335 This Sin of Blood


News of the Thomas Overbury scandal spread through England to become a national event. How would the scandal affect the image of the court? Much depended on how the font of all justice, the king, would deal with it.

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Last time, we heard about the arraignment and trial of some of those suspected of murdering the courtier Thomas Overbury, talking about literacy, and then we mused, stroked our chins, and wondered – how did news get out about the scandal, or indeed did it so, further that the court?

Well, first off it is worth remembering that there were the physical fact of all those trials, and as we have seen they were madly popular, filling the scaffolding erected for the King’s bench in Westminster Hall and Guildhall; Coke reported that Monson’s arraignment at the Guildhall was delayed because

The court was so pestered with multitude of people as we could not get to our place nor our necessary officers have any room for reading of confessions and testimonies, nor the witnesses to come in

When the Countess of Somerset was arraigned, ticket sales were fierce; John Chamberlain wrote that prices for space at Westminster Hall

At this time were grown to so extraordinary a rate, that four or five pieces (as they call  them) was an ordinary price, and I know a lawyer that had agreed to give ten pounds for himself and his wife for the 2 days

Without wanting to spoil the plot, there will be executions too – famously an opportunity for public spectacle.

No doubt of course the people that crammed into the halls talked and gossips and spread the news. But the fact that the trials and executions were observed by so many, also fed the news machine, such as it existed. What sort of network was there, I hear you ask?

Well in the early 17th century London was the nations chief producer of political news; news was in the very bones of the place. In 1631 Sir Thomas Barrington wrote home to Mum that

He that treads or trolls over London stones cannot but hear the echo of news from their very sound

Now people would gather and gossip at public events, but another recognisable figure had also emerged – The Newsmonger. Barnaby Rich was an English author and soldier, and he noted that the Newsmonger would

frequent fairs, markets and other places of assembly; sometimes he would stumble into the barber’s shop; but about ten of the clock in the forenoon, you may hit upon him in the middle walk in Paul’s. But from 11 O’clock he will not miss the Exchange

There appeared to be 4 centres of new gathering in London; The court, Paul’s, the Exchange, and Westminster Hall. You might need to know about Paul’s Walk I suppose, for fun, as I feel myself disappearing under another layer of Digression. It was in fact the Nave of Old St Paul’s cathedral, the one before Wren produced the current baroque version. People went there not necessarily to worship in God’s house, but to pick up the goss – regulars were called ‘Paul’s walkers’. It was the place to be

It was the fashion of those times, and did so continue till these . . . for the principal gentry, lords, courtiers, and men of all professions not merely mechanic, to meet in Paul’s Church by eleven and walk in the middle aisle till twelve, and after dinner from three to six, during which times some discoursed on business, others of news.

Part of the reasons why Paul’s Walk became such a centre was that it was close to a centre of English publishing, Paternoster row, and so a growing hive of books, pamphlets, newsprint. And so it remained for centuries until the Luftwaffe had a pop at it, and late-stage capitalism did the job properly with one of the region of hideous developments for which the city of London is famous in pursuit of Mammon. For which pursuit I suppose I should also be thankful since they effective subsidize the entire countries tax bill, but it would have been nice for some things too survive. Oh well, I shall continue to cry into my local cask ale.

Anyone who was anyone would walk up and down and if you happened to be trying to cut a dash it was a good opportunity to deck yourself out in ribbons and bows and wherever gallants and money gathered to gossip, there would of course be a cloud of opportunists too; the place was infested with beggars and thieves, and it was a great place to not only pick up gossip but also prostitutes. It drove monarchs up the wall – both Mary and Elizabeth legislated against people who went there for business other than Gid’s business, neither should have bothered. James did not bother, but was well aware of what was going on.

Those gathering at Paul’s, the courts and Inns of courts and the New and Old Exchange were the smarter set, more heterogeneous places were of course markets and fairs, shops tavern – and the Ordinary. At which, blast and confound it, I must digress and explain that an ordinary was a dining establishment, where meals were provided at a fixed price; or in fact you might have a room within a bigger place which had a room called an Ordinary where such a service was provided. So many were attended by a wide range of people; Thomas Powell referred snootily to ‘The unwholsome ayre of an Eightpenny Ordinarie’ in 1631. There were more expensive ordinaries though, where men of fashion went, and where dinner was usually followed by gambling; so the term often became synonymous with gambling-house. The term made it across to the US of A I believe, and survived rather longer, into the 19th century in the South. Anyway, Dekker described the Ordinary as

