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George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham by Rubens

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham   (1592-1628)

GEORGE VILLIERS, 1ST DUKE OF BUCKINGHAM,1 English statesman, born in August 1592,2 was a younger son of Sir George Villiers of Brooksby. His mother, Mary, daughter of Anthony Beaumont of Glenfield, Leicestershire, who was left a widow early, educated him for a courtier's life, sending him to France with Sir John Eliot; and the lad, being "by nature contemplative," took kindly to the training. He could dance well, fence well, and talk a little French, when in August 1614 he was brought before the king's [James I] notice, in the hope that he would take a fancy to him.

The moment was favourable. Since Salisbury's death James had taken the business of government upon himself. But he wanted some one who would chat with him, and amuse him, and would also fill the office of private secretary, and save him from the trouble of saying no to importunate suitors. It would be an additional satisfaction if he could train the youth whom he might select in those arts of statesmanship of which he believed himself to be a perfect master. His first choice had not proved a happy one. Robert Carr, who had lately become Earl of Somerset, had had his head turned by his elevation. He had grown peevish toward his master, and had placed himself at the head of the party which was working for a close alliance with Spain.

The appearance of Villiers, beaming with animal spirits and good humour, was therefore welcomed by all who had an interest in opposing the designs of Spain, and he was appointed Cupbearer the same year. For some little time still Somerset's pre-eminence was maintained. But on the 23rd of April 1615, Villiers, in spite of Somerset, was promoted to be Gentleman of the Bedchamber, and was knighted on the 24th; the charge of murdering Overbury, brought against Somerset in September, completed his downfall, and Villiers at once stepped into the place which he had vacated. On the 3rd of January 1616 he became Master of the Horse, on the 24th of April he received the Order of the Garter, and on the 27th of August 1616 was created Viscount Villiers and Baron Waddon, receiving a grant of land valued at £80,000, while on the 5th of January 1617 he was made Earl, and on the 1st of January 1618, Marquess of Buckingham. With the exception of the Earl of Pembroke he was the richest nobleman in England.

Those who expected him to give his support to the anti-Spanish party were at first doomed to disappointment. As yet he was no politician, and he contented himself with carrying out his master's orders, whatever they were. In his personal relations he was kindly and jovial towards all who did not thwart his wishes. But James had taught him to consider that the patronage of England was in his hands, and he took good care that no man should receive promotion of any kind who did not in one way or another pay court to him. As far as can be ascertained, he cared less for money than for the gratification of his vanity. But he had not merely himself to consider. His numerous kinsfolk were to be enriched by marriage, if in no other way, and Bacon, the great philosopher and statesman, was all but thrust from office because he had opposed a marriage suggested for one of Buckingham's brothers, while Cranfield, the first financier of the day, was kept from the treasury till he would forsake the woman whom he loved, to marry a penniless cousin of the favourite. On the 19th of January 1619 James made him Lord High Admiral of England, hoping that the ardent, energetic youth would impart something of his own fire to those who were entrusted with the oversight of that fleet which had been almost ruined by the peculation and carelessness of the officials. Something of this, no doubt, was realized under Buckingham's eye. But he himself never pretended to the virtues of an administrator, and he was too ready to fill up appointments with men who flattered him, and too reluctant to dismiss them, if they served their country ill, to effect any permanent change for the better.

It was about this time that he first took an independent part in politics. All England was talking of the revolution in Bohemia in the year before, and men's sympathy with the continental Protestants was increased when it was known that James's son-in-law had accepted the crown of Bohemia, and that in the summer of 1620 a Spanish force was preparing to invade the Palatinate. Buckingham at first had thrown himself into the popular movement. Before the summer of 1620 was at end, incensed by injuries inflicted on English sailors by the Dutch in the East Indies, he had swung round, and was in close agreement with Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador. He had now married Lady Katherine Manners, the daughter of the Earl of Rutland, who was at heart a Roman Catholic, though she outwardly conformed to the English Church, and this alliance may have had something to do with the change.

Buckingham's mistakes were owing mainly to his levity. If he passed briskly from one camp to the other, an impartial observer might usually detect some personal motive at the bottom. But it is hardly probable that he was himself conscious of anything of the sort. When he was in reality acting under the influence of vanity or passion it was easy for him to persuade himself that he was doing his duty to his country.

