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Villiers, George, first duke of Buckinghamlocked

  • Roger Lockyer

George Villiers, first duke of Buckingham (1592–1628)

by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1625

Palazzo Pitti, Florence / Bridgeman Art Library

Villiers, George, first duke of Buckingham (1592–1628), royal favourite, was born at Brooksby Hall, Leicestershire, on 28 August 1592. He was the second son of Sir George Villiers (c. 1544–1606) [see under Villiers, Sir Edward] and his second wife, Mary (c.1570–1632), daughter of Anthony Beaumont of Glenfield, also in Leicestershire; he was the brother of John Villiers, first Viscount Purbeck (1591?–1658), and Christopher Villiers, earl of Anglesey (d. 1630), and the half-brother of Sir Edward Villiers (c. 1585–1626).

Early years and rise to favour

At ten years of age George Villiers was sent to school at Billesdon, 9 miles south-east of Brooksby, where the vicar, Anthony Cade, had established a reputation for himself as a good teacher. He respected Cade and later acted as his patron, but he was not a natural scholar. He excelled in skills such as dancing, fencing, and riding, and since these were combined with exceptional good looks and charm of manner he was well equipped for life as a courtier. After the death of Sir George Villiers in January 1606 his upbringing became the responsibility of his mother, with whom he enjoyed a loving but stormy relationship. She had no links with courtly circles, but after a brief second marriage she made the acquaintance of Sir Thomas Compton, who was to become her third husband. As the son of a peer and the brother of the future earl of Northampton, Compton had the connections that Mary Villiers lacked, and it was through his agency that Villiers and his elder brother, John Villiers, secured privy council passes in 1609 'to repair unto the parts beyond the seas, to gain experience' (BL, Add. MS 11402, fol. 147v).

The two brothers were abroad for some three years, spending the last part of that time in Angers, which had an academy renowned as a finishing school for young gentlemen. When Villiers returned to England in 1611 he made his way to London, where he met Sir John Graham, a gentleman of the king's privy chamber, who advised him to seek his fortune at court and acted as his mentor and promoter. It was probably no coincidence that in August 1614 Villiers was at Apethorpe, the Northamptonshire seat of Sir Anthony Mildmay, when James I came to stay. The king was known to be susceptible to the charms of good-looking young men, particularly those whose manners had been polished in France, and Villiers made a good impression. However, his scope for further advancement was limited by the fact that the king already had an established favourite, Robert Carr, recently created earl of Somerset. Carr blocked a proposal to appoint Villiers a gentleman of the king's bedchamber, but he could not prevent his rival being given the post of cupbearer, which entailed waiting on the king at table. James appreciated the fact that Villiers, who had been carefully groomed by Sir John Graham, was well informed about public affairs and openly praised him for the quality of his conversation.

Somerset had recently married Frances Howard, after she had been divorced from her first husband, the earl of Essex. This brought him firmly within the orbit of the influential Howard family, whose members were in general supportive of James's policy of friendship with Catholic Spain, and who were opposed by a protestant grouping, led by George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, and William Herbert, earl of Pembroke. Despairing of any change in James's policy while the Howards were in the ascendant, Abbot and Pembroke took up Villiers and used him as an instrument to bring about Somerset's downfall—to be followed, they hoped, by that of the Howard connection. Their efforts were crowned with success in April 1615, when Villiers was not only appointed gentleman of the bedchamber but was also knighted by James and given an annual pension of £1000. Later that year, in August, he and the king occupied the same bed at Farnham Castle, where the king was on progress. Sharing a bed was not uncommon in the early seventeenth century, and did not necessarily imply physical intimacy. Yet there was every indication that the relationship between the king and Villiers had entered a new phase, and that the days of Somerset's favour were numbered.

Early in 1616 Somerset and his wife were found guilty of the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, formerly Somerset's close friend and adviser, and although James saved their lives he ordered them to be imprisoned in the Tower of London. With Somerset removed from the scene the way was now open to Villiers, and in January 1616 James made him master of the horse—a prestigious post which Somerset had long sought but never attained. A few months later, in April 1616, James appointed Villiers to the Order of the Garter, and on 27 August, the eve of his favourite's birthday, he created him Baron Whaddon of Whaddon and Viscount Villiers. Villiers declined James's offer of the Sherborne estate, which had previously belonged to Somerset, on the grounds that he did not wish to build his fortunes upon the ruins of his predecessor's, but he agreed to accept crown lands with the equivalent value of £30,000. He also benefited from Somerset's fall in that the king secured for him the office of chief clerk for the enrolment of pleas in the court of king's bench, worth some £4000 a year.

James continued to delight in the company of his new favourite, whom he called affectionately Steenie, a diminutive of Stephen, since St Stephen, according to the Bible, had a face like an angel. On 6 January 1617—the customary time for new year's gifts—James elevated Viscount Villiers to the earldom of Buckingham, and in the following month he was sworn of the privy council. Just under a year later, on 1 January 1618, James created Buckingham a marquess. The king made no secret of his feelings for his favourite. On the contrary, in September 1617 he declared before his privy councillors that 'he loved the Earl of Buckingham more than any other man' and that they should not regard this as a defect in his nature. After all, 'Jesus Christ had done the same as he was doing … for Christ had his John and he had his George' (Documentos ineditos para la historia de España, 1936–45, 1.101–2).

James took it for granted that his favourites would marry, and encouraged Buckingham to ask for the hand of Lady Katherine Manners [see MacDonnell, Katherine, duchess of Buckingham (1603–1649)], whose father, the earl of Rutland, ruled the roost in the part of the world where Buckingham had grown up. Katherine was an heiress, which no doubt carried weight with Buckingham, but was far from being a beauty. She was also a Roman Catholic, like her convert father. James would not hear of his favourite marrying a Catholic, and instructed one of his chaplains, John Williams, to persuade Katherine to give up her faith. After a long struggle Katherine did so, and it was Williams who carried out the private marriage service at Lumley House, near Tower Hill, on 16 May 1620. Katherine brought with her a dowry of £10,000 as well as lands worth some £5000 a year, but the marriage was not merely one of convenience. Buckingham loved his wife, and as for Katherine, she told him in 1623 that 'never woman was so happy as I am, for never was there so kind a husband as you are' (Goodman, 2.309–14). They had four children. First, in March 1622, came Mary [see Villiers, Mary, duchess of Lennox and Richmond (1622–1685)], named after Buckingham's mother. Next, in November 1625, was a son, baptized Charles in honour of the new king, but he died before he was two years old. A second son, George Villiers (1628–1687), was born in January 1628 and in due course succeeded his father as duke of Buckingham. A third son, Francis (1629–1648), who inherited his father's striking good looks, was born in April 1629, by which time Buckingham was dead, but he was killed in July 1648 while fighting for the king in the civil war.

