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Memoirs of the court of King James the First : in two volumes (Volume 2) online

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the continent, Overbury on his return had attracted
the notice of viscount Rochester, who, duly sensible
by this time of his own deficiencies in all the quali-
fications of a minister of state, had not only availed
himself of his assistance in the capacity of a secre-
tary, but had adopted him as a confidential friend,
and, according to the expression of lord Bacon, look-
ed to him as to "an oracle of direction." James
had knighted him as an earnest of further promo-
tion, and the whole tribe of suitors and court-expect-
ants paid homage to him as the favorite's favorite.

In the midst of these flattering prospects a sud-
den reverse had overtaken him, the occasion of which
is thus related : The king, without any previous in-
timation of his purpose, sent two of his council to
propose to sir Thomas Overbury an embassy, to
France or Flanders according to some, but accord-
ing to others, and it is the more probable state-
men^ to Russia. Alarmed and disconcerted at the
offer, which he regarded in no other light than a



specious banishment from the scene of all his con-
sequence and all his hopes, Overbury, on some pre-
text of health, declined the employment, and, being
further urged, was at length provoked to add, that
the king could not, in law or in justice, force him
to forsake his country. This answer was deemed
a heinous contempt ; and James in great wrath or-
dered him to be committed to the Tower. Roches-
ter was at this time confined by illness, and it was
at first imagined that this severity against his friend
had been inflicted without his concurrence and por-
tended his fall. But the king himself took pains to
dispel this illusion by declaring to his council the
next day, respecting the -viscount, Cf that he meant
him daily more honor and favor, as should be seen
in short time, and that he took more delight and con-
tentment in his company and conversation than in
any man's living 51 .' 3 Orders were however given,
that the unfortunate prisoner should be kept in the
closest custody, and sir Robert Killigrew was "com-
mitted to the Fleet from the council-table for having


some little speech with sir Thomas Overbury, who
called to him as he passed by his window, as he
came from visiting sir Walter Raleigh V To such
a height, it may be observed, was the long-esta-
blished abuse of illegal imprisonment at this time
carried !

Precisely at this juncture, the court-correspondent
of Winwood informed him, that there had been

a Winwood, iii. 453. b Ibid. iii. 455.



mention of lady Essex's suing* for a divorce from her
husband,, but that an accident had happened which
had altered the case : " For she, having- sought out
a certain wise woman., had much conference with
her, and she., after the nature of such creatures,
drawing much money from her, at last cozened her
of a jewel of great value ; for which being appre-
hended and clapped up,, she accused the lady of di-
vers strange questions and projects ; and in conclu-
sion., that she dealt with her for the making away
of her lord., as aiming at another mark. Upon which
scandal and slander, the lord-chamberlain and his
friends think it not fit to proceed in the divorce*."
The connection between this infamous affair and
the imprisonment of Overbury became in the sequel
but too evident.

The "other mark" at which the countess of Es-
sex aimed was a marriage with viscount Rochester,
to compass which she scrupled no wickedness against
her husband, no opprobrium to herself: the circum-
stances of the case were these : The earl of Essex
and lady Prances Howard, eldest daughter of the
earl of Suffolk, had submitted to the marriage cere-
mony at the immature age then customary ; after
which the husband was sent to travel, and the wife
was brought to court, where she soon became a
reigning beauty. Regardless of the claims of a
spouse who returned to her at the end of three or
four years, almost a stranger, she pitched upon the
royal favourite as the only conquest worthy of her

a Winwood, iii. 455.

VOL. i. 2 F charms ;


charms ; and with an excess of female depravity to
which English story fortunately affords few parallels,
she set herself to accomplish his seduction not alone
by the artifices and blandishments of wanton beauty,
but by the atrocious agency of those vile impostors
who pretended to command the affections by spells,
by sorceries, and by philtres. Rochester was speedily
insnared. and Overburv became the confident of his

^ /

illicit passion,, to which it seems that he had the mean-
ness so far to lend himself as to indite the love-letters
of the illiterate viscount. But when Overbury per-
ceived that a marriage with his patron was the con-
summation sought by the countess, to which a scan-
dalous divorce procured by perjury and artifice must
serve as the means, his judgement, if not his con-
science, revolted against the design; and with great
vehemence of zeal, and many expressions of bitter
contumely against the lady, he remonstrated with him
on the enormous folly of making a woman stained with
such public reproach and infamy his wife. Roches-
ter, with the usual treachery of a man so infatuated,
repeated to his fury -mistress the rash discourse of his
friend ; she vowed vengeance, and having succeeded
in rousing the indignation of her lover, persuaded
him to take effectual means for the removal of so
importunate a witness of their conduct.

