Helwys, Gervase (DNB00)

HELWYS, Sir GERVASE (1561–1615), lieutenant of the Tower of London, baptised at Askham, Nottinghamshire, 1 Sept. 1561, was son of John Helwys (d. 1581) of Worlaby, Lincolnshire, by Mary, daughter of Thomas Blagden of Thames Ditton. His grandfather was William Helwys of Askham (d. 1557). His uncle Geoffrey (1541–1616), a merchant tailor of London, was elected alderman of Farringdon Within, 14 Dec. 1605 (removing to Walbrook 9 Jan. 1610), was sheriff of London in 1610, and had a son Gervase (1581–1653) who was knighted 26 April 1629 and was relieved of serving as alderman of Cordwainer in 1629 on paying 500l. (Overall, Remembrancia, p. 82). The family name was spelt in an endless number of ways (Elwes, Elwaies, Helwisse, Yelwas, &c.); the present representatives have adopted Elwes. The lieutenant signed his name as ‘Helwyess’ or ‘Helwysse’ (Amos, Great Oyer, 172, 175).

According to D'Ewes's ‘Diary’ (i. 79), Helwys was a fellow-commoner of St. John's College, Cambridge. The university register gives the date of his matriculation as June 1573, calls him ‘Jervasius Elwasse,’ and describes him as a pensioner. He took no degree, and studied law at Lincoln's Inn. While travelling in France, he became the ‘friend and acquaintance’ of John Chamberlain [q. v.], the letter-writer. He was knighted by James I at Theobalds on 7 May 1603. His father warned him against the temptations of a life at court, and it was not until 1612, when he was middle-aged, that he ventured there. He seems to have been well known to members of the Howard family, especially to the Earl of Northampton [see Howard, Henry] and to Northampton's nephew, the Earl of Suffolk [see Howard, Thomas, d. 1626].

On 21 April 1613 Sir Thomas Overbury was committed to the Tower. Northampton and Robert Car, viscount Rochester, were obviously resolved that Overbury, who was regarded as an obstacle to Rochester's marriage with Lady Frances, Suffolk's daughter and Northampton's great-niece, should not leave the Tower alive. They feared that the lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Waad, might obstruct their plans. Northampton, therefore, contrived his dismissal and the appointment of Helwys in his place. Helwys was anxious to serve the state and the Howards, and readily paid 1,400l. for his promotion. On 6 May 1613 he was installed in the Tower. He was ‘somewhat an unknown man,’ writes Chamberlain, but was noted for the gravity of his demeanour. Northampton obviously made it plain to him that the interests of the Howard family required Overbury to be kept under strict surveillance, and that he was expected to deliver to his prisoner certain letters which members of that family would write to him. But there is no evidence that Helwys understood at the time the character of the plot in which his office was to involve him.

The day after his assumption of office he agreed, at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Monson, master of the armoury in the Tower, to admit into the Tower as Overbury's attendant one Richard Weston, who was clearly employed by Overbury's enemies to administer slow poisons to him. Helwys soon accidentally discovered Weston with a suspicious glass in his hand; learned that its contents were poisonous; flung them away, and hotly rebuked Weston, terrifying him ‘with God's judgments.’ He directed that none but an apothecary who had been previously in attendance on Overbury should supply him with drugs. Meanwhile Helwys was corresponding with Lady Frances and her relatives. The lady sent him tarts and jellies to be given to Overbury, and in one communication warned Helwys that the food contained ‘letters.’ Helwys afterwards avowed that by ‘letters’ he and the countess understood ‘poison;’ but he emphatically asserted, with every appearance of truth, that none of the suspected dishes ever reached Overbury's table (cf. Gardiner, Hist. ii. 183 n.) Mayerne, a physician above suspicion, was, it should be remembered, Overbury's chief medical adviser. Weston, however, apparently without Mayerne's knowledge, arranged with a disreputable apothecary named James Franklin to supply the patient with medicine, and Overbury, whose health had long been very bad, gradually sank. He died at seven o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, 15 Sept. 1613. Helwys at once sent the news to Northampton, who at first suggested that the body should be delivered to Overbury's friends, but its decaying condition led Helwys, before receiving any reply from Northampton, to hold an inquest, with a jury of prisoners and warders in the Tower. A verdict of death from natural causes was returned, and the corpse was buried in the Tower precincts at three or four o'clock in the afternoon of the day of death (cf. Amos, pp. 171 sq.; Winwood, Memorials, iii. 481–2). At the time Overbury's death excited little public notice.