Property, patronage, and office

At the time of his creation as Baron Whaddon, Buckingham had been presented by the king with estates in Buckinghamshire which had come to the crown by forfeit. He was now a landowner in the county from which he drew his titles, but he was eager to acquire property in his native Leicestershire. In 1617 he purchased an estate at Dalby from his former neighbour Sir Edward Noel, and shortly after his marriage he bought Burley on the Hill, in the adjoining county of Rutland. Burley cost him £28,000, and more money was needed as he transformed the existing mansion to suit his own tastes. Burley, however, was too far removed from London to be used regularly, so in July 1622 he bought the Elizabethan mansion of New Hall, just outside Chelmsford in Essex, for £20,000. He also acquired a substantial house at Wanstead, in Essex, from Mountjoy Blount, for whom he procured an Irish baronage.

Although he had official lodgings in the royal palace of Whitehall, Buckingham felt the need for a London residence of his own and in 1621 persuaded the fallen Bacon to hand over York (later Buckingham) House, on the Thames. At the same time he purchased Wallingford House, which had an enviable position overlooking St James's Park. It was worth a great deal more than the £3000 he paid for it, but Viscount Wallingford, the previous owner, was the brother-in-law of Frances Howard, and as part of the bargain Buckingham secured the release of Somerset and Frances from their long imprisonment. The final addition to his London properties came in 1626, when he used the opportunity provided by Cranfield's impeachment to acquire from him the great house at Chelsea which had once belonged to Sir Thomas More. Wallingford House remained Buckingham's principal London home, where his wife and children lived. York House was used mainly for official functions, and for the display of the magnificent collection of pictures which he built up. His adviser on artistic matters was the architect Sir Balthasar Gerbier, who told him in 1625 that

sometimes when I am contemplating the treasure of rarities which your excellency has in so short a time amassed, I cannot but feel astonishment in the midst of my joy; for out of all the amateurs and princes and kings there is not one who has collected in forty years as many pictures as your excellency has collected in five!

Goodman, 2.369–76

Buckingham admired Italian painters, particularly the Venetians. When he was in Spain in 1623 he was so impressed by Titian's portrait of Charles V on horseback that he had a copy made, to be hung in the great hall at York House. He subsequently commissioned an equestrian portrait of himself from Rubens, whom he regarded as the greatest living artist. Buckingham did not confine his collecting activities to paintings. He also acquired sculptures, books, and manuscripts. Like many of his contemporaries he was fascinated by unusual objects from all over the world, made available by the expansion of European commerce, and he assembled a major collection. He was assisted in this by his gardener, John Tradescant, who subsequently established one of the earliest museums in England.

Buckingham spent at least £100,000 on purchasing properties and renovating them, which was far more than he had available from his own resources. In addition to a royal pension of £1000 a year he made £1300 out of a grant of 3d. in the pound on the trade of alien merchants, and £4000 from the clerkship of the king's bench. His estates brought him in £3000 in rents, and other miscellaneous payments raised his ‘open’ income to about £14,000. He was also in receipt of a concealed income from such things as monopoly grants, ‘gifts’ in return for patronage, and the profits of acting as the king's agent for the sale of titles and offices, all of which brought in a minimum of £6000 a year. Buckingham, then, had a total income of £20,000, and quite possibly a good deal more, but the demands on his purse were considerable. His income probably did not cover his regular expenditure; it certainly could not have coped with the cost of buying land and houses. He resorted to borrowing, and James was so alarmed about the scale of this that he turned for help to Buckingham's client Lionel Cranfield, whom he had created earl of Middlesex and appointed lord treasurer. A number of complicated transactions took place, involving the surrender to the crown of certain properties belonging to the favourite, and Buckingham was saved from insolvency, but only at considerable cost to the royal exchequer (BL, Trumbull Alphabetical MSS, XVIII, 82).

Although Buckingham paid £30,000 for the Dalby estate this may have been below its market value, for Sir Edward Noel received a baronage in addition to the purchase money. The sale of titles had started before Buckingham appeared on the political scene, but he turned it into a lucrative business. As a result, the eighty-one peerages existent in December 1615 had increased to 126 by the time of his death. The crown profited from the sale of both honours and offices, but the major beneficiary was Buckingham. He specialized in selling Irish titles, and may have been responsible for the creation of a new order of Irish baronets in 1619. He seems to have regarded Ireland as virtually his own preserve, set aside for plunder by the Villiers kin and connection, and his operations there, conducted mainly for financial gain, were subversive of the established government. Taken together with his involvement in the shady underworld of monopolists, financiers, and projectors in early Stuart England, they explain why he became for many members of the political nation the embodiment of corruption.

Buckingham was also blamed for securing titles and offices for his many relatives, though the initiative in this was probably taken by James. His immediate kindred were the first to profit from the king's bounty. His mother was given the title of countess of Buckingham in 1618. His elder brother, John, was appointed groom of the bedchamber in 1616, and elevated to the peerage as Viscount Purbeck in 1619. Christopher Villiers, the favourite's younger brother, became a gentleman of the bedchamber in 1617 and subsequently master of the robes. However, he had to wait until 1623 before being created earl of Anglesey. Buckingham's sister, Susan, had long been married to William Feilding, a Warwickshire gentleman, but as a consequence of her brother's rise to favour her husband became master of the wardrobe and earl of Denbigh. Edward Villiers, Buckingham's half-brother, was knighted in 1616 and subsequently appointed master of the mint and comptroller of the court of wards. At the very end of James's reign he was given the additional office of president of Munster. Edward Villiers married a niece of Sir Oliver St John, for whom Buckingham secured the major post of lord deputy of Ireland. The rapid rise of Buckingham's kindred provoked hostile comment, but a good deal of this arose from envy and it should not be assumed that his actions ran counter to prevailing conventions. When defending himself against impeachment charges in 1626 Buckingham argued that he would have deserved condemnation by 'all generous minds if, being in such favour with his master, he had minded only his own advancement and had neglected those who were nearest unto him' (JHL, 3.662).

