Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Overbury, Thomas

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1429616Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 42 — Overbury, Thomas1895Sidney Lee

OVERBURY, Sir THOMAS (1581–1613), poet and victim of a court intrigue, was second but eldest surviving son of Sir Nicholas Overbury of Bourton-on-the-Hill, Gloucestershire. His father (1549?–1643) was a bencher of the Middle Temple; was appointed, about 1609, a judge in Wales; became recorder of Gloucester; sat in parliament for that city in 1603; was knighted at Warwick on 22 Aug. 1621, and was buried at Bourton-on-the-Hill on 31 May 1643. His will, dated 1 Sept. 1640, was proved on 20 May 1647. His wife Mary, daughter of Giles Palmer of Compton-Scorpion, Warwickshire, was buried at Bourton on 14 June 1617. Two sons besides Thomas reached manhood, viz. Giles (1590–1653), who was knighted in 1623, and was father of Sir Thomas Overbury the younger (see below); and Walter (1593–1637), who was M.P. for Cardigan in 1621 and 1625, and was buried at Barton-on-the-Heath on 6 April 1637. Sir Nicholas's daughters were: Frances (1580–1601), wife of John Palmer of Compton-Scorpion; Mary, wife of Sir John Littcott; Margaret (b. 1591), wife of Edmund Lechmere of Hanley-Castle, Worcestershire; and Meriall or Muriel (b. 1585), wife of Robert Oldisworth, and mother of Giles Oldisworth [q. v.] and of Nicholas Oldisworth. The latter recorded, from the dictation of his grandfather, Sir Nicholas Overbury, some autobiographical notes, which are preserved in British Museum Addit. MS. 15476 (Herald and Genealogist, viii. 446; Genealogist, i. 267 seq.)

The son Thomas was born at Compton-Scorpion in the parish of Ilmington, Warwickshire, at the house of his maternal grandfather, Giles Palmer, and was baptised at Barton-on-the-Heath on 18 June 1581. According to Wood, he was ‘educated partly in grammar learning in those parts.’ At Michaelmas 1595 he became a gentleman-commoner of Queen's College, Oxford, and matriculated in the university on 27 Feb. 1595–6, aged 14. He is said to have made rapid progress in philosophy and logic before graduating B.A. at the end of 1598. In 1601 Charles Fitzgeffrey [q. v.], a fellow-student of senior standing, published a highly complimentary epigram in his ‘Affaniæ,’ on Overbury's talents and disposition. On leaving the university he entered the Middle Temple, where his name had been placed on the register in 1597.

About 1601 Overbury ‘and John Guylby, his father's chief clerk, were sent upon a voyage of pleasure to Edinburgh, with 60l. between them.’ At Edinburgh they met Sir William Cornwallis, whom Overbury had known at Oxford. Sir William introduced Overbury to many friends in the north, and, among the rest, to Robert Carr, at the time page to the Earl of Dunbar. The two youths thereupon laid the foundations of a friendship which led to the tragedy of Overbury's life (Addit. MS. 15476). The intimacy was confirmed when Carr arrived in London in attendance on James I in 1603. The favour bestowed on Carr by the king opened to him a political career of commanding influence; and, conscious of his defective training and education, he found in his friend Overbury an invaluable adviser. Queen Anne (of Denmark) probably described their relations with truth when she nicknamed Overbury Carr's ‘governor’ or tutor.

Overbury soon shared some of his friend's prosperity. On 29 Sept. 1607 a lease was granted him of ‘twenty-five bullaries of salt water, with cribs, stalls, and other appurtenances, in Droitwich, Worcestershire, parcel of the possessions of Robt. Winter, attainted’ (Cal. 1603–10, p. 372). He was made sewer to the king, and on 19 June 1608 was knighted at Greenwich.

But his rise seemed less rapid than he desired. He was ‘hindered in his expectation, and, to shift off discontent, forced to travel.’ He paid a visit to the Low Countries in 1609, and he is said to have written some valuable ‘Observations upon the State of the Seventeen Provinces.’ In 1610, on his return home, his claims to a good diplomatic appointment were generally discussed, and his close relations with Carr, who was created Viscount Rochester in 1610, appeared to place the highest political preferment within his grasp. Rochester ‘could enter into no scheme nor pursue any measure without the advice and concurrence of his friend, nor could Overbury enjoy any felicity but in the company of him he loved.’ Placemen sought his countenance in order to recommend themselves to Rochester, and Bacon is said to have habitually ‘stooped and crouched to him.’