For this purpose, the favorite complained to the
weak monarch whom he governed, that Overbury,
presuming upon the intimacy to which he had in-
cautiously admitted him, had now become insuffer-
ably insolent and headstrong ; and he suggested the



expedient of sending* him on a distant embassy. At
the same time, he perfidiously encouraged this un-
happy victim to persist in his refusal of the proffered
mission, undertaking within a short time to pacify
the king and procure his liberation.

By degrees Overbury became indignant at the
prolongation of his imprisonment and perhaps sus-
picious of its cause ; and presuming upon the im-
portance,, and it may be the infamy, of the secrets
with which he had been intrusted, he sometimes
ventured to address his patron in a strain more re-
proachful than supplicatory, demanding his enlarge-
ment with urgent importunities, not unaccompanied
by menaces of disclosure. But the rancour of the
countess was implacable, and Rochester, judging
that Overbury was already too much injured to be
safely forgiven, consented to take other means to
secure his silence. As an indispensable preliminary,
he obtained of James the dismissal of the lieutenant
of the Tower, and placed in his stead sir Gervase
Elways, an instrument fit for the purpose. Mrs.
Turner, the agent employed by lady Essex in her
flagitious attempts against her husband, was next
put in action, and commanded to employ the most
effectual of the black arts which she professed, that
of poisoning, against the life of the helpless prisoner.
She and her associates proceeded at first with cau-
tion ; judging it less hazardous to destroy the con-
stitution of their destined victim by what might ap-
pear the gradual progress of natural disease, than
to hurry him off the scene with a suspicious sudden-

2 F 2 ness.


ness. But repeated experiments having- convinced
them of the inefficacy of those accounted slow poi-
sons., and their noble employers expressing impa-
tience under the delay., because the liberation of
Overbury could not be much longer deferred,, re-
course was had to more vigorous measures ; and in
September 1613, an agonising death, occasioned by
the administration of corrosive sublimate,, ended the
sufferings of this unhappy man, after a lingering
affliction of half a year, during which time he was
debarred the sight of every friend he had in the
world, and exposed without defence to the barba-
rous attempts incessantly renewed by the wretches
who had undertaken his destruction. The event
excited just suspicion ; especially when it appeared,
that the body, negligently wrapped in a sheet, had
been hurried to the grave on the very day of the
death, without awaiting either the inspection or even
arrival of any friend of the deceased, and without
the holding of a coroner's inquest.

Under these circumstances, a kinsman of Over-
bury's was urged to take some steps towards pro-
curing an inquiry ; but the rank and power of the
offenders defeated the attempt, and notwithstanding
the sinister rumors which still prevailed, the affair
was suffered to rest for the present, and the aban-
doned instruments of the murder, with their still
more atrocious employers, were left to flatter them-
selves with the hope that their iniquity had finally
escaped the cognisance of human justice.

Meantime every thing proceeded to the wish of



the guilty lovers. The king, whose base good-na-
ture was insensible of guilt or shame in gratifying
any desire of any of his favorites, not only autho-
rised, but promoted with the utmost zeal, the suit
for annulling 1 the marriagre of the countess of Essex.

o o

Twelve commissioners, half of them bishops and
half civilians, were appointed for the decision of the
cause ; and when the archbishop of Canterbury had
stated in writing his reasons for not acceding to a
sentence which appeared to him equally contrary to
law, to scripture, and to good morals, his majesty
descended from the decorum of his station so far as
to draw up a reply to these objections. But the arch-
bishop himself, the bishop of London and three of
the civilians, remained unconvinced by the royal
arguments, and unawed by the extraordinary earnest-
ness with which they were obtruded ; and they per-
sisted in publishing their honorable protest against
the sentence of nullity which their more obsequious
coadjutors suffered themselves to gratify the king-
and his favorite by pronouncing.

No sooner w r as this essential point gained, than
James, in order to spare the destined bride the mor-
tification of any loss in point of rank, created viscount
Rochester earl of Somerset ; and in February 1614
their marriage was celebrated within the court
itself, with a pomp and prodigality scarcely inferior
in any respect to that which had attended the nup-
tials of the princess. The king in person gave away
the bride ; a sumptuous mask was exhibited by the
courtiers, which we may hope that Jonson had de-


clined the degrading task of composing-, since it was
the work of some far inferior hand. A similar en-
tertainment was presented by the gentlemen of
Gray's Inn,, whose repugnance to this contemptible
act of sycophancy Bacon claimed for himself the
entire merit of vanquishing- ; and the city gave on
the occasion a splendid feast, to which the king, the
queen and all the court were invited. The people
however beheld this triumph of shameless profligacy
with sentiments of indignation and horror, and there
was no single transaction of the whole reign which
so deeply injured in public opinion either James
himself or the bishops, whose disgraceful subservi-
ency was commented upon by the puritans with all
the zeal of virtuous reprobation, and all the bitter-
ness of party spirit. A knighthood to the son of one
of these right reverend judges appeared to have been
part of the price offered for the prelate's compliance
with the royal wish ; and popular contempt fixed
upon him for life the title of sir Nullity Bilson.