The very exchange for news out of all countries, the only bookseller’s shop for conference f the best editions

Simmonds D’Ewes recorded hearing about the ‘daily and exact relations’ of the murder trials. The Overbury trials were on every lip in the Metropolis. How or did that news get from Metropolis to the country? It is very true to say that London did not have a wall designed to keep the rabble from Watford Gap services at bay; there was a constant flow of people to and from the capital of all kinds of folks – Gentry on legal business, maybe, scholars coming for term time, vagrants coming for work and so on. There were also travelling merchants, and the Chapman was part of the life blood of news and gossip spreading out from the capital and back like the in and out of air into a massive set of national lungs. You might know, but just in case you don’t a Chapman was the name for a travelling merchant in Early Modern England. The word is of ancient use though, from the Old English ceap, for business or market, a bit like Cheapside in London, the site of the market of the city of London; the venemous Bede uses it has it happens, and you can’t have a provenance finer than the Venemous himself. A Chapman was usually like a pedlar, though it could possibly perhaps also be a larger scale merchant; but usually they travelled from place to place, market to market, rural fair to rural fair, selling their wares, setting up booths at local events. And probably the Chapmen who generated the best crowds and business, a bit like Del Boy on a Saturday at the Peckham market, would be the one that bought gossip, news, made people laugh and look forward to their next visit. Unless it turned out the toasters didn’t actually work of course. One historian described Chapmen as living

‘in the capillaries of the culture, bridging the roles of retailer, distributor, and salesperson without pressure to judge. The better the chapman knew his wares, and the more he could teach his audiences to enjoy them, the better they would sell[1]

Chapmen became very much associated with Chapbooks – small format cheapish books. Chapbook is a modern term actually at the time they might be called ‘small books’, ‘penny books’, or ‘chapmen’s books’; their heyday will come later in fact, but they were a commercial endeavour; Pepys would call them ‘vulgaria’ and there was typical self deprecation in the promotion; a rather 17th century piece of Douglas Adams Hitch Hikers style in one selling like ‘a halfpenny work of jokes for a penny’. Despite their cheapness, they were built to last, and so probably for the most part they were folk tales, history, childrens’ stories. Often the Chapman might perform part of the story before selling them – Chapmen had to be showmen too, so I have this image of Chapmen maybe performing a little like Tom Hanks in that excellent film News of the World, though less formally of course. And Chapmen might also bring with them pamphlets, and pamphlets were a very different proposition – very poor quality production, of indeterminate length, ephemeral, polemical, maybe political, sensational, crime, love, fame, disaster. Now those might bring news of the goings on it the capital at court and courts.

One of the ways proper historians have of understanding the kind of news that reached different parts of the country are various surviving commonplace books. This is a thoroughly cute concept, a concept so cute that I almost wish that print and digital media had never been invented so that I could have kept one. The origin of the term lies in the idea of common and linked themes; so it might be something which had religious proverbs, or political stuff, or farming notes, or a sort of personal almanac. They were essentially scrapbooks of interesting information kept and carefully, lovingly maintained by families. By the end of the 17th century, ir was all a very recognised art – there were courses on it. So these common place books sometimes, like that belonging to William Davenport of Bramhall in Cheshire, give us an idea of what people were finding interesting, and copying in to their commonplace books. Davenport has several documents relating to the Overbury affair.

