She Stands Accused
Part 2 out of 5
intention behind it, but he was at a loss for an outlet for his
talents, having left Rochester's employ, and he believed without
immodesty that he could do useful work as ambassador in Paris.
Overbury was offered an embassy--but in Muscovy. He had no mind
to bury himself in Russia, and he refused the offer on the ground
of ill-health. By doing this he walked into the trap prepared
for him. Northampton had foreseen the refusal when he promoted
the offer on its rearranged terms. The King, already incensed
against Overbury for some hints at knowledge of facts liable to
upset the Essex nullity suit, pretended indignation at the
refusal. Overbury unwarily repeated it before the Privy Council.
That was what Northampton wanted. The refusal was high contempt
of the King's majesty. Sir Thomas Overbury was committed to the
Tower. He might have talked in Paris, or have written from
Muscovy. He might safely do either in the Tower--where gags and
bonds were so readily at hand.
Did Rochester know of the springe set to catch Overbury? The
answer to the question, whether yes or no, hardly matters. Since
he was gull enough to discard the man whose brain had lifted him
from a condition in which he was hardly better than the King's
lap-dog, he was gull enough to be fooled by Northampton. Since
he valued the friendship of that honest man so little as to
consort in secret with his enemies, he was knave enough to have
been party to the betrayal. Knave or fool--what does it matter?
He was so much of both that, in dread of what Sir Thomas might
say or do to thwart the nullity suit, he let his friend rot in
the Tower for months on end, let him sicken and nearly die
several times, without a move to free him. He did this to the
man who had trusted him implicitly, a man that--to adapt
Overbury's own words from his last poignant letter to
Rochester--he had ``more cause to love . . . yea, perish for . .
. rather than see perish.''
It is not given to every man to have that greater love which will
make him lay down his life for a friend, but it is the sheer
poltroon and craven who will watch a friend linger and expire in
agony without lifting a finger to save him. Knave or fool--what
does it matter when either is submerged in the coward?
Overbury lay in the Tower five months. The commission appointed
to examine into the Essex nullity suit went into session three
weeks after he was imprisoned. There happened to be one man in
the commission who cared more to be honest than to humour the
King. This was the Archbishop Abbot. The King himself had
prepared the petition. It was a task that delighted his
pedantry, and his petition was designed for immediate acceptance.
But such was Abbot's opposition that in two or three months the
commission ended with divided findings.
Meantime Overbury in the Tower had been writing letters. He had
been talking to visitors. As time went on, and Rochester did
nothing to bring about his enlargement, his writings and sayings
became more threatening Rochester's attitude was that patience
was needed. In time he would bring the King to a more clement
view of Sir Thomas's offending, and he had no doubt that in the
end he would be able to secure the prisoner both freedom and
Overbury had been consigned to the Tower in April. In June he
complained of illness. Rochester wrote to him in sympathetic
terms, sending him a powder that he himself had found beneficial,
and made his own physician visit the prisoner.
But the threats which Overbury, indignant at his betrayal by
Rochester, made by speech and writing were becoming common
property in the city and at Court One of Overbury's visitors who
had made public mention of Overbury's knowledge of facts likely
to blow upon the Essex suit was arrested on the orders of
Northampton. In the absence of the King and Rochester from
London the old Earl was acting as Chief Secretary of State--thus
proving Overbury to have been a true prophet. Northampton issued
orders to the Tower that Overbury was to be closely confined,
that his man Davies was to be dismissed, and that he was to be
denied all visitors. The then Lieutenant of the Tower, one Sir
William Wade, was deprived of his position on the thinnest of
pretexts, and, on the recommendation of Sir Thomas Monson, Master
of the Armoury, an elderly gentleman from Lincolnshire, Sir
Gervase Elwes, was put in his place.
From that moment Sir Thomas Overbury was permitted no
communication with the outer world, save by letter to Lord
Rochester and for food that was brought him, as we shall
presently see, at the instance of Mrs Turner.
In place of his own servant Davies Sir Thomas was allowed the
services of an under-keeper named Weston, appointed at the same
time as Sir Gervase Elwes. This man, it is perhaps important to
note, had at one time been servant to Mrs Turner.
The alteration in the personnel of the Tower was almost
immediately followed by severe illness on the part of the
prisoner. The close confinement to which he was subjected, with
the lack of exercise, could hardly have been the cause of such a
violent sickness. It looked more as if it had been brought about
by something he had eaten or drunk. By this time the conviction
he had tried to resist, that Rochester was meanly sacrificing
him, became definite. Overbury is hardly to be blamed if he came
to a resolution to be revenged on his one-time friend by bringing
him to utter ruin. King James had been so busy in the Essex
nullity suit, had gone to such lengths to carry it through, that
if it could be wrecked by the production of the true facts he
would be bound to sacrifice Rochester to save his own face. Sir
Thomas had an accurate knowledge of the King's character. He
knew the scramble James was capable of making in a difficulty
that involved his kingly dignity, and what little reck he had of
the faces he trod on in climbing from a pit of his own digging.
By a trick Overbury contrived to smuggle a letter through to the
honest Archbishop Abbot, in which he declared his possession of
facts that would non-suit the nullity action, and begged to be
summoned before the commission.
Overbury was getting better of the sickness which had attacked
him when suddenly it came upon him again. This time he made no
bones about saying that he had been poisoned.
Even at the last Overbury had taken care to give Rochester a
chance to prove his fidelity. He contrived that the delivery of
the letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury should be delayed
until just before the nullity commission, now augmented by
members certain to vote according to the King's desire, was due
to sit again. The Archbishop carried Overbury's letter to James,
and insisted that Overbury should be heard. The King, outward
stickler that he was for the letter of the law, had to agree.
On the Thursday of the week during which the commission was
sitting Overbury was due to be called. He was ill, but not so
ill as he had been. On the Tuesday he was visited by the King's
physician. On the Wednesday he was dead.
Now, before we come to examine those evidences regarding
Overbury's death that were to be brought forward in the series of
trials of later date, that series which was to be known as ``the
Great Oyer of Poisoning,'' it may be well to consider what effect
upon the Essex nullity suit Overbury's appearance before the
commission might have had. It may be well to consider what
reason Rochester had for keeping his friend in close confinement
in the Tower, what reason there was for permitting Northampton to
impose such cruelly rigorous conditions of imprisonment.
The nullity suit succeeded. A jury of matrons was impanelled,
and made an examination of the lady appellant. Its evidence was
that she was virgo intacta. Seven out of the twelve members of
the packed commission voted in favour of the sentence of nullity.
The kernel of the situation lies in the verdict of the jury of
matrons. Her ladyship was declared to be a maid. If in the
finding gossips and scandal-mongers found reason for laughter,
and decent enough people cause for wonderment, they are hardly to
be blamed. If Frances Howard was a virgin, what reason was there
for fearing anything Overbury might have said? What knowledge
had he against the suit that put Rochester and the Howards in
such fear of him that they had to confine him in the Tower under
such miserable conditions? In what was he so dangerous that he
had to be deprived of his faithful Davies, that he had to be put
in the care of a Tower Lieutenant specially appointed? The
evidence given before the commission can still be read in almost
verbatim report. It is completely in favour of the plea of Lady
Essex. Sir Thomas Overbury's, had he given evidence, would have
been the sole voice against the suit. If he had said that in his
belief the association of her ladyship with Rochester had been
adulterous there was the physical fact adduced by the jury of
matrons to confute him. And being confuted in that, what might
he have said that would not be attributed to rancour on his part?
That her ladyship, with the help of Mrs Turner and the wizard of
Lambeth, had practised magic upon her husband, giving him powders
that went near to killing him? That she had lived in seclusion
for several months with her husband at Chartley, and that the
non-consummation of the marriage was due, not to the impotence of
the husband, but to refusal to him of marital rights on the part
of the wife because of her guilty love for Rochester? His
lordship of Essex was still alive, and there was abundant
evidence before the court that there had been attempt to
consummate the marriage. Whatever Sir Thomas might have said
would have smashed as evidence on that one fact. Her ladyship
was a virgin.
What did Sir Thomas Overbury know that made every one whose
interest it was to further the nullity suit so scared of
him--Rochester, her ladyship, Northampton, the Howards, the King
Sir Thomas Overbury was much too cool-minded, too intelligent, to
indulge in threats unless he was certain of the grounds, and
solid upon them, upon which he made those threats. He had too
great a knowledge of affairs not to know that the commission
would be a packed one, too great an acquaintance with the
strategy of James to believe that his lonely evidence, unless of
bombshell nature, would have a chance of carrying weight in a
court of his Majesty's picking. And, then, he was of too big a
mind to put forward evidence which would have no effect but that
of affording gossip for the scandal-mongers, and the giving of
which would make him appear to be actuated by petty spite. He
had too great a sense of his own dignity to give himself anything
but an heroic role. Samson he might play, pulling the pillars of
the temple together to involve his enemies, with himself, in
magnificent and dramatic ruin. But Iachimo--no.
In the welter of evidence conflicting with apparent fact which
was given before the commission and in the trials of the Great
Oyer, in the mass of writing both contemporary and of later days
round the Overbury mystery, it is hard indeed to land upon the
truth. Feasible solution is to be come upon only by accepting a
not too pretty story which is retailed by Antony Weldon. He says
that the girl whom the jury of matrons declared to be virgo
intacta was so heavily veiled as to be unidentifiable through the
whole proceedings, and that she was not Lady Essex at all, but
the youthful daughter of Sir Thomas Monson.
Mrs Turner, we do know, was very much a favourite with the ladies
of Sir Thomas Monson's family. Gossip Weldon has a funny, if
lewd, story to tell of high jinks indulged in by the Monson women
and Mrs Turner in which Symon, Monson's servant, played an odd
part. This Symon was also employed by Mrs Turner to carry food
to Overbury in the Tower. If the substitution story has any
truth in it it might well have been a Monson girl who played the
part of the Countess. But, of course, a Monson girl may have
been chosen by the inventors to give verisimilitude to the
substitution story, simply because the family was friendly with
Turner, and the tale of the lewd high jinks with Symon added to
make it seem more likely that old Lady Monson would lend herself
to such a plot.
If there was such a plot it is not at all unlikely that Overbury
knew of it. If there was need of such a scheme to bolster the
nullity petition it would have had to be evolved while the
petition was being planned--that is, a month or two before the
commission went first into session. At that time Overbury was
still Rochester's secretary, still Rochester's confidant; and if
such a scheme had been evolved for getting over an obstacle so
fatal to the petition's success it was not in Rochester's nature
to have concealed it from Overbury, the two men still being fast
friends. Indeed, it may have been Overbury who pointed out the
need there would be for the Countess to undergo physical
examination, and it may have been on the certainty that her
ladyship could not do so that Overbury rested so securely--as he
most apparently did, beyond the point of safety--in the idea that
the suit was bound to fail. It is legitimate enough to suppose,
along this hypothesis, that this substitution plot was the very
matter on which the two men quarrelled.