The parliament which met in 1621, angry at discovering that no help was to be sent to the Palatinate, broke out into a loud outcry against the system of monopolies, from which Buckingham's brothers and dependants had drawn a profit, which was believed to be greater than it really was. At first he pleaded for a dissolution. But he was persuaded by Bishop Williams that it would be a wiser course to put himself at the head of the movement, and at a conference of the Commons with the Lords acknowledged that his two brothers had been implicated, but declared that his father had begotten a third who would aid in punishing them. In the impeachment of Bacon which soon followed, Buckingham, who owed much to his wise counsels, gave him that assistance which was possible without imperilling his own position and influence. He at first demanded the immediate dissolution of parliament, but afterwards, when the cry rose louder against the Chancellor, joined in the attack, making however some attempt to mitigate the severity of the charges against him during the hearing of his case before the House of Lords. Notwithstanding, he took advantage of Bacon's need of assistance to wring from him the possession of York House.

In the winter of 1621, and the succeeding year, Buckingham was entirely in Gondomar's hands; and it was only with some difficulty that in May 1622 Laud argued him out of a resolution to declare himself a Roman Catholic. In December 1621 he actively supported the dissolution of parliament, and there can be little doubt that when the Spanish ambassador left England the following May, he had come to an understanding with Buckingham that the Prince of Wales should visit Madrid the next year, on which occasion the Spanish court hoped to effect his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church before giving him the hand of the infanta Maria. They set out on their adventurous expedition on the 17th of February 1623, arriving at Madrid, after passing through Paris on the 7th of March. Each party had been the dupe of the other. Charles and Buckingham were sanguine in hoping for the restitution of the Palatinate to James's son-in-law, as a marriage gift to Charles; while the Spaniards counted on the conversion of Charles to Roman Catholicism and other extreme concessions (see Charles I). The political differences were soon accentuated by personal disputes between Buckingham and Olivares and the grandees, and when the two young men sailed together from Santander in September, it was with the final resolution to break entirely with Spain.

James had gratified his favourite in his absence by raising him to a dukedom. But the splendour which now gathered round Buckingham was owing to another source than James's favour. He had put himself at the head of the popular movement against Spain, and when James, acknowledging sorely against his will that the Palatinate could only be recovered by force, summoned the parliament which met in February 1624, Buckingham, with the help of the heir apparent, took up an independent political position. James was half driven, half persuaded to declare all negotiations with Spain at an end. For the moment Buckingham was the most popular man in England.

It was easier to overthrow one policy than to construct another. The Commons would have been content with sending some assistance to the Dutch, and with entering upon a privateering war with Spain. James, whose object was to regain the Palatinate, believed this could only be accomplished by a continental alliance, in which France took part. As soon as parliament was prorogued, negotiations were opened for a marriage between Charles and the sister of Louis XIII, Henrietta Maria. But a difficulty arose. James and Charles had engaged to the Commons that there should be no concessions to the English Roman Catholics, and Louis would not hear of the marriage unless very large concessions were made. Buckingham, impatient to begin the war as soon as possible, persuaded Charles, and the two together persuaded James to throw over the promises to the Commons, and to accept the French terms. It was no longer possible to summon parliament to vote supplies for the war till the marriage had been completed, when remonstrances to its conditions would be useless.

Buckingham, for Buckingham was now virtually the ruler of England, had thus to commence war without money. He prepared to throw 12,000 Englishmen, under a German adventurer, Count Mansfeld, through France into the Palatinate. The French insisted that he should march through Holland. It mattered little which way he took. Without provisions, and without money to buy them, the wretched troops sickened and died in the winter frosts. Buckingham's first military enterprise ended in disastrous failure. Buckingham had many other schemes in his teeming brain. He had offered to send aid to Christian IV, King of Denmark, who was proposing to make war in Germany, and had also a plan for sending an English fleet to attack Genoa, the ally of Spain, and a plan for sending an English fleet to attack Spain itself.

Before these schemes could be carried into operation James died on the 27th of March 1625. The new king, Charles I, and Buckingham were at one in their aims and objects. Both were anxious to distinguish themselves by the chastisement of Spain, and the recovery of the Palatinate. Both were young and inexperienced. But Charles, obstinate when his mind was made up, was sluggish in action and without fertility in ideas, and he had long submitted his mind to the versatile and brilliant favourite, who was never at a loss what to do next, and who unrolled before his eyes visions of endless possibilities in the future. Buckingham was sent over to Paris to urge upon the French court the importance of converting its alliance into active co-operation.

