SIR THOMAS OVERBURY, an accomplished English gentleman, and polite writer, the descendant of an ancient family, was the son of Nicholas Overbury, of Bourton on the Hill, near Morton in Marsh, in Gloucestershire, esq. by Mary his wife, daughter of Giles Palmer, of Compton-Scorfen, in the parish of Ilmington, in Warwickshire. He was born at Compton-Scorfen in the house of his grandfather by the mother's side, about 1581. In Michaelmas term 1595, he became a gentleman commoner of Queen's college, in Oxfordshire, where he made great progress in logic and philosophy, and November 15, 1598, took the degree of B.A. which being completed by determination in the Lent following, he left the university for the Middle Temple, where he had been before entered in order to study the municipal law, but it does not appear that he remained here long. We are told that in a little time he set out for France, and on his return was accounted a very finished gentleman, and well qualified to shine at court, which, unhappily, was his ambition.
Soon after his arrival he contracted an intimacy with the infamous favourite of James I. Robert Carr, afterwards earl of Somerset. This man's history is too well known to render it necessary to dwell upon it in this place. Intoxicated as he was with an advancement at court, of which he was so unworthy, he was not wholly insensible of his own ignorance and inexperience; and he found in sir Thomas Overbury a judicious and sincere adviser, who endeavoured to instill into him the principles of prudence and discretion; and so long as he was content to be ruled by Overbury's friendly counsels, he enjoyed, what Hume says is rare, the highest favour of the prince, without being hated by the people. It is easy, therefore, to see what attached Carr to Overbury; and the latter, who could not but perceive the inferiority of the royal favourite, appears to have connected himself with him from motives of ambition, which, for a time, he had every prospect of gratifying. In 1608 he was knighted by the influence of Carr, and his father was appointed one of the judges for Wales. The year following, sir Thomas made another tour on the continent, which is said to have produced "Observations upon the Provinces United; and on the State of France," Lond. 1651, 12mo; but it is very doubtful whether he was the real author of this work.
His connection with Carr, now viscount Rochester, continued to be mutually agreeable until the latter engaged in an amour with the countess of Essex, the particulars of which reflect disgrace, not only on the parties immediately concerned, but on the reign in which such shameful transactions could be carried on with impunity. No sooner, says Hume, had James mounted the throne of England, than he remembered his friendship for the unfortunate families of Howard and Devereux, who had suffered for their attachment to the cause of Mary and to his own. Having restored young Essex to his blood and dignity, and conferred the titles of Suffolk and Northampton on two brothers of the house of Norfolk, he sought the farther pleasure of uniting those families by the marriage of the earl of Essex with lady Frances Howard, daughter of the earl of Suffolk. She was only thirteen, he fourteen years of age; and it was thought proper, till both should attain the age of puberty, that he should go abroad and pass some time in his travels. He returned into England after four years absence, and was pleased to find his countess in the full lustre of beauty, and possessed of the love and admiration of the whole court. But when he claimed the privileges of an husband, he met with nothing but symptoms of aversion and disgust; nor could his addresses, or the persuasions of her friends, overcome her obstinacy; and disgusted at last with her reiterated denials, he gave over the pursuit, and separating himself from her, thenceforth abandoned her to her own will, and it is said that although he discovered her attachment to Rochester, he took little notice of it.
With Rochester she had already carried on a criminal intercourse, which, instead of satiating their desires, made them lament their unhappy fate, and long for an union that should be indissoluble. So momentous an affair, however, could not be concluded without consulting Overbury, with whom Rochester was accustomed to share all his secrets, and who, in fact, had been privy to his connection with lady Essex, and had even promoted it by dictating to Rochester those ingenious and passionate letters by which, in a great measure, the lady was won. Like an experienced courtier, says Hume, he thought that a conquest of this nature would throw a lustre on the young favourite, and would tend still farther to endear him to James, who was charmed to hear of the amours of his court. But when Rochester hinted his design of obtaining a divorce and marrying the countess, Overbury used every method to dissuade him from the attempt, representing how difficult it would be to procure a divorce, and how disgraceful to marry the woman whose mind these two friends had combined to debauch! And, in what the historian calls the "zeal of friendship," he went so far as to threaten Rochester, that he would separate himself for ever from him, if he could so far forget his honour and his interest as to prosecute the intended marriage.
It was now that Overbury was to experience the nature of that friendship that is cemented only by vice. Rochester, over whose mind his passion for the countess had gained the complete ascendancy, revealed the above conversation to her; and when her rage and fury broke out against Overbury, he had also the weakness to enter into her vindictive projects, and to swear vengeance against his friend. Some contrivance was necessary for the execution of their purpose, and they hit upon one which, had it first appeared in a drama, would have been censured as unnatural. Rochester addressed himself to the king; and after complaining, that his own indulgence to Overbury had begotten in him a portion of arrogance, which was extremely disagreeable, he procured a commission for his embassy to Russia; which he represented as a retreat for his friend, both profitable and honourable. But, when consulted by Overbury, he earnestly dissuaded him from accepting this offer, and took on himself the office of satisfying the king, if he should be displeased at his refusal. Overbury fell into the snare, and declined his majesty's offer; on which Rochester again addressed the king, aggravated the insolence of Overbury's conduct, and on April 21, 1613, obtained a warrant for committing him to the Tower, which James intended, as Hume gently expresses it, as a slight punishment for his disobedience. But Rochester had a far deeper design, and had placed one of his creatures as lieutenant in the Tower for the vile purpose he meditated, and Overbury in the mean time was confined so strictly, as to be debarred the sight even of his nearest relations; and no communication of any kind was allowed with him during near six months which he lived in prison.
