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purpose of preventing the public and even the judges
themselves from obtaining any insight into some terrible
secret, possessed by Somerset, the disclosure of which
might have risked the king's throne and even his life.
Wliat this secret was has given rise to much speculation.
Bacon the attorney-general, in his attempts to raise a

* State Trials, vol. ii. p. 9G4.

4G0 ass AYS ox historical truth.

false issue, and for the purpose of diverting the public
mind as well as the attention of the judges from the real
secret, put forward as the cause of the breach of friendship
between Somerset and Overbury, Overbury's knowledge of
a treasonable correspondence on the part of Somerset with
the court of Spain. But this was not the real secret.
When, in one of his examinations in the Tower by the
Lord Chancellor, the Duke of Lennox, and Bacon the
attorny-general, Somerset was charged with a treasonable
correspondence with Spain, he showed no emotion, but
said ' that he had such fortunes from his Majesty, as he
could not think of bettering his conditions from Spain.' ^
But when, on a subsequent day, they asked him some
question that touched the prince [Henry], he evinced
some emotion ; but none respecting the poisoning of
Overbury. Bacon's words are : ' We made this farther
observation ; that when we asked him some question
that did touch the prince or some foreign practice, which
we did very sparingly at this time, yet he grew a little
stirred, but in the questions of the empoisonment [of
Overbury] very cold and modest.' '^ The words in this
passage ' some foreign practice ' probably allude to the
same circumstance mentioned in a former page from the
examination of Franklin ; and Franklin's words are so
significant that they may be here repeated. They are
these, as copied, by Mr. Amos from the paper in Sir E.
Coke's handwriting in the State Paper Office, 'Do not
you. . . The king used an outlandish physican [Mayerne]
and an outlandish apothecary [probably Lobell] about

1 Letter from Sir F. Bacon, addressed to Sir George Villiers, dated
April 18, 1616. It is reprinted in Amos, p. 428.

* Letter from Sir F. Bacon to the king, without date, in Cabala, and re-
printed in Amofl, pp. 439, 440.


liiiii [rriiice Cliurlus] and ubout the lute prince [Henry
deceased ? Therein,' said he, ' lieth a long tale.' ^

It is here necessary to recall tlie reader's attention to
what has been said in a former page of this essay
respecting the two distinct agencies which were at work
for the destruction of Overbury by poison. Since the
king was the head of one of these agencies — the one, too
which really destroyed Overbury — and the Countess of
Somerset the head of the other which was to be held up
to the public as the one which did the murder, it was
necessary for the king's end to make it appear at
Somerset's trial that Somerset was concerned in that
agency of which his countess was the head. Xow the
main difficulty of Bacon, as the king's attorne}^ lay in
this, that, though it might probably have been proved
easily enough that Somerset was an accessory to the death
of Overbury as a member of that agency for Overbury 's
death of which the king was the head, the proof of
Somerset's having assisted his wife in her bungling attempt
to poison Overbury was — and Somerset's whole line of
conduct both before and at his trial showed him to be
fully aware of this — impossible without extraordinary
adroitness both in the management of what evidence
existed and in making evidence where what was wanted
did not exist.

As before mentioned it is not stated by Ilargrave and
Howell from what source they obtained their reports of
the trials of the Earl and Countess of Somerset. Mr. Amos
has printed another report of the trial of the Earl of
Somerset from an original manuscript in the State Paper

^ MS. ill the State Paper Office in Sir E. Coke'a luiiKh\ riting, printfd iu
Aiuos, p. 228.


Office, which is indorsed, apparently in the handwriting
of Sir E. Winwood, ' The Arraignment of the Earl of
Somerset.' This MS. report of the trial differs from the
printed report both in not containing some things which
are in the printed report, and in containing other things
which are omitted in the printed report. Among the
omissions is the following, which I will give with Mr. Amos's
comments on it.

It appears from this manuscript, that Lobell the apo-
thecary, in his examination stated that the Earl of
Somerset ' willed him to write to Doctor Maiot concern-
ing physick to be given to Overbury.'