There was a difficulty in the way. The Huguenots of La Rochelle were in rebellion, and James had promised the aid of English ships to suppress that rebellion. Buckingham, who seems at first to have consented to the scheme, was anxious to mediate peace between the King of France and his subjects, and to save Charles from compromising himself with his parliament by the appearance of English ships in an attack upon Protestants. When he returned his main demands were refused, but hopes were given him that peace would be made with the Huguenots. On his way through France he had the insolence to make love to the Queen of France.

Soon after his return parliament was opened. It would have been hard for Charles to pass through the session with credit. Under Buckingham's guidance he had entered into engagements involving an enormous expenditure, and these engagements involved a war on the continent, which had never been popular in the House of Commons. The Commons, too, suspected the marriage treaty contained engagements of which they disapproved. They asked for the full execution of the laws against the Roman Catholics, and voted but little money in return. Before they reassembled at Oxford on the 1st of August, the English ships had found their way into the hands of the French, to be used against La Rochelle. The Commons met in an ill humour. They had no confidence in Buckingham, and they asked that persons whom they could trust should be admitted to the King's Council before they would vote a penny. Charles stood by his minister, and on the 12th of August he dissolved his first parliament.

Buckingham and his master set themselves to work to conquer public opinion. On the one hand, they threw over their engagements to France on behalf of the English Roman Catholics. On the other hand they sent out a large fleet to attack Cadiz, and to seize the Spanish treasure-ships. Buckingham went to the Hague to raise an immediate supply by pawning the crown jewels, to place England at the head of a great Protestant alliance, and to enter into fresh obligations to furnish money to the King of Denmark. It all ended in failure. The fleet returned from Cadiz, having effected nothing. The crown jewels produced but a small sum, and the money for the King of Denmark could only be raised by an appeal to parliament. In the meanwhile the king of France was deeply offended by the treatment of the Roman Catholics, and by the seizure of French vessels on the ground that they were engaged in carrying goods for Spain.

When Charles's second parliament met on the 6th of February 1626, it was not long before, under Eliot's guidance, it asked for Buckingham's punishment. He was impeached before the House of Lords on a long string of charges. Many of these charges were exaggerated, and some were untrue. His real crime was his complete failure as the leader of the administration. But as long as Charles refused to listen to the complaints of his minister's incompetency, the only way in which the Commons could reach him was by bringing criminal charges against him. Charles dissolved his second parliament as he had dissolved his first. Subsequently the Star Chamber declared the Duke innocent of the charges, and on the 1st of June Buckingham was elected Chancellor of Cambridge University.

To find money was the great difficulty. Recourse was had to a forced loan, and men were thrown into prison for refusing to pay it. Disasters had occurred to Charles's allies in Germany. The fleet sent out under Lord Willoughby (Earl of Lindsey) against the Spaniards returned home shattered by a storm, and a French war was impending in addition to the Spanish one. The French were roused to reprisals by Charles's persistence in seizing French vessels. Unwilling to leave La Rochelle open to the entrance of an English fleet, Richelieu laid siege to that stronghold of the French Huguenots. On the 27th of June 1627 Buckingham sailed from Portsmouth at the head of a numerous fleet, and a considerable land force, to relieve the besieged city.

His first enterprise was the siege of the fort of St Martin's, on the Isle of Re. The ground was hard, and the siege operations were converted into a blockade. On the 27th of September the defenders of the fort announced their readiness to surrender the next morning. In the night a fresh gale brought over a flotilla of French provision boats, which dashed through the English blockading squadron. The fort was provisioned for two months more. Buckingham resolved to struggle on, and sent for reinforcements from England. Charles would gladly have answered to his call. But England had long since ceased to care for the war. There was no money in the Exchequer, no enthusiasm in the nation to supply the want. Before the reinforcements could arrive the French had thrown a superior force upon the island, and Buckingham was driven to retreat on the 29th of October with heavy loss, only 2989 troops out of nearly 7000 returning to England.

