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Essays on historical truth online

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spake much more than is here expressed,' and ' he
affirmed that all thin^is in the arraisjnments of Weston,
Turner, Ilelwish, Franldyn, &c., are rightly written for
the substance, though many circumstances are omitted,
here being nothing untrue, yet ?iot the ivhole truth' ^

If these remarks are to be relied on, the report of the
proceedings of the arraignment of Sir T. Monson, which is
given in the State Trials, may be considered correct as
far as it goes. On this occasion Coke made use of the
following remarkable expressions: 'For other things I
dare not discover secrets ; but though there was no house
searched, yet such letters were produced which make
our deliverance as great as any that happened to the
children of Israel.' '^^

And Coke's opinion of Monson's guilt, and also the
opinion of Hyde, another of the judges, appear from the
following passage of the report : —

' Lord Chief Justice Coke. There is more against you
than you know of.

' Monson. If I be guilty, it is of that I know not.

' L. C. J. You are Popish ; that pulpit was the pulpit
where Garnet died, and the Lieutenant as firmly ; I am
not superstitious, but we will have another pulpit.

' Hyde. I have looked into this business, and I protest,
my lord, he is as guilty as the guiltiest.''^

And Coke, in a letter to the king, written apparently
on the day of the arraignment, and published by Mr.
Amos from the original in Sir E. Coke's handwriting in

1 See Amos p. 121. =^ State Trials, vol. ii. p. 949. ^ jiji^i


tlie Slate Paper Office, strongly ex[) his opinion of
Monson's guilt. He repeats his disapprobation, l)efore
expressed at the arraignment of Monson's having been
connnitted not to the sheriff but to an alderman, liis
relative by marriage ; achhng, ' and to say the truth, it was
not fit for a man indicted of murder to remain in a
dwelling-house,' and tlius concludes : ' I find that none of
these that were in the action had any fear of God before
their eyes, but were fit instruments for any villany or
mischief soever, and specially this man, who, no doubt,
knew as much as any man living.'' ^

It is perfectly clear, then, that if Weston, Franklyn, and
Mrs. Turner deserved hanging. Sir Thomas Monson also
equally deserved it. That he not only escaped it, but was
set at large and allowed to retain some place about the
court, proved at least that King James's court circle was
in part composed of convicted murderers.

In addition to the enormous labours he went through
in takinoj examinations in this case, Sir Edward Coke
wrote several long letters to the king respecting it. Ikit
though these letters contain sundry eulogies sufficiently
fulsome of the king's justice, wisdom, and hiananity, and
though they also labour somewhat to assure the king that
no sinister inferences were drawn by the public from the
strange proceeding of stopping Monson's trial, they flxiled
to obtain any court favour for the writer of them. Coke
had no objections to rise to the highest place in the law
any more than Bacon, by the only means by Avhich that
place could then be reached — namely, unscrupidous sub-
servience and h}^:)erbolical adulation. But Coke, though
beyond all question a far better lawyer than Bacon, alto-

1 MS. State Paper Office, 1G15, Dec. 4, No. 34oj Amos, pp. 395-397.


gether wanted Bacon's moral suppleness and marvellous
adroitness in the use of words. For Bacon had not only
the power of a great writer over language as a vehicle of
thought, but he possessed all that skill of a word-fencer
by which men without any great or even considerable
powers of thought have at times attained the command
of great and powerful assembhes. Coke, moreover, was a
pedant ; and whatever else a pedant may be good for, he
is very unlikely to be a good or successful courtier.

One of the characteristics of a pedant is the want of
that quality of mind — call it tact or call it quick insight
into character — which, from very slight appearances, can
infer or divine mucli that is never put into words — or
only into very mysterious words. To whatever extent
Bacon was admitted to the confidence of King James, it
is very improbable that Coke was admitted to any degree
whatever of his more intimate confidence. Accordingly
Coke failed to see, as Bacon did, the precise point to
which the business of punishing the alleged murderers of
Su" T. Overbury Avas to go, and at which it was to stop.
Bacon, in his expostulation with Coke, says, ' though you
never used such speeches as Avere fatliered upon you ; '
and it appears from the letters of Coke in the State Paper
Office, published b}^ Mr. Amos, that the trial of Monson
was ncTt put off, as Wilson and tlie reporter in the State
Trials state, in consequence of Coke's having let drop some
words connecting Overbury's death with that of Prince
Henry, but that its postponement was determined on
before Sir T. Monson was called upon to plead. Never-
theless it is clear, from Bacon's letters to the king and
the king's postils, or marginal notes, to those letters, that
Coke had made some observations on the subject of

