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The young Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, who at 17 had already been married for four years, divorced her husband in order to marry Robert Carr, a favourite of James I who had been created Viscount Rochester and was later made Earl of Somerset.

However, Carr’s friend and sometime mentor, the poet and occasional diplomat, Sir Thomas Overbury, who seems to have viewed the wanton countess as a good bet as a mistress but a poor choice for a wife, tried in vain to talk his old friend out of the marriage. For this he suffered the fatal consequences of the lady’s rage.

Having been convinced by his lover that Overbury was a threat to their future, Rochester managed to engineer a situation in which Overbury was thrown into the Tower for a supposed insult to the king and a general intractability, and whilst Rochester himself may have seen this as a temporary expedient, his lady had other ideas.

Having contrived the dismissal of the incorruptible Sir William Waad as Lieutenant of the Tower, she had him replaced him by Sir Gervase Helwys, a Howard family protegé who could be trusted to do everything he was told and who duly appointed another of the countess’s agents, Richard Weston, as gaoler and personal attendant to the doomed Overbury.

With the assistance of an apothecary, James Franklin, and a Mrs Turner, a brothel keeper who had been engaged to provide his lordship’s meals, white arsenic and other nasties – “mercury, powder of diamonds, lapis costitus, great spiders and catharides”– were mixed into Overbury’s food over a period of several months. This brought about a slow and lingering death that seems to have baffled the physicians called to attend Sir Thomas, who was reduced to mere skin and bone.

Rochester and his countess were wed shortly thereafter, but two years later, details of the true cause of Overbury’s death began to emerge. In May 1616 the Earl and and Countess of Somerset were brought to trial. Sir Francis Bacon prosecuted and all the conspirators were found guilty and sentenced to death, but these were influential and powerful people and in the end only their agents and accomplices actually died on the gallows. The Somersets had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment and in 1621 were granted a pardon and released from the Tower, but the scandal ruined Frances and generally gave James I’s court a bad name.

The little calligraphic manuscript of 191ll pictured right, titled The Proceedings... touchinge the Divorce Between the Lady Frances Howard & Robert Earle of Essex, togeather with the Arraignments... touching the Poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury, seems to have been written in 1616, soon after the trial. It is bound in contemporary limp vellum with gilt decorations that include a central crest of a Tudor rose surmounted by a crown centred by a fleur de lys – possibly for the 16-year-old Prince Charles.

Last seen at auction in 1980, when it made £320 as a part of the Arthur A. Houghton library at Christie’s in London, it was sold on April 14 at Christie’s New York $11,000 (£6075).