1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Thomas Overbury

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 1:113-20.



Sir THOMAS OVERBURY was son of Nicholas Overbury, Esq; of Burton in Gloucestershire, one of the Judges of the Marches. He was born with very bright parts, and gave early discoveries of a rising genius. In 1595, the 14th year of his age, he became a gentleman commoner in Queen's-College in Oxford: and in 1598, as a squire's son, he took the degree of batchelor of arts; he removed from thence to the Middle-Temple, in order to study the municipal law, but did not long remain there. His genius, which was of a sprightly kind, could not bear the confinement of a student, or the drudgery of reading law; he abandoned it therefore, and travelled into France, where he so improved himself in polite accomplishments, that when he returned he was looked upon as one of the most finished gentlemen about court.

Soon after his arrival in England, he contrasted an intimacy, which afterwards grew into friendship with Sir Robert Carre, a Scotch gentleman a favourite with King James, and afterwards earl of Somerset. Such was the warmth of friendship in which these two gentlemen lived, that they were inseparable. Carre could enter into no scheme, nor pursue any measures, without the advice and concurrence of Overbury, nor could Overbury enjoy any felicity but in the company of him he loved; their friendship was the subject of court conversation, and their genius seemed so much alike, that it was reasonable to suppose no breach could ever be produced between them; but such it seems is the power of woman, such the influence of beauty, that when the sacred ties of friendship are broke assunder by the magic energy of these superior charms. Carre fell in love with lady Frances Howard, daughter to the Earl of Suffolk, and lately divorced from the Earl of Essex. He communicated his passion to his friend, who was too penetrating not to know that no man could live with much comfort with a woman of the Countess's stamp, of whose morals he had a bad opinion; he insinuated to Carre some suspicions, and those well founded, against her honour, he dissuaded him with all the warmth of the sincerest friendship, to desist from a match that would involve him in misery, and not to suffer his passion for her beauty to have so much sway over him, as to make him sacrifice his peace to its indulgence.

Carre, who was desperately in love, for getting the ties of honour as well as friendships communicated to the lady, what Overbury had said of her, and they who have read the heart of woman, will be at no loss to conceive what reception she gave that unwelcome report. She knew, that Carre was immoderately attached to Overbury, that he was directed by his Council in all things, and devoted to his interest.

Earth has no curse like love to hatred turn'd
Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorn'd,

This was literally verified in the case of the countess; she let loose all the rage of which she was capable against him, and as she panted for the consummation of the match between Carre and her, she so influenced the Viscount, that he began to conceive a hatred likewise to Overbury; and while he was thus subdued by the charms of a wicked woman, he seemed to change his nature, and from the gentle, easy, accessible, good-natured man he formerly appeared, he degenerated into the sullen, vindictive, and implacable. One thing with respect to the countess ought not to be omitted. She was wife of the famous Earl of Essex, who afterwards headed the army of the parliament against the King, and to whom the imputation of impotence was laid. The Countess, in order to procure a divorce from her husband, gave it out that tho she had been for some time in a married state, she was yet a virgin, and which it seems sat very uneasy upon her. To prove this, a jury of matrons were to examine her and give their opinion, whether she was, or was not a Virgin. This scrutiny the Countess did not care to undergo, and therefore entreated the favour that she might enter masked to save her blushes; this was granted her, and she took care to have a young Lady provided, of much the same size and exterior appearance, who personated her, and the jury asserted her to be an unviolated Virgin. This precaution in the Countess, no doubt, diminishes her character, and is a circumstance not favourable to her honour; for if her husband had been really impotent as she pretended, she needed not have been afraid of the search; and it proves that she either injured her husband, by falsely aspersing him, or that the had violated her honour with other men. But which ever of these causes prevailed, had the Countess been wise enough, she had no occasion to fear the consequences of a scrutiny; for if I am rightly informed, a jury of old women can no more judge accurately whether a woman has yielded her virginity, than they can by examining a dead body, know of what distemper the deceased died; but be that as it may, the whole affair is unfavourable to her modesty; it shows her a woman of irregular passions, which poor Sir Thomas Overbury dearly experienced; for even after the Count was happy in the embraces of the Earl of Somerset, she could not forbear the persecution of him; she procured that Sir Thomas should be nominated by the King to go ambassador to Russia, a destination she knew would displease him, it being then no better than a kind of honourable grave, she likewise excited Earl Somerset to seen against his friend, and to advise him strongly to refuse the embassy, and at the same time insinuate, that if he should, it would only be lying a few weeks in the Tower, which to a man well provided in all the necessaries, as well as comforts of life, had no great terror in it. This expedient Sir Thomas embraced, and absolutely refused to go abroad; upon which, on the twenty-first of April 1613, he was sent prisoner to the Tower, and put under the care of Sir Gervis Yelvis, then lord lieutenant. The Countess being so far successful, began now to conceive great hopes of compleating her scheme of assassination, and drew over the Earl of Somerset her husband, to her party, and he who a few years before, had obtained the honour of knighthood for Overbury, was now so enraged against him, that he coincided in taking measures to murder his friend.