While Buckingham was to become the major distributor of royal patronage in Jacobean England he never obtained a monopoly—except in the negative sense that he could usually block the promotion of those of whom he disapproved. When the king, as was usually the case, had no strong opinions on an appointment, Buckingham's choice was likely to prevail. If, however, the king chose to intervene directly, the favourite had no choice but to acquiesce. In 1619, for example, James chose Sir George Calvert as secretary of state, ignoring Buckingham's candidates. Similarly, in 1621, when a new lord keeper was needed to replace Sir Francis Bacon, the king disregarded Buckingham's recommendations and selected John Williams, at that time dean of Westminster. Buckingham immediately set about bringing Williams within his circle of influence, showing a typical capacity for making the best of a situation that was not of his own devising.

Patrons expected to be rewarded by their clients, and Buckingham was no exception. Gifts of money, plate, and works of art were significant additions to both his wealth and his prestige, but this does not mean that he was prompted solely by considerations of profit when he advanced the claims of one of his clients. Among the most prominent of these was Sir Francis Bacon, who resented the fact that despite his exceptional talents he had not attained high office. No sooner did Buckingham appear on the scene than Bacon appointed himself as the new favourite's guide and mentor, and, as a consequence, his career at last took off. In 1616 he was made a privy councillor, and in the following year he achieved his ambition of becoming lord keeper—the office which his father had held under Elizabeth. Another of Buckingham's clients who well merited the advancement the favourite procured for him was Lionel Cranfield, a successful merchant turned financier and government adviser. Cranfield, as James later told parliament,

was an instrument, under Buckingham, for reformation of the household, the navy and the exchequer, Buckingham setting him on and taking upon himself the envy of all the officers; and he himself many a time protested unto me that he had not been able to do me any service in the ministerial part if Buckingham had not backed him in it.

JHL, 3.344

Naval affairs were the responsibility of the lord admiral, Charles Howard, earl of Nottingham. He had won renown when he commanded the English fleet against the Armada, but by 1618 he was over eighty and no longer in control of the principal officers of the navy, who had become bywords for corruption. Buckingham had been informed about the true state of the navy by Cranfield, and was eager to demonstrate that although he had come to prominence on account of his looks he could be of real service to the crown. His lack of seagoing experience was not a major impediment, since the lord admiral's job was mainly administrative. What was needed, apart from good advisers, was energy, commitment, and the support of the king, and on all these counts he was well qualified. This was the logic behind his appointment as lord admiral in January 1619. He decided that the principal officers of the navy should no longer run it as they saw fit. Instead, he transferred responsibility to the reform commissioners, who brought about a steady improvement. When Buckingham became lord admiral the amount spent on the navy exceeded £50,000 a year. By 1624 this figure had been cut to £30,000, yet the number of seaworthy ships had gone up from twenty-three to thirty-five. Officers' pay was increased in 1618, and that for ordinary sailors in 1624. All in all his administration of the navy in the years of peace that lasted until near the end of James's reign was effective and successful. However, the war years were to show that underlying weaknesses remained.

International crisis and the 1621 parliament

James gloried in the name of peacemaker, but the prospects of maintaining peace in Europe became markedly worse after 1619, when his son-in-law, Frederick, the elector palatine, who had rashly accepted the offer of the Bohemian crown, was driven out of Prague by forces acting in the name of Ferdinand, the deposed king of Bohemia and now Holy Roman emperor. Frederick and his wife, Elizabeth, could not simply return to the Palatinate because Spanish forces had occupied the area on the left bank of the Rhine while the army of the Catholic League was advancing along the right bank. Buckingham was said to be an ardent advocate of the palatine's cause, and strongly approved of James's decision to send a volunteer force to the Palatinate to garrison a number of key towns. His initial enthusiasm cooled as a result of a clash with Frederick's ambassador, who rejected his nomination of Sir Edward Cecil as commander of this force, but he nevertheless contributed the large sum of £5000 to the voluntary benevolence which James authorized as a means of financing it.

The benevolence was at best a short-term palliative. For more substantial support a parliament was necessary, and James summoned one to meet in January 1621. Apart from the short-lived Addled Parliament of 1614 this was the first meeting for eleven years, and the Commons were certain to seize the opportunity to make known to the king the grievances of which their constituents complained. The principal grievance concerned the abuse of monopolies. These were licences, or patents, either sold or given by the crown, granting the patentees the sole right to engage in a specific activity. Buckingham was not a monopolist himself, but he had secured a number of grants for members of his family. The most notorious of these was the patent for regulating inns, which had been acquired by Sir Giles Mompesson, the brother-in-law of Sir Edward Villiers, on the understanding that the profits—mainly gained from extortion—would be shared with Sir Edward and Christopher Villiers. Another monopoly in which Sir Edward was involved was that for the manufacture of gold and silver thread. Before the session opened Buckingham had been advised by Bacon to 'put off the envy of these things (which I think in themselves bear no great fruit) and rather take the thanks for ceasing them than the note for maintaining them' (Works of Francis Bacon, 14.148–9). The advice was timely, for no sooner had parliament opened than the Commons mounted an attack upon Mompesson, who was one of its members. Mompesson appealed to Buckingham for help, but promptly went into hiding, thereby implicitly acknowledging his guilt. Attention then turned to the role of Sir Edward and Christopher Villiers, but Buckingham warded off criticism of himself by assuring members of both houses that if his two brothers were guilty of malpractice 'he would not protect them; but we should see that the same father who begot them that were the offenders begot a third that would get them to be punished' (W. Notestein and others, eds., Commons Debates, 1621, 7 vols., 1935, 2.212).