One of the things he transcribes are letters from London. The personal letter was a key way of getting information; I mean imagine, you are a magnate, forced to sit their in the offices carrying out your local responsibilities and offices, painfully, painfully conscious that there might be some event or political plot. And as my mother tells me, letter writing used to be so important – normally that proceeds various expressions of regret about the modern world, sometimes all wrapped up about the youth of today and are there any chocolates left? I’m making it up actually. She always knows where the chocolates are. Anyway we were talking about Magnates getting FOMO. So, needing absolutely to keep in touch, they often employed secretaries to keep them in touch Unbeknownst to you for example I have give you John Chamberlain’s opinion of Paul’s Walk; well he knew so much of that because Ralph Winwood, one of the Patriotic Faction at court had been sent abroad on diplomatic duty and was desperate for news. So these letters are the original newsletters; they are personal letters with the latest news, literally, but we stand on the cusp of this activity becoming commercialised. From the 1620s, some people take a look at what these secretaries are doing and think, ah ha! I see a gap in the market – because that of course is what people tend to say at moment like these – and start producing regular newsletters for groups of people for a fee. But already by the time of the Overbury affair just a few years before, these secretaries letters or parts of them get shared. Or, people just write to their friends – and understand that they will be shared around. So in Davenport’s commonplace book he had transcribed 3 letters from London about the affair; and 6 critical libels about the Countess, which we’ll come to. He also has a letter about the affair sent to him by his kinsman – but he notes that it came from an original letter sent to someone else. So these letters, formal and informal are getting passed around. And then folks create their own networks of shared interests – Nehemiah Wallington, the London Puritan Artisan circulated material from within a national and international puritan communities. Catholic recusants had their networks for the circulation of devotional materials, newsletters, and politico-religious comment. So the Overbury scandal was connected to the regions through a network of overlapping groups, that made the affair a national scandal.

There were other types of publication that also got into the news bloodstream; a variety of formats to pamphlets, legal documents, letters read out in court, and most importantly trial reports. People did love their trial reports; Davenport had two such about the Overbury affair in his commonplace book. These had been popular since well before the Overbury scandal – Sir Walter Ralegh’s trial in 1603 for example had produced a surge of them. Lawyers were very used to taking records of trials, and given the voracious interest in such things, there may well already have been commercial services available. There are other examples that survive from the time though; one manuscript for example consists of two letters by Frances Howard at the end of a pamphlet called a ‘discourse of the poisonings of Sir Thomas Overbury’.

A further, and more popular source of information for public consumption I believe we have touched on a couple of times before; the Libel, acerbic often vicious poems, which in this case were mainly directed at the Somersets. Libels came from a range of sources, and it’s sometimes difficult to know from where – they might have been done from courtiers, or from a group of folks in the pub. What’s particularly powerful about Libels during the Tudor and early Stuart period though, is that they are a very rare route to the voice of the normally unheard, the relatively powerless – although of course the story of protest, as we discussed in the Parish episodes, shows that no one was ever so powerless as to have no agency or way of registering protest. But libels was a way. Some of them are simply personal and bitter; so William Poole, and astrologer took revenge on a JP left a verse and another, um gift on the JP’s gravestone after his death

Here lieth Sir Thomas Jay, Knight

Who being dead I upon his grave did shite

It’s got to be said we are not necessarily talking high art here.



Although the social status of the libel authors are difficult to trace, it is certain that you didn’t need to be able to read or write to produce them, just possessed of what Lord Melchit described as Baldrick’s ready native wit; because you would be able to find a ‘pot poet’ who would produce what you needed in the pub for payment in kind. Libels of course circulated through more non commercial networks. Some of them were short, pithy and therefore memorable, and wouldn’t even need to be written down. Others were longer, but could easily be scrawled on a bit of paper and copied multiple times.

Some libels were written as ballads, and set to familiar tunes. One of the libels on the Overbury case was called ‘there was an old lad who rode on an old pad’, which was apparently set to the tune of ‘whoop do me no harm good man’ or the tune ‘the clean country ways’ – obviously not chart toppers these days but here’s a quick sample I found [example]. Well that was nice – and now shall we have some more? [short second example] Mo No maybe not we’ve got to get on, but very pleasant, I can imagine having a sing song along to that in the local, very catchy.

Having a libel set to a catchy well known tune of course really helped it’s dissemination – I mean after all we all like a good sing song do we not? And not just because people would join in; but also because they might get picked up by travelling musicians – ballad singers, fidlers, minstrels, who’d visit fairs and markets. The thing is – people also like a bit of dirt to liven up their market, and so a bit of political stirring might well get the crowd gathering round, especially if you were taking a pop at the high, mighty and generally untouchable, to whom you might well be tired of tugging the forelock. So one contemporary remarked that when a fidler

Gets some songs or sonnets patched up with ribaldry, or interlarded with anything against the state, they are main helps to him, and he will adventure to sing them though they cost him a whipping for his labour

Two great words there I should note; ribaldry, always a classic, but interlarded – now that’s a new one to me, and will be immediately added to my regular vocab. Ballads and Libels might be circulated in manuscript form too – sometimes slipped into the back of a respectable publication – the Mills and Boon in your BCP approach again. You might also find anagrams to boot, because your early modern citizen did love a riddle. So ‘Car finds a whore’ was one – apparently an anagram of Francis Howarde’, though to be honest how anyone decodes an anagram given the state of early modern spelling is quite beyond me.