The comment of Mr. Amos, who I think rightly says
that ' Maiot is probably Mayerne the king's physician,' is
this : ' This is a circmnstance very favourable for Somerset,
and it is omitted in the printed report.'^

This comment of Mr. Amos is made upon the sup-
position that Somerset was desirous that the physic which
Mayerne should give to Overbury should be for the
purpose of restoring his health. But is not this sup-
position quite inconsistent with Mr. Amos's own hypothesis
that Mayerne by the king's direction was at that very
time destroying Overbury by ' the constant repetition
of arsenic or other drugs, in small doses scientifically
administered ? ' ^^ And as I have before said, Somerset
was one of that small band of courtiers who were
acquainted with this among the other secrets of James's
court. The reason, then, of the omission of this from the
printed report would be not because it was ' a circum-
stance very favourable to Somerset,' but because it
pointed to the true cause of Overbury's death ; and if

* Amos, p. IIG. 2 Amos, p. 490.


followed up, would have led to a discovery of that true
cause, and of one of those secrets which Jauics was using
such extraordinary means to conceal. It is remarkable
with what care the name of Mayerne is kept out of ull the
reports of all these trials. I think it was for the puri)ose
of throwing a mist over the matter that the name is liere
written ' Maiot,' when Lobell the Frencli apothecary must
have known very well that ' Mayerne,' not ' ^laiot,' was
the man's name.

It is beyond a doubt tliat Somerset was in possession of
a secret of which tlic king dreaded the disclosure to an
extent which is well described by Weldon when he says :
' But who had seen the king's restless motion all that day
[the day of Somerset's trial], sending to every boat he
saw landing at the bridge, cursing all that came without
tidings, would have easily judged all was not right, and
there had been some grounds for his fears of Somerset's
boldness ; but at last one bringing him word he was con-
dennicd, and the passages, all was quiet ; ' and when he
describes the effect of the relation of Sir George More,
the Lieutenant of the Tower, of Somerset's language and
demeanour on the night before his trial on the king, to
whose bedside he was admitted after midnight, the king
' falling into a passion of tears ' and saying, ' On my soul.
More, I wot not what to do ; ' and the precautions taken
next day at the trial — ' two servants placed on each side
of Somerset, with a cloak on their arms, and a peremptory
order given them, if that Somerset did any way fly out
on the king, they should instantly hoodwink him
with tlicir cloak, take him violently from the bar, and
cany liini away '' — all these things naturally suggest the

' Weldon's Court of King James, pp. 115-119: Loudon, 1G51. Wei-


further question, in what way was Somerset most hkely
to ' fly out on the king ? '

Before the discovery by Mr. Amos of some of the sup-
pressed examinations taken by Sir Edward Coke, this
question was more hmited in its scope, which was sup-
posed to comprehend two branches, either of which was
however admitted, even by those who were inclined to
view Kinfj James's character in the least unfavourable
light, to have reference to deeds of a very black and
flagitious nature. ' Tlie fatal secret,' says Sir Walter Scott,
'■ is by some supposed to refer to the death of Prince
Henry; but a cause yet more flagitious will occur to
those who have remarked certain passages in the letters
between the King and Buckingham, published by Lord
Hailes.' ^

These words of Sir Walter Scott, the more remarkable
as coming from one who has dealt in the manner he has
done wnth the Gowrie case, are important as placing King
James between the horns of a somewhat ugly dilemma.
The secret of which Somerset was in possession referred,
according to Sir Walter Scott's view, to one of two crimes.
It either referred to the murder by James of his own son,
or to ' a cause yet more flagitious.' That it referred to the
murder of Prince Henry may be concluded from the
following reasons. The ' cause yet more flagitious' hinted

don's account of this matter, which he says he and a friend had from
INIore's own mouth in Wanstead Park, has received confinnation by four
letters in King James's handwriting to Sir George More, published in the
Archseologia, vol. xviii. They were first published in 1835 by A. J. Kemp,
Esq., and the original letters are stated by him to have been then in the
possession of James More Molyneux, Esq., of Losely, Surrey.

^ Sir Walter Scott's note in his edition of Somers's Tracts, vol. ii. p. 488.
See also Sir Walter Scott's notes to Somers's Tracts, vol. ii. pp. 2.33, 355,
202, et seq.


at by Sir Wiilter Scott was a secret common to Somerset
with all King James's 'minions.' ]^nt the other secret
was participated in by Overbury, who not being one of the
' minions,' could not have anticipated, from his being
the confidental friend of a 'minion,' what he anticipates
in these words which he Avrote irom the Tower to
Somerset : ' You and I, ere it be long, will come to a public
trial of another nature : 1 on the rack, you at your ease.' ^
Now, assuming that Overbury was cognisant of the crime
' yet more flagitious ' hinted at by Scott, it is altogether
improbable that he referred to that when he mentioned a
public trial, and the apphcation of the rack to himself. The
use of the rack, which though then generally acknowledged
by lawyers to be illegal, was nevertheless frequently
resorted to by virtue of what was called the royal pre-
rogative which under the Tudors and the first Stuarts
overrode the law, was however confined to state crimes,
to treason in all its many branches. Now the being an
accessory to the murder of a prince, the heir to the
throne, would undoubtedly be eminently a case for the
use of the rack. The knowledge by Overbury of the exist-
ence of the other crime called by Scott 'yet more
fiafritious ' than a man's murder of his eldest son, the heir
to the throne, would clearly not be such a case.

