In 1617, James I declared in front of his privy councillors that he ‘…loved the Earl of Buckingham more than any other man’.
The Earl of Buckingham was his favourite, George Villiers. Elevated to many titles, and with the favour of two monarchs, he became one of the most powerful men in the early Stuart court.
Early Life and Rise to Power
Villiers was born in 1592 at Brooksby Hall to Sir George Villiers and Mary Beaumont. When he was 13, his father died, leaving his mother responsible for his upbringing. She educated him with a focus on courtly activities such as dancing. This, along with his good looks and charms, meant he would be well-suited for the life of a courtier.
After spending three years abroad, Villiers met a gentleman of the privy chamber in 1611. Sir John Graham soon became his mentor in pursuing a career at court. In 1614, Villiers was present at Apethorpe when King James I came to visit. It has been suggested by historians that James was, at the very least, bisexual. He rarely spent time with his wife; instead preferring the company of his ‘male lovelies’. Villiers caught his eye, but he faced an obstacle in the form of Robert Carr.
Carr, an established favourite, blocked Villiers from becoming a gentleman of the bedchamber. However, James granted him the position of cupbearer, which meant he would wait on the king at his table. It was in this role that Villiers impressed James with his knowledge of current affairs and his skill at conversation.
In 1615, James knighted Villiers and finally appointed him as a gentleman of the bedchamber. Later in that same year, he and the king shared a bed. Fortunately, Carr would soon fall from the king’s grace as a result of the Overbury scandal. He was found guilty of murdering Sir Thomas Overbury, and imprisoned along with his wife in 1616. This cleared the way for Villiers, and a flood of titles soon followed. In August, he was made a Viscount.
James was growing ever fonder of his new favourite, nicknaming him ‘Steenie’. In 1617, Villiers was elevated to the earldom of Buckingham and sworn to the privy council. James also declared that ‘…Christ had his John and he had his George’.
The King’s Favourite
James’ favourites were expected to marry. Villiers was encouraged to propose to Lady Katherine Manners, daughter of the earl of Rutland. They were wed on the 16th of May 1620, and it appears they had a loving relationship. In 1623, Katherine stated that ‘…never woman was so happy as I am, for never was there so kind a husband as you are’. Together, they had four children.
Villiers bolstered his income from the crown by selling titles, specialising in those from Ireland. This undermined the established government. As a result, some saw him as corrupt, a notion furthered by the titles secured for his relatives.
However, Villiers never secured a monopoly over patronage. He was instead eager to prove his service to the crown and turned his attentions to the navy. Charles Howard was the current lord admiral, but he was eighty and struggling to maintain control over the officers. All Villiers truly needed to put his name forth was commitment and James’ support. In 1619, he was appointed to the task.
Initially, Villiers was quite successful in reforming the navy. By 1624, yearly expenditure was cut from £50,000 to £30,000, and the number of seaworthy ships increased from 23 to 35. However, his position in military affairs would soon become troublesome.
In 1619, Frederick, James’ son-in-law, lost his lands in the Palatinate to the Habsburgs. Villiers supported James’ decision to send troops, but finances proved to be an issue. In 1621, James summoned the first parliament in 11 years.
Despite the issue of the Palatinate, the Commons wanted to discuss its grievances over monopolies. Although Villiers wasn’t a monopolist, his family’s grants came under question. Villiers defended himself, insisting that he wouldn’t protect his family if they were guilty of a crime. Others questioned about their grants accused him of corruption. James abruptly ended the session, leading some to speculate that this was to protect Villiers from further attacks.
The Spanish Match and War
James believed that friendly relationships with Spain would restore Frederick to the Palatinate. He attempted to achieve this through a marriage between Prince Charles and Maria Anna, the daughter of King Phillip III. Some, however, suspected that Spain was delaying negotiations to keep England out of the conflict. Charles, meanwhile, eager to wed and crafted a plan to visit the Spanish court himself. James relented, on the condition that Villiers would accompany the prince. In disguise and under false names, Villiers and Charles arrived in Madrid in March 1623.
They spent three months in Spain. Marriage terms were eventually arranged, though there were still delays. Villiers soon became aware that the Spanish court opposed English interests. The Spanish were hopeful that he would leave whilst the prince stayed, but even Charles had grown distrustful. With no progress made towards the restoration of Frederick, Villiers and Charles left Spain in August.
