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His Grace
The Duke of Buckingham
The Duke of Buckingham, 1625, by Peter Paul Rubens Palazzo Pitti (Florence)
Duke of Buckingham
Personal details
Born (1592-08-28)28 August 1592
Died 23 August 1628(1628-08-23) (aged 35)
Spouse(s) Katherine Manners, Baroness de Ros
Children Mary Stewart, Duchess of Richmond
Charles Villiers, Earl of Coventry
George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham Francis Villiers, 1628-1648
Parents George Villiers (of Brokesby)
Mary Beaumont

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham KG (/ˈvɪlərz/;[1][2] 28 August 1592 – 23 August 1628) was the favourite, claimed by some to be the lover, of King James I of England.[3] Despite a very patchy political and military record, he remained at the height of royal favour for the first three years of the reign of Charles I, until he was assassinated.

Early life

He was born in Brooksby, Leicestershire, in August 1592, the son of the minor gentleman Sir George Villiers (1550–1604). His mother, Mary (1570–1632), 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.

George Villiers took very well to the training set by his mother; he could dance well, fence well, and speak a little French and was overall an excellent student. In August 1614, Villiers, reputedly "the handsomest-bodied man in all of England",[4] was brought before the king, in the hope that the king would take a fancy to him, diminishing the power at court of then favourite Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset.

Court life

Arms of Sir George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, KG, as they were quartered on his stall plate and banner within St. George's Chapel

Following Villiers' introduction to James during the king's progress of that year, the king developed a strong affection for Villiers, calling him his "sweet child and wife"; the personal relationships of James are a much debated topic, with Villiers making the last of a succession of favourites on whom James lavished affection and rewards. The extent to which there was a sexual element, or a physical sexual relationship, involved in these cases remains controversial. However, there is much contemporaneous evidence attesting to the fact that Villiers was, in fact, James's lover: Edward Peyton, who was Knight of Whitehall in 1610, wrote, “the king sold his affections to Sir George Villiers, whom he would tumble and kiss as a mistress." In 1615, the Bishop John Oglander wrote that he “never yet saw any fond husband make so much or so great dalliance over his beautiful spouse as I have seen King James over his favourites, especially the Duke of Buckingham." In 1622, the Venetian ambassador describes how James would not "eat, sup, or remain an hour without him and considers him his whole joy." Francis Osborne later gossipped, “I have seene Sommerset and Buckingham labour to resemble, in the effeminatenesse of their dressings.” The correspondence between James and George is also revealing. James wrote to Villiers: “My onlie sweete and deare chylde I praye thee haiste thee hoame to thy deare dade by sunne setting.” George accepted the appellation, signing the letter “[your] obedient sone and servant and your humble slave and doge, Steenie.” Writing to Buckingham in another letter in 1623, the King ends a letter with, "God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband."[5]

Villiers reciprocated the King's love, writing back to James: "I naturally so love your person, and adore all your other parts, which are more than ever one man had," "I desire only to live in the world for your sake" and "I will live and die a lover of you." Restoration of Apethorpe Hall in 2004–8 revealed a previously unknown passage linking his bedchamber with that of James.[6]

Villiers gained support from those opposed to the current favourite, Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset, and under the King's patronage he prospered greatly. Villiers was knighted in 1615 as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, and was rapidly advanced through the peerage: he was created Baron Whaddon and Viscount Villiers in 1616, Earl of Buckingham in 1617, Marquess of Buckingham in 1618 and finally Earl of Coventry and Duke of Buckingham in 1623. After the reductions in the peerage that had taken place during the Tudor period, Buckingham was left as the highest-ranking subject outside the royal family.[lower-alpha 1] In his rise to power, Villiers became connected with Francis Bacon, whose public career had stagnated somewhat before benefitting, perhaps, from Villiers' patronage. Bacon's letters include letters of advice to the young favourite.

In the 1620s, Villiers acquired York House on the Strand, the street linking the City of London to that of Westminster. Apart from an interlude during the English Civil War, the property remained in the family until his son sold it to developers for £30,000 in 1672. He made it a condition of the sale that his name and title be commemorated by George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Of Alley, and Buckingham Street, some of which have survived into the 21st century.


French drawing, probably by Daniel Dumonstier, 1625

From 1616, Buckingham established a dominant influence in Irish affairs, beginning with the appointment of his client, Sir Oliver St John, as Lord Deputy, 1616–22. Thence, he acquired control of the Irish customs farm (1618), dominated Irish patronage at court, particularly with the sale of Irish titles and honours, and (from 1618) began to build substantial Irish estates for himself, his family and clients—with the aid of a plantation lobby, composed of official clients in Dublin. To the same end, he secured the creation of an Irish Court of Wards in 1622. Buckingham's influence thus crucially sustained a forward Irish plantation policy into the 1620s.

