The Assassination of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham

Duke of Buckingham

On Monday we briefly discussed the rise of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who made his start as “favorite” of James I and then sought to ingratiate himself with the Prince of Wales in the King’s twilight years via a seven-month jaunt to Madrid. Today we’re going to take a closer look at his last years in the dawn of Charles I’s reign.

Buckingham entered the scene in 1614 as plain Mr. George Villiers, a remarkably handsome young man of 22 who caught the eye of James I. One quote describing him notes:

“From the nails of his fingers – nay from the sole of his foot – to the crown of his head, there was no blemish in him. The setting of his looks, every motion, every bending of his body was admirable.”

George was born in Leicestershire in 1592 to Sir George Villiers, a knight, and Mary Beaumont. His father died when he was just 12, and his education was almost solely under the purview of his mother who trained him early on for a courtier’s life. His parents’ marriage was his father’s second, and between the two he had an impressive array of three brothers and four sisters. George didn’t struggle against the life laid out for him – he spoke French, danced and fenced well, and when the opportunity came to travel to France with the statesman John Eliot, he took it.

When he encountered the King in the summer of 1614, the current favorite, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, was out the door thanks to a horde of enemies and the scandal that followed his marriage to Frances Howard (a post for another day.) Men like Eliot saw an opportunity to make James’s next favored young gentleman more palatable, and so George took his place with a heavy note of ambiguity hanging over the exact nature of their relationship.

Historians go back and forth on whether or not James and George were lovers, but there were certainly contemporaries who didn’t shy away from articulating exactly that and, well, in all likelihood that’s exactly what was going on. The adolescent Charles was not a big fan and the two passionately bickered in the early years, with George almost always winning out. At one point he told the Prince of Wales to “kiss his arse,” with nary a public rebuke from the monarch.

It wasn’t until the early 1620s, as it apparently dawned on him that James – and his protection – wouldn’t live forever that he changed his tune with the heir to the throne. By then his position in the world has markedly changed, having moved from a Gentleman of the Bedchamber in 1615 to the King’s Master of the Horse and a Knight of the Garter in 1616 to the Earl of Buckingham in 1617 to marquess in 1618.

By 1619, the year James’s queen, Anna of Denmark, died, he was appointed Admiral of the Fleet, and in 1623 – the year he joined Charles to Spain in the hopes of negotiating a marriage for him with Infanta Maria Anna – he was created duke.

By then, of course, George and Charles had made their peace. In fact, it was the Queen’s death that helped smooth the way, for George stepped into the breach to help make the adolescent prince more comfortable in a court for which there was no real place for him. George not only acted as a mediator for disputes between Charles and his father, but also introduced him to how one navigated the social and political machinations of court. He also became something of a confidante, for one letter survives in which Charles details an assignation with an unnamed woman – a tryst that wouldn’t have been well-received by James. For all that the King had his “favorite,” he was against mistresses on the grounds that bastards threatened legitimate heirs…if only he had been around to see his grandson, Charles II.

James was reportedly pleased by the improvement in the two’s relationship, noting that councilors to his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, had proved the most loyal to him during his own early years on the throne of Scotland.

In March 1625 James took ill after taking a poultice and cordial prepared by George, prompting rumors that the favorite had accidentally poisoned him. The gossip spread to the continent when a Hapsburg informant reported back that George tried to murder James. Before the week was out, James died while a terrified George held his hand and 24-year-old Charles became king.

In the midst of this, marriage negotiations between Charles and the King of France’s sister were ongoing and James’s passing only hurried them forward. The match was unpopular with the public thanks to Henrietta Maria’s Catholicism and news that their marriage treaty stipulated the English government stop persecuting its own Catholic citizens. To allay Protestant fears, one of Charles’s first acts was to disallow leading Catholic attending his father’s funeral by refusing them the necessary black garments.

Charles sent George to France to collect his bride, a job to which he committed splendidly with splashy new coaches, liveries and clothing. Swathed in gold and still handsome, he was a hit with Parisian women…less so with the men. Gossip even percolated over his focused attentions on Louis XIII’s wife, Anne of Austria. Relations between George and Henrietta Maria were early on solidified as less salacious, but equally as problematic. When a papal legate showed up for the new queen’s entrance into Amiens amidst a backdrop of nearly 30 priests in her entourage and elaborate Catholic-themed ceremony, George was livid on the grounds the English would hate the spectacle and (not unjustly) see it was a warning for the return of Catholicism. After the ceremony was over, he berated Henrietta Maria, but the 15-year-old stood her ground and relations never much improved.