Meanwhile Rochester involved himself in a liaison with Frances Howard, countess of Essex. Overbury encouraged the intrigue, although he knew that the countess was a woman of abandoned character, and he composed many of the poems and letters with which Rochester sought the lady's favour. If Overbury's friend Ben Jonson is to be trusted, Overbury's complacence was due to his own entrance on a similar suit. He had fallen in love with the Countess of Rutland, Sir Philip Sidney's daughter, and had written, Jonson asserted, his well-known poem called ‘A Wife’ with a view to securing the countess's good graces. At Overbury's request, Jonson, who was ignorant of Overbury's sentiments or design, read the verses to Lady Rutland; but on learning the character of the advances, at which he felt he had been innocently induced to connive, Jonson declined all further intercourse with Overbury (Jonson, Conversations with Drummond, p. 16).

Whatever may have been Overbury's opinion of Lady Essex's fitness to become Rochester's mistress, he had no doubt whatever of her unfitness to become Rochester's wife. As soon, therefore, as she had succeeded in divorcing her husband, the Earl of Essex, and had avowed her intention of marrying Rochester, Overbury passionately entreated the latter to break with her. But the lady had gained complete control of her lover, and Rochester, apparently for the first time in his life, resented his friend's advice. Overbury persisted in his unwelcome counsel, and, according to his father, directed Rochester's attention to his poem on ‘A Wife,’ ‘to prove that Rochester could make a better choice than a divorced countess.’ Rochester, goaded by the taunts of his resolute mistress, was roused to retaliate, but the anticipation of an abiding breach with Overbury alarmed him. He was apparently conscious that Overbury was in possession of some information which, if revealed, might injure or even ruin him. In Scotland it was hinted that the mysterious secret concerned an attempt which Overbury and Rochester had jointly made to murder Prince Henry. But at any risk Rochester resolved to relieve himself, at least temporarily, of his friend's company. The unscrupulous Earl of Northampton, who was grand-uncle of Lady Essex, and had set his heart on the match, strongly recommended Overbury's removal from a scene in which he could work mischief. Accordingly James I was induced to offer Overbury a diplomatic appointment. Winwood asserts that he was invited to become ambassador in France or in the Low Countries (Winwood, Memorials, iii. 447, 453); but Bishop Goodman states that ‘some meaner place’ was suggested, and John Chamberlain the letter-writer and Sir Simonds D'Ewes mention Russia (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. v. 350–1). Every bait was held out to lead him to accept the offer. The lord chancellor and the Earl of Pembroke are said to have hinted at the king's command that employment abroad was to be the prelude of high office at home, and the post of treasurer of the royal household was mentioned as likely to fall at an early date into his hands. But Overbury steadily refused to entertain the proposal, and his obstinacy excited adverse criticism at court. Both the king and queen viewed him with little favour. The king, who was jealous of the affection long shown him by the favourite Rochester, was reported to resent ‘the stiff carriage of his fortune,’ and to nourish ‘a rooted hatred in his heart towards him.’ At the same time the queen was credited with harbouring some ill-feeling because she imagined he had once laughed at her disrespectfully while walking with Rochester beneath her window at Greenwich Palace; Overbury, it seems, had overheard her speak of him as Rochester's ‘governor,’ and the remark moved him to laughter. Lady Howard's friends naturally neglected no opportunity of emphasising Overbury's intractability. The gossip ran that ‘there was much ado’ to save Overbury from a ‘public censure of banishment and loss of office’ (Southampton to Winwood, 4 Aug. 1613). But Rochester and Northampton came to an understanding that his sojourn for a few months in the Tower would satisfy the situation. His withdrawal from public life would at any rate enable Rochester to proceed with his marriage without molestation. Consequently, on 26 April 1613, ‘about six o'clock in the evening, Sir Thomas Overbury was from the council-chamber conveyed by a clerk of the council and two of the guard to the Tower, and there by warrant consigned to the lieutenant as close prisoner.’

The incident produced almost a panic at court. Wotton, who witnessed the arrest, wrote that the ‘quality and relation of the person bred in beholders infinite amazement.’ The antecedent circumstances were not generally known, but Wotton showed exceptional sagacity when he prophesied that Overbury ‘shall return no more to this stage.’

No proof has been adduced that Rochester regarded Overbury's imprisonment as other than a temporary expedient. Rochester's intended bride, however, viewed it in another light. There seems no question that she at once determined to murder Overbury in the Tower. She had already suggested his assassination to one Sir Davy Wood, who believed that Overbury had done him some injury. She had even promised Wood a reward of 1,000l. as soon as the deed was done. But Sir Davy made it a condition that the countess should secure a pardon from Rochester before he entered on the design, and, as she was unable to procure such an instrument, the negotiation went no further. After Overbury's committal, her granduncle Northampton, although he may not have been wholly in her confidence, readily aided her in the preliminary steps of her plot against Overbury's life, and did not too closely inquire into her aims. By Northampton's influence, she contrived the dismissal of the lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Waad, a man of unbending virtue, from whom it was hopeless to 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 in the street by a crowd, calling after him ‘There goes Sir Thomas Overbury's father.’ The anagram on ‘Thomas Overburie’—‘O, O, a busie murther’—was long familiar.