That Overbury had knowledge of some such essential secret as this
is manifest in the enmity towards the man which Lady Essex
exhibited, even when he lay, out of the way of doing harm, in the
Tower. It is hard to believe that an innocent girl of twenty,
conscious of her virgin chastity, in mere fear of scandal which
she knew would be baseless, could pursue the life of a man with
the venom that, as we shall presently see, Frances Howard used
towards Overbury through Mrs Turner.
As a preliminary to his marriage with Frances Howard, Rochester
was created Earl of Somerset, and had the barony of Brancepeth
bestowed on him by the King. Overbury was three months in his
grave when the marriage was celebrated in the midst of the most
extravagant show and entertainment.
The new Earl's power in the kingdom was never so high as at this
time. It was, indeed, at its zenith. Decline was soon to set
in. It will not serve here to follow the whole process of decay
in the King's favour that Somerset was now to experience. There
was poetic justice in his downfall. With hands all about him
itching to bring him to the ground, he had not the brain for the
giddy heights. If behind him there had been the man whose
guidance had made him sure-footed in the climb he might have
survived, flourishing. But the man he had consigned to death had
been more than half of him, had been, indeed, his substance.
Alone, with the power Overbury's talents had brought him,
Somerset was bound to fail. The irony of it is that his downfall
was contrived by a creature of his own raising.
Somerset had appointed Sir Ralph Winwood to the office of First
Secretary of State. In that office word came to Winwood from
Brussels that new light had been thrown on the mysterious death
of Sir Thomas Overbury. Winwood investigated in secret. An
English lad, one Reeves, an apothecary's assistant, thinking
himself dying, had confessed at Flushing that Overbury had been
poisoned by an injection of corrosive sublimate. Reeves himself
had given the injection on the orders of his master, Loubel, the
apothecary who had attended Overbury on the day before his death.
Winwood sought out Loubel, and from him went to Sir Gervase
Elwes. The story he was able to make from what he had from the
two men he took to the King. From this beginning rose up the
Great Oyer of Poisoning. The matter was put into the hands of
the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke.
The lad Reeves, whose confession had started the matter, was
either dead or dying abroad, and was so out of Coke's reach. But
the man who had helped the lad to administer the poisoned
clyster, the under-keeper Weston, was at hand. Weston was
arrested, and examined by Coke. The statement Coke's bullying
drew from the man made mention of one Franklin, another
apothecary, as having supplied a phial which Sir Gervase Elwes
had taken and thrown away. Weston had also received another
phial by Franklin's son from Lady Essex. This also Sir Gervase
had taken and destroyed. Then there had been tarts and jellies
supplied by Mrs Turner.
Coke had Mrs Turner and Franklin arrested, and after that Sir
Gervase was taken as an accessory, and on his statement that he
had employed Weston on Sir Thomas Monson's recommendation Sir
Thomas also was roped in. He maintained that he had been told to
recommend Weston by Lady Essex and the Earl of Northampton.
The next person to be examined by Coke was the apothecary Loubel,
he who had attended Overbury on the day before his death. Though
in his confession the lad Reeves said that he had been given
money and sent abroad by Loubel, this was a matter that Coke did
not probe. Loubel told Coke that he had given Overbury nothing
but the physic prescribed by Sir Theodore Mayerne, the King's
physician, and that in his opinion Overbury had died of
consumption. With this evidence Coke was very strangely
content--or, at least, content as far as Loubel was concerned,
for this witness was not summoned again.
Other persons were examined by Coke, notably Overbury's servant
Davies and his secretary Payton. Their statements served to
throw some suspicion on the Earl of Somerset.
But if all the detail of these examinations were gone into we
should never be done. Our concern is with the two women
involved, Anne Turner and the Countess of Somerset, as we must
now call her. I am going to quote, however, two paragraphs from
Rafael Sabatini's romance The Minion that I think may explain why
it is so difficult to come to the truth of the Overbury mystery.
They indicate how it was smothered by the way in which Coke
rough-handled justice throughout the whole series of trials.
On October 19th, at the Guildhall, began the Great Oyer of
Poisoning, as Coke described it, with the trial of Richard
Thus at the very outset the dishonesty of the proceedings is
apparent. Weston was an accessory. Both on his own evidence and
that of Sir Gervase Elwes, besides the apothecary's boy in
Flushing, Sir Thomas Overbury had died following upon an
injection prepared by Loubel. Therefore Loubel was the
principal, and only after Loubel's conviction could the field
have been extended to include Weston and the others. But Loubel
was tried neither then nor subsequently, a circumstance regarded
by many as the most mysterious part of what is known as the
Overbury mystery, whereas, in fact, it is the clue to it. Nor
was the evidence of the coroner put in, so that there was no real
preliminary formal proof that Overbury had been poisoned at all.
Here Mr Sabatini is concerned to develop one of the underlying
arguments of his story--namely, that it was King James himself
who had ultimately engineered the death of Sir Thomas Overbury.
It is an argument which I would not attempt to refute. I do not
think that Mr Sabatini's acumen has failed him in the least. But
the point for me in the paragraphs is the indication they give of
how much Coke did to suppress all evidence that did not suit his
Weston's trial is curious in that at first he refused to plead.
It is the first instance I have met with in history of a prisoner
standing `mute of malice.' Coke read him a lecture on the
subject, pointing out that by his obstinacy he was making himself
liable to peine forte et dure, which meant that order could be
given for his exposure in an open place near the prison, extended
naked, and to have weights laid upon him in increasing amount, he
being kept alive with the ``coarsest bread obtainable and water
from the nearest sink or puddle to the place of execution, that
day he had water having no bread, and that day he had bread
having no water.'' One may imagine with what grim satisfaction
Coke ladled this out. It had its effect on Weston.
He confessed that Mrs Turner had promised to give him a reward if
he would poison Sir Thomas Overbury. In May she had sent him a
phial of ``rosalgar,'' and he had received from her tarts
poisoned with mercury sublimate. He was charged with having, at
Mrs Turner's instance, joined with an apothecary's boy in
administering an injection of corrosive sublimate to Sir Thomas
Overbury, from which the latter died. Coke's conduct of the case
obscures just how much Weston admitted, but, since it convinced
the jury of Weston's guilt, the conviction served finely for
accusation against Mrs Turner.
Two days after conviction Weston was executed at Tyburn.
The trial of Anne Turner began in the first week of November. It
would be easy to make a pathetic figure of the comely little
widow as she stood trembling under Coke's bullying, but she was,
in actual fact, hardly deserving of pity. It is far from
enlivening to read of Coke's handling of the trial, and it is
certain that Mrs Turner was condemned on an indictment and
process which to-day would not have a ghost of a chance of
surviving appeal, but it is perfectly plain that Anne was party
to one of the most vicious poisoning plots ever engineered.
We have, however, to consider this point in extenuation for her.
It is almost certain that in moving to bring about the death of
Overbury she had sanction, if only tacit, from the Earl of
Northampton. By the time that the Great Oyer began Northampton
was dead. Two years had elapsed from the death of Overbury. It
would be quite clear to Anne that, in the view of the powerful
Howard faction, the elimination of Overbury was politically
desirable. It should be remembered, too, that she lived in a
period when assassination, secret or by subverted process of
justice, was a commonplace political weapon. Public executions
by methods cruel and even obscene taught the people to hold human
life at small value, and hardened them to cruelties that made
poisoning seem a mercy. It is not at all unlikely that, though
her main object may have been to help forward the plans of her
friend the Countess, Anne considered herself a plotter in high
affairs of State.
The indictment against her was that she had comforted, aided, and
abetted Weston--that is to say, she was made an accessory. If,
however, as was accused, she procured Weston and Reeves to
administer the poisonous injection she was certainly a principal,
and as such should have been tried first or at the same time as
Weston. But Weston was already hanged, and so could not be
questioned. His various statements were used against her
unchallenged, or, at least, when challenging them was useless.
The indictment made no mention of her practices against the Earl
of Essex, but from the account given in the State Trials it would
seem that evidence on this score was used to build the case
against her. Her relations with Dr Forman, now safely dead, were
made much of. She and the Countess of Essex had visited the
charlatan and had addressed him as ``Father.'' Their reason for
visiting, it was said, was that ``by force of magick he should
procure the then Viscount of Rochester to love the Countess and
Sir Arthur Mainwaring to love Mrs Turner, by whom she had three
children.'' Letters from the Countess to Turner were read. They
revealed the use on Lord Essex of those powders her ladyship had
been given by Forman. The letters had been found by Forman's
wife in a packet among Forman's possessions after his death.
These, with others and with several curious objects exhibited in
court, had been demanded by Mrs Turner after Forman's demise.
Mrs Turner had kept them, and they were found in her house.
As indicating the type of magic practised by Forman these objects
are of interest. Among other figures, probably nothing more than
dolls of French make, there was a leaden model of a man and woman
in the act of copulation, with the brass mould from which it had
been cast. There was a black scarf ornamented with white
crosses, papers with cabalistic signs, and sundry other exhibits
which appear to have created superstitious fear in the crowd
about the court. It is amusing to note that while those exhibits
were being examined one of the scaffolds erected for seating gave
way or cracked ominously, giving the crowd a thorough scare. It
was thought that the devil himself, raised by the power of those
uncanny objects, had got into the Guildhall. Consternation
reigned for quite a quarter of an hour.
There was also exhibited Forman's famous book of signatures, in
which Coke is supposed to have encountered his own wife's name on
the first page.
Franklin, apothecary, druggist, necromancer, wizard, and born
liar, had confessed to supplying the poisons intended for use
upon Overbury. He declared that Mrs Turner had come to him from
the Countess and asked him to get the strongest poisons
procurable. He ``accordingly bought seven: viz., aqua fortis,
white arsenic, mercury, powder of diamonds, lapis costitus, great
spiders, cantharides.'' Franklin's evidence is a palpable tissue
of lies, full of statements that contradict each other, but it is
likely enough, judging from facts elicited elsewhere, that his
list of poisons is accurate. Enough poison passed from hand to
hand to have slain an army.
Mention is made by Weldon of the evidence given by Symon, servant
to Sir Thomas Monson, who had been employed by Mrs Turner to
carry a jelly and a tart to the Tower. Symon appears to have
been a witty fellow. He was, ``for his pleasant answer,''
dismissed by Coke.
My lord told him: ``Symon, you have had a hand in this poisoning
``No, my good lord, I had but a finger in it, which almost cost
me my life, and, at the best, cost me all my hair and nails.''