Somerset wrote a letter to the King, the tone of which,

^ State Trials, vol. ii. p. 972. Bacon's works, vol. iii. Birch's edition.
Somers's Tracts, vol. ii p. 351, note. It is right to state that there is no
mention of the ' rack ' in the MS. report of the trial in the State Paper Office.
— See AniO!<, p. 134. But this omission may be merely owing to the cause
thus stated by Mr. Amos : * The two letters written by Overbury whilst in
the Tower to Somerset correspond closely in substance, but difl'er throughout
in expressions. The reports might not improbably seem to be those of two
ditlerent persons hearing letters read, and not being very expert in short-
hand writing.' — Amos, p. 115.



though enigmatical, was such as to quite bear out the
report of Weklon that Somerset said that James durst
not proceed against him.^ If James could have but got
rid of Somerset too as he had already done with so many
by poison, it would have saved him much trouble and

The circumstance before commented on of Somerset's
being in comunication with Lobell concerning ' physic to
Overbury ' naturally leads to the remark that King James's
great anxiety about the result of Somerset's trial is to be
attributed to his dread of the disclosure of another secret
distinct from either of those indicated above — a secret
which also explains one of the mysterious passages in
Somerset's letter to the king, namely, ' I fell rather for
want of well defending, than by the violence or force of any
proofs.' For the king might well be somewhat anxious
aboul the behaviour of a prisoner whom he was putting
upon his trial for a crime which had been committed by
the king himself, even though the said prisoner might
have been an accessory to that crime, the king being
the principal. This, I am inchned to think, was the
principle cause of Somerset's confidence, of his saying ' I
am confident in my own cause, and am come hither to
defend it.' He knew the truth too well not to know
that he could not be proved guilty by tlie course which
the attorney-general was compelled to adopt. As he
knew that it was not the Countess of Somerset's artilleiy
of poisons tliat destroyed Overbury, he knew that he
could not, if the evidence were fairly dealt with, be

1 See the Letter in Somers's Tracts, vol. ii. pp. 355, 356, note ; and State
Trials, vol. ii. p. 998, et seq. The important passages of the letter are re-
printed by Mr. Amos, pp. 470, 477.


proved guilty of Overbury's murder as an accomplice of
tlie Countess of Somerset; and lie also knew that no
attem[)t would l)e made to prove him guilty of that crime,
in the only way he could really have been proved guilty,
namely, as an accomplice of King James.

This view of the case is further confirmed by some
passages in the letters referred to in a preceding page
written by King James to Sir George More, Lieutenant of
the Tower, and also by some words in a memorandum in
the handwriting of the early part of the seventeenth
century, probably the handwriting of Sir George More
himself, on the envelope in which those letters were
enclosed. The memorandum states that Somerset 'hearing
that he should come to his arraignment, began to speak
big words touching on the king's reputation and honour ;'
and further that Somerset ' ever stood on his innocency,
and would never be brought to confess that he had any
hand with Ms wife m the poisoning of Overbury, knew
not of it, nor consented unto it,'

The words which I have marked in itahcs, ' with his
wife^ are to be particularly noted as denying only that he
(Somerset) had any share in the Countess of Somerset's
proceedings for poisoning Overbury. But this, it will be
observed, does not exclude his having any part in the
king's proceedings for the poisoning of Overbury. And this
view is further supported by the following words in the
third of the four letters written by King James with his
own hand to Sir George More — which words also clearly
indicate the subject-matter of the conference Sir George
More had with Kmg James in the night preceding the day
of Somerset's trial — ' I am extremly sorry that your unfor-
tunate prisoner turns all the great care I have of hun not


only against himself, but against me also, as far as he can.
I cannot blame you, that you cannot conjecture what this
may be, for God knows it is only a trick of his idle brain,
hoping thereby to shift his trial ; but it is easy to be seen
that he would threaten me with laying an aspersion upon
me of being in some sort accessory to his crime.'

This, it will be perceived, explains distinctly the whole
mystery of a case, which, as Mr. Amos has remarked,
' lias puzzled the nation down to the present day.' ^
These words in King James's letter would appear to have
escaped the particular notice of Mr. Amos, though he has
reprinted all the letters in fuU.^ If Mr. Amos had seen
the full force of the circumstances brought to view in
these pages for the first time so far as I know, he would
have seen that they give to his ingenious hj^Dothesis the
character I might almost say, of a clearly established

1 Amos, p. 494. ^ j^^ pp_ 473-476.




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Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 36 of 40)