siii THOMAS ovEnnuiiY. 449

rriuce IL'iuy's cleatli ^ as connected with the nuirdcr of
Sir Tlioinas Overbury, and that the king was highly
disj)leased at the subject's liaving been introduced, "i'lie
cflect, as regarded Coke liiniself, is tiius described by the
reporter in the State Trials : ' The Lord Chief Justice,
having at this trial [Sir T. Monson's] let drop some in-
sinuations that Overbury 's death had somewhat in it of
retaliation, as if he had been guilty of the same crime
against Prince Henry, Sir Thomas Monson's trial was
laid aside, and himself soon after set at liberty, and
the Lord Chief Justice was rebuked for his indiscretion,
and, before the next year expired, removed from his
post.' 2

The trial of the Earl of Somerset, when examined by
the light of modern discoveries, is perhaps the most
instructive illustration in tlie whole of the collection of
our early State trials of the fact, or at least the opinion,
that before the time of the Commonwealth the reports of
English State trials which were printed and made public
were not intended to reveal, but to conceal, the truth.
And as I have already remarked, tlie genius of Francis
Eacon the attorney-general was employed in the trial of
Somerset to involve the truth in eternal darkness. It is
little to be wondered at when two such geniuses as Kimr
James and Bacon (for, though the juxtaposition may to
those who have imperfectly studied the facts appear
ludicrous. King James really had an extraordinary genius
for compassing his ends by plotting and lying) exerted
themselves to the utmost, that they should put those who,
under the title of historians, profess to write about such

' See particularly Stat*' Tiinls, vol. ii. p. 00-4.
2 State Trials, vol. ii. p. t»4i».

G Ct


matters, entirely out of the track that might have led
them to at least some traces of the truth.

This trial, with all its array of peers and lord high
steward, judges, attorney-general, garter king-at-arms,
seal-bearer, black rod, and serjeants-at-arms, was but a
solemn farce. The king and his attorney- general had
carefully arranged matters so that the most distant and
indistinct indication of the real question at issue of ' Who
murdered Sir Thomas Overbury ? ' should never be
brouo:ht before this lord hio;h steward's court, which was
to be made, what courts of law and equity have been so
often made, but an instrument to screen crime under
solemn formalities, and words, which, had they been
used by an inferior man for the same purpose, might have
been likened to clouds, but which used by Francis Bacon
must be likened to sunbeams which threw, and were
intended to throw, a false and misleading — though a
dazzling — light upon a dark question.

It has been pointed out by Mr. Amos as ' a remarkable
circumstance, that throughout the correspondence be-
tween James and Bacon w^ith regard to Somerset there is
no inquiry concerning each other's opinions as to his
guilt or innocence; the king and the attorney-general
seem wholly occupied with the stage-effect of the trial
and the pardon.' ^

The account which Sir F. Bacon gives, at the Countess
of Somerset's arraignment, of the discovery of Sir Thomas
Overbury^'s murder, is a brilliant specimen of that accom-
plished man's astonishing ' command over facts ; ' and
may be viewed by the modern imitators of that part of
Bacon's character ' with the same sort of admiring despair

' Amos, p. 489.


with will eh our sculptors contemplate the Theseus and
our painters the cartoon-^.' According to this statement,
the discovery arose out of a conversation that was said
by Bacon to have taken place between a deceased noble-
man and an anonymous Councillor of State ; so that if
there was not one word of trutli in the attorney-general's
statement, its falsehood could not be proved. As this
statement, however, forms a part of the machinery by
which King James involved in darkness the true history
of Overbury's murder, and as it is very skilfully con-
structed to serve the double purpose of keeping altogether
out of view James the assassin, and brinn-insx into full
view ' James the Just,' it will be convenient to give it

' About the beginning of the last progress,' says Bacon,
' it first brake forth ; and as all nuirders arc strano-e in
their discovery, so this was miraculous, for it came out
in a compliment, thus : my Lord of Shrewsbury, who is
now with God,^ commended Sir J. Elwes to a Counsellor
of Estate ; and it was by him that Sir Jervas, in respect
of the good report he had heard made of his honour and
worth, desired to be made known unto him. That
counsellor answered, that he took it for a favour from

