Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
The Poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury
By Francis Bacon (15611626)
From the Charge against the Earl of Somerset
FIRST, therefore, for the simple narrative of the fact. Sir Thomas Overbury for a time was known to have had great interest and great friendship with my Lord of Somerset, both in his meaner fortunes and after; insomuch as he was a kind of oracle of direction unto him; and if you will believe his own vaunts (being of an insolent Thrasonical disposition), he took upon him, that the fortune, reputation, and understanding of this gentleman (who is well known to have had a better teacher) proceeded from his company and counsel.
And this friendship rested not only in conversation and business of court, but likewise in communication of secrets of estate. For my Lord of Somerset, at that time exercising (by his majestys special favour and trust) the office of the Secretary provisionally, did not forbear to acquaint Overbury with the kings packets of dispatches from all parts, Spain, France, the Low Countries, etc. And this not by glimpses, or now and then rounding in the ear for a favour, but in a settled manner; packets were sent, sometimes opened by my lord, sometimes unbroken unto Overbury, who perused them, copied, registered them, made tables of them as he thought good; so that I will undertake the time was when Overbury knew more of the secrets of state than the Council-table did. Nay, they were grown to such an inwardness, as they made a play of all the world besides themselves; so as they had ciphers and jargons1 for the king, the Queen, and all the great men; things seldom used, but either by princes and their ambassadors and ministers, or by such as work and practice against, or at least upon princes.
But understand me (my lord) I shall not charge you this day with any disloyalty; only I lay this for a foundation, that there was a great communication of secrets between you and Overbury, and that it had relation to matters of estate, and the greatest causes of this kingdom.
But (my lords) as it is a principle in nature, that the best things are in their corruption the worst, and the sweetest wine makes the sharpest vinegar; so it fell out with them, that this excess (as I may term it) of friendship ended in mortal hatred on my Lord of Somersets part.
For it fell out, some twelve months before Overburys imprisonment in the Tower, that my Lord of Somerset was entered into an unlawful love towards his unfortunate Lady, then Countess of Essex: which went so far, as it was then secretly projected (chiefly between my Lord Privy Seal and my Lord of Somerset) to effect a nullity in the marriage with my Lord of Essex, and so to proceed to a marriage with Somerset.
This marriage and purpose did Overbury mainly oppugn, under pretence to do the true part of a friend (for that he counted her an unworthy woman); but the truth was that Overbury, who (to speak plainly) had little that was solid for religion or moral virtue, but was a man possessed with ambition and vain-glory, was loth to have any partners in the favour of my Lord of Somerset, and especially not the house of the Howards, against whom he had always professed hatred and opposition. So all was but miserable bargains of ambition.
And (my lords) that this is no sinister construction, will well appear unto you, when you shall hear that Overbury makes his brags to my Lord of Somerset, that he had won him the love of the lady by his letters and industry; so far was he from cases of conscience in this matter. And certainly (my lords) howsoever the tragical misery of that poor gentleman Overbury ought somewhat to obliterate his faults; yet because we are not now upon point of civility, but to discover the face of truth to the face of justice; and that it is material to the true understanding of the state of this cause; Overbury was naught and corrupt, the ballads must be amended for that point.
But to proceed; when Overbury saw that he was like to be dispossessed of my lord here, whom he had possessed so long, and by whose greatness he had promised himself to do wonders; and being a man of an unbounded and impetuous spirit, he began not only to dissuade, but to deter him from that love and marriage; and finding him fixed, thought to try stronger remedies, supposing that he had my lords head under his girdle, in respect of communication of secrets of estate (or, as he calls them himself in his letters, secrets of all natures); and therefore dealt violently with him to make him desist, with menaces of discovery of secrets, and the like.
Hereupon grew two streams of hatred upon Overbury; the one from the lady, in respect that he crossed her love and abused her name, which are furies to women; the other of a deeper and more mineral nature, from my Lord of Somerset himself; who was afraid of Overburys nature, and that if he did break from him and fly out, he would mine into him and trouble his whole fortunes.
I might add a third stream from the Earl of Northamptons ambition, who desires to be first in favour with my Lord of Somerset; and knowing Overburys malice to himself and his house, thought that man must be removed and cut off. So it was amongst them resolved and decreed that Overbury must die.
Hereupon they had variety of devices. To send him beyond sea, upon occasion of employment, that was too weak; and they were so far from giving way to it, as they crossed it. There rested but two ways, quarrel or assault, and poison. For that of assault, after some proposition and attempt, they passed from it; it was a thing too open and subject to more variety of chances. That of poison likewise was a hazardous thing, and subject to many preventions and cautions, especially to such a jealous and working brain as Overbury had, except he were first fast in their hand.
Therefore the way was first to get him into a trap, and lay him up, and then they could not miss the mark. Therefore in execution of this plot it was devised, that Overbury should be designed to some honourable employment in foreign parts, and should underhand by the Lord of Somerset be incouraged to refuse it; and so upon that contempt he should be laid prisoner in the Tower, and then they would look he should be close enough, and death should be his bail. Yet were they not at their end. For they considered that if there was not a fit lieutenant of the Tower for their purpose, and likewise a fit under-keeper of Overbury: first, they should meet with many impediments in the giving and exhibiting the poison: secondly they should be exposed to note and observation, that might discover them; and thirdly, Overbury in the meantime might write clamorous and furious letters to other his friends, and so all might be disappointed. And therefore the next link of the chain was to displace the then lieutenant Waade, and to place Helwisse, a principal abettor in the imprisonment: again, to displace Cary, that was the under-keeper in Waades time, and to place Weston, who was the principal actor in the imprisonment: and this was done in such a while, that it may appear to be done as it were with one breath; as there were but fifteen days between the commitment of Overbury, the displacing of Waade, the placing of Helwisse, the displacing of Cary the under-keeper, the placing of Weston, and the first poison given two days after.
Then when they had this poor gentleman in the Tower close prisoner, where he could not escape nor stir, where he could not feed but by their hands, where he could not speak nor write but through their trunks; then was the time to execute the last act of this tragedy.
Then must Franklin be purveyor of the poisons, and procure five, six, seven several potions, to be sure to hit his complexion. Then must Mris Turner be the say-mistress of the poisons to try upon poor beasts whats present, and what works at distance of time. Then must Weston be the tormentor, and chase him with poison after poison; poison in salts, poison in meats, poison in sweetmeats, poison in medicines and vomits, until at last his body was almost come, by use of poisons, to the state that Mithridates body was by the use of treacle and preservatives, that the force of the poisons was blunted upon him; Weston confessing, when he was chid for not dispatching him, that he had given him enough to poison twenty men. Lastly, because all this asked time, courses were taken by Somerset both to divert all means of Overburys delivery, and to entertain Overbury by continual letters, partly of hopes and projects for his delivery, and partly of other fables and negotiations; somewhat like some kind of persons (which I will not name) which keep men in talk of fortune-telling, when they have a felonious meaning.