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George Villiers - Duke of Buckingham

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George Villiers is remembered today as a favourite of King James I, and for his swift elevation to a position of wealth and power in the British Isles. There was more than that however - he was a lover, a schemer and was either an unlucky or a poor military commander, although he was not without talent and ability as he went on to serve James' son (Charles I). He was so outrageous and notorious, it was no accident that Alexandre Dumas immortalised him in the pages of The Three Musketeers.

George Villiers - The Man

George Villiers was born on 28 August, 1592, at Brooksby Hall Leicestershire, the home of his parents George Villiers and Mary, Countess of Buckingham. A member of a numerous and un-influential1 rank of English nobility, his family status was described as impoverished. By what standard this was measured is unclear; the family had property and enough income that supported them comfortably without working. The family home of Brooksby Hall2 is imposing and it is clear the family were reasonably well off.

Court Life

It was customary then as it is now for all classes of the nobility3 to attend court to pay homage to the monarch. In 1614, George Villiers, along with others, attended court to discharge this duty of his rank. It was during this visit to court that he came to the notice of King James. Contemporary records state his appearance was striking and that he resembled St Stephen in a painting in the royal collection. There was thus something about him and his personality that persuaded King James to appoint George to the prestigious post of Royal Cup Bearer within his first year at court.

The appointment to the position of Cup Bearer raised a few eyebrows and rumours started to circulate. In 1615 James promoted George to the post of Gentleman of the Bedchamber. This was a paid appointment worth £1,000 annually, which was a good income - the financial qualification for the title of gentleman, the lowest rank in English society, was an annual income of just £10.

Rumours were fuelled by envy when in 1616 he was given the office of Master of Horse. Later that year he was made a Knight of the Garter, and was created Baron Whaddon4 and Viscount Villiers. With the titles came the gift of an estate and lands to support his new position.

In 1617, King James gave him the title of Marquis of Buckingham (possibly in deference to his mother's title of Countess of Buckingham) and a seat on the Privy Council. In 1618 a Dukedom was created and he became the Duke of Buckingham5 and Earl of Coventry.

Five years earlier, this great man had been seen at a horse racing meet, as 'very minor gentry'6, and now he was so close to King James that in private he called him 'Dear Dad' and the King referred to him as 'Steenie'7.

There had been no obvious service to the Crown that had warranted this reward, or any other apparent reason for this promotion. So rumours about the relationship between James and George began to circulate. Sir Edward Peyton wrote 'the King sold his affections to Sir George Villiers, whom he would tumble and kiss as a mistress'. The Bishop of Lincoln John Oglander reported that he 'never yet saw any fond husband make so much or so great dalliance over his beautiful spouse as I have seen King James over his favourites, especially the Duke of Buckingham'. There is some small proof of these accusations as there had been a previous problem in Scotland where James and his sexuality became very unpopular. His habit of promoting and governing through 'favourites' eventually led to open rebellion.

In spite of this George was not without his powerful supporters at court. James had a previous favourite, Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset. Robert however had become so hated at court, his enemies supported George at every opportunity. George did return some of his good fortune. George met and befriended   Francis Bacon, for whom events had overshadowed his work. George became his patron and allowed him to continue his works such as the Baconian Scientific Method and Methodology. Francis Bacon sent many letters of advice to this favourite of James.

George had a brother, Christopher Villiers, 1st Earl of Anglesey. Christopher has been overlooked by history as he had little of his brother's ability or talent. Christopher admitted his failings and they were recorded in 1627 as 'a want of preferment proceeded from his own unworthiness rather than from the Duke's unwillingness'. This shows that George was prepared to help his close family.

Charles and George

The King's behaviour at court was such that his son Prince Charles kept away from court whenever possible. On his rare attendances however Charles met George and, despite an initial poor start, became a good friend of the Duke of Buckingham. Whether or not it started because George wanted to establish himself with Charles to safeguard his position with the future King is unsure; they did however eventually become genuine friends.

George exerted a great influence over Charles and could persuade him to undertake almost anything he wanted. However he seldom seemed to take advantage of this ability and the day-to-day life at court continued very amicably.

The friendship was strengthened in 1619 when Queen Anne died and George provided support to Charles. George had now collected many enemies at court; they were both envious of his position and now frightened of his power, and things were not helped when in 1619 George was given the post Lord High Admiral and the post Keeper of Denmark House.

The Marriage of George and Lady Catherine

In 1620 George, perhaps in a move to improve his image, married Lady Catherine Manners. Lady Catherine was a Catholic and at first James refused to allow George to marry her. However Catherine was persuaded to convert to Protestantism to satisfy the conditions of both the King and the Villiers family. Not that Catherine's father the 6th Earl of Rutland approved of the match. He took a little persuading; it seems offers of lucrative royal trade monopolies offered by Buckingham brought him round. However, Catherine returned to the Roman Catholic faith soon after her marriage to George.