Buckingham's insistence that he, like James, had been misled by the spurious claims of monopoly seekers switched the attention of the Commons to the referees whom the king appointed to scrutinize all projected patents and report on whether they were in accordance with law and for the public good. Among the principal referees was Bacon, now lord chancellor, and the Commons' investigations revealed that he had taken bribes. They transmitted this information to the Lords and called on them to take appropriate action. Bacon, who had retired to his sickbed, appealed to Buckingham, whom he described as 'my anchor in these floods' (Works of Francis Bacon, 14.225), but although the favourite made repeated visits to his mentor he did not intervene on his behalf. In the event, Bacon acknowledged his guilt and was sentenced by the Lords to loss of office, imprisonment, and a heavy fine. Buckingham was the only member of the upper house to vote in Bacon's favour.

Further problems for Buckingham arose when the Lords questioned the attorney-general, Sir Henry Yelverton, about the heavy-handed way in which he had enforced the patent for gold and silver thread. Yelverton responded by throwing all the blame upon Sir Edward and Christopher Villiers and claiming that 'my lord of Buckingham was ever at his majesty's hand, ready upon every occasion to hew me down'. He added that 'if my lord of Buckingham had but read the articles exhibited in this place against Hugh Spencer, and had known the danger of placing and displacing officers about a king, he would not have pursued me with such bitterness' (JHL, 3.121). The house was shocked by the comparison of Buckingham with the Despensers, the hated favourites of Edward II, and James even more so. 'If he Spencer', said the king, 'I Edward II … I had rather be no king than such a one as King Edward II' (Camden Miscellany, 20, CS, 3rd ser., 83, 1953, 33). It may be that Buckingham's enemies in the upper house had planned to use Yelverton as an instrument to procure his downfall, but if so they overplayed their hand. The Lords, to whom James had remitted Yelverton's judgment, had no choice but to find him guilty and sentence him to fines and imprisonment—though Buckingham immediately remitted the fine of 5000 marks which had been imposed for the slur upon his honour.

Buckingham had been a regular attender in the Lords during the first session of the 1621 parliament, but was rarely present in the second, which opened in November 1621, since the king demanded his company in the hunting field. A decisive moment in the debates came when Sir George Goring, acting on Buckingham's instructions, suggested that the Commons should draw up a petition to the king proposing that if the Spaniards intensified the fighting in Germany by continuing to assist the emperor, James should announce his readiness to redress the balance by entering the conflict. The Commons followed Goring's suggestion, but extended its terms by asking that the prince of Wales should be married to a protestant. This infuriated James, who was engaged in delicate negotiations for Charles to marry a Spanish princess. His angry response to the Commons' petition set in train a course of events that led to the abrupt dissolution of parliament. Many people accused Buckingham of bringing this about in order to prevent further attacks upon himself, and in particular to blunt the effectiveness of the commission of inquiry into the governance of Ireland which James, at Cranfield's prompting, had agreed to set up. Buckingham was virtually the sole channel of communication between the king at Newmarket and parliament and the privy council in London, and could conceivably have limited the amount of information that James received, and encouraged him to take a hard line with the Commons. But James was never merely a cipher. He had strong opinions of his own, not least upon the role of the Commons, and it may well be that Buckingham was acting as the executant of the king's policy rather than pursuing his private interests. Goring's motion could have been an attempt on James's part to strengthen his hand in the negotiations with Spain by demonstrating the strength of popular feeling on the palatine issue. If this was his intention, then his anger against the Commons is understandable, for by ‘misreading’ his message they transformed it into something that was, from the king's point of view, counter-productive. On this issue, as on a number of others, the surviving evidence is inconclusive.

The Spanish match and the road to war, 1623–1625

James was convinced that the best hope for restoring Frederick to the Palatinate lay in co-operation with Spain, and was therefore anxious to conclude the long-drawn-out negotiations for his son's marriage. John Digby, his ambassador at the court of Philip IV, sent back optimistic reports, but these failed to dispel suspicions that the Spanish ministers were not acting in good faith. In order to clarify the situation James dispatched Endymion Porter to Madrid. Porter was a member of Buckingham's household and a relative by marriage; more to the point, he had been brought up in Spain and spoke the language fluently. When he returned to England in January 1623 Porter gave assurances that negotiations for both the marriage and the restoration of the Palatinate were well advanced. However, he revealed to Buckingham his suspicion that the count of Olivares, Philip IV's chief minister, was opposed to both projects. This news was unwelcome to Prince Charles, who was in his twenty-third year and eager to be married, and he may have been the author of the plan to make an unannounced journey overland to Spain, since, by arriving in person in Madrid, he would compel Philip and Olivares to reveal their true intentions. If this interpretation is correct, the prince would have turned to Buckingham for assistance in winning James's consent. James did eventually agree, but only on condition that Buckingham accompanied his son. Buckingham and Charles set out for Paris, disguised and under assumed names, on 18 February 1623, and on 7 March they arrived at Digby's house in Madrid.

The prince and Buckingham spent the next six months in Spain, and in the course of firsthand encounters with Philip IV and his ministers Buckingham was made aware that their principal objective was the maintenance and increase of Habsburg power in Europe, with little regard to English interests. The Spaniards demanded further concessions on the treatment of English Catholics before they would agree to the marriage, and Olivares believed that the prince would have been prepared to accept these, had it not been for Buckingham's countervailing pressure. Relations between the two favourites deteriorated, and in one of his letters home Buckingham blamed 'the foolery of the Conde of Olivares' for the failure to complete the negotiations. He accused the Spaniards of 'first delaying us as long as possibly they can. Then, when things are concluded of, they thrust in new particulars, in hope they will pass, out of our desire to make haste' (BL, Harley MS 6987, fol. 107). The articles of marriage were eventually drawn up and accepted by both sides, but the Spaniards refused to allow the infanta to leave until a papal dispensation had arrived. They were hoping that the prince would stay on, while Buckingham returned home, but by this time even Charles was distrustful of the Spaniards' promises, especially since there had been no agreement on their part to assist in the recovery of the Palatinate. Buckingham and the prince therefore decided to leave Madrid at the end of August 1623 and to make their way to Santander, where an English fleet awaited them.

