1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Overbury, Sir Thomas

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OVERBURY, SIR THOMAS (1581-1613), English poet and essayist, and the victim of one of the most sensational crimes in English history, was the son of Nicholas Overbury, of Bourton-on-the-Hill, and was born in 1581 at Compton Scorpion, near Ilmington, in Warwickshire. In the autumn of 1595 he became a gentleman commoner of Queen's College, Oxford, took his degree of B.A. in 1598 and came to London to study law in the Middle Temple. He found favour with Sir Robert Cecil, travelled on the Continent and began to enjoy a reputation for an accomplished mind and free manners. About the year 1601, being in Edinburgh on a holiday, he met Robert Carr, then an obscure page to the earl of Dunbar; and so great a friendship was struck up between the two youths that they came up to London together. The early history of Carr remains obscure, and it is probable that Overbury secured an introduction to Court before his young associate contrived to do so. At all events, when Carr attracted the attention of James I., in 1606, by breaking his leg in the tilt-yard, Overbury had for some time been servitor-in-ordinary to the king. He was knighted in June 1608, and in 1609 he travelled in France and the Low Countries. He seems to have followed the fortunes of Carr very closely, and “such was the warmth of the friendship, that they were inseparable, . . . nor could Overbury enjoy any felicity but in the company of him he loved [Carr].” When the latter was made Lord Rochester in 1610, the intimacy seems to have been sustained. But it was now destroyed by a new element. Early in 1611 the Court became aware of the mutual attraction between Rochester and the infamous and youthful countess of Essex, who seemed to have bewitched the handsome Scots adventurer. To this intrigue Overbury was from the first violently opposed, pointing out to Rochester that an indulgence in it would be hurtful to his preferment, and that the woman, even at this early stage in her career, was already “noted for her injury and immodesty.” He went so far as to use, in describing her, a word which was not more just than scandalous. But Rochester was now infatuated, and he repeated to the countess what Overbury had said. It was at this time, too, that Overbury wrote, and circulated widely in MS., the poem called “His Wife,” which was a picture of the virtues which a young man should demand in a woman before he has the rashness to marry her. It was represented to Lady Essex that Overbury's object in writing this poem was to open the eyes of Rochester to her defects. The situation now resolved itself into a deadly duel for the person of Rochester between the mistress and the friend. The countess contrived to lead Overbury into such a trap as to make him seem disrespectful to the king, and she succeeded so completely that he was thrown into the Tower on the 22nd of April 1613. It was not known at the time, and it is not certain now, how far Rochester participated in this first crime, or whether he was ignorant of it. But the queen, by a foolish phrase, had sown discord between the friends; she had called Overbury Rochester's “governor.” It is, indeed, apparent that Overbury had become arrogant with success, and was no longer a favourite at Court. Lady Essex, however, was not satisfied with having had him shut up; she was determined that “he should return no more to this stage.” She had Sir William Wade, the honest Governor of the Tower, removed to make way for a creature of her own, Sir Gervaise Elvis (or Helwys) ; and a gaoler, of whom it was ominously said that he was “a man well acquainted with the power of drugs,” was set to attend on Overbury. This fellow, afterwards aided by Mrs Turner, the widow of a physician, and by an apothecary called Franklin, plied the miserable poet with sulphuric acid in the form of copper vitriol. But his constitution long withstood the timid doses they gave him, and he lingered in exquisite sufferings until the 15th of September 1613, when more violent measures put an end to his existence. Two months later Rochester, now earl of Somerset, married the chief murderess, Lady Essex. More than a year passed before suspicion was roused, and when it was, the king showed a hateful disinclination to bring the offenders to justice. In the celebrated trial which followed, however, the wicked plot was all discovered. The four accomplices were hanged; the countess of Somerset pleaded guilty but was spared, and Somerset himself was disgraced. Meanwhile, Overbury's poem, The Wife, was published in 1614, and ran through six editions within a year, the scandal connected with the murder of the author greatly aiding its success. It was abundantly reprinted within the next sixty years, and it continued to be one of the most widely popular books of the 17th century. Combined with later editions of The Wife, and gradually adding to its bulk, were “Characters” (first printed in the second of the 1614 editions), “The Remedy of Love” (1620), and “Observations in Foreign Travels” (1626). Later, much that must be spurious was added to the gathering snowball of Overbury's Works. Posterity has found the praise of his contemporaries for the sententious and graceful moral verse of Overbury extravagantly expressed. The Wife is smooth and elegant, but uninspired. There is no question that the horrible death of the writer, and the extraordinary way in which his murderers were brought to justice, gave an extraneous charm to his writings. Nor can we be quite sure that Overbury was in fact such a “glorious constellation” of all the religious virtues as the 17th century believed. He certainly kept very bad company, and positive evidence of his goodness is wanting. But no one was ever mote transcendently canonized by becoming the victim of conspirators whose crimes were equally detestable and unpopular. (E. G.)