The crime of the (seventeenth) century.

The crime of the (seventeenth) century.

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

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Thu 26 Jun 2008 12:00 AM

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 [Thomas Howard], the Lord High Treasurer, around three years ago, in order
to advance himself with the King, wanted to marry his daughter [Frances
Howard] to the Earl of Somerset [Robert Carr] 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. [Overbury] 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. [there were
rumors that Frances Howard had drugged her first husband’s food to make him
impotent] 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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