For the truth was that Symon was somewhat liquorish, and finding
the syrup swim from the top of the tart as he carried it, he did
with his finger skim it off: and it was believed, had he known
what it had been, he would not have been his taster at so dear a
Coke, with his bullying methods and his way of acting both as
judge and chief prosecutor, lacks little as prototype for the
later Judge Jeffreys. Even before the jury retired he was at
pains to inform Mrs Turner that she had the seven deadly sins:
viz., a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon,
and a murderer, the daughter of the devil Forman.'' And
having given such a Christian example throughout the trial, he
besought her ``to repent, and to become the servant of Jesus
Christ, and to pray Him to cast out the seven devils.'' It was
upon this that Anne begged the Lord Chief Justice to be merciful
to her, putting forward the plea of having been brought up with
the Countess of Essex, and of having been ``a long time her
servant.'' She declared that she had not known of poison in the
things that were sent to Sir Thomas Overbury.
 State Trials.
The jury's retirement was not long-drawn. They found her guilty.
The Wednesday following she was brought from the sheriff's in a
coach to Newgate and there was put into a cart, and casting money
often among the people as she was carried to Tyburn, where she
was executed, and whither many men and women of fashion followed
her in coaches to see her die.
Her speeches before execution were pious, like most speeches of
the sort, and ``moved the spectators to great pity and grief for
her.'' She again related ``her breeding with the Countess of
Somerset,'' and pleaded further of ``having had no other means to
maintain her and her children but what came from the Countess.''
This last, of course, was less than the truth. Anne was not so
indigent that she needed to take to poisoning as a means of
supporting her family. She also said ``that when her hand was
once in this business she knew the revealing of it would be her
In more than one account written later of her execution she is
said to have worn a ruff and cuffs dressed with the yellow starch
which she had made so fashionable, and it is maintained that this
association made the starch thereafter unpopular. It is
forgotten that with Anne the recipe for the yellow starch
probably was lost. Moreover, the elaborate ruff was then being
put out of fashion by the introduction of the much more
comfortable lace collar. In any case, ``There is no truth,''
writes Judge Parry,
in the old story that Coke ordered her to be executed in the
yellow ruff she had made the fashion and so proudly worn in
Court. What did happen, according to Sir Simonds d'Ewes, was
that the hangman, a coarse ruffian with a distorted sense of
humour, dressed himself in bands and cuffs of yellow colour, but
no one heeded his ribaldry; only in after days none of either sex
used the yellow starch, and the fashion grew generally to be
 Probably started by Michael Sparke (``Scintilla'') in Truth
Brought to Light (1651).
Pretty much, I should think, as the tall `choker' became detested
within the time of many of us. After Mrs Turner Sir Gervase
Elwes was brought to trial as an accessory. The only evidence
against him was that of the liar Franklin, who asserted that Sir
Gervase had been in league with the Countess. It was plain,
however, both from Weston's statements and from Sir Gervase's
own, that the Lieutenant of the Tower had done his very best to
defeat the Turner-Essex-Northampton plot for the poisoning of
Overbury, throwing away the ``rosalgar'' and later draughts, as
well as substituting food from his own kitchen for that sent in
by Turner. ``Although it must have been clear that if any of
what was alleged against him had been true Overbury's poisoning
would never have taken five months to accomplish, he was
sentenced and hanged.''
 Sabatini, The Minion.
This, of course, was a glaring piece of injustice, but Coke no
doubt had his instructions. Weston, Mrs Turner, Elwes, and,
later, Franklin had to be got out of the way, so that they could
not be confronted with the chief figure against whom the Great
Oyer was directed, and whom it was designed to pull down, Robert
Carr, Earl of Somerset --and with him his wife. Just as much of
the statements and confessions of the prisoners in the four
preliminary trials was used by Coke as suited his purpose. It is
pointed out by Amos, in his Great Oyer of Poisoning, that a large
number of the documents appertaining to the Somerset trial show
corrections and apparent glosses in Coke's own handwriting, and
that even the confessions on the scaffold of some of the
convicted are holographs by Coke. As a sample of the suppression
of which Coke was guilty I may put forward the fact that
Somerset's note to his own physician, Craig, asking him to visit
Overbury, was not produced. Yet great play was made by Coke of
this visit against Somerset. Wrote Somerset to Craig, ``I pray
you let him have your best help, and as much of your company as
he shall require.''
It was never proved that it was Anne Turner and Lady Essex who
corrupted the lad Reeves, who with Weston administered the
poisoned clyster that murdered Overbury. Nothing was done at all
to absolve the apothecary Loubel, Reeves's master, of having
prepared the poisonous injection, nor Sir Theodore Mayerne, the
King's physician, of having been party to its preparation. Yet
it was demonstrably the injection that killed Overbury if he was
killed by poison at all. It is certain that the poisons sent to
the Tower by Turner and the Countess did not save in early
instances, get to Overbury at all--Elwes saw to that--or Overbury
must have died months before he did die.
According to Weldon, who may be supposed to have witnessed the
trials, Franklin confessed ``that Overbury was smothered to
death, not poisoned to death, though he had poison given him.''
And Weldon goes on to make this curious comment:
Here was Coke glad, how to cast about to bring both ends
together, Mrs Turner and Weston being already hanged for killing
Overbury with poison; but he, being the very quintessence of the
law, presently informs the jury that if a man be done to death
with pistols, poniards, swords, halter, poison, etc., so he be
done to death, the indictment is good if he be but indicted for
any of those ways. But the good lawyers of those times were not
of that opinion, but did believe that Mrs Turner was directly
murthered by my lord Coke's law as Overbury was without any law.
Though you will look in vain through the reports given in the
State Trials for any speech of Coke to the jury in exactly these
terms, it might be just as well to remember that the
transcriptions from which the Trials are printed were prepared
UNDER Coke's SUPERVISION, and that they, like the confessions of
the convicted, are very often in his own handwriting.
At all events, even on the bowdlerized evidence that exists, it
is plain that Anne Turner should have been charged only with
attempted murder. Of that she was manifestly guilty and,
according to the justice of the time, thoroughly deserved to be
hanged. The indictment against her was faulty, and the case
against her as full of holes as a colander. Her trial was
`cooked' in more senses than one.
It was some seven months after the execution of Anne Turner that
the Countess of Essex was brought to trial. This was in May. In
December, while virtually a prisoner under the charge of Sir
William Smith at Lord Aubigny's house in Blackfriars, she had
given birth to a daughter. In March she had been conveyed to the
Tower, her baby being handed over to the care of her mother, the
Countess of Suffolk. Since the autumn of the previous year she
had not been permitted any communication with her husband, nor he
with her. He was already lodged in the Tower when she arrived
On a day towards the end of May she was conveyed by water from
the Tower to Westminster Hall. The hall was packed to
suffocation, seats being paid for at prices which would turn a
modern promoter of a world's heavyweight-boxing-championship
fight green with envy. Her judges were twenty-two peers of the
realm, with the Lord High Steward, the Lord Chief Justice, and
seven judges at law. It was a pageant of colour, in the midst of
which the woman on trial, in her careful toilette, consisting of
a black stammel gown, a cypress chaperon or black crepe hood in
the French fashion, relieved by touches of white in the cuffs and
ruff of cobweb lawn, struck a funereal note. Preceded by the
headsman carrying his axe with its edge turned away from her, she
was conducted to the bar by the Lieutenant of the Tower. The
indictment was read to her, and at its end came the question:
``Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, how sayest thou? Art
thou guilty of this felony and murder or not guilty?''
There was a hushed pause for a moment; then came the low-voiced
Sir Francis Bacon, the Attorney-General--himself to appear in the
same place not long after to answer charges of bribery and
corruption--now addressed the judges. His eloquent address was a
commendation of the Countess's confession, and it hinted at royal
In answer to the formal demand of the Clerk of Arraigns if she
had anything to say why judgment of death should not be given
against her the Countess made a barely audible plea for mercy,
begging their lordships to intercede for her with the King. Then
the Lord High Steward, expressing belief that the King would be
moved to mercy, delivered judgment. She was to be taken thence
to the Tower of London, thence to the place of execution, where
she was to be hanged by the neck until she was dead--and might
the Lord have mercy on her soul.
The attendant women hastened to the side of the swaying woman.
And now the halbardiers formed escort about her, the headsman in
front, with the edge of his axe turned towards her in token of
her conviction, and she was led away.
It is perfectly clear that the Countess of Somerset was led to
confess on the promise of the King's mercy. It is equally clear
that she did not know what she was confessing to. Whatever might
have been her conspiracy with Anne Turner it is a practical
certainty that it did not result in the death of Thomas Overbury.
There is no record of her being allowed any legal advice in the
seven months that had elapsed since she had first been made a
virtual prisoner. She had been permitted no communication with
her husband. For all she knew, Overbury might indeed have died
from the poison which she had caused to be sent to the Tower in
such quantity and variety. And she went to trial at Westminster
guilty in conscience, her one idea being to take the blame for
having brought about the murder of Overbury, thinking by that to
absolve her husband of any share in the plot. She could not have
known that her plea of guilty would weaken Somerset's defence.
The woman who could go to such lengths in order to win her
husband was unlikely to have done anything that might put him in
jeopardy. One can well imagine with what fierceness she would
have fought her case had she thought that by doing so she could
have helped the man she loved.
But Frances Howard, no less than her accomplice Anne Turner, was
the victim of a gross subversion of justice. That she was guilty
of a cruel and determined attempt to poison Overbury is beyond
question, and, being guilty of that, she was thoroughly deserving
of the fate that overcame Anne Turner, but that at the last she
was allowed to escape. Her confession, however, shackled
Somerset at his trial. It put her at the King's mercy. Without
endangering her life Somerset dared not come to the crux of his
defence, which would have been to demand why Loubel had been
allowed to go free, and why the King's physician, Mayerne, had
not been examined. To prevent Somerset from asking those
questions, which must have given the public a sufficient hint of
King James's share in the murder of Overbury, two men stood
behind the Earl all through his trial with cloaks over their
arms, ready to muffle him. But, whatever may be said of
Somerset, the prospect of the cloaks would not have stopped him
from attempting those questions. He had sent word to King James
that he was ``neither Gowrie nor Balmerino,'' those two earlier
victims of James's treachery. The thing that muffled him was the
threat to withdraw the promised mercy to his Countess. And so he
kept silent, to be condemned to death as his wife had been, and
to join her in the Tower.
Five weary years were the couple to eat their hearts out there,
their death sentences remitted, before their ultimate banishment
far from the Court to a life of impoverished obscurity in the
country. Better for them, one would think, if they had died on
Tower Green. It is hard to imagine that the dozen years or so
which they were to spend together could contain anything of
happiness for them--she the confessed would-be poisoner, and he
haunted by the memory of that betrayal of friendship which had
begun the process of their double ruin. Frances Howard died in
1632, her husband twenty-three years later. The longer lease of
life could have been no blessing to the fallen favourite.