^ The words which Sliakspeare puts into the mouth of Cassio, when lairo
has said he hoped to be saved—' Ay, but, by your leave, not before me ; the
lieutenant is to be saved betore the ancient' — express an opinion prevalent
in that age, at least a form of speech, that persons of high rank, kings and
jioblos at least, after death were ' with God.' Thus King James himself is
described after he had, according to Archbishop Laud, ' breathed forth his
blessed soul most religiously' (Laud's Diary, p. lo), as 'now with God.'
Indeed it may be considered as part of the divine right doctrine, that all
kings, good and bad, came from God and went back to him. Otherwise it
might have been feared that a good many of them must have gone the
other way. But on the divine right principle the form 'now with God ' is
equally applicable to Philip IL and to Catharine de' Medici and all her sons
and daughters as to James L

G o 2

452 i:ssArs on historical truth.

liim ; but withal added, there lies a kind of heavy impu-
tation on him about Overbury's death ; I could wish lie
would clear himself, and eive some satisfaction in the
point. This my Lord Shrewsbury related back, and
presently Elwes was struck with it, and makes a kind of
discovery, that some attempts were undertaken against
Overbury, but took no effect, as checked by him.
Though the truth be, he lacked rather fortitude in the
repulse, than honesty. This counsellor, weighing well
this narration from Elwes, acquainted the king with the
adventure ; who commanded presently that Elwes should
set down his knowledge in writing, which accordingly he
did, but stiU reserving himself within his own compass,
not to touch himself, endeavouring rather to discover
others, than any else should undertake that office and so
accuse him.'

Mr. Amos cites a letter remaining in the State Paper
Office, dated November 15, 1615, in which Lord Cecil,
writing to Mr. Wake, uses these words : ' Not long since
there was some notice brought unto me that Sir T. Over-
bury was poisoned in the Tower ; with this I acquainted
his Majesty.' The letter being full of news and gossip,
Mr. Amos infers that ' if Bacon's account of the discovery
of the plot were true, it is perhaps likely that the
miraculous circumstances of it would have been men-
tioned by Cecil to his friend.' ^

It is a curious and interesting psychological study to
attempt to trace the process by which this king succeeded
in applying the same machinery of complicated falsehood
to the screening of his crimes from public view in
England, which he had before successfully used in Scot-

' Amos, p. lO-').

SIR THOMAS ovERnrnr. 453

hiud. Wu have seen the part perfonued by Mr. Thomas
Ilaniilton in the afTuir whirh it pleased King James to
denominate the Gowrie C()ns{)iracy. We liave seen,
among many other examples of Hamilton's 'command
over facts,' the forgery of the letters known as Logan's
letters. We now see the king's attorney-general in
England employed in the same honourable work in which
we before saw the same king's advocate in Scotland.
And, the more closely we look into this case, we see the
more clearly the absolute necessity of the ' Great Rebel-
lion ' that broke out some thirty years after, if the
English constitution, with all its time-honoured maclii-
nery of courts for the administration of justice, was to be
regarded as anything but an elaborate contrivance to
enable such a king as James I. to ' make,' to use his own
words, ' what likes him law and gospel.'

The profound artifice employed by Bacon in the
manufacture of the statement given above appears imm
this consideration, that, while there is most probably not
one word of truth in the story about the conversation
between the deceased nobleman and the anonymous
councillor of State, it is a fact that by the king's com-
mand Ilelwys, or Elwes, did ' set down his knowledge in
writing,' his letter being one of the suppressed documents
still in the State Paper Office ; ^ and it is also a fact, as
has been shown hi a former page, that the unfortunate
Elwes really did not know who poisoned Overbury,
though King James, who applied to him for information,
knew perfectly well. When I say ' suppressed,' I mean
that the letter as a whole was suppressed, for a short

1 Tliis letter has been printed by Mr. Amos (pp. 186-188), I have in
preceding pages given tome very important e.\tracts from it.


extract from it was read upon Weston's trial, as contain-
ing the information that led to the judicial proceedings.
Now Bacon's invention of the story about the deceased
nobleman and the anonymous councillor of State proves
that there was some strong reason for concealing the
true history of tlie discovery. What was the true history
of the discovery ? and what was the strong reason the
king and his attorney-general had for concealing it ?