Early in 1615 Helwys conducted the cruel torture of Edmund Peacham [q. v.] by means of manacles, and he was in frequent controversy with the corporation of London respecting their rights over the Tower precincts and environs (Remembrancia, p. 82). In July 1615 ‘there were whisperings that Sir Thomas Overbury's death would be called in question.’ A boy formerly in the employment of the apothecary Franklin was said to have confessed, while sick, at Flushing, that a clyster had been wilfully applied to Overbury with fatal effect.

A month later Secretary Winwood and Helwys were both guests at the Earl of Shrewsbury's dinner-table. Winwood, who had learned the boy's story and taken it seriously, declined an introduction to Helwys on the ground that his reputation was blackened by the rumours regarding Overbury's death. Helwys heard the remark, and privately informed Winwood that the death was suspicious, but that he knew little about it. By direction of the king, to whom Winwood at once carried the conversation, Helwys drew up a statement, dated 16 Sept. 1615, in which he admitted his early suspicions of Weston, but insisted that he had dissuaded him, as he believed effectually, from pursuing his evil design, and that he knew nothing of any other agents employed. On 1 Oct. Weston, under examination by Coke, told how emissaries from the Earl and Countess of Somerset had sought to corrupt him, and Helwys, together with all the persons implicated, was arrested. His place at the Tower was taken by Sir George More. Helwys was frequently examined, but did not directly incriminate himself. His evidence, however, was subsequently used against the Earl and Countess of Somerset, and Northampton, who had died 15 June 1614, was seriously compromised by his testimony. At his trial before Coke and a jury on 18 Nov. 1615, Helwys protested with dignity against Coke's harsh usage of him, and solemnly reasserted his ignorance of the plot against Overbury's life. But Coke produced a confession which he had received that morning from the apothecary Franklin. Franklin testified that he had seen a letter from Helwys to the Countess of Somerset, in which Helwys wrote of Overbury: ‘This scab is like the fox, who the more he is cursed the better he fareth.’ At these words Helwys is said to have changed colour; the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and he was condemned to death (cf. Court and Times of James I, i. 377 sq.). The incriminating letter was not produced nor legally proved, and there was no evidence that Helwys was more than technically an accessory before the fact. When his suspicions were aroused he seems, as far as his weak will permitted, to have taken steps for the safety of his prisoner, but was outwitted by his desperate associates. The trial was conducted with inhuman indifference to the rights of an accused person. On 20 Nov. Helwys was hanged on Tower Hill instead of at Tyburn by his special request. Dr. Whiting and Dr. Felton attended him to the scaffold. He heaped reproaches on himself, confessed the justice of his sentence, and recited a prayer of his own composition. But he refrained from confessing any direct hand in the murder. ‘The effect … of his speech’ and a ballad on his execution were entered on the ‘Stationers' Registers,’ 19 Dec. 1615 (ed. Arber, iii. 580). R. Niccols, in his ‘Overbury's Vision’ (1616), described Helwys as of solemn demeanour and comely person.

Helwys married Mary, daughter of Thomas Brooke of Norfolk, by whom he had a family. The king granted Helwys's estate, worth above 1,000l. a year, to William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, who generously bestowed it on the widow and her children (Howell, Letters, 1 March 1618).

[Amos's Great Oyer of Poisoning (1846); Gardiner's Hist. of England; Howell's State Trials, ii. 935–48; Sir Simonds d'Ewes's Diary, ed. Halliwell, with the appended Secret History of James I; Brit. Mus. MS. Harl. 7002, containing letters by Helwys and others charged with Overbury's murder; Wilson's Truth brought to Light by Time, or the Hist. of the First Fourteen Years of James I; Weldon's Court of James I; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1615; Overbury's Works, ed. Rimbault; Nichols's Progresses of James I. For the history of the family see Miscellanea Genealogica et Heraldica, i. 66–77, 81–5; Cussans's Hertfordshire, Hundred of Edwinstree, pp. 110–11 (pedigree).]

S. L. L.