Buckingham had taken a risk by absenting himself from England, and in particular from James, for so long a period. Even before he left there had been talk of the king's increasing fondness for Cranfield's brother-in-law, Arthur Brett, and Buckingham ensured that the young man was sent into temporary exile. Yet James remained as attached as ever to his favourite. He delighted in the frequent letters—beginning with 'Dear Dad and Gossip' and signed by 'Your humble slave and dog'—which Buckingham wrote on behalf of himself and the prince, and responded with his own to 'My sweet boys'. One of James's letters, sent in May, informed Buckingham that he was now a duke, and Buckingham wrote a fulsome reply thanking the king for the way in which he had 'filled a consuming purse, given me fair houses, more land than I am worthy of to maintain both me and them, [and] filled my coffers so full with patents of honour that my shoulder cannot bear more' (BL, Harley MS 6987, fol. 153). James longed for the return of his 'dear venturous knights' (G. P. V. Akrigg, ed., Letters of King James VI & I, 1984, 388) and when the two young men reached Royston on 6 October the warmth of his reception was unmistakable. Yet Buckingham was no longer the uncritical executant of royal policy that he had been before the Spanish journey, nor was Prince Charles. James complained that when the prince set out for Spain he had been

as well affected to that nation as heart could desire, and as well disposed as any son in Europe; but now he was strangely carried away with rash and youthful counsels and followed the humour of Buckingham, who had he knew not how many devils within him since that journey.

Cabala, 276

The prince had returned without his bride, though negotiations for the marriage had not yet been formally broken off, and Buckingham was convinced that the expansion of Habsburg power was a threat to England as well as other states, and would have to be resisted. He was clearly envisaging war with Spain, but he needed the support of parliament, not simply to win over the ever-hesitant James but also to rally public opinion behind his policy and ensure financial backing for it. As the first step towards a parliament he gave a report on his negotiations to a cabinet-council of leading ministers, but these were divided in their response. Even those who were eager for a change of course found it hard to accept that a man who had been so closely identified with the king's pro-Spanish stance had really changed his spots. Buckingham would probably not have secured majority support if he had been acting alone. However, with Prince Charles firmly behind him he succeeded in doing so, and James thereupon agreed to summon the parliament which began its session in February 1624.

Buckingham had prepared the way for a constructive meeting by making conciliatory gestures towards his principal opponents in the Lords and establishing close contacts with his former critics in the Commons. He also addressed a meeting of both houses, giving them a detailed account of all that happened during the time that he and the prince had spent in Spain, and making plain his belief that it was futile and dangerous to rely upon Spanish promises. He ended by calling on the assembled members to decide whether they should advise James to continue the negotiations with Spain or 'to trust in his own strength and to stand upon his own feet' (Rushworth, 1.125). Buckingham would have liked parliament to make a speedy vote of supply, not simply to enable the fleet to be set out but, even more important, to show James that his subjects could be trusted to support him if he took a firm line against Spain. However, James, like Buckingham, was a hostage to his former attitudes, and members of parliament had good reason for fearing that any moneys they voted would be frittered away. Conversely, James had been taught by experience that parliaments were generous in their promises of assistance but unforthcoming when it came to putting them into effect. Years of mutual distrust could not be swept away overnight, particularly since there was no agreement over policy objectives. Buckingham, like most members of parliament, wanted a sea war against Spain. James, on the other hand, was thinking in terms of a limited military campaign in the Palatinate. He had not broken off his contacts with the Spanish envoys in England and still hoped to secure a resolution of the crisis through diplomacy.

Buckingham could not openly advocate a sea war against Spain for fear of alienating the king. At the same time he could not confine himself to pressing for military action in the Palatinate, since this would have lost him support in parliament. He therefore pursued a deliberately ambiguous policy, encouraging all the parties involved to feel that he was advancing their interests and playing down the significance of any differences that became apparent. His assumption was that once war was in progress the course of events would dictate appropriate responses. However, the path to war proved to be tortuous, and by acting as the link figure between the king and parliament Buckingham was in constant danger of losing the confidence of both. His frequent visits to court served to keep James in line, but only at the cost of straining personal relations, as was shown when the king accused him of using 'cruel, Catonic words' (BL, Harley MS 6987, fol. 196). Meanwhile, the Spanish envoys were mounting a propaganda campaign against the duke, alleging that he intended to keep James permanently in the country while he took over the reins of government himself. The sudden reappearance on the scene of Arthur Brett was another alarm signal. Buckingham had already lost patience with Brett's brother-in-law, Lionel Cranfield, earl of Middlesex, for opposing war with Spain on financial grounds, and also for continuing his efforts to combat corruption—much of it linked with the Villiers connection—in Ireland. The favourite now struck back by instigating the lord treasurer's impeachment in April 1624. Middlesex's cost-cutting measures, while benefiting the crown, had alienated all those who profited from James's largess, and his abrasive manner had won him few friends. Overthrowing Middlesex was therefore calculated to increase Buckingham's popularity at the same time as it removed a threat to his policies and position.

By April 1624 Buckingham had persuaded the Commons to give the first reading to a subsidy bill in return for a formal assurance, which he delivered to both houses, that the king had broken off negotiations with Spain. He had also persuaded James to receive the mercenary commander, Count Mansfeld, who had offered his services for the recovery of the Palatinate. At the same time Buckingham, despite the lack of parliamentary funding, had set on foot preparations for a naval expedition against the Spaniards, in which he invited the Dutch to join. The conflicting pressures upon him contributed to a breakdown in his health, but although this removed him for some six weeks from his central role, it had the advantage of restoring his position with James. The king came to see him frequently, sent gifts of fruit, and gave repeated assurances that he loved and trusted him as much as ever. Buckingham was profuse in his thanks to his sovereign, whom he described as 'my purveyor, my goodfellow, my physician, my maker, my friend, my father, my all' (NL Scot., Denmilne MSS 33.1.7, vol. 22, 79).

