Alastair Bellany. The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England: News Culture and the Overbury Affair, 1603-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
By: Curtis Perry
Arizona State University
"My goal," writes Alastair Bellany, in the introduction to this superb and challenging book, "has been to write an ethnography of early Stuart political culture through a detailed study of the making and meaning of one significant event" (23). The result of this rather ambitious program is an effective fusion of meticulous scholarly attention to clearly defined old historical questions (who knew what when, what caused what) with an interest in issues of representation more typical in some ways of literary scholarship in the cultural studies or new historicist mode.
The event in question - the Overbury affair - is really a cascade of interconnected events that merged in the political imagination of early Stuart England into one spectacularly sordid scandal. First, eyebrows were raised by the controversial annulment, in 1613, of the marriage of Frances Howard and Robert Devereaux, third earl of Essex, and by Howard's subsequent remarriage to Robert Carr, earl of Somerset and favourite to King James I. This was followed by revelations, in 1615-16, concerning the couple's alleged involvement in the poisoning of Carr's associate Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower of London that culminated in a series of public trials in which Carr, Howard, and several accomplices were convicted.
The first full chapter of the book reads like a revisionist historian's study of the Overbury affair, carefully situating the meaning of the unfolding scandal in terms of the personalities and clashing factions of the Jacobean court. This chapter will prove valuable to anybody interested in the factional politics of mid-Jacobean England, but it offers little hint of the more historiographically innovative approach to the meaning of the scandal that informs the remainder of the study. Most of Bellany's book focuses, instead, upon the ways in which the Overbury scandal was reported, upon the ways in which accounts of it resonated with received stereotypes about court corruption, and upon its persistence in the cultural memory as a touchstone for anti-court sentiment.
Because this is such an interesting book and one with so many important insights to offer, it makes sense to take up each of its chapters in turn. Chapter two attempts (with great success, I think) to reconstruct as much as possible the ways in which news of the Overbury scandal might have circulated: orally, in various kinds of manuscripts, and in the numerous printed texts designed to capitalize on widespread fascination with the scandal and its players. More broadly, Bellany here examines Jacobean news culture by contextualizing surviving evidence about the circulation of Overbury materials with a wealth of more anecdotal evidence about the ways in which gossip, news, and libel were disseminated within London and to the provinces. In addition to demonstrating that news of the Overbury scandal was widely and rapidly circulated, the chapter discusses the dissemination of Overbury material in relation to and as an example of the growth of a politically uncontrollable news culture during the first half of the seventeenth century.
In chapters three to five, Bellany turns his attention to the ways in which the scandal surrounding the Overbury affair was represented in the news accounts, manuscript libels, and various printed treatments that survive. Bellany's mastery of the texts of scandal is impressive. This middle portion of the book asks what the scandal meant to contemporaries, and seeks to find answers by uncovering connections between representations of the scandal and "the cultural assumptions that shaped them and conditioned their reception" (137). Chapter three, for example, attempts to analyze the symbolic meaning for contemporaries of the elements that become the focus of various accounts of the scandal - the horror of poison, Frances Howard's sexual promiscuity, Carr's unruly ambition, the alleged use of witchcraft by Howard and her associate Anne Turner, Turner's propensity for unnecessary sumptuary display, and so forth. Poison, to give just one example, was associated both with lurid histories of Roman imperial corruption and with scheming Italian courtiers and the cloaked villainy of Jesuits. This means that news of poison at court would have evoked a much larger - if somewhat nebulous - impression of court corruption, and also that contemporaries might have seen the unfolding scandal as terrifying confirmation of pre-existing stereotypes.
This section of Bellany's book respectfully draws on and extends the kind of analysis undertaken some years ago in David Lindley's book The Trials of Frances Howard, but where Lindley treated misogynistic stereotype as the master key to the scandal's meaning, Bellany tends to see all of its scandal tropes as offshoots of English paranoia about "the master deviance of popery" (147). Chapter four brings the connection between the Overbury scandal and the fear of popery into clearer focus, examining the formation and dissemination of a conspiracy theory that saw the Overbury murder as part of a much larger Popish plot to kill the royal family and seize the throne for King Carr. This outlandish-seeming conspiracy theory, Bellany argues, was plausible to many contemporaries, including the prosecutor Sir Edward Coke, because it tapped into deeply felt pre-existing fears about the likelihood of popish plots.
Chapter five discusses the ways in which narrative accounts of the various Overbury trials - composed in late 1615 and early 1616 as the scandal was unfolding - tapped into and were structured by deeply engrained and culturally sanctioned narratives of providential justice in which secret murder is miraculously revealed and its perpetrators brought to trial and ultimately executed. These narratives, as Bellany brilliantly argues, offered a powerfully compelling way to think about the Overbury murder, one that could counteract the scandal's association with court corruption by casting James himself as the agent of providence overseeing the administration of justice with Solomon-like impartiality. Capitalizing upon the affective power of this narrative structure, though, required the public execution of justice upon the bodies of the guilty, and James finally refused to execute either Carr or Howard. Bellany discusses the crown's attempt to script "scenarios for mercy" (241), but argues that the failure to execute the Somersets undermined the legitimating potential of the rhetoric of providential justice in ways that were remembered long after 1616.
The sixth and final chapter examines the afterlives of the Overbury scandal: the way memory of the scandal was accommodated to and shaped by subsequent political tensions. Of particular interest here is Bellany's suggestion that the luridness of the Overbury scandal may have helped lay the imaginative groundwork for resentment of Buckingham during the Spanish Match crisis and beyond. The basic argument is that the scandal tropes - popery, poison, corrupt sexuality, etc. - prominent in the libels surrounding Buckingham resemble those mobilized during the Overbury trials, and that this may demonstrate a meaningful continuity to anti-court sentiment. This seems very plausible to me, though this portion of the book is a bit too hasty to really cement the case. This chapter also looks at a number of accounts of the Overbury scandal written during the 1650s (and later) with an eye toward explicating the different polemical purposes to which the scandal could be bent.
The book's dust jacket claims that "by situating the Overbury case in both short- and long-term political contexts, the book suggests that court scandal deserves a place among the cultural origins of the English revolution." It is true that Bellany seeks - in the wake of challenges posed by revisionist historiography - to revisit and reassess Lawrence Stone's contention that court scandal undermined the moral authority of the early Stuart court and thus paved the way for civil war. But Bellany is in fact extremely measured and cautious throughout about the role played by scandal in delegitimating the crown: "the extent of deligitimation is hard to measure" he writes, "and it is much easier to track the possible contours of the process than prove a direct link from scandal to delegitimation and on to revolution" (22-23). Such caution notwithstanding, one of the really interesting things about Bellany's approach is his willingness at least to consider carefully the notion that the kind of political ideas represented in libels and pamphlets and plays may have had a causal impact within political culture. Because it does consider this possibility, The Politics of Court Scandal in Early Modern England is a truly interdisciplinary book, one whose approach to early modern culture should be a welcome provocation to historians and literary scholars alike.
Lindley, David. The Trials of Frances Howard: Fact and Fiction at the Court of King James. London: Routledge, 1993.