

What matters in this description is its emphasis on intimacy. The relationship may or may not have included sex; it was certainly emotionally charged. Carr’s relationship with other associates such as Sir Robert Killigrew did not carry the same charge.

What also matters is that Overbury was not the only one to notice Carr’s… appeal. When he broke his leg jousting, the king, James I, “took it upon himself to nurse Carr back to health, and he quickly rose in fortune”.

Carr became the king’s favourite, but still needed Overbury, because whatever everyone saw in Carr, apparently it wasn’t intellectual firepower. Or as historian Chester Dunning puts it: he was “a man of limited intellect and education”.

ODNB is slightly kinder and suggests that “Carr, as the king’s favourite, had a great deal of business to transact, and he needed to delegate some of it”, but either way, as Carr rose, so did Overbury. He

was soon writing reports, advising on foreign policy, and even unsealing and reading diplomatic dispatches before Carr or the king saw them. Overbury openly boasted that he handled all state secrets and was reputed to know more about them than the Privy Council itself. In short, Overbury came to function as a kind of undersecretary of state, although without the title.

At this point, Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, re-enters stage right. Her marriage was basically a political alliance, and her husband was in France for the first few years of it. In 1613, she asked for an annulment on the grounds of non-consummation.

Apparently, the Earl of Essex

hath had, and hath power and ability of body to deal with other women, and to know them carnally

but could not

have that copulation in any sort which the married bed alloweth.

She had also taken something of a shine to Mr Carr, and the feeling was mutual — and Frances’ family could unsurprisingly see the advantage in having the king’s favourite as an in-law.

The only person who wasn’t happy was Overbury. He was the senior partner in age and ability, but Carr (being the one with the king’s ear) was his patron. If Carr married into a powerful family, Overbury’s influence would ebb away. And we’ve already seen that, while he may have been capable, he wasn’t modest.

Overbury wrote a poem, A Wife, about what a man should look for in a potential spouse. To modern eyes, the most offensive thing about it is that it takes 47 verses to say precisely bugger all, but it was interpreted then as an attack on Frances Howard

A passive understanding to conceive, / And judgement to discerne, I wish to finde: / Beyond that, all as hazardous I leave; / Learning and pregnant wit in woman-kinde, / What it findes malleable, makes fraile, / And doth not adde more ballast, but more saile.

Overbury needed to be got out of the way, so the king offered him an ambassadorship. Overconfident to the last, he turned it down, and told a friend one April afternoon in 1613 that his prospects had never looked better. He was arrested and chucked in the Tower the same evening.

He lasted four months. ODNB says

He became feverish, and could not eat; suffered nausea and vomiting; was permanently thirsty; and his urine smelt unusually foul.

There was “a stinking ulcer”, which was possibly “the gangrenous result of an incision … to drain harmful humours”, and he was “dosing himself with emetics”.

According to ODNB, he was buried in the evening of the day he died, “the haste of his interment being explained by the foulness of his corpse”.

Mark Williams in The Fast Show as the ‘which was nice’ man, looking at the camera and saying “which was nice”

Ten days after he died, the annulment was granted, and three months after that, the former Countess of Essex became Frances Carr, Countess of Somerset (Robert Carr having handily acquired his own earldom not long before).

Two years after that, though, things got complicated again, when Carr and Frances Howard were accused of doing Overbury in. Frances had, apparently, had an ally made lieutenant of the Tower, and he had turned a blind eye to her people coming in with poisons.

James’ affections had been transferred by now to George Villiers (“one of the handsomest men in the whole world”, according to politician Sir John Oglander) but this still wasn’t going to look good for him. Such was the scandal, though, he had to order an investigation.

Rubens portrait of George Villiers, a man with shoulder-length reddish-brown hair, moustache, pointy goatee beard and big ruff
George Villiers was “one of the handsomest men in the whole world”, according to politician Sir John Oglander

Barrister Edward Coke and Sir Francis Bacon found Carr, Howard, and their four accomplices guilty. Strangely, though, only the accomplices were hanged. The rich, influential people went to prison for a bit and then got out. I know — that NEVER happens.

Howard had confessed, but — to be fair to her — she might not have done so willingly. Either way, “The trials brought before the public a sordid picture of court immorality and disorder”, and did James I’s image very few favours. And even if Carr hadn’t done his former friend in, Overbury had turned down the ambassadorship “with Carr’s encouragement, and Carr knew what the result would be” (ODNB), so these were some Proper Jacobean Shenanigans.

So much so, that some historians think of this story

as simply a seventeenth-century version of our own supermarket tabloid sensationalism.

…which is, of course, is exactly what attracted this account to the story — and nor are we above pedantry: Wikipedia says he died on 14th, but the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says 15th, and they have Oxford in their name, so…




Purveyor of niche drivel; marker of odd anniversaries


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