The reign of King James I began to fall apart into farce in 1612. The King was no fool, or if he was, he was as the cliché has it “the wisest fool in Christendom”, and in character he was uncertain, fearful and indecisive, which led to his relying on other who were unworthy of trust. Until 1612, he had at his right hand Robert Cecil, who had served Good Queen Bess as had his father and who guided the new, inexperienced king. In 1612, Cecil died and the King was adrift, and the kingdom with him.
King James was a good king to the extent he could be given his limitations. He had ruled in Scotland, and had been impatient to rule his inheritance in England too, making plans based on expectation not experience, and the change from the unruly, poverty-stricken court in Edinburgh to the surface splendours he found in England left him unsure of how to react.
The King also had a nervous complaint which led him to fidget constantly and left him unable to concentrate his mind on the task at hand whenever another presented itself, and make the King unable to govern himself let alone a kingdom. Part of this was his unfortunate fondness for handsome young men, many of whom were promoted in court despite no merits beyond their comeliness, and a court full of handsome young men and many rather personable young ladies was a source of constant intrigue.
Had this dysfunctional royal court been merely a private parlour, one might pass over in distaste it like a tabloid sensation, but these plotting courtiers were governors too, in the absence of control by the King. It led to the collapse of the King’s authority, and worse later.
They competed for favour and gathered positions and titles from an impressionable king who saw these favours as costing him nothing. Two such young men were Robert Carr and Thomas Overbury, who came to London together and wormed their way into the court, Overton by his intelligence and Carr by his face; Oveton gained a knighthood, and Carr was made Earl of Somerset. This is a poor substitute for the competition of merit which the kingdom needed, but it is not unknown to this day.
These games become dangerous. Those competing for favours formed factions of convenience, and whispered accusations circulated, in a dangerous atmosphere where treason was the fear in the wind, as well it might be after Guy Fawkes and after the By and Main plots, and was a fatal accusation, but even an accusation of discourtesy would be fatal to a career.
History books tell better how the breach between friends came, when Carr openly took up with Frances Howard and arranged the annulment of her marriage so he might have her. Overbury’s poem The Wife was a deadly insult to Frances, now Countess of Somerset. She pulled an old and cruel trick: she spread a tale that Overbury had been disrespectful to the Queen. He fell from favour at once and and the next year, though further intrigue he was in the Tower accused of treason, where Carr and Frances arranged for him to be poisoned. Their faction were all implicated.
It starts with personal disagreements, and political rivalry which has personal motives, rarely the good of the nation, fought by personal intrigue, with never a thought to the public responsibilities of office – and when power is purely without responsibility it is precious indeed and to be defended at all costs. Courtiers fought like rats in a sack, and their political heirs still do today. If they stay in the sack it might not bother the wider world until we realise whose taxes are still paying them.
No servant is greater than his master, and it is a weak master who allows them to think they are. That was King James’s failing, and that of several other political leaders down the ages.
The scandal that culminated in the death of innocent Overbury was just one of the many intrigues that scared the Jacobean court, and lost the king the love of the nation. It all continued under his son, King Charles I, which led to the discontent, rebellion and Civil War.
I wish that we had learnt to rise above this sort of thing, but apparently not.
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