So; how far then did all this material reach? What seems clear enough is that most of the written material spoke to a mainly ‘gentle’ audience, gentle in the gentleman and woman sense, the gentry and nobility of the country. It’s also clear that it spread far out from the capital, that the reports and newsletters and news networks reached out their tentacles throughout England. There were clearly limits to how far this public debate reached through the classes. So there are many who would say that this is an elite conversation, that the wider public stood passively to look on. And certainly there is nothing of the intensity of the public sphere that came into existence through the civil war and afterwards, not the breadth and depth of involvement.

And yet there are clearly elements of popular involvement; and equally signs that the government very clearly could not control it. The presence of libels, early pamphlets, trial reports and other separate materials could not be stopped spreading through Chapmen and informal networks. As characters like Nehemiah Wallington demonstrate, some of those networks were not dominated by gentry, but artisans, especially those focussed on religion, puritanism and Catholicism. And the low levels of literacy was not as great an obstacle as you might think, and there are a few reasons for that. One, is that as we have seen through libels, one popular form of producing the things was to go down the boozer and find a bloke who could read and write, and commit your clever verse to paper. The same approach could lead to libels and reports being read out in the alehouse or other public spaces, for consumption by all, and ballads set to popular tunes helped the debate and reaction to the great events spread.

There’s another interesting wrinkle; there were books created by the scandal, books clearly too expense for the ordinary folk to buy and most of them to read, and too complex to lend themselves to being read out in the alehouse before someone told you to put a hose in it or the village constable closed you down. But publishers obviously promoted their works, so around London and maybe a few other cities, Broadsheets appeared, with images and woodcuts, promoting the tales – images of a sad, noble Thomas Overbury became very popular. Images of the gorgeously and beautifully dressed Earl and Countess of Somerset, which generated different reactions.

The court knew they could not control all of this; and yet they tried, which indicates their worries about the importance of the emerging public debate; so for example they rushed into publication a book defending the decision to nullify the Essex marriage to Frances Howard, desperate to present their side of the story. Essentially, the great drama of the Overbury scandal was played out on a national stage, and produced reactions and drove attitudes among a very wide range of people.

Back to that concept of the Pubic sphere. Jurgen Habemas depicted the rise in the late 17th and 18th centuries of a new type of public – private individuals in areas of public sociability, outside of the control and supervision of the state where critical and rational discussion could take place of public, political issues. And alongside that, the development of public opinion as a source of political authority. Now it’s clearly too early to make the claim that this is operating to that extent in Elizabethan and early Stuart England. But none the less it is also clear that the state could not control the materials that reached quite a broad public; that there was a response from that broader public; and that James government was worried about the impact, and tried to respond by promoting alternative interpretations and controlling the message.

Right, so to the nub, at last, after 12,000 words of noodling. What was the impact of the Overbury scandal, how did people interpret what they were hearing? And before doing that we should probably establish a baseline, because I am guessing that as aged, tired, cynical 21st century citizens, you may assume that royal courts were always bound to be seen as sinks of corruption and elitism, and hideous social inequality, despised by the downtrodden masses. Well, there might well have been individuals that thought like that, but basically you are probably wrong to so assume on a general level. The court was, in brief, supposed to be the fount of all virtue, composed of the brightest and most shining members of society, who considered themselves an example of nobility and the best values to all. Yup. No Really. Certainly, James thought so. Here he is, in his own words

This glistening worldly glory of kings is given them by God, to teach them to press so to glister and shine before their people, in all works of sanctification and righteousness, that their persons as bright lamps of godliness and virtue, may, going in and out before their people, give light in all their steps

James expected the court and company of the king to be part of that shining, glistening example of virtue, for

Every one of the people will delight to follow the example of any of the courtiers

And he worried that so influential was the court, that it would influence the people ‘as well in evil as in good’; the court therefore needed to be a place of virtue and order. In Webster’s play the Duchess of Malfi, Antonio speaks of his expectations of a proper court

Consid’ring duly, that a Prince’s court

Is like a common fountain, whence should flow

Pure silver drops

And the expectation of James court had been set high; one poet predicted James’ court would be a church of saints;

‘the courtier’s only grace shall henceforth lie in learning, wisdom, valour, honesty’.