Around 1623, George became the owner of a property on the Strand, York House. The Strand is an area of London situated between Westminster and the City of London.

The children of George and Lady Catherine were:

  • Mary Villiers (1622 - November 1685)

  • Charles Villiers, Marquis of Buckingham (17 November, 1625 - 16 March, 1627 - died as an infant)

  • George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (30 January, 1628 - 16 April, 1687) - he fought at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651 and later escaped to Europe

  • Francis Villiers (1629 - 1648) who died at Kingston-upon-Thames with sword in hand during the first days of the English Civil War

King Charles I was destined to adopt the children into the Royal family when George was assassinated; they were brought up with the Royal children and raised in the Royal Household almost as part of the King's own family.

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham became a loyal friend of Charles II and fought at his side during the Civil War. After the Royalist defeat, he accompanied him into exile, then upon his return to England, George served in government until the death of Charles II.

Lady Mary Villiers became a famous beauty and she was married to Lord Charles Herbert, the eldest son of Philip Herbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke. After the marriage negotiations, the couple's wedding took place in 1634 when Lord Charles was aged 15 and Lady Mary just 12. The marriage was sadly short-lived as Lord Charles joined the army of the Duke of Tuscany, and died in Italy of smallpox in early 1636, aged 16.

Charles' Marriage

The first attempt to find Prince Charles a bride was in 1623. George Duke of Buckingham was a member of small party that was dispatched to Madrid to stay at the residence of Lord Bristol. As the English ambassador to the court of the King of Spain, Lord Bristol proceeded to open marriage negotiations to the Infanta Maria Anna.

The negotiations were delicate - as England was a Protestant nation and Spain Catholic there were deep religious issues to be resolved in order to allow any marriage to proceed. Charles impressed the Spanish court, but failed to impress his potential bride.

Buckingham was the spokesman but he quarrelled with the Count of Olivares, the Spanish chief minister. That meant Charles had to take over. Negotiations were however concluded and subject to the agreement of the King and Parliament. Charles knew the conditions would never be acceptable to his father or Parliament. The main points were religious freedom for all English Catholics and the children of the royal couple were to be brought up in the Catholic faith until the age of 12. Both King James and the Parliament were furious, and further discussions were delayed due to the death of the Pope. Negotiations were brought to an abrupt end when a drunken Sir Edmund Varney punched a priest and the English party were requested to leave Spain. They returned home to a jubilant welcome and James concluded the matter by declaring war on Spain.

James also requested that Parliament sanction a marriage between Charles and Henrietta Maria, sister of the French King Louis XIII. Charles had met Henrietta Maria at the French court in Paris while travelling to visit the Spanish court.

In order to obtain Parliament's agreement to the French marriage, both James and Charles had to agree to the following conditions: Parliament insisted there would be no Roman Catholic observance outside the royal household, and no preferment of any Catholic retainers. Eventually, suspicion of Henrietta Maria and the Roman Catholic faith were to add to the tensions of the forthcoming Civil War.

It was now 1624 and James was growing ill so his control of affairs of state and Parliament were nominal. As a result, Charles assisted by George had already assumed control of the kingdom in the name of the King. James passed away on 27 March, 1625. Henrietta Maria and Charles I of England were married on 13 June, 1625, after a respectful period of mourning.

La Rochelle

La Rochelle is a French port on the Bay of Biscay with a large island called the Ile de Ré about two miles off shore. The port is about 85 miles south of Nantes and 250 miles north of the Spanish port of Santander. To wage an effective war on Spain a land base in France would prove to be a useful asset.

In 1625 the followers of the Protestant, Huguenot Church of France, or more correctly the Protestant Reformed Church of France, were in revolt. A Huguenot army led by Duke Henri de Rohan and his brother Soubise captured the Ile de Ré from the forces of Louis XIII. This was a major insurrection as Soubise thus managed to conquer large parts of the Atlantic coast. By supporting the Huguenot cause, Buckingham hoped to secure a base from which he could wage war on Spain.

Louis XIII and his Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu declared all-out war against the Huguenot rebels. It was at that point it was decided the Duke of Buckingham was to lead a force in support of La Rochelle. This event was to provide George with the opportunity to embark on a military career. When he was offered command of the relief forces George seized the chance to prove his mettle as a military leader. This ended in a disastrous defeat of the English forces at the Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. The English forces were forced to withdraw by the forces of the Marquis de Toiras. Cardinal Richelieu ordered a blockade of La Rochelle that lasted for 14 months. The city surrendered and the Huguenots suffered more persecutions. The mayor was imprisoned and the city lost its trading privileges.

