Review published on June 17, 2018.
Robert Carr was a largely self-made man; the impoverished son of a minor noble family, he leveraged his political skills and noted good looks to rise to become a favourite of King James I, eventually being made the first Earl of Somerset. Frances Howard was a member of the notorious Howard family, who featured prominently at court (and in numerous scandals) during both the Tudor and Stuart eras. When Frances was only fourteen, she was married off to Robert Devereux, the third Earl of Essex, in an attempt to unite the two powerful clans. However, the marriage was not a success (and, probably more importantly, neither was the young Earl of Essex’s career at court) and, after an annulment was arranged by her politically astute uncle, Frances went on to marry the charismatic and still very much in royal favour Robert.
In The Poison Bed, E.C. Fremantle picks up the story of Robert and Frances Carr as they become embroiled in one of the greatest scandals of the reign of James I: the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. The book opens with the pair of them imprisoned separately in the Tower as they await trial for the murder. Overbury was the former friend and mentor (and most likely lover) of Robert, who arguably owed a great deal to his friend’s political nous, although the pair parted rather dramatically when Overbury, who vocally distrusted the Howards, was manoeuvred so that he fell foul of the king. Robert has now also fallen from favour and the suggestion is that he and Frances conspired to kill Overbury in order to protect their reputations. Yet, there are also plenty of people at court who would like to see the golden couple fall from grace. Someone killed Overbury, but who?
The Poison Bed is a fictionalised version of events, but it is certainly based on reality. E.C. Fremantle has clearly done a great deal of research and her rendering of both the period and the people is excellent. She recreates the tense, dangerous atmosphere of the Jacobean court, where the various factions were always out to destroy one another and curry favour with the king, while individuals were all too often used as pawns in the power plays of their nefarious friends and relatives. On the surface, life at court was glamourous and maybe rather vacuous, but the decadence masked a great deal of intrigue and plotting. Anyone wishing to keep their head had to keep their wits about them at all times and ensure they remained as popular as they could with as many people as possible, and that’s where the Carrs went wrong.
Robert and Frances are both strong characters. Fittingly, their story is told as a dual narrative, with alternate chapters being headed “Her” or “Him” as appropriate. From their imprisonment in the Tower, they look back to their earlier lives, their first meeting and eventual marriage, and all the difficult and distressing circumstances that ultimately led up to the murder of Thomas Overbury and their rapid fall from power and prestige. Robert perhaps comes across as the slightly more likeable of the two, but they are both unashamedly social climbers who are quite willing to use and then discard others in their drive to get what they want. They’re certainly flawed, but are they (or perhaps one of them) killers? There are some really interesting supporting characters too, both real people (such as Francis Bacon and Edward Coke) and fictional (such as Nelly the wet nurse), which helps to set the historical scene and move the story along in a compelling fashion.
The Poison Bed is an atmospheric and very well-written historical mystery. It’s a tale of love, lust, power, intrigue, treason and treachery. It’s hard to know who, if anyone, is telling the truth and whether those who are lying are doing so to protect themselves or to condemn someone else. The puzzle behind the killing of Thomas Overbury is nicely handled and there are plenty of crosses and double crosses involved in the story (as well as a fair amount of gossip and bodice/breeches ripping). The Poison Bed is highly recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction with more than a hint of a murder and mayhem about it.
Erin Britton 4/4
The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle
Michael Joseph 9780718180485 hbk Jun 2018