So look, people expected a lot from the court, a centre of authority both formal, social and organisational but also moral values. One of the historiographies of the Civil War will be that the respect for the virtues of the court declines through the first half of the 17th century; this has been set in terms of a rather binary division between court and country, an approach which has been rather rejected as a model of late.  But the public opinion of court remains very important. What may be nearer to the truth is that both court and country were idealised across the whole nation, and each embued with a set of values. The Country was simple, honest, a return to fundamental virtue ad good local governance by local gentry; the court was a shining example of grandeur and example for society to follow.  But gradually, the court began to fail to live up to this set of values. The way people interpreted the Overbury scandal contributed to this fall from grace.

To think about his in a bit more depth, there may have been 4 ways in which different groups interpreted what they were hearing. Two of them were traditional and broadly confined to the elites. The first was a set of values from medieval honour culture, the value of social hierarchies which was of course fundamental to the nobility’s view of the way the world was ordered; essentially the way the world worked was that only the nobility were appropriate by their lineage, breeding and code of honour to control the workings on the state. And the second the overlay on that of the civic values from the renaissance in the classically educated elites. Those values embedded the idea among the nobility that their function and responsibility was virtuously to guide public business.


So members of the court and social elite had watched in horror at the end of Elizabeth’s reign how the upstart Cecil had brought low the noble Earl of Essex; a horror of the inversion of the social hierarchy. This reflects a story we’ve heard many times before, in the careers of the lowly but talented priest in the middle ages, all the way from Ranulph Flambard back in the far of days of William Rufus. And in Robert Kerr’s rise there is something of the same discontent – a man from a relatively lowly background in the eyes of some at the court. The ambition of Kerr was part of a sense that the court was corrupting the proper honour code, and perverting the concept of selfless, renaissance pubic service by the elite. An epigram kind of summarised this attitude; the word ‘dight’ means ‘adorned’, by the way

When Carr in court first a page began

He swelled and swelled into a gentleman

And from gentleman and bravely dight

He swelled and swelled until he became a knight

At last forgetting what he was at first

He swelled into an Earl and then he burst

So, for the social elites, the Overbury scandal was a sign that the values of the court were becoming corrupted by an inversion of the proper social order of things.

A third way the audience might have interpreted events was much more broadly held, in society’s highly gendered and socially stratified concepts of order and disorder, the Patricarchal hierarchy and roles. Somerset’s excesses and rise, the murders and trials could be seen as a failing on the part of James to carry out his primary role as the head of a household, the household of the court and infeed the nation. In that role, he was entrusted by God with power to control the actions of others, so that they behaved in a Godly and Virtuous manner. And in the excesses of this scandal he had clearly failed to do so, he had failed in his role as head of the household. Similarly, Somerset’s excesses seemed to demonstrate the lack of control expected of him as a patriarch and leader of society. And then there was Frances Howard’s behaviour – the legal humiliation of her husband, the inversion of the sexual order. Woodcuts, paintings and broadsides emphasised her magnificence, wealth and status as far as the nobility were concerned; but equally those images were interpreted by some as a flouting of gender roles. And of course not forgetting her active agency in initiating the poisoning, a particularly heinous crime in the early modern lexicon any way, but initiating it was double trouble. Together the images, reports and materials all this emphasised the transgressions of the court – luxury, magnificence, excess, female pride, social inversion, lack of proper control.

But probably the most powerful lens through which the scandal was viewed was of course the religious. This terrible sin of murder was not a stand alone act; the sin was itself a sign and result of other, multiple sins and failings

Beside this sin of blood there are divers others, which are accessories thereunto

Wrote Thomas Tuke, it was simply one sign of transgressions and failings whose common origin was ‘disobedience to the ministry of the word’; for Thomas, in a gentle, light-hearted, and teasing sort of way, the court’s failings included

The very stain of religion, and the bane of human society, as pride, ambition, witchcraft, whoredom

So that’s OK then. A couple of things emerged during the whole process that, if possible, made it  all worse. One of them was witchcraft.