In October 1625, Buckingham sent a fleet to attack the Spanish port of Cádiz. This was supported by an assault by land forces. The whole thing was so badly organized that the attack failed before it could reach the city. Parliament passed a bill to impeach Buckingham in May 1626. Charles had to dismiss Parliament to save Buckingham. The case was referred to the Star Chamber, a royal court presided over by the King, and the case was dismissed.


After his disastrous mismanagement of the siege of La Rochelle, Buckingham returned to England. There was enormous resentment of the waste of men (Buckingham had taken a force of 7,000 to La Rochelle and had returned with less than 2,000) but this did not prevent him trying to organise a second expedition to lift the siege.

One of the junior officers in Buckingham's army was a lieutenant named John Felton. He had fought gallantly during the siege when the fighting had been ruthless. And in 1627 he had sustained serious wounds while fighting on the Ile de Ré. Felton had become angered by Buckingham's inept handling of the battle, and the fact he was still owed back pay of approximately £90 (this was a considerable amount of money - at the time it would have purchased a fine town house or a good small farm). The grievances had been made worse by the fact the Duke had personally twice denied Felton a deserved promotion to the rank of captain.

Felton had read the Parliament's Remonstrance against the Duke's handling of state affairs and he decided he was justified to take his revenge against the Duke. Felton lay in wait for Buckingham and when the Duke left the Greyhound Inn in Portsmouth8 he stabbed the Duke. Buckingham's last recorded word as he died on 23 August, 1628, was 'Villain!' shouted at Felton as he made his escape.

Felton was rapidly apprehended and three months later his trial resulted in an inevitable verdict of guilty. Poor Felton was the guest of honour at his public execution.

George Villiers Duke of Buckingham was born on 28 August, 1592, at Brooksby Hall, Leicestershire, and assassinated in Portsmouth on 23 August, 1628, just five days before his 36th birthday.

A Legacy Literary and Antiquarian

It may come as a surprise but Buckingham, encouraged by the Earl of Arundel, was a discerning collector of antiquities. His agent was Sir Thomas Rowe who was based at Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and who collected many items of interest and value for both noblemen. The list is extensive and includes marbles, coins and over 200 statues - in fact any curiosity of interest from around the Mediterranean. Assisted by Greek priests they collected items from Delphi, Athens, and many more places. An ancient copy of the scriptures was presented to King James from the same sources.

The siege of La Rochelle was to inspire part of Alexandre Dumas' classic novel The Three Musketeers. If his writing is anything to go by, Alexandre Dumas9 seems to have had some admiration for Buckingham. Evidence suggests that this novel is not entirely the work of fiction. There may have been some truth in the story of Queen Anne giving diamond studs she had been given from her husband to Buckingham as a token of her affection, only for Richelieu to discover this and try to use it to expose her. The diamond studs certainly did exist so it is possible that two were given to Buckingham as a gift. If so, they would have had to be swiftly reproduced to hide the loss; we will never know for sure.

Charles Dickens, who wrote of him in A Child's History of England (1851-3) had quite a different view. Dickens describes Buckingham as 'that insolent upstart', the war in France as being started by 'that pestilent Buckingham... to gratify his own wounded vanity'. This view is an accurate reflection of public opinion of England at the time.

1Described as insignificant due to lack of power in national affairs.2Brooksby Hall has had an extension on the left hand side of the façade - this was added after George's time.3The ranks of English nobility in descending order are: King and Queen, Duke and Duchess, Prince and Princess, Marquess and Marchioness, Earl and Countess, Viscount and Viscountess, Baron and Baroness, Baronet and Baronetess, Knight and Dame.4Whaddon is in the County of Buckinghamshire; Whaddon Chase was also part of the estate.5There is a belief that Buckingham Palace is named after George Villiers. It is in fact named for John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normandy KG, 7 April, 1648 – 24 February, 1721. Originally known as Buckingham House, it became a royal residence in 1761, when it was renamed as Buckingham Palace.6This derogatory description of his social position by his peers seems to be a symptom of the bad feeling caused by his promotion and elevation. By now Buckingham had become the highest-ranking subject who was not a member of the Royal family.7Steenie was a diminutive form of the name Stephen, in reference to George's resemblance to St Stephen.8The Greyhound Inn on the High Street in Old Portsmouth is now known as Buckingham House and there is a commemorative plaque.9Dumas also wrote Twenty Years After and The Man in the Iron Mask.

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