The only motive which ever impelled king James
to assemble the great council of the nation, urged
him to issue writs for the meeting of a new parlia-
ment in the spring of 1614. The dread with which
the monarch always prepared to meet his people,
had been on this occasion much assuaged by the
efforts of a band of courtiers headed by the earl of
Somerset and called undertakers, who had engaged,
by a dextrous employment of their interest in diffe-
rent parts of the country, to procure a majority trac-
table to the wishes of the king. But they had over-


rated their influence; this house of commons proved
even less accommodating than its predecessor; and
James,, finding that, instead of entering- upon the
business of supplies,, they were preparing to call in
question the arbitrary levies of the customs, and his
other irregular modes of raising money, dissolved
them, with all the precipitation of alarm, before they
had time to pass a single bill ; whence this obtained
the name of the addle parliament.

His majesty next proceeded to wreak his ven-
geance upon the champions of the constitution by
throwing into prison a considerable number of the
most active members, and sending others against
their will to execute some pretended commission in
Ireland. This mode of oppression had previously been
exercised by Henry VIII., who is recorded to have
sent two refractory citizens of London, on their refu-
sal to lend him money, to serve as common soldiers in
the same island. On the strength of this precedent,
the royal mandate was obeyed by the obnoxious mem-
bers, either from an erroneous opinion that it was one
which could not legally be resisted, or because they
dreaded an arbitrary commitment for a contempt,
as had been practised in the case of Overbury.

In June 1614 died, in his 75th year, Henry How-
ard earl of Northampton. This nobleman set out
in life the portionless younger son of that victim of
tyranny the accomplished earl of Surry, and his ca-
reer seemed expressly calculated to show the world
how much baseness could be made compatible with
the noblest birth, the most accomplished education,



and talents which had early attracted general regard.
It was at Cambridge that he received his education,
where, according to bishop Godwin, he was styled
"the learnedest amongst the nobility, and the most
noble amongst the learned." He is said to have after-
wards travelled during several years, and on his re-
turn to have vainly sought preferment at court; but
the early part of his life is involved in great obscu-
rity, and the first historical notice of him occurs in
the year 1582, when, on occasion of the plot for
which Francis Throgmorton suffered death, lord
Henry Howard is enumerated among the catholic
noblemen and gentlemen who were subjected to
severe examinations by the privy-council ; but no-
thing appearing against him, he was dismissed :
He seems however to have been long and deeply
involved in the intrigues of his party. Lady Bacon,
in a letter written to her son Anthony in 1595, to
caution him against contracting any intimacy with
lord Henry, affirms that he is "a subtile papist in-
wardly and lieth in wait ;" adding, that the duke his
brother might still have been alive, cc but for his
practising and still soliciting him, to the duke's ruin;"
and that so might also his nephew the earl of Arun-
del. "Avoid his familiarity," she adds, "as you
love the truth and yourself. A very instrument of
the Spanish papists. For he, pretending courtesy,
worketh mischief perilously. I have long known
him and observed him ; his workings have been
stark naught." And well were these maternal warn-
ings justified by the result. This nobleman has



been justly stigmatised as "the greatest flatterer
and calumniator of the age." He continued to pay
most obsequious homage to lord Burleigh, at the
same time that, in one of his letters to the earl of
Essex, whom he addressed in a style of adulation
treading on the very brink of profaneness, he says,
speaking of the lord-treasurer and his son Robert,
Cf If you could once be as fortunate in dragging
old Leviathan and his cub, tortuosum colubrum as
the prophet termeth them, out of this den of mis-
chievous device, the better part of the world would
prefer your virtue before that of Hercules/ 3 It was
long ere his arts of insinuation were able to prevail
over the better judgement of queen Elizabeth and
the suspicion with which she had good reason to re-
gard the house of Howard : towards the end of her
reign, however, he crept into her favor, which he is
believed to have repay ed, after his own manner, by
betraying the seditious counsels of the earl of Essex.
To complete his perfidy, he consented to become the
instrument of Robert Cecil, whom he seemed to hate,
for carrying on his correspondence with James.