There is a portrait of Frances Howard in the National Portrait
Gallery by an unknown artist. It is an odd little face which
appears above the elaborate filigree of the stiff lace ruff and
under the carefully dressed bush of dark brown hair. With her
gay jacket of red gold-embroidered, and her gold-ornamented grey
gown, cut low to show the valley between her young breasts, she
looks like a child dressed up. If there is no great indication
of the beauty which so many poets shed ink over there is less
promise of the dire determination which was to pursue a man's
life with cruel poisons over several months. It is, however, a
narrow little face, and there is a tight-liddedness about the
eyes which in an older woman might indicate the bigot. Bigot she
proved herself to be, if it be bigotry in a woman to love a man
with an intensity that will not stop at murder in order to win
him. That is the one thing that may be said for Frances Howard.
She did love Robert Carr. She loved him to his ruin.
IV: A MODEL FOR MR HOGARTH
On a Sunday, the 5th of February, 1733, there came toddling into
that narrow passage of the Temple known as Tanfield Court an
elderly lady by the name of Mrs Love. It was just after one
o'clock of the afternoon. The giants of St Dunstan's behind her
had only a minute before rapped out the hour with their clubs.
Mrs Love's business was at once charitable and social. She was
going, by appointment made on the previous Friday night, to eat
dinner with a frail old lady named Mrs Duncomb, who lived in
chambers on the third floor of one of the buildings that had
entry from the court. Mrs Duncomb was the widow of a law
stationer of the City. She had been a widow for a good number of
years. The deceased law stationer, if he had not left her rich,
at least had left her in fairly comfortable circumstances. It
was said about the environs that she had some property, and this
fact, combined with the other that she was obviously nearing the
end of life's journey, made her an object of melancholy interest
to the womenkind of the neighbourhood.
Mrs Duncomb was looked after by a couple of servants. One of
them, Betty Harrison, had been the old lady's companion for a
lifetime. Mrs Duncomb, described as ``old,'' was only sixty.
Her weakness and bodily condition seem to have made her appear
much older. Betty, then, also described as ``old,'' may have
been of an age with her mistress, or even older. She was, at all
events, not by much less frail. The other servant was a
comparatively new addition to the establishment, a fresh little
girl of about seventeen, Ann (or Nanny) Price by name.
 According to one account. The Newgate Calendar (London
1773) gives Mrs Duncomb's age as eighty and that of the maid
Betty as sixty.
Mrs Love climbed the three flights of stairs to the top landing.
It surprised her, or disturbed her, but little that she found no
signs of life on the various floors, because it was, as we have
seen, a Sunday. The occupants of the chambers of the staircase,
mostly gentlemen connected in one way or another with the law,
would be, she knew abroad for the eating of their Sunday dinners,
either at their favourite taverns or at commons in the Temple
itself. What did rather disturb kindly Mrs Love was the fact
that she found Mrs Duncomb's outer door closed--an unwonted
fact--and it faintly surprised her that no odour of cooking
greeted her nostrils.
Mrs Love knocked. There was no reply. She knocked, indeed, at
intervals over a period of some fifteen minutes, still obtaining
no response. The disturbed sense of something being wrong became
stronger and stronger in the mind of Mrs Love.
On the night of the previous Friday she had been calling upon Mrs
Duncomb, and she had found the old lady very weak, very nervous,
and very low in spirits. It had not been a very cheerful visit
all round, because the old maidservant, Betty Harrison, had also
been far from well. There had been a good deal of talk between
the old women of dying, a subject to which their minds had been
very prone to revert. Besides Mrs Love there were two other
visitors, but they too failed to cheer the old couple up. One of
the visitors, a laundress of the Temple called Mrs Oliphant, had
done her best, poohpoohing such melancholy talk, and attributing
the low spirits in which the old women found themselves to the
bleakness of the February weather, and promising them that they
would find a new lease of life with the advent of spring. But
Mrs Betty especially had been hard to console.
``My mistress,'' she had said to cheerful Mrs Oliphant, ``will
talk of dying. And she would have me die with her.''
As she stood in considerable perturbation of mind on the
cheerless third-floor landing that Sunday afternoon Mrs Love
found small matter for comfort in her memory of the Friday
evening. She remembered that old Mrs Duncomb had spoken
complainingly of the lonesomeness which had come upon her floor
by the vacation of the chambers opposite her on the landing. The
tenant had gone a day or two before, leaving the rooms empty of
furniture, and the key with a Mr Twysden.
Mrs. Love, turning to view the door opposite to that on which she
had been rapping so long and so ineffectively, had a shuddery
feeling that she was alone on the top of the world.
She remembered how she had left Mrs Duncomb on the Friday night.
Mrs Oliphant had departed first, accompanied by the second
visitor, one Sarah Malcolm, a charwoman who had worked for Mrs
Duncomb up to the previous Christmas, and who had called in to
see how her former employer was faring. An odd, silent sort of
young woman this Sarah, good-looking in a hardfeatured sort of
way, she had taken but a very small part in the conversation, but
had sat staring rather sullenly into the fire by the side of
Betty Harrison, or else casting a flickering glance about the
room. Mrs Love, before following the other two women downstairs,
had helped the ailing Betty to get Mrs Duncomb settled for the
night. In the dim candle-light and the faint glow of the fire
that scarce illumined the wainscoted room the high tester-bed of
the old lady, with its curtains, had seemed like a shadowed
catafalque, an illusion nothing lessened by the frail old figure
under the bedclothing.
It came to the mind of Mrs Love that the illness manifesting
itself in Betty on the Friday night had worsened. Nanny, she
imagined, must have gone abroad on some errand. The old servant,
she thought, was too ill to come to the door, and her voice would
be too weak to convey an answer to the knocking. Mrs Love, not
without a shudder for the chill feeling of that top landing,
betook herself downstairs again to make what inquiry she might.
It happened that she met one of her fellow-visitors of the Friday
night, Mrs Oliphant.
Mrs Oliphant was sympathetic, but could not give any information.
She had seen no member of the old lady's establishment that day.
She could only advise Mrs Love to go upstairs again and knock
This Mrs Love did, but again got no reply. She then evolved the
theory that Betty had died during the night, and that Nanny, Mrs
Duncomb being confined to bed, had gone to look for help,
possibly from her sister, and to find a woman who would lay out
the body of the old servant. With this in her mind Mrs Love
descended the stairs once more, and went to look for another
friend of Mrs Duncomb's, a Mrs Rhymer.
Mrs Rhymer was a friend of the old lady's of some thirty years'
standing. She was, indeed, named as executrix in Mrs Duncomb's
will. Mrs Love finding her and explaining the situation as she
saw it, Mrs Rhymer at once returned with Mrs Love to Tanfield
The two women ascended the stairs, and tried pushing the old
lady's door. It refused to yield to their efforts. Then Mrs
Love went to the staircase window that overlooked the court, and
gazed around to see if there was anyone about who might help.
Some distance away, at the door, we are told, ``of my Lord Bishop
of Bangor,'' was the third of Friday night's visitors to Mrs
Duncomb, the charwoman named Sarah Malcolm. Mrs Love hailed her.
``Prithee, Sarah,'' begged Mrs Love, ``go and fetch a smith to
open Mrs Duncomb's door.''
``I will go at all speed,'' Sarah assured her, with ready
willingness, and off she sped. Mrs Love and Mrs Rhymer waited
some time. Sarah came back with Mrs Oliphant in tow, but had
been unable to secure the services of a locksmith. This was
probably due to the fact that it was a Sunday.
By now both Mrs Love and Mrs Rhymer had become deeply
apprehensive, and the former appealed to Mrs Oliphant. ``I do
believe they are all dead, and the smith is not come!'' cried Mrs
Love. ``What shall we do, Mrs Oliphant?''
Mrs Oliphant, much younger than the others, seems to have been a
woman of resource. She had from Mr Twysden, she said, the key of
the vacant chambers opposite to Mrs Duncomb's. ``Now let me
see,'' she continued, ``if I cannot get out of the back chamber
window into the gutter, and so into Mrs Duncomb's apartment.''
The other women urged her to try. Mrs Oliphant set off, her
heels echoing in the empty rooms. Presently the waiting women
heard a pane snap, and they guessed that Mrs Oliphant had broken
through Mrs Duncomb's casement to get at the handle. They heard,
through the door, the noise of furniture being moved as she got
through the window. Then came a shriek, the scuffle of feet.
The outer door of Mrs Duncomb's chambers was flung open. Mrs
Oliphant, ashen-faced, appeared on the landing. ``God! Oh,
gracious God!'' she cried. ``They're all murdered!
 One account says it was Sarah Malcolm who entered via the
gutter and window. Borrow, however, in his Celebrated Trials,
quotes Mrs Oliphant's evidence in court on this point.
All four women pressed into the chambers. All three of the women
occupying them had been murdered. In the passage or lobby little
Nanny Price lay in her bed in a welter of blood, her throat
savagely cut. Her hair was loose and over her eyes, her clenched
hands all bloodied about her throat. It was apparent that she
had struggled desperately for life. Next door, in the
dining-room, old Betty Harrison lay across the press-bed in which
she usually slept. Being in the habit of keeping her gown on for
warmth, as it was said, she was partially dressed. She had been
strangled, it seemed, ``with an apron-string or a pack-thread,''
for there was a deep crease about her neck and the bruised
indentations as of knuckles. In her bedroom, also across her
bed, lay the dead body of old Mrs Duncomb. There had been here
also an attempt to strangle, an unnecessary attempt it appeared,
for the crease about the neck was very faint. Frail as the old
lady had been, the mere weight of the murderer's body, it was
conjectured, had been enough to kill her.
These pathological details were established on the arrival later
of Mr Bigg, the surgeon, fetched from the Rainbow Coffee-house
near by by Fairlow, one of the Temple porters. But the four
women could see enough for themselves, without the help of Mr
Bigg, to understand how death had been dealt in all three cases.
They could see quite clearly also for what motive the crime had
been committed. A black strong-box, with papers scattered about
it, lay beside Mrs Duncomb's bed, its lid forced open. It was in
this box that the old lady had been accustomed to keep her money.