When he returned to court in mid-June 1624 Buckingham concentrated on concluding an alliance with France, to be cemented by a marriage between Prince Charles and Louis XIII's sister, Henrietta Maria. Negotiations, which began in early April, had been proceeding smoothly, but in June 1624 Louis dismissed his chief minister and replaced him by Cardinal Richelieu, who insisted that no marriage could take place unless James gave a formal promise to relax the persecution of English Catholics. James's immediate reaction was hostile, but Buckingham, working hand in glove with the French ambassador, persuaded him to make a constructive response. The area for compromise was limited by the fact that Prince Charles had given an undertaking in the House of Lords that the terms of a French marriage, if ever it came about, would include no concessions to the recusants at home. This was circumvented when James, under pressure from Buckingham, agreed to give the written assurance that Richelieu required, but only on condition that it should not be included in the formal marriage treaty. In the French negotiations, as with those he had earlier conducted between the king and parliament, Buckingham was working on the assumption that the essential first step was to get the parties committed. Half-truths and ambiguities were part of the price that had to be paid to bring this about, but the pressure of events—or so he hoped—would make these irrelevant by forcing the constituent parts of the anti-Habsburg alliance into ever closer co-operation. This gamble might have paid off had the initial operations been successful. In the event, failure led to accusations of bad faith against Buckingham, who had been the architect of the strategy.

The first fruits of Anglo-French co-operation consisted in an expedition to the Palatinate under the command of Mansfeld. England was to provide 10,000 infantry, while 3000 cavalry were to come from France. If Buckingham had been a free agent, as his enemies assumed, the expedition would have had a reasonable chance of success, but James insisted on imposing conditions that prompted the French to draw back. Mutual distrust led to last-minute changes of plan which effectively sabotaged Mansfeld's expedition. His troops were held so long on board ship, waiting for agreement on where they should go, that infection set in and they died like flies. Matters were no better when the survivors arrived in the Netherlands, for the winter quarters provided for them were inadequate and food supplies exiguous. News of the disintegration of Mansfeld's army had a profound effect upon English public opinion, and responsibility for the failure was firmly pinned upon Buckingham.

The death of James I in March 1625 could have entailed the end of Buckingham's influence, for history had few examples of favour being transferred from a reigning monarch to his successor. However, during the journey to Spain in 1623 the relationship between Buckingham and the prince of Wales had developed into a deep friendship, and one of Charles's first actions after he ascended the throne was to assure the duke that his favour would continue into the new reign. It might have been better for Charles if he had not done so, for Buckingham was now the object of suspicion and even hatred among the king's subjects, but Charles saw no reason to dispense with the services of a man he trusted and who shared his own views on how to respond to the crisis in Europe. A key element in their strategy was to cement the alliance with France, and Buckingham hoped to do this when he went to Paris in May 1625. The official purpose of his visit was to bring back the king's bride, Henrietta Maria, but he took the opportunity to hold discussions with Richelieu designed to commit France to an anti-Habsburg league. The timing of his initiative was unfortunate, for the Huguenots of La Rochelle, alarmed by the accession to power of a man they regarded as a hardline Catholic, had taken up arms in self-defence. Richelieu regarded it as axiomatic that as long as the Huguenots were in revolt against Louis's authority France could not risk foreign entanglements. He therefore declined to enter into any new engagements of the sort that Buckingham wanted. The duke was not only disappointed; he also had to consider the possibility that Richelieu, as might be expected from a churchman, put religious before political considerations and was more inclined to détente with Catholic Spain than alliance with protestant England. If this were the case, then Richelieu would have to be removed from power. The cardinal had many enemies at court, not least the queen, Anne of Austria, to whom Buckingham expressed his devotion in ways that some observers believed exceeded the bounds of decorum. Louis's anger when he heard reports of this became another thread in the tangled skein of Anglo-French relations.

Cadiz and Ré expeditions, 1625–1627

When Charles opened his first parliament in June 1625 he assumed that its members, thankful for the accession of a ruler who shared their desire for active involvement in the European war, would make a generous grant of supply. However, he gave them no indication of how much money was needed, and left to their own devices the Commons granted a mere two subsidies. When Buckingham heard of this he urged his friends and clients in the lower house to push for more, and instructed Sir John Coke, his principal adviser on naval matters, to provide the Commons with a detailed account of the government's financial needs. The Commons refused to enlarge upon their grant, yet money was urgently required for Mansfeld, who was still in the field—though his army now consisted mainly of German mercenaries—and for the king's uncle, Christian IV of Denmark, who was ready to invade north Germany. The greatest need of all was for the fleet which Buckingham was assembling to attack the Spanish coast. The Dutch had already agreed to join in the expedition, but if its departure was delayed until the autumn, when the weather worsened, its prospects of success would be diminished.

Buckingham was insistent that parliament should be recalled for a second session, this time to Oxford, since plague had broken out in London. Charles agreed, and the two houses reassembled at the beginning of August. Although on this occasion they were given full particulars of the king's requirements it became clear when debate opened in the Commons that members had no confidence in Buckingham and were unwilling to finance his strategy. The duke decided to use the tactics that had succeeded so well in 1624 by appearing in person before the two houses and publicly rebutting the complaints made against him. On this occasion, however, he did not succeed in winning over his critics, who now claimed that he was responsible for everything that had gone wrong. The king therefore decided to cut his losses, and on 12 August 1625 he dissolved parliament.

