Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 42.djvu/386

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

expect any help. In his place the countess and her friends put Sir Gervase Helwys [q. v.], a protégé of the Howard family, who could be trusted to do anything that was told him. Rochester was easily persuaded that a confidential ally like Helwys would keep a watchful eye on Overbury's correspondence with friends outside the Tower, and prevent the divulgence of awkward secrets. On 6 May Helwys was installed in the Tower. The countess and Northampton maintained continuous communication with him, and exercised complete control over him. At their bidding he took into his service as gaoler one of the countess's creatures, Richard Weston, and appointed him Overbury's personal attendant. Weston had instructions to mix with Overbury's food the poisonous contents of certain phials which were forwarded to him by others of the countess's agents, Mrs. Turner, a woman who kept a house for immoral purposes, and James Franklin, an apothecary. At the same time, as if to make assurance doubly sure, Lady Essex obtained permission from Helwys to provide Overbury's table with confectionery, which the lieutenant was warned to allow none but the prisoner to taste. According to Franklin's subsequent confession, the chief poison employed was white arsenic, but ‘aqua fortis, mercury, powder of diamonds, lapis costitus, great spiders, and cantharides,’ also figured in the list of drugs with which Franklin corrupted Overbury's food (Amos, p. 337).

Overbury was in feeble health on arriving at the Tower; and although his sufferings, largely due to the machinations of his enemies, were soon stated to be ‘without parallel,’ his ailments were attributed to natural causes. He himself had no suspicions of their true origin. Visitors were denied him, and his father was not ‘able to entertain the least speech with him;’ but he was at liberty to write to his physicians, to Rochester, and to other friends, and many pathetic letters from him are extant, in which he narrated his bodily torments and clamoured for release (Harleian MS. 7002). So cleverly was the plot worked, however, and so defective was the medical science of the day, that two of the most eminent physicians in London, Naesmith and Craig, who were deputed to examine him, were completely deceived as to his condition. The poisons operated slowly, but after three months' imprisonment Overbury's health reached a critical stage. It was reported that Helwys, in order the more effectually to depress his prisoner's spirits, moved him to a dark and unwholesome cell, where ‘he scarce beheld the light of the sun.’

There is much difficulty in unravelling the exact course of events during the last days of Overbury's life. Helwys, after convincing himself that Overbury was alarmingly ill, appears to have summoned a new medical attendant, one Paul de Lobel, an apothecary of Lime Street, who was associated in the profession with the eminent physician Mayerne. Lobel seems to have diagnosed Overbury's ailment as consumption, due to melancholy (Amos, p. 168). Thereupon, by order of the countess, who was impatient of further delay, the gaoler, Weston, bribed a man in Lobel's employ to make short work of the victim. On 14 Sept. 1613, three months and seventeen days after Overbury's first committal, Lobel's assistant administered to him a clyster of corrosive sublimate. The previous treatment had reduced him to skin and bone, and about five o'clock in the morning of Wednesday the 15th he died of exhaustion. A jury of warders and fellow prisoners at once pronounced a verdict of natural death, and he was buried in the choir of the church in the Tower between three and four o'clock on the same afternoon. In 1629 Sir John Eliot [q. v.] was committed to the same cell in the Tower that Overbury had occupied.

On 26 Dec. 1613 Rochester (created Earl of Somerset on 3 Nov.) married the divorced countess. Ben Jonson, in an ‘epithalamium,’ expressed a hope that the lady might ‘Outbee that “Wife” in worth thy friend did make’—an allusion to Overbury and his well-known poem (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. viii. 366). Nearly two years passed before the mysterious circumstances attending Overbury's death came to light. In July 1615 Sir Ralph Winwood first learnt that the case was one of murder from a correspondent, who gained the information at Flushing from a boy in the employ of one of the apothecaries formerly in attendance on Overbury. Investigations followed in the autumn, and warrants were issued for the arrests of the Earl and Countess of Somerset, of Helwys, and of all the attendants on Overbury in the Tower. The Earl of Northampton, whom the evidence showed to be an accomplice, had died in 1614. Weston, Franklin, Mrs. Turner, and Helwys were tried on 18 Nov. and were convicted and executed; the Earl and Countess of Somerset were brought to trial in May 1616, and were also convicted, but were pardoned and were released from the Tower in 1621. The obvious anxiety of the king to shelter the earl and his wife encouraged a suspicion that he had connived at the murder. For years the whole episode was popularly regarded as the most startling incident on record. Overbury's father, who survived his murdered son thirty years, relates how he was usually followed