If any witness had been needed to say what the black box had
contained there was Mrs Rhymer, executrix under the old lady's
will. And if Mrs. Rhymer had been at any need to refresh her
memory regarding the contents opportunity had been given her no
farther back than the afternoon of the previous Thursday. On
that day she had called upon Mrs Duncomb to take tea and to talk
affairs. Three or four years before, with her rapidly increasing
frailness, the old lady's memory had begun to fail. Mrs Rhymer
acted for her as a sort of unofficial curator bonis, receiving
her money and depositing it in the black box, of which she kept
On the Thursday, old Betty and young Nanny being sent from the
room, the old lady had told Mrs Rhymer that she needed some
money--a guinea. Mrs Rhymer had gone through the solemn process
of opening the black box, and, one must suppose--old ladies
nearing their end being what they are--had been at need to tell
over the contents of the box for the hundredth time, just to
reassure Mrs Duncomb that she thoroughly understood the duties
she had agreed to undertake as executrix
At the top of the box was a silver tankard. It had belonged to
Mrs Duncomb's husband. In the tankard was a hundred pounds.
Beside the tankard lay a bag containing guinea pieces to the
number of twenty or so. This was the bag that Mrs Rhymer had
carried over to the old lady's chair by the fire, in order to
take from it the needed guinea.
There were some half-dozen packets of money in the box, each
sealed with black wax and set aside for particular purposes after
Mrs Duncomb's death. Other sums, greater in quantity than those
contained in the packets, were earmarked in the same way. There
was, for example, twenty guineas set aside for the old lady's
burial, eighteen moidores to meet unforeseen contingencies, and
in a green purse some thirty or forty shillings, which were to be
distributed among poor people of Mrs Duncomb's acquaintance. The
ritual of telling over the box contents, if something ghostly,
had had its usual effect of comforting the old lady's mind. It
consoled her to know that all arrangements were in order for her
passing in genteel fashion to her long home, that all the
decorums of respectable demise would be observed, and that ``the
greatest of these'' would not be forgotten. The ritual over, the
black box was closed and locked, and on her departure Mrs Rhymer
had taken away the key as usual.
The motive for the crime, as said, was plain. The black box had
been forced, and there was no sign of tankard, packets, green
purse, or bag of guineas.
The horror and distress of the old lady's friends that Sunday
afternoon may better be imagined than described. Loudest of the
four, we are told, was Sarah Malcolm. It is also said that she
was, however, the coolest, keen to point out the various methods
by which the murderers (for the crime to her did not look like a
single-handed effort) could have got into the chambers. She drew
attention to the wideness of the kitchen chimney and to the
weakness of the lock in the door to the vacant rooms on the other
side of the landing. She also pointed out that, since the bolt
of the spring-lock of the outer door to Mrs Duncomb's rooms had
been engaged when they arrived, the miscreants could not have
used that exit.
This last piece of deduction on Sarah's part, however, was made
rather negligible by experiments presently carried out by the
porter, Fairlow, with the aid of a piece of string. He showed
that a person outside the shut door could quite easily pull the
bolt to on the inside.
The news of the triple murder quickly spread, and it was not long
before a crowd had collected in Tanfield Court, up the stairs to
Mrs. Duncomb's landing, and round about the door of Mrs Duncomb's
chambers. It did not disperse until the officers had made their
investigations and the bodies of the three victims had been
removed. And even then, one may be sure, there would still be a
few of those odd sort of people hanging about who, in those times
as in these, must linger on the scene of a crime long after the
last drop of interest has evaporated.
Two further actors now come upon the scene. And for the proper
grasping of events we must go back an hour or two in time to
notice their activities.
They are a Mr Gehagan, a young Irish barrister, and a friend of
his named Kerrel. These young men occupy chambers on
opposite sides of the same landing, the third floor, over the
Alienation Office in Tanfield Court.
 Or Kerrol--the name varies in different accounts of the
Mr Gehagan was one of Sarah Malcolm's employers. That Sunday
morning at nine she had appeared in his rooms to do them up and
to light the fire. While Gehagan was talking to Sarah he was
joined by his friend Kerrel, who offered to stand him some tea.
Sarah was given a shilling and sent out to buy tea. She returned
and made the brew, then remained about the chambers until the
horn blew, as was then the Temple custom, for commons. The two
young men departed. After commons they walked for a while in the
Temple Gardens, then returned to Tanfield Court.
By this time the crowd attracted by the murder was blocking up
the court, and Gehagan asked what was the matter. He was told of
the murder, and he remarked to Kerrel that the old lady had been
their charwoman's acquaintance.
The two friends then made their way to a coffee-house in Covent
Garden. There was some talk there of the murder, and the theory
was advanced by some one that it could have been done only by
some laundress who knew the chambers and how to get in and out of
them. From Covent Garden, towards night, Gehagan and Kerrel went
to a tavern in Essex Street, and there they stayed carousing
until one o'clock in the morning, when they left for the Temple.
They were not a little astonished on reaching their common
landing to find Kerrel's door open, a fire burning in the grate
of his room, and a candle on the table. By the fire, with a dark
riding-hood about her head, was Sarah Malcolm. To Kerrel's
natural question of what she was doing there at such an unearthly
hour she muttered something about having things to collect.
Kerrel then, reminding her that Mrs Duncomb had been her
acquaintance, asked her if anyone had been ``taken up'' for the
``That Mr Knight,'' Sarah replied, ``who has chambers under her,
has been absent two or three days. He is suspected.''
``Well,'' said Kerrel, remembering the theory put forward in the
coffee-house, and made suspicious by her presence at that strange
hour, ``nobody that was acquainted with Mrs Duncomb is wanted
here until the murderer is discovered. Look out your things,
therefore, and begone!''
Kerrel's suspicion thickened, and he asked his friend to run
downstairs and call up the watch. Gehagan ran down, but found
difficulty in opening the door below, and had to return. Kerrel
himself went down then, and came back with two watchmen. They
found Sarah in the bedroom at a chest of drawers, in which she
was turning over some linen that she claimed to be hers. The now
completely suspicious Kerrel went to his closet, and noticed that
two or three waistcoats were missing from a portmanteau. He
asked Sarah where they were; upon which Sarah, with an eye to the
watchmen and to Gehagan, begged to be allowed to speak with him
Kerrel refused, saying he could have no business with her that
Sarah then confessed that she had pawned the missing waistcoats
for two guineas, and begged him not to be angry. Kerrel asked
her why she had not asked him for money. He could readily
forgive her for pawning the waistcoats, but, having heard her
talk of Mrs Lydia Duncomb, he was afraid she was concerned with
the murder. A pair of earrings were found in the drawers, and
these Sarah claimed, putting them in her corsage. An odd-looking
bundle in the closet then attracted Kerrel's attention, and he
kicked it, and asked Sarah what it was. She said it was merely
dirty linen wrapped up in an old gown. She did not wish it
exposed. Kerrel made further search, and found that other things
were missing. He told the watch to take the woman and hold her
Sarah was led away. Kerrel, now thoroughly roused, continued his
search, and he found underneath his bed another bundle. He also
came upon some bloodstained linen in another place, and in a
close-stool a silver tankard, upon the handle of which was a lot
of dried blood.
Kerrel's excitement passed to Gehagan, and the two of them went
at speed downstairs yelling for the watch. After a little the
two watchmen reappeared, but without Sarah. They had let her go,
they said, because they had found nothing on her, and, besides,
she had not been charged before a constable.
One here comes upon a recital by the watchmen which reveals the
extraordinary slackness in dealing with suspect persons that
characterized the guardians of the peace in London in those
times. They had let the woman go, but she had come back. Her
home was in Shoreditch, she said, and rather than walk all that
way on a cold and boisterous night she had wanted to sit up in
the watch-house. The watchmen refused to let her do this, but
ordered her to ``go about her business,'' advising her sternly at
the same time to turn up again by ten o'clock in the morning.
Sarah had given her word, and had gone away.
On hearing this story Kerrel became very angry, threatening the
two watchmen, Hughes and Mastreter, with Newgate if they did not
pick her up again immediately. Upon this the watchmen scurried
off as quickly as their age and the cumbrous nature of their
clothing would let them. They found Sarah in the company of two
other watchmen at the gate of the Temple. Hughes, as a means of
persuading her to go with them more easily, told her that Kerrel
wanted to speak with her, and that he was not angry any longer.
Presently, in Tanfield Court, they came on the two young men
carrying the tankard and the bloodied linen. This time it was
Gehagan who did the talking. He accused Sarah furiously, showing
her the tankard. Sarah attempted to wipe the blood off the
tankard handle with her apron. Gehagan stopped her.
Sarah said the tankard was her own. Her mother had given it her,
and she had had it for five years. It was to get the tankard out
of pawn that she had taken Kerrel's waistcoats, needing thirty
shillings. The blood on the handle was due to her having pricked
With this began the series of lies Sarah Malcolm put up in her
defence. She was hauled into the watchman's box and more
thoroughly searched. A green silk purse containing twenty-one
guineas was found in the bosom of her dress. This purse Sarah
declared she had found in the street, and as an excuse for its
cleanliness, unlikely with the streets as foul as they were at
that age and time of year, said she had washed it. Both bundles
of linen were bloodstained. There was some doubt as to the
identity of the green purse. Mrs Rhymer, who, as we have seen,
was likelier than anyone to recognize it, would not swear it was
the green purse that had been in Mrs Duncomb's black box. There
was, however, no doubt at all about the tankard. It had the
initials ``C. D.'' engraved upon it, and was at once identified
as Mrs Duncomb's. The linen which Sarah had been handling in Mr
Kerrel's drawer was said to be darned in a way recognizable as
Mrs Duncomb's. It had lain beside the tankard and the money in
the black box.
There was, it will be seen, but very little doubt of Sarah
Malcolm's guilt. According to the reports of her trial, however,
she fought fiercely for her life, questioning the witnesses
closely. Some of them, such as could remember small points
against her, but who failed in recollection of the colour of her
dress or of the exact number of the coins said to be lost, she
One of the Newgate turnkeys told how some of the missing money
was discovered. Being brought from the Compter to Newgate, Sarah
happened to see a room in which debtors were confined. She asked
the turnkey, Roger Johnson, if she could be kept there. Johnson
replied that it would cost her a guinea, but that from her
appearance it did not look to him as if she could afford so much.
Sarah seems to have bragged then, saying that if the charge was
twice or thrice as much she could send for a friend who would pay
it. Her attitude probably made the turnkey suspicious. At any
rate, after Sarah had mixed for some time with the felons in the
prison taproom, Johnson called her out and, lighting the way by
use of a link, led her to an empty room.
``Child,'' he said, ``there is reason to suspect that you are
guilty of this murder, and therefore I have orders to search
you.'' He had, he admitted, no such orders. He felt under her
arms; whereupon she started and threw back her head. Johnson
clapped his hand on her head and felt something hard. He pulled
off her cap, and found a bag of money in her hair.
``I asked her,'' Johnson said in the witness-box, ``how she came
by it, and she said it was some of Mrs Duncomb's money. `But, Mr
Johnson,' says she, `I'll make you a present of it if you will
keep it to yourself, and let nobody know anything of the matter.
