Saturday 8 December 2012

A Peck of Poison by Karen Maitland

It’s only when I have visitors or repairmen in my house and I see the expressions on their faces that I realize the contents of my bookshelves are not what most people would regard as ‘normal.’ I’ve been researching poisons for my current novel , so there are lots of books and papers on the uses of arsenic, hemlock and deadly venoms lying around. Strangely, many of my visitors have suddenly changed their minds about having that cup of tea or piece of cake.
But honestly, the history of poison is fascinating not least because it often involves the ever-fascinating three ‘R’s  – Romance, Royalty and Revenge. Take the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, that story makes even the Christmas Day soaps on TV look tame.

In the reign of James I, 14 year old Robert, Earl of Essex was married off to 13 year old Frances Howard, daughter of Earl of Suffolk. Robert was then sent abroad for a few years and married life only really began when he returned. But it was an unhappy union, for Frances loved the bright lights of court while he wanted the peace and quiet of the country.

The young countess, who was a great flirt, eventually fell in love with Robert Carr one of the handsome young men King James had introduced to his court. Frances was desperate for Carr to take notice of her, so persuaded a lady known as Mrs Turner to arrange secret meetings. (Mrs Turner was famous for having brought a yellow starch to England, to stiffen the fashionable ruffs of high-born women.) Mrs Turner helped Frances to meet Carr and even found a magician skilled in the black arts to make wax images which Frances could use to kill her husband and make Carr fall in love with her.
But a friend of Carr’s, Sir Thomas Overbury, was foolish enough to warn Carr to end the affair which, he said, would ruin Carr’s ambitions at court. Carr and Frances contrived to get King James to imprison Sir Thomas in the Tower. They then proceeded to send him gifts of food laced with a variety of poisons including silver nitrate, spiders, Spanish Fly and arsenic. When those failed to kill him quickly enough they added a corrosive substance to burn out his throat and stomach.  Thomas died and Frances divorced her husband, citing impotency, and married Carr, who King James made Earl of Somerset.

But the two years later the crime was exposed. The Earl and his wife were found guilty of murder, but they received a royal pardon. They did, in way, get punished, for their marriage fell apart and though they lived in the same house, they loathed each other so much, they went out of their way to ensure they never encountered each another, even by accident, which must have given the ghost of poor Sir Thomas some satisfaction.
Mrs Turner and the others who helped them, not being of noble birth, were hanged for their part in the conspiracy. But dear Mrs Turner, fashion conscious to the end, insisted on being hanged in her yellow starched ruff.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Goodness, what a fascinating story, worthy of a crime novel, though the sleuth hero(ine) would no doubt be frustrated with the ending of the story!

adele said...

I love the ruff's all most interesting, Karen!

michelle lovric said...

Fascinating post, Karen. If I'm ever hanged for my crimes, I too would insist on a nice ruff!

Laura said...

The morbid part of me can only think how ludicrous she must have looked, hanging limp in the noose except for that beautifully stiff ruff! As for the Earl and his devious wife, perhaps karma does exist after all?

Incidentally, can you recommend any books on old poisons/poisoners at all? You've sparked my interest :)

Paeony Lewis said...

What an incredible tale. Frances makes me shudder - so self-absorbed and evil!