Memorials of the Tower of London

De Ros, William Lennox






THE murder of Sir T. Overbury in the Tower, in 1613, was one of the darkest deeds which stain the annals of James I.'s reign. This man had been raised from a low station by Carr, Lord Rochester, and had become his intimate counsellor and friend. Acting with an honesty towards his patron which deserved a better reward, he had earnestly dissuaded him from his disgraceful connexion with Lady Essex, which, becoming known to that vindictive woman, she induced her paramour to obtain an arbitrary order from the King for the committal of Overbury to the Tower, where he was closely incarcerated, and precluded from any intercourse and correspondence with his friends and family.

Sir W. Waad, the Lieutenant, whom Raleigh, in one of his letters, called "that villain Waad," and who was anything but lenient to his prisoners, was yet a man incapable of lending himself to the iniquitous projects of Lady Essex, and was therefore removed, to be replaced by a creature of Somerset's, ready to undertake any crime to forward his own interest. Sir Gervase Elways, the new Lieutenant, at once entered into the cruel design of


destroying Overbury by slow poisons, which for a length of time were mixed with his daily meals. The wretched man's constitution resisted their effects too long for the patience of the Countess, who lived in dread of his finding means to publish the knowledge he possessed of her profligacy. It was therefore determined to put a quicker end to his life, by a strong dose of corrosive sublimate, under the effects of which he died in dreadful agonies. The appearance of his body after death, being such as would have excited suspicion, if seen, it was wrapped in a sheet, and buried privately the same day in the Tower chapel.

Soon after this the favour of the new Earl of Somerset began to decline. Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was fast supplanting him in the King's good graces; and the rumours afloat as to Overbury's death led to an inquiry which soon left no doubt of his having come to his end by poison.

One Weston, who had been employed as Overbury's gaoler in the Tower, being apprehended, made some confessions which caused the seizure and committal of Sir Gervase Elways, Sir Thomas Monson, and Mrs. Turner, a person deep in Lady Essex's wicked secrets and confidence. Their imprisonment was a prelude to the committal to the Tower of the Earl and Countess of Somerset themselves.

Weston being brought to trial, it was proved that he had been placed in the Tower as Sir T. Overbury's keeper by Sir Thomas Monson, at the instance of the Countess, and that the various slow poisons administered


by his means to the prisoner, had been supplied by Mrs. Turner, who was tried, found guilty, and hanged, as was likewise Weston. Monson was shortly after released, partly from want of proof, and partly from some mysterious influence attributed by common report to the King himself.

Elways made so bold and able a defence that it was thought at first he would be acquitted; but one Franklin, being produced as evidence, swore that, being with Mrs. Turner at Lady Essex's house, to receive orders for the purchase and preparation of poisons, a letter chanced to be brought to her from Elways, which from its bad writing she could not well read, and desired Franklin, who knew his handwriting better, to read it to her. This he did; and, in doing so, observed particularly the expression, in reference to Overbury, that " This scab is like the fox, the more he is cursed the more he thrives." Upon this, and other corroborating evidence, Elways was sentenced to death, but permitted, at his special entreaty, to be hanged on Tower Hill instead of at Tyburn. He exercised a curious taste in dress on this occasion. "He was habited in a black suit and black jerkin with hanging sleeves; on his head he wore a crimson satin cap laced round about, and under that a white linen night-cap with a border, and over that a black hat with a broad ribbon and ruff-band, thick couched with lace, a pair of sky-coloured silk stockings, and a pair of three-soled shoes (quaere, high-heeled ?)." On the scaffold, at Tower Hill, he acknowledged his sentence to be just; but declared, that, though he knew of the murder, he had no


actual part in it, and that he had received all his instructions from Sir T. Monson, on behalf of the Countess of Somerset.

He was accompanied to the gallows by two of the King's chaplains, Drs. Whyting and Felton. A large number of persons of condition also attended at his execution, to whom he thus returned his thanks for the compliment: " Nobles and others," he said, "to see your faces here rejoiceth me, whereby you show your love in granting my request to witness my death." After some other remarks to the same effect, he went on to say, "that though his end was a bitter cup, it was mingled with God's mercy in calling him away thus, whereas He might have taken his life in shooting London Bridge, or by some fall or accident, and then some unrepented sin had been damnation to him." He said also that he accounted it a favour of the King that he should die on Tower Hill, and not at Tyburn, which was a place of more public reproach, "whereby," said he, "I now see the Tower, wherein of late I had been called to business of the State."

This wretched man seems to have set great value on his office in the Tower, as it came out on his trial, that, so far from his appointment being a gratuitous benefit conferred on him by Somerset, he had paid Waad no less than 1400L. to vacate it in his favour, and had further engaged to pay him 600L. more. No doubt the emoluments and fees extorted in those days from the state prisoners, produced a large income; but the sum was a very large one, especially when the nomination was conditional on his abetting a murder.



It is recorded of Sir G. Elways's own servant, as a proof of his extreme devotion to his master, that he assisted the executioner's man in pulling his legs after he was turned off the ladder; a kindness no doubt in shortening his sufferings, but one which few could have brought themselves to perform.

The trial of the Earl and Countess of Somerset was put off, on different pretexts, till May 1616, when the Countess confessed herself guilty; and as it was evident to the lords who tried the case, that Somerset knew of his abandoned wife's proceedings, they were both sent back to the Tower, where the Earl remained a prisoner till 1621; but, strange to say, the Countess very soon after received the royal pardon. They were both ordered to repair either to Grays or Cowsham, houses of Lord Wallingford, in Oxfordshire, and to remain, on pain of death, within three miles' compass of the same. Here they retired, shunned and abhorred by all, till the year 1624, when, a few months before his own death, the King granted them both a full pardon, leaving them, however, so destitute from the confiscation of their property, that they were compelled to remain in entire obscurity. The Countess died in 1632, but Somerset survived her several years in want and misery.

The Earl of Essex, after his wife's desertion of him, served many years in the Low Countries, where he acquired that knowledge of war so often fatal to the Royalists when he became General of the Parliament's army in the Civil War.