A long absence was a risky affair for Villiers. Despite this, it is clear that he was still close to James. Whilst he was away, he was granted the title of Duke of Buckingham.
Villiers’ time in Spain left him convinced that war was the only option, despite the fact that negotiations weren’t formally broken. This needed the support of king and parliament, as well as financial backing. In 1624, after Charles also advocated for war, James recalled parliament.
Villiers addressed both houses in the hopes of garnering support, but parliament wasn’t willing to give large amounts of money to James. This was due to distrust over his spending habits. A further issue arose when it became clear that both Villiers and parliament favoured a war at sea. James instead wanted a small expedition to the Palatinate. Villers couldn’t push for his plan without alienating James, but he also couldn’t abandon it due to parliament. He was at constant risk of losing his position.
In April 1624, Villiers set in motion the preparations for a naval expedition. Although his health suffered, this helped strengthen his relationship with James. Later in the year, he helped negotiate a marriage between Charles and Louis XIII’s sister, Henrietta Maria. This was despite troubles with the French statesman Cardinal Richelieu.
In January 1625, the first expedition against Spain finally launched. Commanded by Count Ernst von Mansfeld, it was a complete failure. Disease set in and the food supplies were not well prepared. Villiers was blamed.
In March 1625, James I died. The death of a monarch would usually end the influence of their favourites in the court. However, Villiers had become close friends with Charles during their trip to Spain. The new king made it clear that his position at court was secure.
The Reign of Charles
Charles’ first parliament in 1625 didn’t provide the funds he required for a war. This was troublesome as both Mansfeld and the fleet preparations still required financing. Villiers pushed for a secondary session to be called, but it became clear that parliament didn’t trust him. He attempted to address the grievances against him, but failed. Charles ended the session in an effort to protect the Duke.
A spell of ill health meant that the next expedition had to be led by Sir Edward Cecil. There was a shortage of money, and the fleet wasn’t ready to sail until October. It managed to reach the Bay of Cadiz, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. The soldiers discovered wine vats and became too drunk to remain organised. They were forced to return home, humiliated. Once again, Villiers became a magnet for the outrage that followed. He faced further criticism when the English fleet played a minor role in the defeat of a French Protestant uprising at La Rochelle. This was due to public belief that England should’ve defended them instead.
In 1626, parliament set up a committee to investigate the failure at Cadiz. This determined that Villiers was the main cause, leading to calls for his impeachment. He was accused of holding too many titles, as well as of murdering James I. This was a political move, aimed to remove Villiers from the king’s favour. Charles saw the action as an attack on his own power, and dissolved parliament.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Richelieu had begun the construction of a large French fleet. This was seen as an implicit threat. Villiers thought it necessary to remove Richelieu’s influence in the French court, and envisioned an expedition that would, at last, support the French Protestants at La Rochelle. This expedition in 1627 was better prepared than Cadiz but failed miserably. Only 3000 of the 8000 soldiers returned home.
Villiers’ popularity had hit rock-bottom. Despite this, Charles still supported him and their joint policies. In his role as lord admiral, Villiers continued making reforms. This included ordering the construction of more ships, despite financial issues. Charles was reluctant to recall parliament due to its criticism of Villiers. However, the rift between the king and his subjects needed reconciliation. A third parliament was called in March 1628. Surprisingly, parliament offered five subsidies, on the condition that Charles accepted a declaration of their rights. Though Villiers tried to advocate for the king’s powers, his influence was diminished. He turned his attentions to preparing yet another expedition. Once again, parliament questioned Villiers’ position, resulting in another dissolution of the session.
The debates surrounding Villiers had created a mood of simmering violence. Though he had bodyguards, some of his associates fell victim to London mobs. In August, Villiers travelled to Portsmouth to oversee the expedition. He stayed near the dockyard, whilst Charles resided outside of the town. On 23 August 1628, Villiers was assassinated.
He had been speaking to a colonel in the Greyhound Inn when he was suddenly stabbed. The assassin initially got away, but later gave himself up as John Felton. He was a disgruntled soldier, convinced that the nation would do better without the favourite. Afterwards, he was widely considered to be a hero, which further served to alienate Charles from his subjects. Felton was hanged on 29 November 1628, and his corpse placed on public display.
Villiers’ body was returned to London by coach, and laid in state in Wallingdon House. He was then buried in Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, with a tomb inscribed “The Enigma of the World”. This is, I believe, a fitting description of a man who had risen to the heights of Stuart society and found himself entangled with the politics of the day.