Let me take you back to the beginning; In the annulment proceedings for Frances and Essex’s marriage, there had been a basic misstep, that would work ‘em woe. They agreed that, to save Essex’s blushes, it should be asserted that Essex was impotent only with Frances Howard. Well that rather begs the obvious question – well why’s that then, and to the Early Modern mind the most obvious answer was not the calls of the internet, or a lack of attraction – but that Essex was the victim of witchcraft. And once you’ve made that connection, well maybe she did not only bewitch Essex’s John Thomas but others as well. So as a libeller had it, Frances

By spells could make a frozen stone

Melt and dissolve with soft affection

And in an instant strike the factors dead

That should pay duties to the marriage bed

At Anne Turner’s trial, Frances had again been shown to be consorting with witches – Anne was in league with the Devil, consorting with Simon Forman, Franklin’s reputation as a cunning man played up to the story too. Witchcraft led to other naughties; witchcraft could be linked to an inversion of the proper sexual order, again transgressing the patriarchal norms of female obedience, subjection and propriety. The stain of evil spread to her lover Somerset, to add to the accusations of social climbing and corrupt ambition

Here lies he that was once poor

Then great, then rich, then loved a whore

He wooed, he wedded, but in conclusion

His love and his whore was his confusion

Finally, much of this was easily linked to the threat of a popish plot would you believe, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water – most things were so linked in Stuart England to be honest; poisoning was seen as a popish tactic, diabolic rites were seen as just another aspect of popish beliefs and ceremonies, such as the mass was considered. The Puritan Thomas Cooper claimed that witchcraft was ‘an especial prop of the Anti Christ’s kingdom’. Even Coke excitedly thought he’d caught a whiff of a popish plot to bring about the death of the Prince Henry and news of that spread too, although gradually leaked away as the evidence failed to appear.

So, I guess we should now return to the procedural stuff – the trials of the Somersets. Before that, however executions had taken place ladies and gentlemen, executions. Elwes died in exemplary fashion, in the way you are meant to, asking the crowd to pray for him. Anne Turner was also executed in an exemplary way – in a slightly different sense of the word exemplary – so, as an example to all. As an aside there’s a famous line from a judge from the later days of the bloody code, where there was fury that a man was executed merely for stealing a horse. The judge loftily declared that ‘Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen’.   Anne Turner was to executed so that women may not get out of line, and if they do must submit to proper governance. So, Coke had ordered she be hanged at Tyburn in all her fancy dyed ruffs, evidence of the ambition and corruption she’d brought to court, and it sort of worked. A bystander called John Castle wrote:

I saw Mrs Turner die. If detestation of painted pride, lust, malice, powdered hair, yellow bands, and the rest of the rest of the wardrobe of court vanities; if deep sighs, tears, confessions… be signs and demonstrations of a blessed penitent, then I will tell you that this poor broken woman… now enjoys the presence of her and our Redeemer

The point had been made, and Anne had dutifully submitted in the way that women should in the Early Modern mind, dying with true penitence.





Weston and Franklin were far less satisfactory from the view of the state. Somerset’s friends reckoned they could derail their mate’s prosecution by getting Weston to deny his guilt on scaffold and thereby undermine his conviction; this led to unruly scenes at the foot of the gallows, though Weston refused to be used and to say anything. Franklin was determined not to die in a pious, resigned fashion, refusing communion and scoffing at the idea he might say his prayers. At the hangman’s side, he seized the noose and tried to put it round the hangman’s neck instead, laughing as he did so. Before he was hanged he hinted at dark plots, and refused to make any public confession. It was very messy, all in all.

In 1616 then, the Somersets finally came to trial. As nobility, they could be tried in a special court of their peers, the court of the High Steward, and so instead of Edward Coke, they faced Francis Bacon. It was the Countess who faced the court first, on 24th May in Westminster Hall. She was pale, trembled at hearing the name of Weston, hid her face behind a fan as the evidence was presented against her. She was asked to plead – and convinced of the hopelessness of her case, she pleaded guilty, and was led back to the Tower.

The next day was the Earl’s turn, and interestingly he first tried the trick Edmund Blackadder would try in the Sudan, pretending to be ill and mad – not sure about the usage of underpants, pencils and the word wibble. None worked, and he was produced before the court.

The trouble was that although Bacon was thoroughly convinced of Somerset’s guilt, the actual evidence, that inconvenient thing, was skinny in the extreme – there was no firm evidence he’d known, no evidence he’d been involved in administering or supplying poisons. And Somerset wasn’t going down easily either; by the time he was able to make his defence it was late in the evening, the sun was low, he was tired and yet he conducted a robust defence. The weakness of his case was that he couldn’t really provide an answer as to why Overbury died – and also why he’d destroyed all those papers. He’d managed to present a good case – but it was not enough – the lords found him guilty.

