1720 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Thomas Overbury

Giles Jacob, in Historical Account of the Lives and Writings of our most considerable English Poets (1720) 125-27.



A Courtier, and a Great Wit in the Reign of King James the First. He was Son of Sir Nicholas Overbury of Burton in Gloucestershire, one of the Judges of the Marches, and was Educated at the University of Oxford. From Oxford he removed to the Middle Temple, London, where he studied the Law some time; afterwards he Travelled into France, and came Home an accomplished Gentleman. Soon after his return, he followed the Court, as the fittest place for the Exercise of his great Abilities; here he grew acquainted with Sir Robert Carre, one who was newly initiated a Favourite to King James, and by his prudent Behaviour and good Graces not only of Sir Robert, but also of several other Eminent Persons: which being taken notice of by the King, he was Knighted; and Sir Robert made Earl of Somerset. Now the Reciprocal Friendship of these two Gentlemen was more firmly united than ever, and as their Affection Encreased for each other, so did they both rise more and more in Favour with the Prince: But so great is the instability of all Humanities of Friendship, that now it was not long before my Lord to whom Sir Thomas had without reserve unbosomed himself, became an instrument of his Death; and only for his sincere Dissuasions of his Marriage with the Lady Frances Howard, who was then lately Divorced from the Earl of Essex. This advice, with the influence of fatal Beauty, and the Countess's Pursuit of Revenge, occasioned the Murder of Sir Thomas. But to make way for doing it with impunity, his Lordship procured Sir Thomas to be Nominated by the King Embassador to the Czar of Muscovy, and at the same time persuaded him to decline the Employment, as being no better than an Honourable Grave. This double Intrigue of the Statesman, and which shews what Courtiers are capable of doing, had its success, for Sir Thomas following the Council, this matter terminated in his Commitment to the Tower. Now his former Friend and the Countess had an opportunity for perpetuating their Designs; and by the Assistance of one Mrs. Turner, Richard Weston, James Franklin, a Physician, and Sir Gervas Helvis, Lieutenant of the Tower, who were all drawn into the Conspiracy, he was poisoned with a Clyster, of which he died the next day after taking it. After he was Dead the Conspirators, to load Sir Thomas with Infamy, and take off all Suspicion of his violent Death, gave out that he died of the French Pox, there being some Blisters and Blotches on his Body, which the poison had thrown out. But, as the Crimes of Blood seldom go unpunished, suspitions grew notwithstanding, and encreasing, Weston was taken up and Examined, who confessing the whole matter, he was Executed at Tyburn, as were likewise Mrs. Turner, Franklin, and Sir George Helvis; but the Earl of Somerset, and his Countess, tho' Condemn'd, were both pardon'd.

This is the best Account I can give of the Life and Tragical Death of this Ingenious Gentleman; who in his younger Days writ an excellent Poem, entitled A Wife; a piece very much admired for its Great Wit and Fancy, and the Author will live in this Poem, tho' by a Wife he fell a Sacrifice, as is express'd by these Verses, under his Picture.

A Man's best Fortune, or his Worst's a Wife:
Yet I that know no Marriage, Peace, nor strife,
Live by a good, by a bad one, Lost my Life.

The following Epitaph was written by himself during his last Sickness.

Now measur'd out my Days, 'tis 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 clime;
Where being now enlighten'd she does know
The truth of all things which are talk'd below.

Only this Dust shall here in pawn remain;
That when the World dissolves, she'll come again.