Sir Thomas Overbury



Sir Thomas Overbury (And Others), Characters, together with Poems, News, Edicts, and Paradoxes based on the eleventh edition of A Wife Now the Widow of Sir Thomas Overbury, ed. Donald Beecher (Ottawa, 2003)

Rimbault (1856)

The Miscellaneous Works in Prose and Verse of Sir Thomas Overbury, Knt. now first collected, ed. Edward F. Rimbault (London, 1856)


The courtier Sir Thomas Overbury is best remembered for the circumstances of his death in 1613, one of the greatest scandals of the Jacobean period, for which the King's erstwhile favourite Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, and his wife Frances Howard stood trial for murder in 1615, although only their supposed accomplices were subsequently executed.

The Canon

Overbury was also, however, a writer, although the canon of his works is very uncertain. His most popular work, of uncontested authorship, was his poem A Wife, which was posthumously published in 1614 but which was widely circulated in manuscript probably both before and after that date (OvT 13-25). The printed edition was so successful that it went through a variety of new impressions and editions for a number of years. These editions were, however, fleshed out with various other verse and prose works, notably a series of prose Characters (OvT 26-36) and a verse translation from Ovid (OvT 10-12), whose authorship ranges from uncertain to downright spurious. To these may be added the prose Observations in his travailes (OvT 39-58) which may perhaps have been written by him on his travels in the Low Countries and France in 1609, but which was not published until 1626. Yet one other work attributed to him in manuscripts (OvT 37-38), and not published until 1715, is a version of James I's ‘Table Talk’. Since some references here cannot date earlier than 1622 this compilation can hardly have been made by Overbury, but it is not impossible that certain of the anecdotes incorporated here might ultimately derive from him.

Letters and Documents

Autograph letters by Overbury survive in the Public Records and elsewhere, but have not been given entries below. A facsimile example of one written to Sir Dudley Carleton, 24 February 1613, in the National Archives (SP 14/72, f. 83), appears in Petti, English Literary Hands (1977), No. 50; and a facsimile of another, written to William Trumbull, 4 April 1613 (now British Library, Add. MS 72343, f. 82r) appears in Sotheby's sale catalogue The Trumbull Papers (14 December 1989), lot 28 (p. 68).

The Murder Trial

There was also a huge contemporary circulation of manuscript copies of accounts of the Overbury murder trial and proceedings in 1615, an event that more than gripped public interest, but which is outside our present purview. A number of these copies are cited notably in Alastair Bellany, The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News Culture and the Overbury affair, 1603-1660 (Cambridge, 2002).

Peter Beal