We have seen that one of the most important of the
suppressed examinations, which has fortunately been
preserved, is that of Edward Eyder, ' all of his own hand-
writing, taken this 9th of November, 1615, upon his
oath ' — this heading being written in Sir E. Coke's hand-
writing. We have seen that Edward Eyder stated that
about the beginning of November, 1615, Dr. Lobell, the
father of Lobell the French apothecary said to him that
Sir Thomas Overbury ' was not poisoned, but died of a
consumption proceeding of melancholy, by reason of his
imprisonment ; ' that about a week after he (Eyder) and
his wife met by accident with Dr. Lobell and his wife
near Merchant Tailors' Hall ; that he asked Dr. Lobell
what he now heard about the death of Sir Thomas
Overbury, telling him that it was manifest that he was
poisoned, and also that he heard it was done by an
apothecary's boy in Lime Street, near to Mr. Garret's,
speaking as if he knew not that it was his son's boy,
although ' I knew,' to quote the exact words of the de-
position, ' that it was his son's boy that did the deed ; and
]\Irs. Lobell standing by, hearing me say that he dwelt
by Mr. Garret, and that he was run away, she, looking
upon her husband, said in French, " Oh ! mon mari,"
&c., that is, " Oh ! husband, that was WiUiam you sent

SIR THOMAS oj'Eiiisrnr. 455

into France" (<»r to tliat efTcct), who, slie said, was his
son's man ; whereupon tlie old man, as it seemed to me,
looking upon liis wife, his teetli did chatter as if he
trembled.' liyderalso asked Lobell whether the boy was
an Enfdishman or a stran<:^er. Lobell answered lie was
an Englislunan, and his parents dwelt in Friday Street.

This suppressed examination of Ryder, and the accounts
given of the discovery of the murder by Wilson and
Weldon, afford information to each other. Wilson, wlio,
as Mr. Amos has justly remarked,^ from being the inti-
mate friend of Lord Essex, the Countess of Somerset's
injured husband, is entitled to peculiar attention in regard
to these transactions, relates that the discovery of Over-
bury 's murder arose ' from the apothecary's boy that gave
Sir T. Overbury the clyster falhng sick at Flushing, and
revealing the whole matter, wdiich Sir R. Winwood, by
his correspondents, had a full relation of.' Weldon con-
firms Wilson, and says that the name of the apothecary's
l)oy was Reeve, and that he was afterwards an apothecary
in London. Weldon further relates that Thoumbal, the
foreiiin a^rent. w^ould not commit the story he had heard
to writing, but only informed Secretary Winwood tliat he
had a secret of importance to comnumicate if a license
for his returning to England could be obtained, which
was accordingly granted.

The significance of the questions asked by Mr. Amos
will now be seen. ' It will naturally be asked, why was
not Mayerne produced as a witness at the Earl of Somer-
set's trial? Why was not Lobell interrogated more
particularly as to the cause of Sir T. Overbury 's death ?
Why was not the imputation cast upon Lobell of having

> The Great Oyer of Poisoning, p. 103.


beeu concerned in poisoning Sir T. Overbury probed to
the bottom ? Why was not the relation attributed to
Weston, that an apotliecary poisoned Sir T. Overbury
with a clyster for a reward of 20/., further inquired into
in any of Weston's or Franklin's numerous examinations ?
Why was the true history of the discovery of the murder
concealed? — a question of more pregnant importance,
seeing that authorities concur in attributing the discovery
of the plot to tlie confession of an apprentice of an
apothecary placed in charge of Overbury by the king's
chief physician.^ What answer could have been given
if Somerset had demanded why Mayerne, the king's chief
physician, was not produced as a witness? or why his
prescriptions for Overbury were not forthcoming, which
he was writing during the whole period of Overbury's
imprisonment, and which Lobell had delivered into the
hands of tlie Chief Justice ? Or if Somerset had asked
whether the discovery of tlie plot had not really been
made through the medium of Lobell's apprentice ? And
if he had urged the peers to consider why Lobell had not
been put upon his trial, and was still at large ? ' ^

It is evident, from the words of the examination of Eyder

' I also told him [Dr. Lobell, the father of Lobell the

French apothecary] that I heard it was done by an
apothecary's boy in Lime Street, near to Mr. Garret's,
speaking as if I knew not that it was his son's boy,
although I knew that it was his son's boy that did the
deed ' — that the true story of the murder of Overbury
was known at least to some persons at the time, for
Eyder speaks of his positive knowledge that it was Lobell's
apprentice that ' did the deed.' And the links of the

» Amos, The Great Oyer of Poisoning, pp. 105, 160. ^ juj^ p_ 49i_


chain between Lobcll's ' boy ' and King James are neitlier
nunieruus nor obscure — Lobell's boy, Lobell, Mayerne,
King James.