Relations with Parliament, 1621–1624

The 1621 Parliament began an investigation into monopolies and other abuses in England and extended it later to Ireland; in this first session, Buckingham was quick to side with the Parliament to avoid action being taken against him. However, the king's decision in the summer of 1621 to send a commission of enquiry, including parliamentary firebrands, to Ireland threatened to expose Buckingham's growing, often clandestine interests there. Knowing that, in the summer, the king had assured the Spanish ambassador that the Parliament would not be allowed to imperil a Spanish matrimonial alliance, he therefore surreptitiously instigated a conflict between the Parliament and the king over the Spanish Match, which resulted in a premature dissolution of the Parliament in December 1621 and a hobbling of the Irish commission in 1622. Irish reforms nevertheless introduced by Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex, in 1623–24 were largely nullified by the impeachment and disgrace of the pacific Lord Treasurer in the violently anti-Spanish 1624 parliament—spurred on by Buckingham and Prince Charles.

Foreign affairs

In 1623, Buckingham accompanied Charles I, then Prince of Wales, to Spain for marriage negotiations regarding the Infanta Maria. The negotiations had long been stuck, but it is believed that Buckingham's crassness was key to the total collapse of agreement; the Spanish ambassador asked Parliament to have Buckingham executed for his behaviour in Madrid; but Buckingham gained popularity by calling for war with Spain on his return. He headed further marriage negotiations, but when, in 1624, the betrothal to Henrietta Maria of France was announced, the choice of a Catholic was widely condemned. Buckingham's popularity suffered further when he was blamed for the failure of the military expedition under the command of Ernst von Mansfeld, a famous German mercenary general, sent to the continent to recover the Electorate of the Palatinate (1625), which had belonged to Frederick V, Elector Palatine, son-in-law of King James I of England. However, when the Duke of York became King Charles I, Buckingham was the only man to maintain his position from the court of James.

Buckingham led an expedition to repeat the actions of Sir Francis Drake by seizing the main Spanish port at Cádiz and burning the fleet in its harbour. Though his plan was tactically sound, landing further up the coast and marching the militia army on the city, the troops were ill-equipped, ill-disciplined and ill-trained. Coming upon a warehouse filled with wine, they simply got drunk, and the attack was called off. The English army briefly occupied a small port further down the coast before re-boarding its ships.

This was followed by Buckingham leading the Army and the Navy to sea to intercept an anticipated Spanish silver fleet from its American territories. However, the Spanish were forewarned by their intelligence and easily avoided the planned ambush. With supplies running out and men sick and dying from starvation and disease, the fleet limped home in embarrassment.

Buckingham then negotiated with the French Prime Minister to the King, Cardinal Richelieu, for English ships to aid Richelieu in his fight against the French Protestants (Huguenots), in return for French aid against the Spanish occupying the Palatinate. Seven English warships participated in operations against La Rochelle and in the Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré (1625),[7] but Parliament was disgusted and horrified at the thought of English Protestants fighting French Protestants. The plan only fuelled their fears of crypto-Catholicism at court. Buckingham himself, believing that the failure of his enterprise was the result of treachery by Richelieu, formulated an alliance among the churchman's many enemies, a policy that included support for the very Huguenots whom he had recently attacked.

In 1627, Buckingham led another failure: an attempt to aid his new Huguenot allies besieged at La Rochelle in France, by leading the Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré (1627), during which he lost more than 4,000 of a force of 7,000 men.


During the course of his incompetent leadership, Parliament had twice attempted to impeach the Duke. The king had rescued him by dissolving it both times, but public feeling was so inflamed as a result that he was widely blamed as a public enemy. Eventually his physician, Dr Lambe, popularly supposed to assert a diabolic influence over him, was mobbed in the streets and died as a result. Among the pamphlets issued afterwards was one that prophesied

Let Charles and George do what they can,
The Duke shall die like Doctor Lambe.[8]

The Duke was stabbed to death, on August 23, 1628, at the Greyhound Pub in Portsmouth, where he had gone to organize yet another campaign . He lived just long enough to jump up, shouting "Villain!" and made to chase after his assailant, but then fell down dead. The assassin was John Felton, an army officer who had been wounded in the earlier military adventure and believed he had been passed over for promotion by Buckingham.[9] Felton was hanged in October of that year. Buckingham was buried in Westminster Abbey. His lavish tomb bears a Latin inscription that may be translated as "The Enigma of the World".

