08 January 2015

With Friends Like You, Who Needs Enemas:
the Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury


by Brian Thornton

Happy New Year!

After having two of my latest posts featured on first Thanksgiving and then on Christmas Day, I don't mind telling you what a relief it is to have my latest turn in the rotation come up on a non-holiday for a change!

Phew!

Now let's move on to this, our initial helping of historical crime for 2015: a capital crime (murder) committed in a capital city (London) in a royal residence (the Tower of London), specifically in the upper chamber of this, the so-called "Bloody Tower" right on the Tower complex grounds.

The upper chamber of this very building!
Now, before you start jumping up and down and shouting, "We already know all about the murder of
NOT victims of the crime in question
the princes in the Tower!" I gotta stop ya right there. Yes, the two sons of King Edward IV(King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York) were residents of the Tower complex, and yes, they were, in fact, housed in this same building, and on the upper flower as well.

But not so fast! Although these unfortunate boys were without doubt murdered, and with very little doubt done to death by their impressive, scary, ambitious, scoliosis-ridden uncle, Richard of Gloucester, Duke of York (later King Richard III), we aren't sure where they met their end.

And in this case, we're certain that the murder in question took place in this tower, on the upper floor. We're certain of little else about this killing, most especially about how it was accomplished, whether the unfortunate who met his maker in this tower, on this floor, was done in by poison, or "oil of vitriol" (sulfuric acid), or by (get this) an arsenic enema!

NOT the perpetrator of the crime in question
Nope, this murder took place not in 1483, but 130 years later, in 1613, during the reign of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), involved one of the greatest of the kingdom's noble families, and all the trimmings of a juicy royal scandal: corruption, pandering, sex, bribery, and (obviously) murder!

King James– Nice Hat, eh?
It all started, as so many court scandals do, with sex. Specifically gay sex. Even more specifically, gay royal sex. You see, in addition to being monarch of both Scotland and England, James Stuart was just about the biggest closet case the Renaissance ever produced.

In many ways a hard-headed pragmatist (go figure, he WAS Scottish, after all), James had a gigantic blind spot when it came to tall, handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken young men. Worse, he tended to collect pretty boys like this, lavish them with titles and expensive presents, and then place them in positions of power and authority, expecting them to be, in addition to ridiculously good-looking, intelligent and competent.

A tall order, no question. He was usually disappointed. However, it also frequently took him a while to figure out that he'd misjudged this or that favorite in some way, and allow his ardor to cool.

With James' weakness for handsome boys no secret, it should come as no surprise that entire factions of would-be operators at James' court set to work beating the bushes for attractive young men to place in James' path, in hopes of cashing in once his attention had been caught, using the smitten monarch's libido for their own advancement.

Which leads us to our victim, who was without doubt just such a one of these procurers: a cunning, well-educated, ill-mannered, self-impressed toad by the name of Sir Thomas Overbury.

The Victim: Sir Thomas Overbury


Sir Thomas Overbury–
Renaissance Douchebag
Born in 1581 at a Warwickshire manor with the cool-cool-cool name of Compton Scorpion, Sir Thomas Overbury was a particular example of a very common type to be found all over late Renaissance England. Of good family, but definitely middle class means, Overbury was the in many ways the ultimate social climber.

Shrewd, a superb administrator, and good with money, but not with people, Overbury was also tactless and nakedly self-interested. What's more he definitely lacked the "common touch." For that matter he made nothing but enemies amongst the gentry and nobility as well. As if that wasn't enough, Overbury also possessed the fatal flaw of being, as one contemporary put it: "prone to over-valuing himself and under-valuing others."

For all that, Overbury did actually possess at least one friend (for a while. More on that later) – a pretty Scottish youth of just exactly the type guaranteed to make King James go all weak in the knees: Robert Carr.

The Eye Candy: Robert Carr

When Sir Thomas Overbury first encountered him during a visit to Edinburgh in 1601, Robert Carr was a twenty-three year-old, handsome, ambitious nobody from nowhere; a page in King James' service. He was also dumb as soup and possessed no scruples about using his looks (for starters) to win advancement, qualities which made him all the more attractive to the cunning Overbury. Such a dimwitted pretty boy could be controlled and manipulated for the purposes of a climber such as Overbury, and used to further the causes of his friends (again, like Overbury), if only he could be placed where he could attract the attention of the man-loving king.

Robert Carr – Renaissance Boy Toy
Happily for Overbury, he was well-positioned to do precisely that, as he was in Edinburgh on the Queen's business. He had already made several trips north in order to assist with the pending royal transition between the ailing Elizabeth I and her cousin and hand-picked successor, James Stuart.

He lost little time in arranging for Carr to catch the king's eye: Carr participated in a joust wherein he broke his leg practically in front of the royal loge. James, taken with the young man's beauty, not only quickly made Carr a favorite, but took on the responsibilities of helping nurse the young man back to health, while also teaching him Latin.

The boy toy was on his way. Within a couple of years, James had knighted Carr, created him Viscount Rochester, and made him both a privy councilor and a "gentleman of the bedchamber" (complete with his own key!). And there is plenty of evidence that Carr's duties in that capacity didn't end at just tucking in His Majesty at night. James so enjoyed the youth's nightly presence in his bed that when he didn't visit the royal chamber he was conspicuous by his absence. At one point the king even wrote to Carr, complaining of his "withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber, notwithstanding my many hundred times earnest soliciting you to the contrary."

Although well-suited to serving the king in this capacity, Carr could hardly have been expected to serve effectively as a "privy councilor" without the help of someone infinitely brighter than he was. This was where his friend and benefactor Thomas Overbury played an effective part.

Overbury fed Carr advice to pass along to the king, advice which served not just the royal interests, but the interests of the supremely self-interested Sir Thomas Overbury, as well. In fact, it was soon whispered throughout court that "whilst Rochester ruled the King, Overbury ruled Rochester."

When James got wind of this (a foregone conclusion), there would be hell to pay – said account to be settled in our next installment, which will include the above-teased raising of the stakes, the introduction of a bonafide femme fatale, vitriol, poison, enemas, emetics, imprisonment, and eventually, MURDER!

Truly an installment not to be missed!

See you in two weeks!

4 comments:

David Dean said...

I fear the next installment, Brian, I do. Death by enema--it's just not right.

Great stuff! Thanks.

janice law said...

Almost too many riches! More installments, please, but as writers lets not forget James I commissioned the noble prose of the King James Bible.

Eve Fisher said...

This is great stuff, Brian! Up until now, my favorite of James' favorites has always been George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who is ironically mostly remembered for his (supposed) passion for Anne of Austria in "The Three Musketeers". And she needed a lover (although it probably wasn't the Duke) because she was married to the other major closet case of the Renaissance, Louis XIII of France - I mean, 20 years with no issue? And Louis XIII's second son, Philippe I, who was notoriously, openly gay and yet fathered 7 children... It was a wild, wild, wild time...

Leigh Lundin said...

The mind spins and the brain boggles. I can't wait.