His spirits were as buoyant as ever. Ill luck, or the misconduct of others, was the cause of his failure. He had new plans for carrying on the war. But the parliament which met on the 17th of March 1628 was resolved to exact from the King an obligation to refrain from encroaching for the future on the liberties of his subjects. In the parliamentary battle, which ended in the concession of the Petition of Right, Buckingham took an active share as a member of the House of Lords. He resisted as long as it was possible to resist the demand of the Commons, that the King should abandon his claim to imprison without showing cause. When the first unsatisfactory answer to the petition was made by the King on the 2nd of June, the Commons suspected, probably with truth, that it had been dictated by Buckingham. They prepared a remonstrance on the state of the nation, and Coke at last named the Duke as the cause of all the misfortunes that had occurred. "The duke of Bucks is the cause of all our miseries ... that man is the grievance of grievances." Though on the 7th of June the King granted a satisfactory answer to the petition, the Commons proceeded with their remonstrance, and on the 11th demanded that he might no longer continue in office.

Once more Charles refused to surrender Buckingham, and a few days later he prorogued parliament in anger. The popular feeling was greatly, excited. Lampoons circulated freely from hand to hand, and Dr Lambe, a quack doctor, who dabbled in astrology, and was believed to exercise influence over Buckingham, was murdered in the streets of London. Rude doggerel lines announced that the Duke should share the doctor's fate.

With the clouds gathering round him, Buckingham went down to Portsmouth to take the command of one final expedition for the relief of La Rochelle. For the first time even he was beginning to acknowledge that he had undertaken a task beyond his powers. There was a force of inertia in the officials which resisted his efforts to spur them on to an enterprise which they believed to be doomed to failure. He entered gladly into a scheme of pacification proposed by the Venetian ambassador. But before he could know whether there was to be peace or war, the knife of an assassin put an end to his career. John Felton, who had served at Re, had been disappointed of promotion, and had not been paid that which was due to him for his services, read the declaration of the Commons that Buckingham was a public enemy, and eagerly caught at the excuse for revenging his private wrongs under cover of those of his country. Waiting, on the morning of the 23rd of August, beside the door of the room in which Buckingham was breakfasting, he stabbed him to the heart as he came out.

Buckingham married Lady Katherine Manners, daughter of Francis, 6th Earl of Rutland, by whom he left three sons and one daughter, of whom George, the second son (1628-1687), succeeded to the dukedom.

1. in the Villiers line.
2. The Life, by Sir Henry Wotton, gives August 28th as the date of his birth, but, when relating his death on August 23rd, adds, "thus died the great peer in the 36th year of his age compleat and three days over." August 28th was therefore probably a misprint for August 10th.

      Excerpted from:

      Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Ed. Vol IV.
      Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910. 724.

Books for further study:

Bellany, Alastair and Tom Cogswell. England's Assassin: John Felton and
           the Killing of the Duke of Buckingham.
           Yale University Press, 2007.

Coffin, Robert P. Tristram. The Dukes of Buckingham: Playboys of the Stuart World.
           Brentano's Press, 1931.

Gibbs, Philip. The Reckless Duke: The Romantic Story of
           the First Duke of Buckingham and the Stuart Court.
           Harper & Brothers, 1931.

Lockyer, Roger. Buckingham: The Life and Political Career of George Villiers.
           Longman, 1984.

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Children's Companies
The Admiral's Men
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
Citizen Comedy
The Isle of Dogs, 1597

Common Law
Court of Common Pleas
Court of King's Bench
Court of Star Chamber
Council of the North
Fleet Prison
First Fruits & Tenths
Livery and Maintenance
Oyer and terminer

The Stuarts

King James I of England
Anne of Denmark
Henry, Prince of Wales
The Gunpowder Plot, 1605
George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham
Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset
Arabella Stuart, Lady Lennox

William Alabaster
Bishop Hall
Bishop Thomas Morton
Archbishop William Laud
John Selden
Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford
Henry Lawes

King Charles I
Queen Henrietta Maria

Long Parliament
Rump Parliament
Kentish Petition, 1642

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford
John Digby, Earl of Bristol
George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol
Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax
Robert Devereux, 3rd E. of Essex
Robert Sidney, 2. E. of Leicester
Algernon Percy, E. of Northumberland
Henry Montagu, Earl of Manchester
Edward Montagu, 2. Earl of Manchester

The Restoration

King Charles II
King James II
Test Acts

Greenwich Palace
Hatfield House
Richmond Palace
Windsor Palace
Woodstock Manor

The Cinque Ports
Mermaid Tavern
Malmsey Wine
Great Fire of London, 1666
Merchant Taylors' School
Westminster School
The Sanctuary at Westminster


Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
London in late 16th century
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's View of London, 1616
Larger Visscher's View in Sections
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London

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