Rochester now procured a divorce by means which decency forbids to be recorded here; and the king, forgetting the dignity of his character, and his friendship for the family of Essex, not only assisted in this nefarious project, but, lest the lady should lose any rank by her new marriage, bestowed on Rochester the title of earl of Somerset.
In the mean time, sir Thomas Overbury's father came to town, and petitioned the king for his discharge. He likewise applied to Somerset, to whom several pressing letters were also written by sir Thomas himself; but all to no purpose. Sir Thomas had no suspicion at first of the complicated villainy of Somerset in the affair of his refusing the embassy to Russia, nor that his imprisonment was his friend's contrivance; but, discovering it at length by his delays to procure his liberty, he expostulated with him by letter in the severest manner, and even proceeded to threats. This terrified Somerset so much, that he charged the lieutenant of the Tower to look to Overbury well; for if ever he came out, it would be his ruin, or one of the two must die. During these delays many attempts were made to poison Overbury; none of which succeeded till a glyster was given him, Sept. the 14th, which, after operating in the most violent manlier, put an end to his life, about five the next morning. His corpse, being exceedingly offensive, was interred about three the same day in the Tower chapel. Immediately after his death, some suspicion of the true cause of it was rumoured about; but the great personages concerned prevailed so far as to make it be believed that he died of a disorder contracted before his imprisonment. The whole, however, was discovered about two years after, when the inferior agents were all apprehended, tried, and executed; but the earl of Somerset and his countess, although both tried and condemned, were pardoned by the king the following year, 1616, lest, as it has been said, he should make discoveries not very creditable to the private character of that monarch. The countess died afterwards of a cancer, despised by all who knew her; and Somerset himself lived to share the just contempt of mankind.
Sir Thomas's character is represented by Weldon in the following terms: "In this manner fell sir Thomas Overbury, worthy of a longer life and a better fate; and, if I way compare private men with princes, like Germanicus Caesar; both by poison procured by the malice of a woman, both about the 33d year of their age, and both celebrated for their skill and judgment in poetry, their learning, and their wisdom. Overbury was a gentleman of an ancient family, but had some blemishes charged upon his character, either through a too great ambition, or the insolence of a haughty temper. — After the return from his travels, the viscount Rochester embraced him with so entire a friendship, that, exercising by his majesty's special favour the office of secretary provisionally, he not only communicated to sir Thomas the secrets, but many times gave him, the packets and letters unopened, before they had been perused by the king himself: which, as it prevailed too much upon his early years, so as to make him, in the opinion of some, thought high and ambitious, yet, he was so far from violating his trust and confidence, that he remains now one example among others, who have suffered in their persons or their fortunes for a freedom of advice, which none but sincere friends will give, and many are such ill friends to themselves as not to receive."
Sir Thomas Overbury obtained considerable reputation as an author, both in prose and verse; but it is probable that his unhappy end, which long interested the compassion of the public, procured for his works some share of that popularity which they have not retained. They consist of "The Wife," a long poem, of which an elegant modern critic gives the following character: "The sentiments, maxims, and observations, with which it abounds, are such as a considerable experience and a correct judgment on mankind alone could furnish. The topics of jealousy, and of the credit and behaviour of women, are treated with great truth, delicacy, and perspicuity. The nice distinctions of moral character, and the pattern of female excellence here drawn, contrasted as they were with the heinous and flagrant enormities of the countess of Essex, rendered this poem extremely popular, when its ingenious author was no more." Nearly the same opinion may be given of the other principal part of his works, entitled "Characters or witty Descriptions of the Properties of sundry Persons." These are favourable specimens of his prose style, quaint and witty, somewhat in the manner of Theophrastus, or rather of the sketches given in Butler's posthumous works. He must have been a very attentive observer of character and manners, and had evidently a quick sense of the ridiculous. An edition of his works was published in 1632, 12mo, which is called the fifteenth, yet the last, printed in 1753, is called only the tenth; probably by the editor's not being acquainted with all the impressions it had undergone. There are a few articles in the prose part of the volume which have been attributed to other authors.
Dying without issue, sir Thomas's estate came to his younger brother, whose son, sir THOMAS OVERBURY, was also the author of some pieces. These are, 1. "A true and perfect Account of the Examination, Trial, Condemnation, and Execution, of Joan Perry and her two sons, for the supposed Murder of William Harrison, written by way of letter to Thomas Shirley, M.D. in London, 1676," 4to. This is one of toe most remarkable incidents in story. Harrison was not really murdered, but conveyed away alive by a gang of Mohocks, and carried to Turkey; where, coming into the hands of a physician, he acquired some skill in that faculty; and at length, after many years absence, found means of getting away, and returned home, to the great astonishment of every body, since the sufferers for his supposed death had actually confessed the murder. 2. "Queries proposed to the serious Consideration of those who impose upon others in things of divine and supernatural Revelation, and prosecute any upon the account of Religion; with a desire of their candid and Christian Resolution thereof;" printed in 1677. In answer to which there came out the same year "Ataxia ObstacuJum; an answer to certain queries, intituled, Queries proposed," &c. Upon this, sir Thomas wrote a reply, entitled, 3. " Ratiocinium Vernaculum; or, a Reply to Ataxiae Obstaculum," &c.