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It must be remembered, that Coke was the person to whom the examination of the prisoners was originally intrusted; and that he investigated the dark affair of Overbury's murder, with such laborious zeal and diligence, as even to elicit a compliment from the lips of his inveterate rival, Sir Francis Bacon.* Conjointly with the other lords, who, at his request, were associated with him, he took nearly three hundred examinations; and we may therefore conclude, that he had acquired the most minute and thorough knowledge of every matter connected with these infamous transactions. In addition to the direct testimony of Bacon which we have just adduced, that Coke was desirous of bringing forward on these trials the question of Prince Henry's death, we find, that on the arraignment of Sir Thomas Monson, who was accused of being concerned as an accessary in Overbury's murder, the chief justice alluded in direct terms to the prince's fate. Upon this occasion, he made use of the following remarkable expressions : “For other things, I dare not discover secrets ; but though there was no house searched, yet there were such letters produced, as make our deliverance as great as any that happened to the Children of Israel.”+
The following is our author's relation of this affair. I
“ It is verily believed, when the king made those terrible imprecations on himself, and deprecations on the judges, it was intended the law should run in its proper channel, but was stopt and put out of its course by the folly of that great clerk, Sir Edward Coke, though no wise man, who, in a vain glorious speech, to show his vigilancy, enters into a rapture as he sate upon the bench, saying, 'God knows what became of that sweet babe, Prince Henry, and I know somewhat'; and surely in searching the cabinets he lighted upon some papers, that spake plain in that which was ever whispered, which had he
gone on in a gentle way would have fallen in of themselves not to have been prevented; but this folly of his tongue stopt the breath of that discovery of that so foul a murder, which, I fear, cries still for vengeance."
Wilson,likewise, gives a similar account of this affair,
the Lord Chief Justice of England, whose name thus occurring, I cannot pass by, and yet I cannot stoop to flatter. But this I will
say of him, and I would say as much to ages, if I should write a story, that never man's person and his place were better met in a business than my Lord Coke and my Lord Chief Justice, in the cause of Overbury.-ii. St. Tr. 1027.
† ii. St. Tr. 949. In all probability, the letters here adverted to are those mentioned by Bacon in his Heads of the Charges.
Weldon, p. 115.
and blames the chief justice for his want of management; but as the circumstances of the case by which Coke must have been guided are involved in so much obscurity, we may fairly doubt the justice of such censure. It seems certain, however, that a reference was made to the prince's death, and it is equally certain, that the trial of Monson was not suffered to be proceeded in. The inference is, that the proceedings were stayed to prevent any disclosure upon the subject. Contemporary writers attribute the subsequent disgrace of Sir Edward Coke to this affair. It is quite impossible even to conjecture what was the evidence which the chief justice had obtained on this mysterious matter; that he possessed some, and that too of an important nature, cannot be doubted. If Somerset was innocent, what possible objection would there be to substantiating that innocence by a complete investigation of this evidence ?
The correspondence between the king, Villiers, and Bacon, is highly valuable, as showing the existence of certain secrets, which it would have been dangerous or inexpedient to have disclosed on these trials.* These letters in substance prove, for we cannot afford a more detailed account of them, that the trial of Somerset was deferred, in order to give the attorneygeneral time to prepare all the proceedings according to the king's wishes, and to induce Somerset to submit quietly to his fate, under a promise of having his life spared ; and that the king was exceedingly anxious that the prisoner should not be provoked to make any disclosures on the trial. In one of these letters, we meet with the following curious passage, from which it should appear, that Somerset was examined upon his trial, touching the prince's death: “We made this further observation, that when we asked him some question that did touch the prince, or some foreign practice, which we did very sparingly, at this time, yet he grew a little stirred, but in the question of the empoisonment (of Overbury) very cold and modest.”
Such are the facts insisted upon by those who attribute the prince's death to poison, as affording strong presumptive evidence that Somerset was implicated in so atrocious a proceeding. Almost all the contemporary writers, and many others, have inclined to that opinion. We have seen how decidedly Weldon expresses himself. Osborn hints the same thing, and alleges the authority of Sir Walter Raleigh.t Wilson merely
These letters are, 1. To the king, Bacon's Works, v. 387. 2. To the king, p. 395. 3. To Sir George Villiers, p. 398. 4. To Sir George Villiers, p. 400. 5. To the king, p. 402.
+ Osborn's James, sec. 38.
repeats the common rumours of the times.* Naunton, who was afterwards secretary of state, in a letter to Sir Ralph Winwood, then ambassador to the states-general, says, " Touching our palladium which we have lost, I hold it neither fit to write what I conceive, and less fit to be written to your lordship.”+ Amongst later writers, Welwood, who was himself a physician, gives some countenance to the notion; and Bishop Burnet tells us, that he was assured by Colonel Titus that he had heard Charles I. declare, that the prince, his brother, was poisoned by Viscount Rochester, afterwards Earl of Somerset. As far as such hearsay evidence and matter of opinion are entitled to weight, these testimonies must certainly be considered of importance.