Buckingham had originally planned to lead the expedition against Spain himself, but his health was still far from robust, and he was engaged in negotiations for the formal establishment of an anti-Habsburg alliance that demanded his presence elsewhere. He therefore appointed Sir Edward Cecil, a soldier with long experience fighting for the Dutch, as commander. Charles had raised loans from the City and international financiers to set out the expedition, but shortage of money remained a major problem, and continued delays undid much of the work already done. The expedition was not ready to sail until early October, by which time the weather was deteriorating. Despite suffering storm damage in the Bay of Biscay, it managed to reach the Bay of Cadiz, but a half-hearted attempt to assault the town turned into farce when the soldiers stumbled across wine vats and broke them open to quench their thirst. Cecil's army was transformed into a drunken rabble, incapable of fighting, and he had no alternative but to re-embark it and sail for home. Food and water were now running short and infection had set in. Both soldiers and sailors were in such bad shape that the journey back to England was a nightmare, and when the ships at last straggled into harbour their crews looked like skeletons. Among those who witnessed this inglorious return was Sir John Eliot, and in the 1626 parliament he expressed a sense of outrage, focused on Buckingham, which was widely felt: 'our honour is ruined, our ships are sunk, our men perished, not by the sword, not by an enemy, not by chance, but … by those we trust' (Eliot, 1.155).

While the Cadiz expedition was making its way home Buckingham was in The Hague to sign a treaty with Danish and Dutch representatives which committed their respective countries to joint military action for the restoration of the Palatinate and the containment of Habsburg power. He hoped that France would join the alliance, but the situation was complicated, as always, by the Huguenot revolt. In late 1624, when France had been planning an attack upon Genoa, which was a Spanish satellite, Louis had asked the Dutch and the English to lend warships to blockade the port. Both states made a positive response, but after the outbreak of the Huguenot revolt there were fears that the ships might be used against La Rochelle. The Dutch could do little about this, for they had already handed over their vessels, but Buckingham engaged in delaying tactics until assured that peace had been concluded between Louis and the rebels. This assurance proved incorrect, but because of their late arrival the English vessels, unlike the Dutch, played only a minor part in the naval engagement in early September in which the Huguenot fleet was virtually destroyed. This did not prevent Buckingham's detractors from asserting that he had connived with the French to defeat the Huguenots instead of defending them, as a good protestant ought to have done.

Buckingham was eager to see the dispute between Louis and the Huguenots resolved, for, as he told the French ambassador, it was impeding the creation of 'a great union of all the states which are apprehensive about the power of Spain' (TNA: PRO, Baschet transcripts, 31/3, bundle 62, fol. 159v). He therefore dispatched two trusted envoys, the earl of Holland and Sir Dudley Carleton, to France to try to reconcile the warring parties. This they succeeded in doing in January 1626, and he was hopeful that Richelieu would now commit France to the objectives of the Hague treaty, even if he preferred to remain outside the formal alliance. Holland and Carleton were given assurances to this effect, yet while Richelieu was talking about a forthcoming military campaign in Italy, he was secretly negotiating a settlement with Spain which would restore peace to the Peninsula. When news of this leaked out it revived all the earlier doubts about the cardinal's exact intentions and made it imperative to consider the possibility of concerted action to remove Richelieu from power.

Since any action would require money the king summoned parliament to meet in February 1626. Before it did so Buckingham called a conference at York House to discuss the vexed question of Arminianism. The Arminians, who formed a minority high-church group within the Church of England, were regarded by the non-Arminian majority as crypto-Catholics. It was widely assumed that Buckingham—whose mother and father-in-law, as well as many of his friends, were Catholic—was himself an Arminian sympathizer, and he was under pressure from his critics to make his position plain. There was no doubt that if he aligned himself with the anti-Arminians, his relationship with parliament would improve, and the York House conference, which took place on 11 and 17 February 1626, provided an appropriate opportunity. The key question was whether he would support the anti-Arminians' proposal that the established church should adopt the articles drawn up by the Synod of Dort, held in the Netherlands in 1619, which formally condemned the principal Arminian positions. In the event, Buckingham—who was aware that the king inclined towards the Arminians—refused to do so, and although the York House conference ended inconclusively it left Buckingham exposed to the wrath of the anti-Arminians who dominated the House of Commons.

Parliament met under the shadow of the failed Cadiz expedition, and the Commons set up a committee to identify the causes of the evils by which the state was afflicted and to propose remedies. The committee decided that Buckingham was the principal cause and that he should therefore be impeached. In the charges presented to the Lords on 8 May 1626, he was accused of holding too many offices; of delivering English ships into French hands for use against the Huguenots; of selling honours and offices; of procuring titles for his kindred; and, finally, of poisoning James I. In his reply to the charges, which he made on 8 June, Buckingham acknowledged that he had been 'raised to honour and fortunes … beyond my merit' but insisted that 'what I have wanted in sufficiency and experience … I have endeavoured to supply by care and industry'. He dealt with the charges one by one, giving his version of disputed issues, and ended with the assertion that 'his love and duty to his country have restrained him and preserved him (he hopeth) from running into heinous and high misdemeanours and crimes' (JHL, 3.656, 663).

Impeachment was a legal process, dependent upon proof, but there was no clear evidence of either criminal intent or activity in Buckingham's case. The attack on the favourite was essentially political, and was aimed at removing him from the king's counsels. But Charles saw no reason to abandon him, especially since, as the king had already made plain, 'he hath not meddled or done anything concerning the public or commonwealth but by special directions and appointment, and as my servant' (Rushworth, 1.217). Far from deserting Buckingham he exerted all his influence to ensure that the duke acquired yet another prestigious office, namely the chancellorship of Cambridge University, in June 1626. Charles believed the attack upon the favourite was really aimed at himself and monarchical rule in England. Rather than allow the impeachment to continue its course before the Lords, who could no longer be relied upon to throw out the charges, he dissolved parliament.

Before the dissolution the Commons had decided, in principle and as a quid pro quo for Buckingham's dismissal, to vote three subsidies. Charles and his councillors now decided to raise the equivalent amount by means of a forced loan. This would enable the king to continue supporting his allies in the anti-Habsburg league. Buckingham was more than ever convinced that the key to success for the league was to be found in Paris, but there was continuing uncertainty about the true nature of French intentions. Richelieu's decision to assume responsibility for naval matters and begin construction of a powerful French fleet implied a threat to England of which Buckingham, as lord admiral, was particularly conscious. Of more immediate concern was the French seizure of the entire English wine fleet, lying in harbour at Bordeaux in late 1626, in retaliation for the English capture of French vessels accused of trading with Spain. Buckingham riposted by sending a fleet under the command of one of his best captains, John Pennington, to cruise up and down the French coast and 'intercept and take … all French, Dunkirkers' and Spanish ships and goods as shall come out of the Low Countries for the use of the French king' (BL, Add. MS 37817, fol. 31v).