Sir Gervis Yelvis, who obtained the lieutenancy by Somerset's interest, was a creature devoted to his pleasure. He was a needy man: totally destitute of any principles of honour, and was easily prevailed upon to forward a scheme for destroying poor Overbury by poison. Accordingly they consulted with one Mrs. Turner, the first inventor (says Winstanley of that horrid garb of yellow ruffs and cuffs, and in which garb she was afterwards hanged) who having acquaintance with one James Franklin, a man who it seems was admirably fitted to be a Cut-throat, agreed with him to provide that which would not kill presently, but cause one to languish away by degrees. The lieutenant being engaged in the conspiracy, admits one Weston, Mrs. Turner's man, who under pretence of waiting on Sir Thomas, was to do the horrid deed. The plot being thus formed, and success promising so fair, Franklin buys various poisons, White Arsenick, Mercury-Sublimate, Cantharides, Red-Mercury, with three or four other deadly ingredients, which he delivered to Weston, with instructions how to use them; who put them in to his broth and meat, increasing and diminishing their strength according as he saw him affected: besides these, the Countess sent him by way of present, poisoned tarts and jellies but Overbury being of a strong constitution, held long out against their influence his body broke out in blotches and blains, which occasioned the report industriously propagated by Somerset, of his having died of the French Disease. At last they produced his death by the application of a poisoned clyster, by which he next day in painful agonies expired. Thus (says Winstanley) "by the malice of a woman that worthy Knight was murthered, who yet still lives in that witty poem of his, entitled, A Wife, as is well expressed by the verses under his picture."

A man's best fortune or his worst's a wife,
Yet I, that knew no marriage, peace nor strife
Live by a good one, by a bad one lost my life.

Of all crimes which the heart of man conceives, as none is so enormous as murder, so it more frequently meets punishment in this life than any other. This barbarous assassination was soon revealed; for notwithstanding what the conspirators had given out, suspicion, ran high that Sir Thomas was poisoned; upon which Weston was strictly examined by Lord Cook, who before his lordship persisted in denying the same; but the Bishop of London afterwards conversing with him, pressing the thing home to his conscience, and opening all the terrors of another life to his mind, he was moved to confess the whole. He related how Mrs. Turner and the Countess became acquainted, and discovered all those who were any way concerned in it; upon which they were all apprehended, and some sent to Newgate, and others to the Tower. Having thus confessed, and being convicted according to due course of law, he was hanged at Tyburn, after him Mrs. Turner, after her Franklin, then Sir Gervis Yelvis, being found guilty on their several arraignments, were executed; some of them died penitent. The Earl and the Countess were both condemned, but notwithstanding their guilt being greater than any of the other criminals, the King, to the astonishment of all his subjects, forgave them, but they were both forbid to appear at court.

There was something strangely unaccountable in the behaviour of Somerset after condemnation. When he was asked what he thought of his condition, and if he was preparing to die, he answered, that he thought not of it at all, for he was sure the King durst not command him to be executed. This ridiculous boasting and bidding defiance to his majesty's power, was construed by some in a very odd manner; and there were not wanting those who asserted, that Somerset was privy to a secret of the King's, which if it had been revealed, would have produced the strangest consternation in the kingdom that ever was known, and drawn down infamy upon his majesty for ever, but as nothing can be ascertained concerning it, it might seem unfair to impute to this silly Prince more faults than he perhaps committed: It is certain he was the slave of his favourites, and not the most shocking crime in them, it seems, could entirely alienate his affections, and it is doubtful whether the saving of Somerset or the execution of Raleigh reflects most disgrace upon his reign. Some have said, that the body of Sir Thomas Overbury was thrown into an obscure pit; but Wood says it appears from the Tower registers, that it was interred in the chapel; which seems more probable. There is an epitaph which Winstanley has preserved, written by our author upon him-self, which I shall here insert, as it serves to illustrate his versification.

The span of my days measured here I rest,
That is, my body; but my soul, his guest
Is hence ascended, whither, neither time,
Nor faith, nor hope, but only love can climb,
Where being new enlightened, she doth know
The truth, of all men argue of below:
Only this dust, doth here in pawn remain,
That when the world dissolves, she come again.

The works of Overbury besides his Wife, which is reckoned the wittiest and most finished of all, are, fist Characters, or witty descriptions of the prophesies of sundry persons. This piece has relation to some characters of his own time, which can afford little satisfaction to a modern reader.

Second, The Remedy of Love in two parts, a poem 1620, Octavo, 2 s.

Third, Observations in his Travels, on the State of the seventeen Provinces, as they stood anno 1609.

Fourth, Observations on the Provinces united, and the state of France, printed London 1651.

Sir Thomas was about 32 years old when he was murthered, and is said to have possessed an accuteness, and strength of parts that was astonishing and some have related that he was proud of his abilities, and overbearing in company; but as there is no good authority for the assertion, it is more agreeable to candour to believe him the amiable knight Winstanley draws him; as it seldom happens that a soul formed for the noble quality of friendship is haughty and insolent. There is a tragedy of Sir Thomas Overbury wrote by the base Richard Savage, son of earl Rivers, which was acted in 1723, (by what was then usually called The Summer Company) with success; of which we shall speak more at large in the life of that unfortunate gentleman.