The crime of the (seventeenth) century.

An English scandal fascinates the Medici court

Lisa Kaborycha
June 26, 2008

There is never any shortage of gruesome crimes to occupy the public's imagination. To be termed a ‘crime of the century', however, a murder must have special qualities that make it stand out: a celebrity is involved, the murder is carried out in a particularly grisly manner, the trial that follows uncovers a wealth of sordid details, preferably sexual. Alas, despite the stiff criteria, there is never a lack of such crimes in any given century.


One of the most sensational crimes of the seventeenth century was committed in London. It had all the necessary lurid elements, reaching into the topmost tier of society, touching the king himself. As the scandal unfolded, not only did the news spread throughout London and all of England, but reports of the latest developments sped across the continent by special couriers.


The details reached Florence by means of avvisi, a kind of hand-written gazette that a state, in this case the Medici court, subscribed to. An Italian agent living in London would write weekly reports of the latest goings-on, news of market prices, political developments, and also sensational crimes.


The names of these avvisi journalists are mostly unknown to us; this was only natural as the information they passed on was often sensitive. Because of the need to keep a low profile they never signed their reports. Because these news briefs were produced for one specific client, the writer had to know his audience's interest precisely or he could find the subscription abruptly cut off. On 16 October, 1615, the foreign correspondent in London provides the outline of the scandal:


The Earl of Suffolk , the Lord High Treasurer, around three years ago, in order to advance himself with the King, wanted to marry his daughter to the Earl of Somerset although at the time she was already married to the Earl of Essex, thinking to denounce him as impotent. The Earl of Somerset relied in all his business affairs on an English gentleman named Thomas Overbury, on account of his wisdom and quick wit. not only tried to dissuade him from this marriage,  but even put  the suspicion of witchcraft in his mind, keeping him from eating any food that the Countess might serve. To rid himself of this obstacle, the Earl arranged for Overbury to be appointed ambassador of Muscovy by the King. Because the country was so distant and so strange Overbury excused himself, begging His Majesty's pardon. His enemies had him thrown into the Tower for disobedience to the King and shortly thereafter he fell ill and died there...When examined, a witness testified that Overbury died from poison administered to him in a medication.


These were the basic facts of the case known to the London public in fall of 1615. The Italian journalist has left out the detail that the lethal ‘medication' given to Overbury was in fact an enema filled with mercury, perhaps because he was not aware it.


Another particular that he has neglected to mention is that the Earl of Somerset was the king's favorite. James I of England, known for his attraction to young men, had been smitten with Somerset while gazing at the handsome young earl's legs after he had fallen in a joust. This detail was probably not mentioned because there was no need: the king's predilection was common knowledge, even in Florence.


On 20 November the anonymous reporter does, however, provide a touching vignette of James's reaction to a letter from his favorite, who has by now been implicated in this crime and is asking for pardon: ‘His Majesty received a letter from the Earl of Somerset and after reading it secretly, he turned to those that were with him, saying that in the past he would have denied no favor to the Earl. He then threw the letter onto the fire, remaining thoughtful and melancholy'. One wonders where the author received this information about such an intimate moment in the life of James I.


Over the course of the following year, no avviso from London is without news of the Overbury trial. Month after month, the reporter tells of the arrests of the lieutenant of the Tower of London; of Anne Turner, who had provided the poisons; and other minor players in the conspiracy. He dwells with special poignancy, however, on the fate of the countess, Frances Howard. On 3 June, 1616 his report reads: ‘They have sentenced her to death and in such a manner that, unless the King intervenes, a person of her rank will die in the same way as the lowest laborer in the land. Everyone, without exception is condemned to the gallows, the only distinction is made for traitors to the King, who are hung, and while still alive, cut down, the heart is then cut out, shown to the public, and thrown onto the fire. Having been read her sentence, the Countess was at once taken to the Tower.'

He goes on to comment that the public is already burning with curiosity and willing to pay high prices for places at the spectacle not only because of ‘the nobility of her lineage, but also her age and beauty, being barely 22 years of age and one of the most beautiful ladies at this Court.'


It is difficult to tell whether the Italian reporter is most horrified by the atrocious method of capital punishment in England (indeed in 1786 Tuscany became the first sovereign European state to end the death penalty), outraged in his gallantry at the idea of murdering such a young and lovely woman, or stunned that justice might be applied equally to all citizens regardless of rank.

About this last bit, in any case, he needn't have worried. Despite declarations that he would punish all participants in this crime fairly, King James spared the lives of the Earl and Countess of Somerset, reducing their sentences to life imprisonment. The commoners who carried out their bidding, on the other hand, were all hung.



Here no one is talking of anything else than the harsh justice being meted out to avenge the death of Thomas Overbury...


Avviso from London to Florence written 4 December, 1615



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