The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News Culture and the Overbury Affair, 1603-1660.
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xviii + 312 pp. index. illus. bibl. $70. ISBN: 0-521-78289-9.
This is a very good book indeed, and a marvelous read. It is also a very ambitious one. Professor Bellabarba investigates that murky, squalid scandal, the Overbury affair, which has provided the bedrock of the belief in the squalor of the court of James I but has only recently been the subject of detailed analysis. His achievement is not only to give very detailed consideration to the affair itself, but to set it into a very wide context: its place in James's own reign, and also its impact on the Caroline and Interregnum period. And he has done this on the basis of a truly impressive trawling of a huge range of sources.
His first chapter traces the events leading up to the death of Sir Thomas Overbury in September 1613 and the revelation, two years later, that this had been murder, leading to the trial and execution of four of those suspected in the autumn of 1615, and the even more spectacular trials of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and former favorite of the king, and his scandalous and self-confessed guilty wife, Frances Howard; and he steers his readers through the jungle of factional politics which were the context for the affair with enviable clarity, and a lovely ability to provide the nuanced and convincing comment on, for example, what "Jacobean favourite" meant. He then goes on to a wholly fascinating discussion of the various forms of disseminating news, to demonstrate "how, in effect, the Overbury murder became the Overbury scandal" (75). This is pivotal to the success of the book, for questions arise in chapter 1 about why the murder of this knight, who clearly had a great influence on the favorite and yet, in this most grasping of worlds, the Jacobean scramble for office, appears to have had so little benefit, should have secured such an immediate and long-lasting place in the popular as well as the political mind. One might say that James was unlucky; this scandal coincided with the fever-pitch level of passion for scandal, at that time all too easily made possible by the flood of letters, newsletters, libels, ballads, as well as oral transmission. And Overbury was not just scandal. In the following chapters, Bellabarba shows how it became international scandal, tied in to fears of Spain, Italy, popish plots, as well as titillating matters of sex, corruption at court, and the supremely horrific crime of poisoning; he deals beautifully, for example, with the way in which public suspicion and Sir Edward Coke's explicit linking of this "powder poison" with the "powder treason," Gunpowder Plot, fed on one another, and thereby fed into rumors of Somerset's involvement in the death of Prince Henry and of Somerset and/or Spanish plots to kill the royal family, the council, the nobility. Throughout, Bellabarba has a wealth of comment, always balanced and judicious, on King James himself, who never degenerates into that overblown picture of a besotted and unkingly man; now he becomes the central focus of the fifth chapter which discusses him as the agent of divine justice who earned great praise for his original initiative in pursuing the lesser murderers to trial and execution, but who became a target for criticism when he commuted the death sentences on the Somersets to imprisonment; efforts to justify the agent of divine mercy were much less successful.
The Overbury scandal had a very long life, surviving in the nineteenth century in the writing of Walter Scott. And Bellabarba makes a strong case for seeing it as the first of a series of highly damaging scandals associating the court with popery and plotting, which continued under James and would culminate disastrously in the Popish Plot rumors of 1638-41. Perhaps, however, he attempted too much in trying to take the story on, in his final chapter, to the mid-seventeenth century and beyond. He has very interesting things to say about the reworkings of the representation of Overbury, but he does not have the space to provide the depth of analysis of the earlier parts of the book; his attempt to show an indirect link between Jacobean court scandal and the English Revolution is not so fully worked out, and he slightly glosses over the problem that between Jacobean moral court scandal and the 1640s lay the undoubtedly moral Caroline court. But this is a minor criticism of a book which so convincingly illuminates the Overbury affair, the reasons why it was a headline-hitter, and the attitudes and reactions of all those embroiled in it. There is now a huge new shaft of light on that problematic decade, the 1610s. Professor Bellabarba has steeped himself in the mentalites of the actors in this all-too-memorable drama, and of those who later ensured that it would not be forgotten. He deserves warm congratulations on this most notable achievement, and certainly merits his readers' gratitude.
St. Hilda's College, Oxford
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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