Overbury was a singularly cultivated man. Ben Jonson addressed to him, before they quarrelled, a poem in which he credited him with permanently introducing into court circles a love of art and literature. The chief verse-writers vied with each other in lamenting his early death, and, after the facts of his murder became known, they bewailed his fate in many pathetic elegies. As many as twenty writers contributed under their initials prefatory verses to the early editions of the ‘Wife,’ among the writers being William Browne and John Ford the dramatist (cf. Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iv. 386–7). John Ford also obtained a license to publish a work (not extant) entitled ‘A Booke called Sir Thomas Overburyes Ghost, contayneing the history of his life and untimely death, by John Ford, gent.’ (25 Nov. 1615). Richard Niccols [q. v.] published his ‘Overburies Vision’ in 1616, and Samuel Rowlands a broadside. A Latin couplet, ‘In statuam ligneam Overburii,’ appears in Lord Herbert of Cherbury's ‘Poems,’ ed. Churton Collins, p. 124 (cf. Dunbar, Epigrams, 1616, p. 104; Scot, Philomythie, 1610, i. 7 sq.; Owen, Epigrams, 1612, v. 48; Bancroft, Epigrams).

Overbury's chief work, ‘A Wife now the Widdow of Sir T. Overburye,’ a sensible little poem on marriage, of slender poetic merit, was first published in London in 1614. It was licensed for the press on 13 Dec. 1613, and became exceptionally popular, five editions appearing in 1614. One of the last lines—

He comes too near who comes to be denied—

obtained currency as a proverb. Contemporary imitations abounded. ‘The Husbande,’ with commendatory verses by Ben Jonson, appeared in 1614; ‘A Second Select Husband,’ by John Davies of Hereford, in 1616; ‘The Description of a Good Wife,’ by Brathwaite, and Patrick Hannay's ‘Happy Husband,’ in 1619. In 1631 followed Wye Saltonstall's ‘Picturæ Loquentes,’ and in 1653 Robert Aylett's ‘A Wife not ready made but bespoken.’ Of the rare first edition of the ‘Wife’ (12mo) two copies are known—one in the Bodleian, and the other at Trinity College, Cambridge. A quarto edition, issued in the same year, with a portrait by Simon Pass, and four panegyrics on the author, includes an attractive appendix of twenty-one ‘Characters.’ The title runs: ‘A Wife now the Widow of Sir Thomas Overbury, being a most exquisite and singular Poem of the choice of a Wife, whereunto are added many witty characters and conceited news written by himself and other learned gentlemen his Friends’ (Brit. Mus.). The ‘Characters’—the earliest of their kind—show much insight into human nature, and are very pithily expressed; but it is uncertain how many of them or of the succeeding paragraphs of ‘news’ are Overbury's compositions, and how many belong to his friends. A third impression, also in 1614, supplied ‘addition of sundry other new characters,’ bringing the number to twenty-five. A fourth impression contained thirty characters (1614, 4to). Three ‘characters’—a tinker, an apparitor, and an almanac-maker—first appearing in the sixth edition in 1616, are by J. Cocke; and an added essay there, ‘Newes from the Countrey,’ is by Donne. An eighth edition (1616) contained ‘new elegies on his untimely death.’ Many apocryphal ‘witty conceits’ and some brief poems were added in 1622 and reproduced in 1638. As many as twenty editions appeared up to 1673, the last being ‘illustrated by Giles Oldisworth, nephew to the same Sir T. O.’ (Bodleian). It was reprinted in Capell's ‘Prolusions,’ 1762.

In 1620 was issued ‘The first and second part of the Remedy of Love. Written by Sir Thomas Overbury.’ London, by N. Okes (British Museum). In 1626 appeared ‘Sir Thomas Overbury his Observations in his Travailes … upon the state of the Seventeen Provinces in 1609.’ The manuscript of the work is at Lambeth (841, f. 15). This was licensed for press on 28 Jan. 1615–16, but no earlier edition is known. A new edition is dated 1651, and contains Pass's portrait. The work was included in the ‘Harleian Miscellany’ (1744 and 1808), and a French translation was published at Ghent in 1853.

