George Villiers, Earl of Buckingham, became the favourite of James I after they first met in 1614. Villiers succeeded Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, as the king’s favourite after Carr’s fall from grace after the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury.
Villiers was born on August 28th 1592 at Brooksby in Leicestershire. His father was a minor noble who had remarried and Villiers was born to his second wife, Mary Beaumont. He knew that in future years he would have to compete with his half-brothers for a share of his father’s modest estate. His mother was an ambitious woman and she saved enough for him to be educated in France. Here Villiers learned to dance, duel and ride with a degree of expertise. By all accounts Villiers was an athletic and well-built man. One contemporary described him as “no one dances better, no man runs or jumps better.”
James first met Villiers at Apethorpe in August 1614. James was forty-seven.
“He (James) was of middle stature, more corpulent through his clothes than his body, yet fat enough, his clothes ever being made large and easy, the doublets quilted for stiletto proof, his breeches in pleats and full stuffed……his eye was large, ever rolling after any stranger that came into his presence, in so much as many for shame have left the room, as being out of countenance….his legs were very weak….and that weakness made him ever leaning on other men’s shoulders; his walk was ever circular, his fingers ever in that walk fiddling about his codpiece.”
James was immediately taken in by Villier’s appearance. In 1615, Villier’s was made a Gentleman of the Bedchamber. His advance after this was swift. In 1616, Villiers was appointed Master of the Horse, made a Knight of the Garter and became Viscount Villiers. In 1617, he became Earl of Buckingham and in 1619, he was made a Marquess.
Such a swift advance up the social order was bound to provoke negative thoughts with regards to both James and Buckingham and the latter certainly made enemies. It was not unusual for a king to have favourites – but the speed with which Villiers climbed the social ladder and was promoted was too much for many.
Their public displays of affection only served to bring the court into more disrepute. James referred to him as “my sweetheart”, “my sweet child and wife” and “my only sweet and dear child”. In response to this, Buckingham flattered the king at every opportunity. There can be little doubt that Buckingham knew what he was doing (he ended his letters to the king with “Your majesty’s most humble slave and dog”) and that by pandering to James he knew that he was enhancing his own position within the royal court. In 1617, James explained to the Lords why he was making Villiers Earl of Buckingham:
“I, James, am neither God nor an angel, but a man like any other. Therefore I act like a man, and confess to loving those dear to me more than other men. You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf, and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had his John, and I have my George.”
One casualty of the rise of Buckingham was the demise in political terms of the Howard’s. In 1618, the Star Chamber, spurred on by Buckingham, prosecuted the Lord Treasurer, the Earl of Suffolk, leader of the Howard faction, for embezzlement. It ended any political influence the Howard’s may have had – but it also removed from power one of the few rivals Buckingham had in 1618. Buckingham used his influence over James to get Francis Bacon appointed to be the country’s senior law officer as Lord Chancellor. This suited James as Bacon was a strong supporter of the royal prerogative and he was now in a position to support the king when James had to justify its use. It also suited Buckingham as Bacon had the Duke to thank for his social and political advancement.
Buckingham was a shrewd manipulator of the king. He also knew the value of patronage - appointing his own men to positions of responsibility. They would support him and be grateful to Buckingham for their elevated status in society. One described Buckingham as thus:
"(A man of) a kind, liberal and free nature and disposition - to those that applied themselves to him, applauded his actions, and were wholly his creatures."
In 1620, Buckingham married Lady Catherine Manners, the daughter of the Duke of Rutland. He swiftly became a very rich man as he built up a large clientage network of office holders and monopolists. He put his own supporters and family in positions of responsibility and during all of this self-advancement he had the full support of the doting James. Christopher and John Villiers both benefited from their brother's position in society despite their own limitations. Buckingham's mother became a countess in 1618, a marchioness in 1619 and a duchess in 1623.
However, far more damaging to James was the fact that he allowed Buckingham to involve himself in policy matters and decision-making. This was bound to alienate powerful groups in Parliament who felt more and more alienated from both the king and decision-making.
The Parliament of January 1621 to January 1622 started to reverse the trend towards Buckingham’s ever-expanding power base. Two men who had gained office via the patronage of Buckingham – Sir Giles Mompesson and Sir Francis Mitchell – were impeached by Parliament for monopoly offences. Lord Chancellor Bacon was also impeached for accepting bribes.
Buckingham was also a supporter of a marriage between Charles and the daughter of Spain’s Philip III – a policy that the majority of Parliamentarians did not support. In December 1621, Parliament produced the ‘Protestation’. This was deemed by James to be a sign that Parliament believed that it had the right to discuss foreign policy issues - something that he was adamant that they did not. James physically tore out the ‘Protestation’ from the House of Commons Journals with his own hands such was his anger.
Buckingham accompanied Prince Charles to Spain (1623) on what was to be a failed marriage mission. From this embarrassing failure, the nation witnessed a complete volte-face by James. War was declared on Spain and in May 1625 and Charles married Henrietta Maria of France.
The influence Buckingham had over James did not decline even in the king’s final months. In one of the last letters written by James to Buckingham in December 1624, James signed off with:
“And so God bless you my sweet child and wife and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.”
James died on March 27th, 1625. This could have left Buckingham in a void both socially and politically, but he had spent time winning over Charles when he was a prince. Now that Charles was king, Buckingham neatly moved over to his new master and became his chief minister.
Charles and Parliament fell out nearly from the start of his reign. Whereas Parliament had been happy to give James a clean start, the same was not true for his son. Parliament attacked the religious policies of Charles – especially the relaxation of the penal laws against Catholics. With regards to Buckingham they vented their spleen at his foreign policy. His foreign policy was openly criticised as incompetent. Buckingham had signed treaties with Denmark and Holland for English participation in the Danish phase of the Thirty Years War where 8,000 men out of 12,000 died on board their ships without even landing in the Netherlands; he had also masterminded the marriage of Charles to Henrietta Maria, a French Catholic, that was far from popular; he had also lent Cardinal Richilieu eight boats which were used to attack the Huguenot stronghold at La Rochelle. However, he failed to get France to commit herself to greater involvement in the Thirty Years War. Parliament voted through only limited taxation to finance Buckingham’s foreign policy and this lack of money was a major reason for its failures. As an example, Buckingham wanted an armada to attack Cadiz. 15,000 men were gathered together for this venture in October/November 1625. It was a dismal failure due to the poor training that was given and the poor equipment. Buckingham took the blame for this.
In 1626, Parliament, led by radicals such as Sir Edward Coke, became even more critical of the king’s chief minister and started impeachment proceedings against him. Charles responded by dissolving Parliament. Buckingham reversed his previous foreign policy. Now in support of the Huguenot defenders at La Rochelle, he led 6,000 men to the Isle de Rhé in July 1627. He left in November 1627 having achieved nothing except the loss of nearly half his force. “Since England was England, it received not so dishonourable a blow.” (Denzil Holles)
In 1628, Parliament continued to attack Buckingham and Coke called him the “grievance of grievances”. Parliament sent a remonstrance to Charles in 1628 that declared that they feared for England’s religion, her standing in Europe and her success in the Thirty Years War if Buckingham continued in power. Charles merely prorogued Parliament (June 1628).
Clearly protected by the king, Buckingham confidently went to Portsmouth to start organising another sea-going venture. Here, John Felton, who had taken part in the disastrous Cadiz and Isle de Rhé ventures, murdered him on August 23rd, 1628. Buckingham’s funeral was held at Westminster Abbey where soldiers formed an armed guard to protect the coffin from the cheering crowds.