More difficult still would be the next Parliamentary session back in London where George’s ability as Lord High Admiral were questioned alongside accusations of mismanagement and swaying to Catholic influence. In fact, the activity in France hadn’t looked great to his colleagues. To counter-act this, he urged Charles to reinstate the anti-Catholic penal laws, a fact well-known to the new queen – it did nothing to help their relationship, which in turn severely damaged the new royal marriage. But while Charles was used to George’s familiarity and now prone to taking his advice, Henrietta Maria was less enthusiastic when on the receiving end of a reminder that English queens “had lost their heads” before. (As it turned out, so would English kings.)

Charles reinstated the laws, but the move did nothing to help George’s case. Instead, the new king grew so irritated by Parliament’s lack of support for the coming war with Spain that he dissolved it and instead used Henrietta Maria’s dowry and his own funds to (even still) underprepare English forces for a naval fight. The artist Rubens, who George had met in France and contracted to paint a ceiling in his home, said at the time, “When I consider the caprice and arrogance of Buckingham I pity that young king who, through false counsel, is needlessly throwing himself and his kingdom, into such an extremity.”

Needless to say, the military excursion was a disaster and blame was heaped at George’s feet. Early in 1626, when he failed to join other Protestants in roundly condemning sympathetic Catholic writing, the tides turned even further against him as the leading courtiers gathered they wouldn’t be able to persuade Charles to their side without ousting the side-kick. In April, a pamphlet – likely written by Hapsburg propagandists – appeared accusing George of having murdered James. A parliamentary committee launched an investigation and by May the House of Commons offered formal charges against him to the House of Lords.

In crisis, Charles dissolved Parliament before the case could get too far, but he was now of course even more strapped for cash. Afraid that Henrietta Maria’s household was full of Catholic spies – and even more suspicious of the French after they signed a new peace treaty with Spain – Charles also dissolved her household and sent home all of her companions. The Queen was devastated and blamed both Charles and George for what she considered cruelty. Her new ladies-in-waiting included women suggested by George himself – his sister, Susan, Countess of Denbigh, and a woman named Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle. The latter was rumored to be George’s choice for Charles’s first mistress, but if true, the plan didn’t quite work out and she and Henrietta Maria eventually became close friends.

By the next year, George was still safe, but English and French ships were clashing on the Channel, prompting yet another call for war. Henrietta Maria – and Lucy Hay – favored England improving its relationship with France for the sake of the war against Spain, but George instead advocated going to war with them, too. And if you’re wondering how Charles thought he could finance two wars without Parliament’s backing when he struggled with just one, then you would be on the right path, for he used a series of means that wrung more money out of the public and did nothing to help his reputation.

A huge naval offense was struck – overseen by George – but within months he and his men were failing and casualties were extreme. The duke handled himself as bravely as possible in the conditions, but his bad name preceded him and the pamphlets sold out through the country accusing him of treachery and cowardice. In February 1628, a group of sailors went so far as to attack his London residence.

The next month Charles was forced to call another Parliament, but while his focus was on procuring money, the MPs wanted George’s head. The old accusations that George had killed James were raised, but now with new ones claiming he meant to drive Charles from the throne and take it for himself. On June 13, his personal astrologer, John Lambe, was killed by a mob in Cheapside who shouted he was “the duke’s devil.”

Two months later, on August 23, George dined at the Greyhound Inn where he learned that English forces had reportedly successfully relieved a site under attack. Thrilled, he ordered a carriage to take him to Charles, but as he made his way through the inn he paused to greet one of his colonels. As he did so, a man stabbed him in the chest, and the surrounding crowd – stunned – lifted him to a table where he quickly died.

Charles was told the news while he was at prayers. He remained still while he was in the church, but succumbed to grief when back in his apartments. To make matters even worse, he had to arrange for George’s funeral to happen at night so that the service laying him to rest in Westminster Abbey wouldn’t be ruined by angry members of the public who had ordained the murder a job well done.

As for Henrietta Maria, she rose to the occasion as the one who helped Charles through his initial shock and grief, cementing what would then become a very happy and harmonious marriage. Setting aside her personal grievances against George, she event went so far as to personally visit his widow.

In 1620, George had married Katherine Manners, daughter of the Earl of Rutland. The match was arranged by his mother, but because Katherine was Catholic and James wouldn’t approve the match, the bride-to-be converted to Protestantism to close the deal. Later, when she fell ill while visiting George’s mother and was forced to spend the night, her father accused her of having been seduced and refused to take her back, instead demanding George immediately marry her. He didn’t, but was eventually brought ’round. It was a fitting start for the marriage of the King’s favorite, though one product of it would be the next George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, a man who would later become the close friend, confidante and adviser to Charles’s son, Charles II.

As for our George, he remains buried within Westminster.

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