This prince, whom the pedantry and the servilit} of
Howard were equally formed to please, received him,
immediately on his accession, into favor and office.
He rapidly became warden of the Cinque ports,
privy-councillor, lord-privy-seal, earl of Northamp-
ton; and after the death of Salisbury, the chancellor-
ship of the university of Cambridge was added to
his honors. The peculiar fervor of zeal displayed
by him in the prosecution of the conspirators in the
powder-plot, was doubtless a piece of acting calcu-


lated to deceive men as to his true religion,, and to
cloak the favor which he still found means to extend
to the ecclesiastics and other obnoxious members of
his own communion. But the popular sentiment
appears to havebeen uniformly just towards him; and
it should seem that Somerset, though a minion,, did
not become generally odious till it was observed, that
Northampton had succeeded the unfortunate Over-
bury in his confidence, and that the authority of the
favorite was employed in screening priests and Jesuits
from the penalties of the law, and enabling them to
propagate their tenets with impunity.

It is said, that a very short time before the death
of Northampton, he prosecuted a person in the star-
chamber for calling him a papist, who would have
been punished according to the tender mercies of
that tribunal, had not Abbot produced a letter ad-
dressed by the earl to cardinal Bellarmine, in which
he declared, that notwithstanding the temper of the
times compelled him to dissemble, and the king him-
self urged him to turn protestant, his heart was still
with the catholics, and he should be ready to aid
them in any attempt. To the shock of this expo-
sure, his almost immediate death is imputed by the
author who relates the circumstance; but a letter of
sir Henry Wotton's proves beyond dispute that he
sunk under the consequences of a surgical operation.
The event however was extremely opportune, since
it preserved him from the additional infamy, as well
as danger, with which he was menaced by the dis-
covery of Overbury's murder. The conduct pur-
sued by him in this black transaction, and in the in-


trigue from which it sprung, stands unrivalled in the
annals of profligacy and baseness. From the letters
read on the trials of the surviving criminals, it ap-
peared, that, for the sake of ingratiating himself
with the favorite, this monster had consented to be-
come the ageat of his niece in her adulterous com-
merce with Somerset, that he had been a principal
promoter of the iniquitous divorce, in which he knew
that lady Essex could only prevail by shameless per-
juries and by the subornation of witnesses; and
finally, that he was not only privy to the poisoning
of Overbury, but actively instrumental in the steps
taken for the concealment of the crime and the se-
curity of the perpetrators. Two of his letters to
the lieutenant of the Tower, giving urgent direc-
tions for the speedy and secret burial of the body,
under the guise of expressing the anxiety of the
earl of Somerset that all funeral honors should be be-
stowed on his unfortunate friend, whose deliverance
he was about to make an extraordinary effort to ob-


tain, may be regarded as forming one of the most
atrocious records of crafty villainy in our language.

Northampton was the author of some political and
some devotional pieces, written in the same dark
and pedantic style which he also employed in his
numerous letters of business and of compliment, and
his piety is much commended by certain writers, be-
cause, dying unmarried, he bequeathed a large por-
tion of his ill-gotten wealth to charitable purposes.

A second visit of the jovial king of Denmark in
1614_, gave occasion to a fresh round of brilliant
festivities ; but it must be confessed that the hospi-


tality of James was not thrown away upon this mo-
narch, who was wealthy, and who appears to have
accommodated his royal brother-in-law with the loan,
or gift; of very considerable sums of money, which
no scruples of pride or delicacy restrained his Bri-
tannic majesty from accepting. James, in fact, was
in no situation to listen to either, where pecuniary
assistance was concerned. His embarrassment* aug-
mented daily, and, after revolving various projects,
it was by a benevolence that he determined to sup-
ply the place of a parliamentary grant; for which
method of illegal exaction he had the example of
one or two of the most arbitrary of his predecessors.
The sheriffs of the counties were ordered to de-
mand of all persons of substance within their re-
spective limits, a free gift proportioned to the ne-
cessities of the king ; and they were at the same
time instructed carefully to return to the privy-coun-
cil the names of such as should refuse to contribute,
who were thus marked out for the perpetual hosti-
lity of the court. But the rising spirit of resistance
to arbitrary power impeded in a great degree the
success of this attempt. James gained by it little
more, it is said, than 50,OOOZ., and, in return, he sub-
mitted to lose for ever the confidence and the af-
fections of the great body of the English nation,


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Online LibraryLucy AikinMemoirs of the court of King James the First : in two volumes (Volume 2) → online text (page 28 of 28)