But it is now time for us to examine the arguments on the other side, which, if they be not equally numerous, are perhaps more conclusive. It has been frequently remarked, that in former times a prince, who was generally beloved, seldom died without some suspicion of foul play attaching. The credulity of the public seizes with avidity upon any fact, however inconsistent or ridiculous, which may gratify the malice of the discontented, or divert the regret of those whose fortunes depended on the individual supposed to have been prematurely cut off. Numerous instances of the truth of this observation might be cited; but it is sufficient to mention the fate of James himself, yhose death was causelessly imputed to Buckingham, as that of his son had been to his former favourite. The dark inuendoes and blind conjectures therefore of Osborn, and the other rumour-venders of the day, are entitled to little or no weight, an observation which may be also applied to the authority of Burnet, whose credulity in the story of the warming-pan is so well known. Nor can any sounder arguments be built upon the conduct of the king and the attorney-general, during the trials of Overbury's murderers. If the king's eagerness to keep back the evidence proves any thing with regard to this matter, it proves a connivance in him, a proposition, which none who are acquainted with his character will be found to maintain. His discouraging the attempt to bring forwards on the trial of Somerset any evidence tending to implicate him in this crime, must have proceeded from a conviction that the rumour of that nobleman's guilt was unfounded, and that it was perfectly nugatory, therefore, to examine into it.
Moreover, James's great desire to confine the evidence against Somerset
* Wilson in Kennet, ii. 690.
to the charge of poisoning Overbury only, may have proceeded from the dread of the disclosure of other circumstances, which it was his interest should remain concealed. But the most complete proof of Somerset's entire innocence of this crime still remains, and is to be found in the unanswerable fact, that the prince's body was examined after death, and that no symptoms of his having been poisoned were discovered.* Sir Theodore Mayerne, his physician, has left a most accurate account of the prince's illness and death; and from that account, and from the report of the appearances on dissection, there can be no doubt that Henry died of a violent putrid fever.† Those persons who possessed the best means of forming a correct judgement upon the subject, have been uniformly of opinion, that the prince's death was not hastened by violence. Sir Charles Cornwallis, who held a place in his household, has denied the fact; even Welwood admits, that no proof of the crime can be gathered from the report of the physicians; and almost every historian, who has examined the question with calmness and impartiality, has exonerated both the king and his favourite from the charge. Such is the opinion of Rapin, of Hume, and of Dr. Birch in his Life of Prince Henry. I 'To these names, we may add that of Dr. Aikin, to whom the literary world is indebted for a laborious life spent in its service, and whose scientific acquirements and habits of biographical research well qualified him to pronounce a judgement, upon a case like this. “ The patient,” says he,
- died on the 6th November, and from the whole course of the symptoms, as well as the appearances on dissection, there cannot be the least doubt that his death was the consequence of a natural disease, and not induced by any iniquitous means, as some of the enemies of that unhappy family have affected to believe.” S In this opinion, Dr. Aikin is joined by his daughter, whose admirable
In cases of vegetable poisons, however, it is, we believe, very seldom that the stomach exhibits traces of them.
+ This report, which may be found in the tract, entitled “Truth brought to light,” in Welwood's Memoirs, and, with some variations, in Aulicus Coquinaria, was signed by all the physicians, and states, that “ the stomach was in no part offended.” It must be observed, that Sir Theodore Mayerne published this narrative in his own vindication, as some imputations had been publicly cast upon him; but even if this should render his evidence suspected, it cannot be supposed that six of the most eminent physicians in the country could have been prevailed upon to attest a falsehood.
| Dr. Birch, however, does not take into account the singular conduct of Coke and Bacon on the Overbury trials.
Aikin's Biographical Memoirs of Medicine, p. 253.
Memoirs of Elizabeth and James have done so much credit to her taste and industry.* Having thus attempted to state the strongest arguments and authorities on both sides of this very curious question, we shall leave our readers to form their own conclusions.
As we have had occasion to mention the trials of Sir Thomas Overbury's murderers in the above inquiry, we may add, that our author is not entirely correct in his relation of some circumstances connected with those transactions. According to him, Franklin, who had provided the poisonous drugs, con. fessed on his arraignment, that Overbury was smothered, and not poisoned, though he had poison administered to him; and he takes this opportunity of fastening a most serious charge on the chief justice, Sir Edward Coke, for whom he appears to have conceived a great animosity.
“ 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 law, presently informs the jury, that if a man be done to death with pistols, poniards, swords, halter, poison, &c., so he be done to death, the indictment is good if 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 murdered by my Lord Coke's law, as Overbury was without any law.”—p. 109.
Now it does not appear from the report of Franklin's case in the State Trials, nor from any other source to which we have referred, that Franklin ever made such a confession, nor is it at all probable that Overbury perished in this manner. The imputation cast upon Sir Edward Coke is most unjust; and as it has been suffered to pass without answer by the editor of the Secret History of James I., we shall perhaps be excused in offering an explanation of the chief justice's conduct in this place, though we are aware that it savours a little too much of dry technicalities. Nothing can be more correct in point of law than Coke's charge to the jury, whom he told, that if they were satisfied of the poisoning, it skilled not with what,” informing them, that if a man was indicted for murdering another with a dagger, and, in fact, the murder was committed with a sword or a rapier, it is immaterial so as the jury find the murder. But he never instructed them, that on an indictment for poisoning, a man may be convicted of a murder committed with a sword, which is another kind of death, and which is clearly contrary to law. So far from the chief justice having com
Memoirs of the Court of King James I. i. 410.