As Bad as Poisoned

Blair Worden

In the politics of Shakespeare’s time and its sequel, life not so much imitated art as competed with it. The ostentatious theatricality of royal rituals and masques was complemented by the visceral excitements of public events. Which of the stage’s countless trial scenes can have equalled in dramatic effect the moment during the arraignment of the Earl of Essex for treason in 1601 when the earl’s antagonist, the queen’s leading minister Robert Cecil, secretly present in the court, stepped from behind an arras to deliver the impassioned speech that ruined the earl’s defence of his rebellion? Which of the assumptions of disguise by beleaguered or lovelorn dramatis personae can have been as sensational as the escapade of 1623 – an occasion ‘worthy’, as a royal adviser said, ‘to be put in a new romanso’ – when the future Charles I and his father James I’s leading minister the Duke of Buckingham donned false beards, assumed the names Tom and John Smith, and journeyed to the Spanish court to woo the infanta for Charles? Incognito travel, a commonplace practice of the age, produced a succession of improbable adventures, among them (as if in compensation for the Puritan closure of the theatres) the escape, on the eve of the second civil war in 1648, of Charles’s teenage son, the future James II, from Parliamentarian captivity in a ‘very pretty’ female costume, and the exposure beneath a maid’s petticoat of the masculinity of Sir George Booth, the fleeing leader of the rising against the republic in 1659.

Art might have its prerogatives of invention and distillation, but life had the advantage of its real consequences. In hereditary monarchies the stability of realms rested on the survival of rulers and heirs. Just as the private lives of princes and princesses, that standard theme of playwrights, determined the future of dynasties, so royal murders plunged kingdoms into crisis. Politics may not have produced as many corpses as Hamlet or Jacobean tragedy, but there were enough of them and of attempted assassinations – the murders of William the Silent and Henri III and Henri IV of France; the attempt to poison Queen Elizabeth; the numerous plots, in both his kingdoms, on the life of James VI and I – for threats and rumours of regicide to place nations on recurrent high alert. In life and art alike, there was a special frisson to death by poison. In 1612 the death of James’s heir, Charles’s elder brother Henry, was ascribed to poison. The charge was false, but in the following year the political world was rocked by the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower by agents of the wife of the king’s then leading minister, Overbury’s enemy the Earl of Somerset. The stories that came out, of the drugging of tarts and jellies and wine smuggled into the Tower, roused an intensity of interest beyond the resources of the stage.

Thirteen years later, the death of James I in March 1625 brought the allegations of poison that are the subject of Alastair Bellany and Thomas Cogswell’s book. The king’s demise was attributed to Somerset’s successor in the royal favour, Buckingham. James’s practice of raising attractive and low-born young men to high office and influence gave a carrying wind to a persistent theme of the plays of the time: that of the upstart royal favourite who manipulates and betrays the king’s friendship. If the theatre drew on politics for its motifs, life turned to art for political explanation. Buckingham’s ascendancy was understood in terms familiar from plays and poems, though also from their close partner in the formation of political perceptions – history. He was another Piers Gaveston, or another Sejanus, the favourite of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Sejanus, his evils immortalised by Tacitus, was given an anglicised face in Ben Jonson’s play about him. He had done what Buckingham was alleged to have done: sacrificed the public good to his restless ambition; monopolised and sold offices of state; bribed his way to personal supremacy; usurped the public role of the ancient nobility; and twisted his royal master into misrule. An essential instrument of Sejanus’ advance had been poison, a method of dispatch that in England, as Bellany and Cogswell observe, ‘was often seen as the crime of the restlessly ambitious’ courtier ‘with neither blood nor virtue to sustain him’.

Reportedly a significant proportion of the present population believes that Princess Diana was murdered by the royal family. At least the accusation against Buckingham had something to build on. He had been at the king’s deathbed in the royal palace of Theobalds, where the 58-year-old James, his health long impaired by his disorderly life and diet, unexpectedly succumbed to a ‘tertian ague’, or fever. During his decline the duke and his mother, contrary to the wishes of the royal doctors, got odorous plasters applied to the king’s body and gave him a drink of their own concoction. Buckingham had a conceivable motive for murder, arising from a power struggle at court. After the humiliating failure of the expedition to Madrid, the duke had reversed his policy and embarked, in alliance with the prince, on an anti-Spanish course which offended James’s pacific instincts and subverted his control of the regime. The king’s resolve to reassert his authority threatened not merely Buckingham’s policy but his political survival.

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