This week’s entry: George Villiers, the first Duke Of Buckingham
What it’s about: Born in England in 1592 as the son of a “minor gentleman,” George Villiers may have gone through life as merely a handsome rich guy, had he not attracted the notice of James I (also called James VI, as he was the king to unite the Scottish and English crowns, and was the sixth King James of the former, and first of the latter). Villiers was a favorite of the king, and shot through the aristocratic ranks, becoming a knight, baron, viscount, earl, marquess, and then duke in rapid succession between ages 21 and 30. (The title of duke had been retired some time earlier, so this promotion made Villiers the highest-ranking person outside the royal family.) His close relationship with the king sparked speculation, then and now, that the two men were lovers, despite the 26-year age gap.
Biggest controversy: As James heaped title upon title upon Villiers, he also gave him jobs of increasing importance at court. At age 21, members of the court pushed for Villiers to become Royal Cupbearer, hoping he would supplant the King’s previous favorite, Robert Carr. (He did). The following year, Villiers was knighted and named Gentleman Of The Bedchamber. (There’s nothing ambiguous about the name of the role, which was to serve in intimate duties like helping the king dress.) A year after that, Villiers became Master Of Horse and a Knight Of The Garter. The year after that he was made an earl, and the year after that he was named Lord Admiral Of The Fleet. And that’s when the trouble began.
In 1623, after becoming the official Duke Of Buckingham, he was charged with helping arrange the Prince Of Wales’ (the future Charles I) marriage to Maria, the Spanish Infanta. The plan collapsed, and “Buckingham’s crassness” may have been the cause. The Spanish ambassador insisted Buckingham be executed for his (unspecified here) behavior, but Villiers called for war on Spain instead. He tried to shore up relations with France by betrothing Charles to Henrietta Maria, King Henry IV’s youngest daughter, but the idea of the English king marrying a Catholic was wildly unpopular. To make things worse, Villiers gave military aid to France’s Catholic Chief Minister, Cardinal Richelieu, against his Protestant enemies, in return for help attacking Spain.
That attack failed—an attempt to burn down Spain’s main port was aborted when the sailors captured a warehouse full of wine and got drunk instead of attacking. The Spanish fleet escaped a planned ambush. And Villiers had to retreat from a naval skirmish he fought alongside the French. He blamed Richelieu, and soon sided against him and with the French Protestants he had only recently been fighting against. Through the whole mess, Villiers’ popularity with the English people plummeted, although he never lost the support of James or Charles.
Strangest fact: We don’t know for certain whether Villiers and James I were lovers because of 17th-century England’s love of flowery prose. Our ideas on masculinity have changed dramatically in the last 400 years. It wasn’t uncommon for platonic male friends of the era to speak and write of their friendship in ornate language that, in modern times, would only be used for a romantic overture, and even then seen as a bit much. The King ended a letter to Villiers with, “God bless you, my sweet child and wife.” The Duke responded, “I naturally so love your person, and adore all your other parts, which are more than ever one man had.” Apparently we weren’t doing “phrasing” in 1623.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Villiers was quite a patron of the arts, commissioning paintings (including two Rubens), financing plays, and buying collections of rare books (including the first book in Chinese to be donated to Cambridge’s library). However, a good deal of his patronage seems to be self-serving—the play he financed was an anti-Spanish satire he intended as propaganda. And the paintings he commissioned were mostly of himself, looking regal, in an attempt to impress and remind people of his standing.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Villiers was corrupt as all get-out. He almost immediately used his various positions of influence to “prodigiously enrich his relatives.” He had his friend Francis Bacon appointed Lord Chancellor, but threw him under the bus when Parliament investigated the bribery and “financial peculation” the two men engaged in.
Villiers also abused Britain’s habitual abuse of Ireland, selling Irish titles, controlling Irish customs (the import/export kind, not the step-dancing kind), and prolonging England’s plantation policy (more on that in the next section) for his own financial gain. Twice, Parliament tried to impeach Villiers, but in both instances, he convinced the King to dissolve Parliament for ostensibly unrelated reasons.
Three years after James’ death, Villiers (still supported and employed by the new king, Charles I) was stabbed to death by John Felton, an army officer who had been wounded in one of Buckingham’s campaigns, and believed he had been passed over for a promotion unfairly. Villiers was so disliked by that point that Felton was a national hero, even after he was hanged for murder.
Also noteworthy: Britain’s plantation policy toward Ireland had devastating short- and long-term effects. While ruling over the Emerald Isle, Britain seized property from Irish landowners and gave it to English settlers, creating an English, protestant ruling elite, and an Irish population who were essentially serfs who weren’t allowed to own land in their own country, and in some cases weren’t even allowed to rent it as tenant farmers. At one point, less than 10 percent of the island was owned by Irish Catholics, and Parliament once proposed moving the entire Irish population to the western third of the country, an idea that failed only because of a lack of willing English settlers to re-fill the other two-thirds.
As it is, so many Irish were forced out of the northern part of the country, mostly to be replaced by Scots, that upon Irish independence, those Protestant-majority counties remained part of the U.K., which led to partition of the island and a 30-year guerrilla war.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: So, back to Villiers’ job as Gentleman Of The Bedchamber. From 1650 to 1837, it was an official office, usually held by a member of the peerage (according to the timeline here, the positions seems to have originated with Villiers, although his own page doesn’t mention that). Duties included attending to the king when he ate in private, helping him dress, and insuring he wasn’t disturbed while asleep or using the bathroom. As unglamorous as this all sounds, it was a sought-after position, as it naturally made the office-holder a close confidant to the monarch. But just so we’re clear on how unglamorous it was, it was quickly combined with an older title, the Groom Of The Stool, who was, as Wikipedia delicately puts it, “responsible for assisting the king in excretion and ablution,” although in practice, the Groom Of The Stool acted more as the king’s personal secretary.
Further down the Wormhole: Villiers was a notorious figure in both history and fiction. He’s met Doctor Who (in 2002 audio drama The Church And The Crown, not the TV series), has appeared in numerous historical fictions of the era (most recently in Howard Brenton’s 2010 play Anne Boleyn), and shows up as a character in Les Trois Mousquetaires, known to American audiences as The Three Musketeers. The book describes him as “the favourite of two kings, immensely rich, all-powerful in a kingdom which he disordered at his fancy and calmed again at his caprice,” and called his life, “one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity.” No less astonishing was the life of the book’s author, Alexandre Dumas, the grandson of a slave, the son of one of Napoleon’s generals, and one of the most widely read French author of all time. We’ll hear his story next week.