Poison at the Court of James I
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997; Phoenix Paperback 1998

In the autumn of 1615 the Earl and Countess of Somerset were detained on suspicion of having murdered Sir Thomas Overbury. The arrest of these leading court figures created a sensation. The young and beautiful Countess of Somerset had already achieved notoriety when she had divorced her first husband in controversial circumstances. The Earl of Somerset was one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom, having risen to prominence as the male ‘favourite’ of England’s homosexual monarch, James I.

In the coming weeks it was claimed that, after sending Sir Thomas Overbury poisoned tarts and jellies, the Somersets had finally killed him by arranging for an enema of mercury sublimate to be administered. Four of the couple’s supposed accomplices were hanged in connection with the murder. At her trial, the Countess of Somerset pleaded guilty, but her husband denied all responsibility for the death of Overbury. Despite this, he too was convicted. Like his wife, he was sentenced to hang, but the King caused public outrage by freeing them after short terms of imprisonment.

In a vivid narrative, Anne Somerset unravels these extraordinary events, which were widely regarded as an extreme manifestation of the corruption and vice that disfigured the court during this period. It is, at once, a story rich in passion and intrigue and a murder mystery, for, despite the guilty verdicts, there is much about Overbury’s death that remains enigmatic. Infinitely more than a gripping personal tragedy, the Overbury murder case profoundly damaged the monarchy, and constituted the greatest court scandal in English history.

BOOK Reviews

‘Wonderfully dramatic ...Probably the juiciest court scandal of the past 500 years. Anne Somerset writes so freshly that her characters strut before us as if they lived today A gripping detective story that tells us more about the corruption, debauchery and naked power-plays of 17th century life than anything I have read’. Christopher Hudson, Daily Mail

‘This is by far the most comprehensive account I have read of the Overbury scandal, combining a firm mastery of complex sources with a narrative drive that impels the reader to turn the page. It is also quite one the best historical whodunits’. Sir Roy Strong, Sunday Times

‘Anne Somerset gives us scandal in high places, as well as insights into a seamy underworld of quacks and witches, hustlers and go-betweens; her subsidiary characters stand comparison with Ben Jonson’s most outrageous rascals....Both history and whodunit, this is a hugely enjoyable book’. Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Daily Telegraph

‘A sordid yet fascinating story which Anne Somerset delineates with great skill’. Antonia Fraser, The Times

‘Deals in a scholarly but ever readable way with a fascinating historical nugget. This is a book about murder, witchcraft, adultery, lechery, intrigue and chicanery among the country’s most powerful nobility’. Steve Grant, Time Out

‘Anne Somerset has homed-in on an amazing tale...a real life drama of sordid intrigue and sexual jealousy at the lavish court of King James...She has a style that is both readable and informative. The characters burst out of the print as alive today as they were almost 400 years ago’. Clive White, Bradford Telegraph & Argus

‘Stop reading The Sun. Buy Anne Somerset instead. You’ll be just as shocked and horrified by bad behaviour in high places’. John Theobald, Western Morning News

‘Anne Somerset shows skill and stamina in telling her lurid tale....This book consolidates her position in the front rank of historical biographers for the general reader’. John Jolliffe, Country Life

‘A fine and absorbing book, based on fresh scholarship and fresh thinking and deserving both a lay and professional readership’. Blair Worden, The Spectator

‘This marvellous account of a real-life episode in 1615 bristles with ingredients Webster would have recognised and loved’. Max Davidson, Daily Telegraph

‘Scrupulously researched, her account of the Overbury scandal illuminates the machinations and intrigues which passed for government in Jacobean England’. Sunday Times