The other things against me are nothing but circumstances, and I
shall come well enough off. And therefore I only desire you to
let me have threepence or sixpence a day till the sessions be
over; then I shall be at liberty to shift for myself.' ''
To the best of his knowledge, said this turnkey, having told the
money over, there were twenty moidores, eighteen guineas, five
broad pieces, a half-broad piece, five crowns, and two or three
shillings. He thought there was also a twenty-five-shilling
piece and some others, twenty-three-shilling pieces. He had
sealed them up in the bag, and there they were (producing the bag
The court asked how she said she had come by the money.
Johnson's answer was that she had said she took the money and the
bag from Mrs Duncomb, and that she had begged him to keep it
secret. ``My dear,'' said this virtuous gaoler, ``I would not
secrete the money for the world.
``She told me, too,'' runs Johnson's recorded testimony, ``that
she had hired three men to swear the tankard was her
grandmother's, but could not depend on them: that the name of one
was William Denny, another was Smith, and I have forgot the
third. After I had taken the money away she put a piece of
mattress in her hair, that it might appear of the same bulk as
before. Then I locked her up and sent to Mr Alstone, and told
him the story. `And,' says I, `do you stand in a dark place to
be witness of what she says, and I'll go and examine her
Sarah interrupted: ``I tied my handkerchief over my hair to hide
the money, but Buck, happening to see my hair fall down, he
told Johnson; upon which Johnson came to see me and said, `I find
the cole's planted in your hair. Let me keep it for you and let
Buck know nothing about it.' So I gave Johnson five broad pieces
and twenty-two guineas, not gratis, but only to keep for me, for
I expected it to be returned when sessions was over. As to the
money, I never said I took it from Mrs Duncomb; but he asked me
what they had to rap against me. I told him only a tankard. He
asked me if it was Mrs Duncomb's, and I said yes.''
 Peter Buck, a prisoner.
The Court: ``Johnson, were those her words: `This is the money
and bag that I took'?''
Johnson: ``Yes, and she desired me to make away with the bag.''
Johnson's evidence was confirmed in part by Alstone, another
officer of the prison. He said he told Johnson to get the bag
from the prisoner, as it might have something about it whereby it
could be identified. Johnson called the girl, while Alstone
watched from a dark corner. He saw Sarah give Johnson the bag,
and heard her ask him to burn it. Alstone also deposed that
Sarah told him (Alstone) part of the money found on her was Mrs
There is no need here to enlarge upon the oddly slack and casual
conditions of the prison life of the time as revealed in this
evidence. It will be no news to anyone who has studied
contemporary criminal history. There is a point, however, that
may be considered here, and that is the familiarity it suggests
on the part of Sarah with prison conditions and with the cant
terms employed by criminals and the people handling them.
Sarah, though still in her earliest twenties, was known
already--if not in the Temple--to have a bad reputation. It is
said that her closest friends were thieves of the worst sort.
She was the daughter of an Englishman, at one time a public
official in a small way in Dublin. Her father had come to London
with his wife and daughter, but on the death of the mother had
gone back to Ireland. He had left his daughter behind him,
servant in an ale-house called the Black Horse.
 Born 1711, Durham, according to The Newgate Calendar.
Sarah was a fairly well-educated girl. At the ale-house,
however, she formed an acquaintance with a woman named Mary
Tracey, a dissolute character, and with two thieves called
Alexander. Of these three disreputable people we shall be
hearing presently, for Sarah tried to implicate them in this
crime which she certainly committed alone. It is said that the
Newgate officers recognized Sarah on her arrival. She had often
been to the prison to visit an Irish thief, convicted for
stealing the pack of a Scots pedlar.
It will be seen from Sarah's own defence how she tried to
implicate Tracey and the two Alexanders:
``I freely own that my crimes deserve death; I own that I was
accessory to the robbery, but I was innocent of the murder, and
will give an account of the whole affair.
``I lived with Mrs Lydia Duncomb about three months before she
was murdered. The robbery was contrived by Mary Tracey, who is
now in confinement, and myself, my own vicious inclinations
agreeing with hers. We likewise proposed to rob Mr Oakes in
Thames Street. She came to me at my master's, Mr Kerrel's
chambers, on the Sunday before the murder was committed; he not
being then at home, we talked about robbing Mrs Duncomb. I told
her I could not pretend to do it by myself, for I should be found
out. `No,' says she, `there are the two Alexanders will help
us.' Next day I had seventeen pounds sent me out of the country,
which I left in Mr Kerrel's drawers. I met them all in Cheapside
the following Friday, and we agreed on the next night, and so
``Next day, being Saturday, I went between seven and eight in the
evening to see Mrs Duncomb's maid, Elizabeth Harrison, who was
very bad. I stayed a little while with her, and went down, and
Mary Tracey and the two Alexanders came to me about ten o'clock,
according to appointment.''
On this statement the whole implication of Tracey and the
Alexanders by Sarah stands or falls. It falls for the reason
that the Temple porter had seen no stranger pass the gate that
night, nobody but Templars going to their chambers. The one fact
riddles the rest of Sarah's statement in defence, but, as it is
somewhat of a masterpiece in lying invention, I shall continue to
quote it. ``Mary Tracey would have gone about the robbery just
then, but I said it was too soon. Between ten and eleven she
said, `We can do it now.' I told her I would go and see, and so
went upstairs, and they followed me. I met the young maid on the
stairs with a blue mug; she was going for some milk to make a
sack posset. She asked me who were those that came after me. I
told her they were people going to Mr Knight's below. As soon as
she was gone I said to Mary Tracey, `Now do you and Tom Alexander
go down. I know the door is ajar, because the old maid is ill,
and can't get up to let the young maid in when she comes back.'
Upon that, James Alexander, by my order, went in and hid himself
under the bed; and as I was going down myself I met the young
maid coming up again. She asked me if I spoke to Mrs Betty. I
told her no; though I should have told her otherwise, but only
that I was afraid she might say something to Mrs Betty about me,
and Mrs Betty might tell her I had not been there, and so they
might have a suspicion of me.''
There is a possibility that this part of her confession, the tale
of having met the young maid, Nanny, may be true. And here
may the truth of the murder be hidden away. Very likely it is,
indeed, that Sarah encountered the girl going out with the blue
mug for milk to make a sack posset, and she may have slipped in
by the open door to hide under the bed until the moment was ripe
for her terrible intention. On the other hand, if there is truth
in the tale of her encountering the girl again as she returned
with the milk--and her cunning in answering ``no'' to the maid's
query if she had seen Mrs Betty has the real ring--other ways of
getting an entry were open to her. We know that the lock of the
vacant chambers opposite Mrs Duncomb's would have yielded to
small manipulation. It is not at all unlikely that Sarah, having
been charwoman to the old lady, and with the propensities picked
up from her Shoreditch acquaintances, had made herself familiar
with the locks on the landing. So that she may have waited her
hour in the empty rooms, and have got into Mrs Duncomb's by the
same method used by Mrs Oliphant after the murder. She may even
have slipped back the spring-catch of the outer door. One
account of the murder suggests that she may have asked Ann Price,
on one pretext or other, to let her share her bed. It certainly
was not beyond the callousness of Sarah Malcolm to have chosen
this method, murdering the girl in her sleep, and then going on
to finish off the two helpless old women.
 This confession, however, varies in several particulars with
that contained in A Paper delivered by Sarah Malcolm on the Night
before her Execution to the Rev. Mr Piddington, and published by
Him (London, 1733).
The truth, as I have said, lies hidden in this extraordinarily
mendacious confection. Liars of Sarah's quality are apt to base
their fabrications on a structure, however slight, of truth. I
continue with the confession, then, for what the reader may get
out of it.
``I passed her [Nanny Price] and went down, and spoke with Tracey
and Alexander, and then went to my master's chambers, and stirred
up the fire. I stayed about a quarter of an hour, and when I
came back I saw Tracey and Tom Alexander sitting on Mrs Duncomb's
stairs, and I sat down with them. At twelve o'clock we heard
some people walking, and by and by Mr Knight came home, went to
his room, and shut the door. It was a very stormy night; there
was hardly anybody stirring abroad, and the watchmen kept up
close, except just when they cried the hour. At two o'clock
another gentleman came, and called the watch to light his candle,
upon which I went farther upstairs, and soon after this I heard
Mrs Duncomb's door open; James Alexander came out, and said, `Now
is the time.' Then Mary Tracey and Thomas Alexander went in, but
I stayed upon the stair to watch. I had told them where Mrs
Duncomb's box stood. They came out between four and five, and
one of them called to me softly, and said, `Hip! How shall I
shut the door?' Says I, ` 'Tis a spring-lock; pull it to, and it
will be fast.' And so one of them did. They would have shared
the money and goods upon the stairs, but I told them we had
better go down; so we went under the arch by Fig-tree Court,
where there was a lamp. I asked them how much they had got.
They said they had found fifty guineas and some silver in the
maid's purse, about one hundred pounds in the chest of drawers,
besides the silver tankard and the money in the box and several
other things; so that in all they had got to the value of about
three hundred pounds in money and goods. They told me that they
had been forced to gag the people. They gave me the tankard with
what was in it and some linen for my share, and they had a silver
spoon and a ring and the rest of the money among themselves.
They advised me to be cunning and plant the money and goods
underground, and not to be seen to be flush. Then we appointed
to meet at Greenwich, but we did not go.
 In Mr Piddington's paper the supposed appointment is for ``3
or 4 o'clock at the Pewter Platter, Holbourn Bridge.''
``I was taken in the manner the witnesses have sworn, and carried
to the watch-house, from whence I was sent to the Compter, and so
to Newgate. I own that I said the tankard was mine, and that it
was left me by my mother: several witnesses have swore what
account I gave of the tankard being bloody; I had hurt my finger,
and that was the occasion of it. I am sure of death, and
therefore have no occasion to speak anything but the truth. When
I was in the Compter I happened to see a young man whom I
knew, with a fetter on. I told him I was sorry to see him there,
and I gave him a shilling, and called for half a quartern of rum
to make him drink. I afterwards went into my room, and heard a
voice call me, and perceived something poking behind the curtain.
I was a little surprised, and looking to see what it was, I found
a hole in the wall, through which the young man I had given the
shilling to spoke to me, and asked me if I had sent for my
friends. I told him no. He said he would do what he could for
me, and so went away; and some time after he called to me again,
and said, `Here is a friend.'
 One Bridgewater.
