« AnteriorContinuar »
his concern in the fate of Overbury for their object. Sir Robert Cotton, who had been in some manner privy to these intrigues, was also examined, as was likewise sir William Monson, the vice-admiral, who had been deeply involved in them, and of whom it was popularly reported that he was under an agreement to carry over the English fleet to the Spaniards. No treasonable charge however could be substantiated against Somerset, and it was therefore determined to proceed against him on the former accusation. But even this was treated like a matter of state, in which it was inexpedient to permit law and justice to take their free and natural course.
Bacon, to whom the conduct of the prosecution was committed, went into the house of lords armed with particular directions in the king's own hand applicable to all contingencies ;—the prisoner's pleading Guilty, pleading Not guilty, or standing mute,---his being convicted or acquitted by the peers. James earnestly desired that he might make a full and free confession, in which case he would apparently have been spared the disgrace of a trial ; but in any event the monarch was resolved to save his life, and even to grant him further favors; on which account Bacon judiciously advised that all reviling should be forborne, and that he should be made guilty to the peers but not odious to the peoplea."
It is certainly in no degree surprising, that a
· Letters and memoirs of sir F. Bacon, letters LxvI. lxyu.
prince who was on all occasions governed much more by his prejudices or his personal attachments than by a correct sense of justice, should feel an insurmountable repugnance to the idea of suffering the blood of a man for whom he had entertained so extravagant a fondness to flow on the scaffold; and these precautions would therefore have in them nothing suspicious, did not several circumstances indicate that fear rather than love was the sentiment which operated on the mind of the monarch for the
preservation of his guilty minion. Of this nature was the sudden conveyance of sir Thomas Monson from the bar, said by Weldon to have been occasioned bya menace conveyed to the king the night before by his card-holder, in the dark phrase that sir Thomas would there “play his master's prize.” The assurance of mercy which Bacon was directed to hold out to Somerset previously to his being put upon his trial, and the bold and haughty tone which this criminal maintained towards the king both before and after his conviction, convey a similar impression; which is further strengthened by some extraordinary letters of James's own writing to sir Thomas More, lieutenant of the Tower, urging him, if possible, to bring the prisoner to a more submissive frame of mind, before he was trusted to appear publicly at the bar of the house of lords. The excessive agitation of the king during the trial, remarked by Weldon, is also a strong circumstance: in fact, it cannot be doubted that Somerset was in possession of some important secret of the king's, which he threatened
to betray; that he hoped by this menace to escape a trial, but was at length, by skilful management, prevailed upon to be satisfied with the promise of a pardon ; all, indeed, that the king could with any appearance of decency grant. What this secret might be, it is in vain to inquire; that it was a "mystery of iniquity” there can be little doubt, but its nature was never known. That it related to the poisoning of prince Henry has been much believed, but may surely be pronounced untrue.
The threats used by Overbury towards Somerset, and the extreme precaution employed to prevent his communicating with any one during his imprisonment, prove that he also was in possession of a secret, and perhaps of the same; but one confidant had to deal with a bold and atrocious nature, the other with a timorous and gentle one; Overbury was poisoned; his master, pardoned and pensioned.
The countess, being brought to the bar, pleaded Guilty, and received sentence accordingly; but her husband defended himself strenuously from eight in the morning till seven at night; without effect, however; for the unanimous verdict of the peers declared him Guilty. Both criminals were remanded to the Tower, where the countess soon after received the king's pardon : the earl was reprieved from time to time, but the sentence remained suspended over his head till the last year of James's life, when he obtained its reversal. In the year 1621 the earl and countess were liberated from the Tower, and sent to live in banishment at a country seat, the king
allowing no less a sum than 40001. a year out of Somerset's forfeited estate for their maintenance. They languished out their miserable lives hated by one another and contemned by all mankind. Camden has recorded, that “the king ordered that the arms of the earl of Somerset, notwithstanding his being condemned of felony, should not be removed out of the chapel at Windsor : that felony should not be reckoned amongst the disgraces for those who were to be excluded from the order of St. George; which was without precedenta.” A remarkable instance of the obtuseness of James's moral sense, and, it may be added, of the passiveness of the members of that most noble order, who seem to have endured without complaint this insult upon the honor of their knighthood!
On the whole, few circumstances display more strongly the maxims and practices of the reign of James I., than those connected with the affair of Overbury. The perseverance with which the design against his life was followed up, in defiance of so many discouragements and failures; the audacity, almost the publicity, with which it was conducted; and the number of instruments in various ranks and classes of society whose co-operation was fearlessly required; furnish a revolting picture of the guilty boldness of the great and powerful, and of the base and slavish subserviency of their inferiors. That a royal favorite was himself placed beyond all responsibility, and that the consequences, Camden's Annad of James I.
of his displeasure were more to he dreaded than those of the commission of any crime, must have been maxims deeply fixed in the minds of men, before so daring an enormity could have been perpetrated, or even attempted. It was of vital importance to the country that English law and justice should at length assert their rights; and this was deeply felt by Coke, who called the prosecution of this offence “the grand oyer of poisoning;” it was also felt by Bacon, who in one of his letters calls this single murder “a crime second to none but the powder-plot,” regard being had to the atrocity of the mode and the perniciousness of the example:
The death of Shakespeare, in April 1616, is an event which the present age would justly deem it unpardonable to omit amongst the memorable incidents of the year, although it was suffered by his contemporaries to pass over with a silence and indifference which may well appear unaccountable. There cannot exist a doubt that Shakespeare was by far the most popular dramatic writer of his own day: in representation, his pieces filled the theatre to overflowing; such of them as were surreptitiously printed during his lifetime were read with avidity; and his style was unquestionably the model upon which the most successful of his compeers, with the single exception of Jonson, studiously labored to form themselves.
Nor was it only by the middling or lower classes of society, who chiefly composed the theatrical audiences of those days, that his immortal works were