Eyder's deposition proves that the circumstances of
Overbury's death were well known to Kyder ; and the
terms in which Kyder mentions his knowledge lead to the
inference that those circumstances were well known to
many other persons. At that time so great was the power
of the government and so small the liberty of the sub-
ject, and consequently of the press, that any crime
perpetrated by the government might have any colour
})ut upon it by authority without fear of public contra-
diction. And yet the very fact of the government's
taking the trouble to put a fair colour u[)on foul deeds
proves that there was beginning to exist, though in a
very feeble and infantile state, a sort of public opinion.
Under these circumstances the fierce hostility which
Overbury had excited against himself in the Countess of
Somerset was a most fortunate incident as regarded the
king ; and I think that Mr. Amos's hypothesis is true as
well as ingenious. Mr. Amos says : ' If the contrition of
the sick apothecary's apprentice, which is spoken of b}-
several writers of credit, had begun to excite curiosity
and inquiry into the circumstances of Overbury's death,
might not King James, sup])osing he had really " put
Overbury out of the way " in the manner suggested, have
seized with avidity on the godsend twin-plot of the
Countess of Somerset, which he might luckil}" have dis-
covered about the same time, or, more probably, which
he had been long aware of, but of which, as of the
Gunpowder Plot, he invented a sham discovery.' ^

' Amos, pp. 494, 495.


Yet this was not all the case ; for though the contrition
of the apothecary's apprentice might have been considered
a troublesome and untoward event, the power of the
divinity of kingship was then so great that the poisoning
of a knight, or even a peer, was a small matter. But
there were other matters below the surface. The poison-
ing of the heir to the throne was a more grave affair,
which might prove dangerous. And moreover Over-
bury's death might be made subservient to a double
purpose : first, the getting rid of a disagreeable person in
Overbury himself; and, secondly, the getting rid of a
person once a favourite, but no longer such, in Somerset.

Bacon, as the king's attorney-general, was of course
entrusted with the legal management of the prosecution of
Somerset ; but he appears hardly to have taken a single
step without first consulting the king, who postilled with
his own hand the intended charges, and instructed his
obsequious and astute attorney-general so to arrange
matters as not to drive Somerset to desperation. The
result of Bacon's communications with the king was, that
Bacon probably knew more of the terrible secrets which
gave Monson and Somerset their power over the king than
any other individual out of the esoteric royal circle.

I have in the preceding essay given the evidence bear-
ing on the death of Prince Henry which was suppressed
at the trials of those who were executed for the murder
of Overbury. This evidence Bacon submitted to King
James for his opinion as to the expediency of using it at
the trial of Somerset. But the king positively prohibited
him from making any use of it, in terms which certainly
do not convey any satisfactory conclusions that it was
false evidence. Thus to Bacon's proposition, ' I shall also


give in evidence the slight account of that letter which
was brought to Somerset by Ashton, being found in the
fields soon after the late prince's death, and was directed
to Antwerp, containing these words "tliat the first
branch was cut from the tree, and that he should, ere
long, send happier and joy fuller news," ' the postill of the
king is, 'This evidence cannot be given iu without
making me his accuser, and that upon a very sliglit
ground.' ^ And to the words of Bacon, ' That Somerset,
with others, would have preferred Lowbell the apotlie-
cary to prince Charles,' the king's postill is ' Nothing
yet proved against Lowbell.' Now the important exami-
nation of Eyder taken by Coke, and given before in tliis
essay, is a pretty strong piece of evidence as regards
what could be proved against Lobell. And what could
be proved against Lobell and also against Mayerne, no
one knew better than King James.

We have seen, in that affair which King James called
the Gowrie Conspiracy, that the great object of the king
was to raise a false issue, so as to tlirow the world in
general upon a wrong scent, and by that means to bury
the truth in eternal darkness. So in the trial of Somerset
the whole object of the king and of his attorney-general
Bacon was to put people on a wrong scent, for the

Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 35 of 40)