``I looked through, and saw Will Gibbs come in. Says he, `Who is
there to swear against you?' I told him my two masters would be
the chief witnesses. `And what can they charge you with?' says
he. I told him the tankard was the only thing, for there was
nothing else that I thought could hurt me. `Never fear, then,'
says he; `we'll do well enough. We will get them that will rap
the tankard was your grandmother's, and that you was in
Shoreditch the night the act was committed; and we'll have two
men that shall shoot your masters. But,' said he, `one of the
witnesses is a woman, and she won't swear under four guineas; but
the men will swear for two guineas apiece,' and he brought a
woman and three men. I gave them ten guineas, and they promised
to wait for me at the Bull Head in Broad Street. But when I
called for them, when I was going before Sir Richard Brocas, they
were not there. Then I found I should be sent to Newgate, and I
was full of anxious thoughts; but a young man told me I had
better go to the Whit than to the Compter.
``When I came to Newgate I had but eighteenpence in silver,
besides the money in my hair, and I gave eighteenpence for my
garnish. I was ordered to a high place in the gaol. Buck, as I
said before, having seen my hair loose, told Johnson of it, and
Johnson asked me if I had got any cole planted there. He
searched and found the bag, and there was in it thirty-six
moidores, eighteen guineas, five crown pieces, two half-crowns,
two broad pieces of twenty-five shillings, four of twenty-three
shillings, and one half-broad piece. He told me I must be
cunning, and not to be seen to be flush of money. Says I, `What
would you advise me to do with it?' `Why,' says he, `you might
have thrown it down the sink, or have burnt it, but give it to
me, and I'll take care of it.' And so I gave it to him. Mr
Alstone then brought me to the condemned hold and examined me. I
denied all till I found he had heard of the money, and then I
knew my life was gone. And therefore I confessed all that I
knew. I gave him the same account of the robbers as I have given
you. I told him I heard my masters were to be shot, and I
desired him to send them word. I described Tracey and the two
Alexanders, and when they were first taken they denied that they
knew Mr Oakes, whom they and I had agreed to rob.
``All that I have now declared is fact, and I have no occasion to
murder three persons on a false accusation; for I know I am a
condemned woman. I know I must suffer an ignominious death which
my crimes deserve, and I shall suffer willingly. I thank God He
has given me time to repent, when I might have been snatched off
in the midst of my crimes, and without having an opportunity of
preparing myself for another world.'' There is a glibness and
an occasional turn of phrase in this confession which suggests
some touching up from the pen of a pamphleteer, but one may take
it that it is, in substance, a fairly accurate report. In spite
of the pleading which threads it that she should be regarded as
accessory only in the robbery, the jury took something less than
a quarter of an hour to come back with their verdict of ``Guilty
of murder.'' Sarah Malcolm was sentenced to death in due form.
Having regard to the period in which this confession was made,
and considering the not too savoury reputations of Mary Tracey
and the brothers Alexander, we can believe that those three may
well have thought themselves lucky to escape from the mesh of
lies Sarah tried to weave about them. It was not to be
doubted on all the evidence that she alone committed that cruel
triple murder, and that she alone stole the money which was found
hidden in her hair. The bulk of the stolen clothing was found in
her possession, bloodstained. A white-handled case-knife,
presumably that used to cut Nanny Price's throat, was seen on a
table by the three women who, with Sarah herself, were first on
the scene of the murder. It disappeared later, and it is to be
surmised that Sarah Malcolm managed to get it out of the room
unseen. But to the last moment possible Sarah tried to get her
three friends involved with her. Say, which is not at all
unlikely, that Tracey and the Alexanders may have first suggested
the robbery to her, and her vindictive maneouvring may be
 On more than one hand the crime is ascribed to Sarah's
desire to secure one of the Alexanders in marriage.
It is said that when she heard that Tracey and the Alexanders had
been taken she was highly pleased. She smiled, and said that she
could now die happy, since the real murderers had been seized.
Even when the three were brought face to face with her for
identification she did not lack brazenness. ``Ay,'' she said,
``these are the persons who committed the murder.'' ``You know
this to be true,'' she said to Tracey. ``See, Mary, what you
have brought me to. It is through you and the two Alexanders
that I am brought to this shame, and must die for it. You all
promised me you would do no murder, but, to my great surprise, I
found the contrary.''
She was, you will perceive, a determined liar. Condemned, she
behaved with no fortitude. ``I am a dead woman!'' she cried,
when brought back to Newgate. She wept and prayed, lied still
more, pretended illness, and had fits of hysteria. They put her
in the old condemned hold with a constant guard over her, for
fear that she would attempt suicide
The idlers of the town crowded to the prison to see her, for in
the time of his Blessed Majesty King George II Newgate, with the
condemned hold and its content, composed one of the fashionable
spectacles. Young Mr Hogarth, the painter, was one of those who
found occasion to visit Newgate to view the notorious murderess.
He even painted her portrait. It is said that Sarah dressed
specially for him in a red dress, but that copy--one which
belonged to Horace Walpole--which is now in the National Gallery
of Scotland, Edinburgh, shows her in a grey gown, with a white
cap and apron. Seated to the left, she leans her folded hands on
a table on which a rosary and a crucifix lie. Behind her is a
dark grey wall, with a heavy grating over a dark door to the
right. There are varied mezzotints of this picture by Hogarth
himself still extant, and there is a pen-and-wash drawing of
Sarah by Samuel Wale in the British Museum.
The stories regarding the last days in life of Sarah Malcolm
would occupy more pages than this book can afford to spend on
them. To the last she hoped for a reprieve. After the ``dead
warrant'' had arrived, to account for a paroxysm of terror that
seized her, she said that it was from shame at the idea that,
instead of going to Tyburn, she was to be hanged in Fleet Street
among all the people that knew her, she having just heard the
news in chapel. This too was one of her lies. She had heard the
news hours before. A turnkey, pointing out the lie to her, urged
her to confess for the easing of her mind.
One account I have of the Tanfield Court murders speaks of the
custom there was at this time of the bellman of St Sepulchre's
appearing outside the gratings of the condemned hold just after
midnight on the morning of executions. This performance was
provided for by bequest from one Robert Dove, or Dow, a merchant-
tailor. Having rung his bell to draw the attention of the
condemned (who, it may be gathered, were not supposed to be at
all in want of sleep), the bellman recited these verses:
All you that in the condemned hold do lie,
Prepare you, for to-morrow you shall die.
Watch all and pray; the hour is drawing near
That you before th' Almighty must appear.
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
That you may not t'eternal flames be sent:
And when St 'Pulchre's bell to-morrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls!
Past twelve o'clock!
 It was once done by the parish priest. (Stowe's Survey of
London, p. 195, fourth edition, 1618.)
 The bequest of Dove appears to have provided for a further
pious admonition to the condemned while on the way to execution.
It was delivered by the sexton of St Sepulchre's from the steps
of that church, a halt being made by the procession for the
purpose. This admonition, however, was in fair prose.
A fellow-prisoner or a keeper bade Sarah Malcolm heed what the
bellman said, urging her to take it to heart. Sarah said she
did, and threw the bellman down a shilling with which to buy
himself a pint of wine.
Sarah, as we have seen, was denied the honour of procession to
Tyburn. Her sentence was that she was to be hanged in Fleet
Street, opposite the Mitre Court, on the 7th of March, 1733. And
hanged she was accordingly. She fainted in the tumbril, and took
some time to recover. Her last words were exemplary in their
piety, but in the face of her vindictive lying, unretracted to
the last, it were hardly exemplary to repeat them.
She was buried in the churchyard of St Sepulchre's.
V: ALMOST A LADY
 Thanks to my friend Billy Bennett, of music-hall fame, for
his hint for the chapter title.
Born (probably illegitimately) in a fisherman's cottage, reared
in a workhouse, employed in a brothel, won at cards by a royal
duke, mistress of that duke, married to a baron, received at
Court by three kings (though not much in the way of kings),
accused of cozenage and tacitly of murder, died full of piety,
`cutting up' for close on L150,000--there, as it were in a
nutshell, you have the life of Sophie Dawes, Baronne de
In the introduction to her exhaustive and accomplished biography
of Sophie Dawes, from which a part of the matter for this
resume is drawn, Mme Violette Montagu, speaking of the period in
which Sophie lived, says that ``Paris, with its fabulous wealth
and luxury, seems to have been looked upon as a sort of Mecca by
handsome Englishwomen with ambition and, what is absolutely
necessary if they wish to be really successful, plenty of
 Sophie Dawes, Queen of Chantilly (John Lane, 1912).
It is because Sophie had plenty of brains of a sort, besides the
attributes of good looks, health, and by much a disproportionate
share of determination, and because, with all that she attained
to, she died quite ostracized by the people with whom it had been
her life's ambition to mix, and was thus in a sense a failure--it
is because of these things that it is worth while going into
details of her career, expanding the precis with which this
Among the women selected as subjects for this book Sophie Dawes
as a personality wins `hands down.' Whether she was a criminal
or not is a question even now in dispute. Unscrupulous she
certainly was, and a good deal of a rogue. That modern American
product the `gold-digger' is what she herself would call a
`piker' compared with the subject of this chapter. The blonde
bombshell, with her `sugar daddy,' her alimony `racket,' and the
hundred hard-boiled dodges wherewith she chisels money and goods
from her prey, is, again in her own crude phraseology, `knocked
for a row of ash-cans' by Sophie Dawes. As, I think, you will
Sophie was born at St Helens, Isle of Wight--according to herself
in 1792. There is controversy on the matter. Mme Montagu in her
book says that some of Sophie's biographers put the date at 1790,
or even 1785. But Mme Montagu herself reproduces the list of
wearing apparel with which Sophie was furnished when she left the
`house of industry' (the workhouse). It is dated 1805. In those
days children were not maintained in poor institutions to the
mature ages of fifteen or twenty. They were supposed to be armed
against life's troubles at twelve or even younger. Sophie, then,
could hardly have been born before 1792, but is quite likely to
have been born later.
The name of Sophie's father is given as ``Daw.'' Like many
another celebrity, as, for example, Walter Raleigh and
Shakespeare, Sophie spelled her name variously, though ultimately
she fixed on ``Dawes.'' Richard, or Dickey, Daw was a fisherman
for appearance sake and a smuggler for preference. The question
of Sophie's legitimacy anses from the fact that her mother, Jane
Callaway, was registered at death as ``a spinster.'' Sophie was
one of ten children. Dickey Daw drank his family into the
poorhouse, an institution which sent Sophie to fend for herself
in 1805, procuring her a place as servant at a farm on the
Service on a farm does not appear to have appealed to Sophie.
She escaped to Portsmouth, where she found a job as hotel
chambermaid. Tiring of that, she went to London and became a
milliner's assistant. A little affair we hear, in which a mere
water-carrier was an equal participant, lost Sophie her place.
We next have word of her imitating Nell Gwynn, both in selling
oranges to playgoers and in becoming an actress--not, however, at
Old Drury, but at the other patent theatre, Covent Garden. Save
that as a comedian she never took London by storm, and that she
lacked Nell's unfailing good humour, Sophie in her career matches
Nell in more than superficial particulars. Between selling
oranges and appearing on the stage Sophie seems to have touched
bottom for a time in poverty. But her charms as an actress
captivated an officer by and by, and she was established as his
mistress in a house at Turnham Green. Tiring of her after a
time--Sophie, it is probable, became exigeant with increased
comfort--her protector left her with an annuity of L50.