The ball was now in James’ court. Would he allow these two grand people, one of them his former favourite, go to their deaths? For many weeks he dithered, and in fact public expectation was on the side of their execution; James had after all pushed forward the investigations into Thomas Overbury’s death, and let the trials proceed; he had in the past allowed the execution of one of his noble countrymen, the Catholic William Crichton, go ahead. People daily rushed to the Tower eager to see the execution, to return disappointed. But in the end, James bottled it. Frances Howard was pardoned in July. James spoke of her noble birth, her penitence and confession, and noted she was not the principal but the accessory only. Somerset was still being stubborn and proclaiming his innocence; so the judgement was left hanging over his head, unresolved. However, both were allowed to leave the Tower in 1622, and Somerset would finlly receive a formal pardon in 1624. They retreated into obscurity; though he would appear before the Star Chamber at one point in the future on a separate matter. Frances died in 1632, Kerr didn’t die until 1645.

So that was all rather long, sorry about that. Summing up? Well what a to do. There’s little doubt that the Overbury affair seriously affected the national perception of James and his court. After the affair, Thomas Overbury became a rather unlikely figure of the noble courtier, victimised by his ruthless enemies – there’s a lovely woodcut of him looking nice and pensive; a fine man ruined by the vicious court. The reputation of the court as a hot bed of papism was re-inforced; Lewis Bayley delivered a sermon at St Martin’s relating that Prince Henry before his death had said that

‘religion lay a bleeding and no marvel…when divers councillors hear Mass in the morning, and then go to a court sermon and so on to Council, and then tell their wives what passes…and they carry it to their Jesuits and confessors’

The magnificence of the Countesses’ dress once merely a sign of her wealth and greatness, became evidence of sexual licence, pride, ambition, and the reputation of the court suffered; Somerset himself was a based born, ruthless power monger. And at the end, James had the chance in his hand to draw something of the venom out of the scandal by delivering these people into justice.  The importance of delivering impartial justice was a central feature of kingship; and it had seemed that he had been about to shown such judgement. And then he ruined it by allowing the two big fishes, as Weston had worried if you remember, to escape the net. James’ reputation as some sort of Solomon was badly damaged in the eyes of his subjects, along with the supposed virtues of his court. In 1625 when James had died, one John Rous wrote

It was reported long ago when the murder of Thomas Overbury was questioned, that he imprecated a curse upon him if the actors were not severely dealt with…yet Somerset and his countess were spared of their lives

James believed that only God could judge kings. From the perspective of historians in the 1650s, after his son had lost his throne and his life, it appeared that God had indeed passed his judgement in the case of Thomas Overbury.

[1] Newcomb Chapbooks in Raymond The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture: Volume One: Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660


9 thoughts on “335 This Sin of Blood

  1. Hi David.
    Under iTunes, the podcasts seem a bit muddled. It shows that for Sunday, Jan 23, two podcasts were published, one titled “334 Murder!” and one titled “335 This Sin of Blood”. Both episodes have the same audio content. I suspect that the “334 Murder!” is some sort of mistake.
    I really am enjoying your series, it made me sad when I got caught up on the podcasts and now I have to wait 2 weeks for the next one. Please keep up the great work!

  2. Well, that’s one sordid little story.
    Why do you suppose James chickened out on the sentences for the Zomerzets? Personal fondness? Fear of what they could say about him?
    He’d made such a big deal out of the necessity for an investigation/trial as proof of his credentials as a Christian and king. And then, when the maximum number of people are watching him, he demonstrates that it’s one law for the poor and another for the powerful. (Strangely topical, no?)

    1. James always had a reverence for ‘blood’ and noble lineage, he said so very specifically in Scotland. Comnbined with that,he is surprisingly un bloodthirsty – well, when judged against the standards of the time. I think it was those two things, but it’s unashamedly a guess…

  3. David:
    In addition to how this affair affected the perception of James among his subjects, how was it perceived in Europe? Was it even a topic of discussion on the continent?

    1. I don’t know and I’d love to. It’s actually quite difficult to find out such questions I have noticed – many historians focus on their own period and place. There’s a new book out which looks at the 17th century through the eyes of foreign ambassadors; deeply dodgy framework for any kind of authoritative history, but sounds enormous fun so I shall buy it

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