In 1756 appeared ‘The Miscellaneous Works in Verse and Prose of Sir Thomas Overbury, Knight, with Memoir of his Life. Tenth edition.’ This rejected most of the apocryphal additions. The latest and fullest edition of his works was edited by Edward F. Rimbault in 1856, in Russell Smith's Library of Old Authors; but the text of the ‘Wife’ is not very satisfactory, and needs revision in the light of extant contemporary manuscripts (cf. Collier, Bibliographical Account, ii. 66 sq.; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. ii. 434). Mr. Rimbault included a collection of anecdotes (‘Crumms fal'n from King James's Table’), which is assigned to Overbury in Harl. MS. 7582, f. 42. The work was first printed in the ‘Prince's Cabala,’ 1715, as the ‘Table Talk of King James, collected by Sir Thomas Overbury.’

In 1648 was published the ‘Arraignment and Conviction of Sr Walter Rawleigh [in 1603] … coppied by Sir Tho. Overbury,’ but its ascription to Overbury may well be doubted.

A portrait in the picture gallery at Oxford is said to represent Overbury, and to be the work of Isaac Oliver [q. v.] A very rare print by Robert Elstracke is inscribed in a corner ‘The Portraiture of Sir Thomas Overbury, knight, ætat. 32,’ and shows him in the act of writing out his epitaph. It is reproduced in Amos's ‘Great Oyer of Poisoning,’ 1846 (frontispiece). The engraving, by Simon Pass, which appears in the 1614 4to edition of ‘The Wife,’ has been reproduced in later issues.

Overbury's nephew, Sir Thomas Overbury the younger (d. 1683), was son of his next brother, Sir Giles, by Anne (d. 1660), daughter of Sir John Shurfield of Isfield, Sussex. He settled on the estate of Bourton-on-the-Hill after proving his father's will in 1653, and was knighted on 25 June 1660. He was a country gentleman who, according to Wood, ‘was a great traveller beyond the seas, and afterwards a favourer of protestant dissenters.’ In 1676 he issued, in the form of a letter to Thomas Shirley, a doctor of medicine in London, ‘A true and perfect Account of the Examination, Confession, Trial, Condemnation, and Execution of Joan Perry and her two Sons for the supposed Murder of William Harrison, Gent.’ Harrison, who was steward to the Viscountess Campden at Campden, was a neighbour of Overbury, and on 16 Aug. 1660 disappeared mysteriously, whereupon his servant, John Perry, asserted that he, with his mother and brother, had murdered his master. Although John's story was wholly uncorroborated, the three persons incriminated were arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged; but subsequently Harrison returned home, stating that he had been kidnapped and been sold as a slave in Turkey. The curious tract is reprinted in the Harleian ‘Miscellany’ (1810, viii. 86 sq.; cf. Notes and Queries, 8th ser. viii. 64). Overbury also published anonymously ‘Queries proposed to the serious Consideration of those who impose upon others in Things of Divine and Supernatural Revelation, and persecute any upon the account of Religion,’ 1677. To this tract George Vernon, rector of Bourton-on-the-Water, replied in ‘Ataxiæ Obstaculum, an Answer to certain Queries dispersed in some parts of Gloucestershire,’ 1677. Overbury retorted in ‘Ratiocinium Vernaculum,’ 1678. Late in life he sold his property at Bourton and removed to Quinton. He was buried at Quinton on 6 March 1683. By his wife Hester Leach he left a daughter Mary, who married at Bourton in 1659 Sir William Whitelocke.

[Sir Nicholas Overbury's autobiographic notes in Addit. MS. 15476, and the letters of Overbury while in the Tower in Harl. MS. 7002, are very valuable; cf. Herald and Genealogist, viii. 446 seq. Niccols's poem, Overburie's Ghost, 1616, gives a useful contemporary account of the murder. See also The Bloody Downfall of Adultery, Murder, Ambition (dealing with Weston and Mrs. Turner), London, 1615, 4to, in Huth Library; The Narrative History of King James for the first fourteen years [with] the arraignment of Sir J. Elvis, London, 1651, 4to (with portrait of Overbury); Weldon's Court and Character of King James, 1650; A true and historical Relation of the Poysoning of Sir Thomas Overbury, with the several Arraignments and Speeches of those that were executed thereupon, 1651; Sir Simonds D'Ewes's Autobiography, 1845; Andrew Amos's Great Oyer of Poisoning: the Trial of the Earl of Somerset, 1846, passim; Brydges's Memoirs of Peers during the reign of James I; Gardiner's Hist.; Calendars of State Papers, 1611–18; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 133 sq.; Rimbault's preface to his collected edition of Overbury's works; Hunter's manuscript Chorus Vatum in Addit. MS. 24488, pp. 289 sq.]

S. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.211
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line
382 i 17 Overbury, Sir Thomas: for (d. 1683) read (d. 1684)
4 f.e. for 1683 read 1683-4