The annuity does not appear to have done Sophie much good. We
next hear of her as servant-maid in a Piccadilly brothel, a
lupanar much patronized by wealthy emigres from France, among
whom was Louis-Henri-Joseph, Duc de Bourbon and later Prince de
Conde, a man at that time of about fifty-four.
The Duc's attention was directed to the good looks of Sophie by a
manservant of his. Mme Montagu says of Sophie at this time that
``her face had already lost the first bloom of youth and
innocence.'' Now, one wonders if that really was so, or if Mme
Montagu is making a shot at a hazard. She describes Sophie a
little earlier than this as having
developed into a fine young woman, not exactly pretty or
handsome, but she held her head gracefully, and her regular
features were illumined by a pair of remarkably bright and
intelligent eyes. She was tall and squarely built, with legs and
arms which might have served as models for a statue of Hercules.
Her muscular force was extraordinary. Her lips were rather thin,
and she had an ugly habit of contracting them when she was angry.
Her intelligence was above the average, and she had a good share
At the time when the Duc de Bourbon came upon her in the
Piccadilly stew the girl was probably no more than eighteen. If
one may judge her character from the events of her subsequent
career there was an outstanding resiliency and a resoluteness as
main ingredients of her make-up, qualities which would go a long
way to obviating any marks that might otherwise have been left on
her by the ups and downs of a mere five years in the world. If,
moreover, Mme Montagu's description of her is a true one it is
clear that Sophie's good looks were not of the sort to make an
all-round appeal. The ways in which attractiveness goes, both in
men and in women, are infinite in their variety. The reader may
recall, in this respect, what was said in the introductory
chapter about Kate Webster and the instance of the bewhiskered
'Fina of the Spanish tavern. And since a look of innocence and
the bloom of youth may, and very often do, appear on the faces of
individuals who are far from being innocent or even young, it may
well be that Sophie in 1810, servant-maid in a brothel though she
was, still kept a look of country freshness and health, unjaded
enough to whet the dulled appetence of a bagnio-haunting old rip.
The odds are, at all events, that Sophie was much less artificial
in her charms than the practised ladies of complacency upon whom
she attended. With her odd good looks she very likely had just
that subacid leaven for which, in the alchemy of attraction, the
Duc was in search.
The Duc, however, was not the only one to whom Sophie looked
desirable. Two English peers had an eye on her--the Earl of
Winchilsea and the Duke of Kent. This is where the card affair
comes in. The Duc either played whist with the two noblemen for
sole rights in Sophie or, what is more likely, cut cards with
them during a game. The Duc won. Whether his win may be
regarded as lucky or not can be reckoned, according to the taste
and fancy of the reader, from the sequelae of some twenty years.
With the placing of Sophie dans ses meubles by the Duc de Bourbon
there began one of the most remarkable turns in her career. In
1811 he took a house for her in Gloucester Street, Queen's
Square, with her mother as duenna, and arranged for the
completion of her education.
As a light on her character hardly too much can be made of this
stage in her development. It is more than likely that the
teaching was begun at Sophie's own demand, and by the use she
made of the opportunities given her you may measure the strength
of her ambition. Here was no rich man's doxy lazily seeking a
veneer of culture, enough to gloss the rough patches of speech
and idea betraying humble origin. This fisherman's child,
workhouse girl, ancilla of the bordels, with the thin smattering
of the three R's she had acquired in the poor institution, set
herself, with a wholehearted concentration which a Newnham `swot'
might envy, to master modern languages, with Greek, Latin, and
music. At the end of three years she was a good linguist, could
play and sing well enough to entertain and not bore the most
intelligent in the company the Duc kept, and to pass in that
company --the French emigre set in London--as a person of equal
education. If, as it is said, Sophie, while she could read and
write French faultlessly, never could speak it without an English
accent, it is to be remembered that the flexibility of tongue and
mind needed for native-sounding speech in French (or any other
language) is so exceptional as to be practically non-existent
among her compatriots to this day. The fault scarcely belittles
her achievement. As well blame a one-legged man for hopping when
trying to run. Consider the life Sophie had led, the sort of
people with whom she had associated, and that temptation towards
laissez-faire which conquers all but the rarest woman in the mode
of life in which she was existing, and judge of the constancy of
purpose that kept that little nose so steadfastly in Plutarch and
If in the year 1812 the Duc began to allow his little Sophie
about L800 a year in francs as pin-money he was no more generous
than Sophie deserved. The Duc was very rich, despite the fact
that his father, the old Prince de Conde, was still alive, and
so, of course, was enjoying the income from the family estates.
There is no room here to follow more than the barest outline of
the Duc de Bourbon's history. Fully stated, it would be the
history of France. He was a son of the Prince de Conde who
collected that futile army beyond the borders of France in the
royalist cause in the Revolution. Louis-Henri was wounded in the
left arm while serving there, so badly wounded that the hand was
practically useless. He came to England, where he lived until
1814, when he went back to France to make his unsuccessful
attempt to raise the Vendee. Then he went to Spain.
At this time he intended breaking with Sophie, but when he got
back to Paris in 1815 he found the lady waiting for him. It took
Sophie some eighteen months to bring his Highness up to scratch
again. During this time the Duc had another English fancy, a
Miss Harris, whose reign in favour, however, did not withstand
the manoeuvring of Sophie.
Sophie as a mistress in England was one thing, but Sophie
unattached as a mistress in France was another. One wonders why
the Duc should have been squeamish on this point. Perhaps it was
that he thought it would look vulgar to take up a former mistress
after so long. At all events, he was ready enough to resume the
old relationship with Sophie, provided she could change her name
by marriage. Sophie was nothing loth. The idea fell in with her
plans. She let it get about that she was the natural daughter of
the Duc, and soon had in tow one Adrien-Victor de Feucheres. He
was an officer of the Royal Guard. Without enlarging on the
all-round tawdriness of this contract it will suffice here to say
that Sophie and Adrien were married in London in August of 1818,
the Duc presenting the bride with a dowry of about L5600 in
francs. Next year de Feucheres became a baron, and was made
aide-de-camp to the Duc.
Incredible as it may seem, de Feucheres took four years to
realize what was the real relationship between his wife and the
Prince de Conde. The aide-de-camp and his wife had a suite of
rooms in the Prince's favourite chateau at Chantilly, and the
ambition which Sophie had foreseen would be furthered by the
marriage was realized. She was received as La Baronne de
Feucheres at the Court of Louis XVIII. She was happy--up to a
point. Some unpretty traits in her character began to develop: a
violent temper, a tendency to hysterics if crossed, and, it is
said, a leaning towards avaricious ways. At the end of four
years the Baron de Feucheres woke up to the fact that Sophie was
deceiving him. It does not appear, however, that he had seen
through her main deception, because it was Sophie herself, we are
told, who informed him he was a fool--that she was not the
Prince's daughter, but his mistress.
Having waked up thus belatedly, or having been woken up by Sophie
in her ungoverned ill-temper, de Feucheres acted with
considerable dignity. He begged to resign his position as aide
to the Prince, and returned his wife's dowry. The departure of
Sophie's hitherto complacent husband rather embarrassed the
Prince. He needed Sophie but felt he could not keep her
unattached under his roof and he sent her away--but only for a
few days. Sophie soon was back again in Chantilly.
The Prince made some attempt to get de Feucheres to return, but
without success. De Feucheres applied for a post in the Army of
Spain, an application which was granted at once. It took the
poor man seven years to secure a judicial separation from his
The scandal of this change in the menage of Chantilly --it
happened in 1822--reached the ears of the King, and the Baronne
de Feucheres was forbidden to appear at Court. All Sophie's
energies from then on were concentrated on getting the ban
removed. She explored all possible avenues of influence to this
end, and, incidentally drove her old lover nearly frantic with
her complaints giving him no peace. Even a rebuff from the
Duchesse de Berry, widow of the son of that prince who was
afterwards Charles X, did not put her off. She turned up one day
at the Tuileries, to be informed by an usher that she could not
This desire to be reinstated in royal favour is at the back of
all Sophie's subsequent actions--this and her intention of
feathering her own nest out of the estate of her protector. It
explains why she worked so hard to have the Prince de Conde
assume friendly relations with a family whose very name he hated:
that of the Duc d'Orleans. It is a clue to the mysterious death,
eight years later, of the Prince de Conde, last of the Condes, in
circumstances which were made to pass as suicide, but which in
unhampered inquiry would almost certainly have been found to
Louis-Henri-Joseph, Duc de Bourbon and Prince de Conde, seems to
have been rather a simple old man: a useless old sinner, true
enough, but relatively harmless in his sinning, relatively venial
in his uselessness. It were futile to seek for the morality of a
later age in a man of his day and rank and country, just as it
were obtuse to look for greatness in one so much at the mercy of
circumstance. As far as bravery went he had shown himself a
worthy descendant of ``the Great Conde.'' But, surrounded by the
vapid jealousies of the most useless people who had ever tried to
rule a country, he, no more than his father, had the faintest
chance to show the Conde quality in war. Adrift as a
comparatively young man, his world about his ears, with no
occupation, small wonder that in idleness he fell into the
pursuit of satisfactions for his baser appetites. He would have
been, there is good reason to believe, a happy man and a busy one
in a camp. There is this to be said for him: that alone among
the spineless crowd of royalists feebly waiting for the miracle
which would restore their privilege he attempted a blow for the
lost cause. But where in all that bed of disintegrating chalk
was the flint from which he might have evoked a spark?
The great grief of the Prince's life was the loss of his son, the
young Duc d'Enghien, shamefully destroyed by Bonaparte. It is
possible that much of the Prince's inertia was due to this blow.
He had married, at the early age of fourteen,
Louise-Marie-Therese-Mathilde d'Orleans, daughter of
Louis-Philippe, Duc d'Orleans and the Duchesse de Chartres, the
bride being six years older than her husband. Such a marriage
could not last. It merely sustained the honeymoon and the birth
of that only son. The couple were apart in eighteen months, and
after ten years they never even saw each other again. About the
time when Sophie's husband found her out and departed the
Princesse died. The Prince was advised to marry again, on the
chance that an heir might be born to the large fortune he
possessed. But Sophie by then had become a habit with the
Prince--a bad one--and the old man was content to be left to his
continual hunting, and not to bother over the fact that he was
the last of his ancient line.
It may be easily believed that the Prince's disinclination to
marry again contented Sophie very well. And the fact that he had
no direct heir was one in which she saw possibilities
Back to Full Books