Buckingham with his wife Katherine Manners, their daughter Mary and son George, 1628


Buckingham had married the daughter of the 6th Earl of Rutland, Lady Katherine Manners, later suo jure Baroness de Ros, on 16 May 1620, against her father's objections. The children of this marriage were:

  1. Mary Villiers (1622 – November 1685)
  2. Charles Villiers, Earl of Coventry (17 Nov 1625 – 16 March 1627, died in infancy)
  3. George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (30 January 1628 – 16 April 1687)
  4. Lord Francis Villiers (1629 – 48, died in a skirmish at Kingston during the Second English Civil War)

Literary references

The Duke has been mentioned as one of the candidates to whom the nursery rhyme "Georgie Porgie" refers, although there is no mention of its existence before the 19th century.[10]

In the few years of popular feeling against the royal favourite at the start of Charles I's reign, and especially after his assassination, a large amount of satirical verse was circulated on the subject. Most of this reflected on how pride goes before a fall and the damage he had done the kingdom, while several pieces commended John Felton's action.[11] A fictionalised Buckingham is one of the characters in Alexandre Dumas, père's The Three Musketeers (1844), which paints him as a lover of Anne of Austria and deals with the siege of La Rochelle and his assassination by Felton.[12] Taylor Caldwell's The Arm and the Darkness (1943) also deals with this period in France, while Hilda LewisWife to Great Buckingham (1959) goes so far as to make Buckingham’s love for the French queen the main cause of his undoing. The Duke also figures in historical romances like Evelyn Anthony's Charles, The King (1963) and Bertrice Small's Darling Jasmine (2007), although the main focus there is on other protagonists. In Philippa Gregory's Earthly Joys (1998), which has as its subject the famous gardener John Tradescant the elder, the bewitching Duke appears half way through the novel as the object of Tradescant's love.[13] Another historical fiction, Ronald Blythe's The Assassin (2004), is written from his killer's point of view as a final confession while awaiting execution in the Tower of London.[14]

Buckingham also appears in the Doctor Who audio drama The Church and the Crown (2002), dealing with the political intrigue of the time. And as George Villiers, he is a major character in Howard Brenton's 2010 play Anne Boleyn as King James I's mate in sexual horseplay.



  1. There was no Duke of Norfolk at the time; the Duchy was "restored" in 1660.


  1. Montague-Smith, Patrick (1970). Debrett's Correct Form. London: Headline. p. 409. ISBN 0-7472-0658-9. 
  2. "Surname Pronunciation: Vavasour to Woburn". Debrett's. Retrieved 9 October 2011. 
  3. "The Western Heritage". p. 420. .
  4. Godfrey Goodman, Bishop of Gloucester, quoted in Gregg, Pauline (1984). King Charles I. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-520-05146-1. 
  5. Bergeron, David M (1999). King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire. p. 175.,+my+sweet+child+and+wife,+and+grant+that+ye+may+ever+be+a+comfort+to+your+dear+dad+and+husband.%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=vIqXUedSwovQBcHhgcgB&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22God%20bless%20you%2C%20my%20sweet%20child%20and%20wife%2C%20and%20grant%20that%20ye%20may%20ever%20be%20a%20comfort%20to%20your%20dear%20dad%20and%20husband.%22&f=false. 
  6. Graham, Fiona (5 June 2008). "To the manor bought". Retrieved 22 September 2011. 
  7. An apprenticeship in arms by Roger Burrow Manning p.115
  8. Frederick William Fairholt, Poems and Songs Relating to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and His Assassination by John Felton, August 23, 1628, London 1850, pp.xiv-xv
  9. Tudor and Stuart Britain 1471–1714, by Roger Lockyer, 2nd edition, London 1985, Longman.
  10. Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, originally published 1951.
  11. Frederick William Fairholt, 1850
  12. The novel is available on Gutenberg
  13. Author's site
  14. Jessica Mann, "The popular murderer", a review in the Daily Telegraph, 26 September 2004


  • Roger Lockyer, Buckingham, the Life and Political Career of George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham, 1592–1628 (Longman, 1981).
  • Paul Bloomfield, Uncommon People. A Study of England's Elite (London: Hamilton, 1955) (about the descendants of George Villiers).
  • Victor Treadwell, "Buckingham and Ireland, 1616–1628. A study of Anglo-Irish politics" (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998).
  • Some text modified from public domain 11th Edition Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911
  • Siobhan Keenan, ‘Staging Roman History, Stuart Politics, and The Duke of Buckingham: The Example of The Emperor’s Favourite ’. Early Theatre, 14:2 (2011). ISSN: 1206-9078. [pp. 63–103]. Available at:
  • Siobhan Keenan, ‘Representing the Duke of Buckingham: Libel, Counter-Libel and the Example of The Emperor’s Favourite ’. Literature Compass, 9:4 (2012). [pp. 292–305]. (About Stuart libels relating to the Duke of Buckingham and a Caroline play satirising his career - The Emperor's Favourite.)

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