Sir Thomas Monson

At the beginning of the 17th century, a family from South Carlton in Lincolnshire was rising to impressive heights in political and court life. Sir John Monson had been Sheriff of the county, his younger son was an admiral in the navy, and another son, Thomas, had rapidly moved up the ladder of power to become, under King James I, Keeper of the King’s Armour at Greenwich, Master of the Armoury at the Tower of London, and Master Falconer to the King.

The portrait below was painted in 1610 by an unknown English artist.


Although Monson’s achievements were impressive, it was his involvement in one of the scandals of the 17th century for which he is better known, and which ultimately destroyed both his career and his reputation. In 1613 courtier Sir Thomas Overbury found himself in dangerous waters when attempting to come between his old friend, fellow courtier Sir Robert Carr, and Carr’s lover, the married Frances Howard, Countess of Essex. Through various intrigues and manipulations, said to have been arranged by Howard herself to stop his interference, Overbury found himself locked up in the Tower, where he would die under suspicious circumstances later that year.

“The Overbury Affair”, as it became known,  had all the ingredients of a bestselling whodunnit: murder, misdirection, an illicit affair, and in true 17th century style, several imprisonments and executions, before it was over. In the subsequent investigation and infamous trial, Frances Howard was the chief suspect, and several others were implicated in the plot to have Overbury killed.  All six alleged conspirators, including Carr and Howard, were found guilty and sentenced to death, although the well-connected lovers were later pardoned.

And what of Thomas Monson? His part in the scandal may have been the most unfortunate and unintended. His position working at the Tower saw him pulled into the investigation and interrogated as a seventh plotter, and he spent many months imprisoned before he was released due to a lack of evidence. His finances and reputation were ruined, however, and he never recovered them before his death in 1641.

I find this portrait quite a melancholy one.  On the one hand, the inclusion of the hawk shows his role as falconer to the King was one he was rightly proud of, and it would have been commissioned to show off his position and status as a trusted member of the Court; but look at it again with hindsight, and it illustrates all that he lost thanks to that  scandalous affair, for which he very likely bore no guilt at all.

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