Unnatural Murder: Poison In The Court Of James I: The Overbury Murder Paperback – 2 Aug 2004
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A royal scandal, set against the background of the Jacobean court, involving love, bribery, poison, treachery and black magic.
In the autumn of 1615 the Earl and Countess of Somerset were detained on suspicion of having murdered Sir Thomas Overbury. The arrest of these leading court figures created a sensation. The Countess was both young and beautiful: the Earl was one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom, having risen to prominence as the male 'favourite' of the monarch James I. In a vivid narrative, Anne Somerset unravels these extraordinary events, which were widely regarded as an extreme manifestation of the corruption and vice which disfigured the court during this period. It is at once a story rich in passion and intrigue and a murder mystery, for, despite the guilty verdicts, there is much about Overbury's death that remains enigmatic. The Overbury murder case profoundly damaged the monarchy, and constituted the greatest court scandal in English history.See all Product description
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Somerset has done her research well and, if she tends to wander off on learned digressions that are not really needed or occasionally shows her learning to no great effect, that is compensated for by her acute eye for how things really were. She has looked in depth at the sources and pieces together the story in extraordinary detail.
It isn't really a mystery story. Frances pleaded guilty and was patently guilty, as were most of those who hanged for it. The only open questions are whether Somerset himself took a hand in it and whether it was actually the poisons that got Overbury or the ghastly ordeal he suffered at the hands of 17th century doctors.
Perversely, Somerset may have been innocent but was convicted because the mind of the day said that a woman could not have hatched the plot alone. Frances, who probably never had sex in her entire life with anyone but him (the annulment of her first marriage, which was never consummated, is also described in excellent detail), was traduced more for her immorality than her participation in a murder. And, needless to add, the 'little birds' hanged while the couple behind it were pardoned, though their disgrace was complete and perpetual.
What emerges clearest is the staggering venality and corruption of the court, where men who sought office raised thousands to bribe noblemen to have a word. James I himself comes across as a ridiculous but essentially good-hearted man, who was genuinely appalled that his former favourite (and possibly homosexual lover) might have stooped to kill a man he personally disliked. It's not an easy read but it's a rewarding one.
It is probably true that there isn't any documents which proves that any courtiers or appointed doctors had poisoned Sir Thomas Overbury, as I imagine that the medical care/treatment was extremely primitive in the 17th century and scores of crucial and relevant documents were instantly destroyed.
Anne Somerset had carried out thorough researched of the everyday events of King James Court and notorious event of Sir Thomas Overbury's death. She gives a reader insight into the life of King James Court, with details of the arrest of leading court figures. She gives several possible solutions in connections with relevant incidents.
It is a gripping detective story, with a series of compelling and intriguing episodes of the corruption and powerplays of the 17th century life. It was an unputdownable book!!!
The narrative is detailed and gripping though there are points at which Somerset can't help but get distracted by her own research and goes off on tangents. This would have been helped by the insertion of footnotes, though I know popular historians tend to avoid them. There are also some niggles around referencing where quotations aren't always sourced, and are too frequently attributed to `one person'.
The book would have benefitted from a family tree: two of the key families involved are the Howards and the Devereux-Sidney-Herbert family group. The Howard relationships are spelt out in the text though it would be handy to relate our key characters to their Tudor relations.
The Devereux (Essex), Sidney (Lisle), and Herbert (Pembroke, Montgomery) relationships are never discussed, which is rather odd given that Somerset does touch on the factionalism activated during the later part of the story. The fact that these lords are all inter-related through marriage is therefore, I think, quite important: Pembroke is step-cousin to Essex; Lisle, described as a hostile juror at the Somerset trial, is Pembroke's uncle and Essex's step-uncle; Lisle's (Robert Sidney) daughter, Mary Wroth, was Pembroke's cousin, mistress and mother to his two illegitimate children - she also wrote a version of the Somerset-Essex story in her romance Urania, and corresponded with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
But small niggles aside, this is a fascinating story, well-told, as vivid and compelling as any thriller.