As evidence of Richelieu's apparent untrustworthiness mounted, Buckingham became convinced that the cardinal must be overthrown. He planned to achieve this by fusing the discontents of peripheral states such as Savoy and Lorraine with those of the Huguenots and the French nobility, who deeply resented Richelieu's monopoly of power. Knitting together these various elements was a complex operation, and nothing effective would be accomplished without a clear lead from England. Buckingham planned to provide this by a combined naval and military expedition to the island of Ré, off La Rochelle. The capture of Ré would inhibit French attempts to blockade the Huguenot stronghold and also enable reinforcements to be sent in if Richelieu launched a direct attack. More important, it would be a major blow to Richelieu's reputation and weaken his hold on power.

Charles I's financial position had eased as the proceeds of the forced loan came in, especially as these were supplemented by the sale of goods and ships taken by Pennington. As a consequence the expedition which Buckingham assembled was far better prepared than that for Cadiz. The fleet arrived off the south-eastern tip of Ré on 12 July 1627 and the troops were successfully landed, although they suffered losses from attacks by enemy cavalry. Five days later the army reached St Martin, the main town on the island, and invested the citadel into which the French defenders had withdrawn. By the end of September the garrison was close to capitulation, and one of the leading Huguenot nobles, the duke of Rohan, subsequently gave his opinion that if the citadel had fallen 'there was every possibility of a great change in the face of affairs' (Mémoires Du Duc de Rohan, 1675, 207). However, Richelieu, who had taken personal charge of the French forces on the nearby mainland, dispatched a convoy of small ships which slipped through the English blockading fleet and brought supplies to the starving garrison. There was no prospect now of a swift victory for Buckingham's army, and his officers advised him to withdraw from Ré before the onset of winter, particularly since the reinforcements sent from England had been too little and too late. Buckingham made one last attempt to capture the citadel, this time by storming it, but his troops were beaten off by the defenders. He then gave the order to retreat, but the way to the ships was blocked by French forces sent over from the mainland. The English had to fight their way through, and suffered heavy casualties. Buckingham's army numbered nearly 8000 when it set out for Ré, but only 3000 returned to Portsmouth in November 1627.

1628 parliament and assassination

The failure of the Ré expedition made Buckingham even more unpopular, if such a thing was possible, and anonymous ballads spread the message that 'These things have lost our honour, men surmise: Thy treachery, neglect and cowardice' (Fairholt, 24). He was also held responsible for actions such as the levying of the forced loan, the imprisonment of resisters, and compulsory billeting of troops that seemed to threaten fundamental English liberties. Yet Charles, who blamed himself for not ensuring the timely dispatch of supplies and reinforcements to Ré, had no intention of abandoning either Buckingham or the policies which they had jointly formulated. The immediate need was to secure the English coast against privateers and enemy forces, and in February 1628 the lord admiral ordered the construction of ten pinnaces 'of extraordinarily good sail … and with the most advantage as may be for sailing and rowing' (TNA: PRO, SP 16, 94, 37). He also ended the reign of the navy commissioners, whom he blamed for the failure to cope with the demands of wartime, and restored control to the principal officers. Changes in administrative structures, however, could not compensate for the crippling shortage of money. Only parliament could provide the solution, but Charles was reluctant to summon one unless he had some assurance that it would not renew the attack upon Buckingham. However, there was by now a general recognition that disharmony between the king and his subjects had reached dangerous heights and that some sort of reconciliation must be attempted. It was against this background that the king sent out writs for his third parliament, which met on 17 March 1628.

In response to detailed expositions of the government's policy the Commons decided, in principle, to offer the king five subsidies, worth over a quarter of a million pounds. Charles welcomed this as a positive step, but the offer was conditional on his acceptance of a petition of right, confirming English liberties. Debates on the wording lasted until early June, and Buckingham spent much of this time trying to persuade the Lords that a clause explicitly confirming the king's prerogative powers should be inserted. However, his influence had been diminished by the retreat from Ré and the subsequent failure of an expedition to La Rochelle, sent out under the command of his brother-in-law, the earl of Denbigh. In the end the Lords agreed to go along with the Commons, and Buckingham accepted their decision. He was now involved in preparations for another expedition, to be led by himself, but these were hamstrung by the continuing shortage of money, and nothing would be forthcoming until the petition had passed through all its stages. This process was virtually completed by 2 June, when the king gave his response, but since it was not in the traditional form it deprived the petition of its quasi-statutory status. The Commons blamed Buckingham for Charles's equivocal reply, and although the king tried to assuage their anxieties by summoning both houses before him and ordering the conventional response to a petition of right to be read, he could not stop them from renewing the attack upon the favourite. In the remonstrance which the Commons presented to Charles on 17 June 1628 they called on him to consider 'whether, in respect the said Duke hath so abused his power, it be safe for your majesty and your kingdom to continue him either in his great offices or in his place of nearness and counsel about your sacred person' (Rushworth, 1.626). Charles had already declared that he was fully persuaded of Buckingham's innocence, 'as well by his own certain knowledge as by the proofs in the cause', and on 26 June 1628 he put an end to further proceedings by bringing the session to a close.

The expedition which Buckingham was now planning included a number of fireships packed with explosives, designed to blow gaps in the floating palisade which the French had constructed to cut off the seaward approaches to La Rochelle. The fleet was assembling at Portsmouth, but the duke remained in London until late July, since his presence was essential if the vital supplies and munitions were to be dispatched on time. Writing to Secretary Conway, who was with the king at Portsmouth, on 6 August, he complained that 'I find nothing of more difficulty and uncertainty than the preparations here for this service of Rochelle. Every man saith he hath all things ready, and yet all remains as it were at a stand' (TNA: PRO, SP 16, 112, 32). Shortage of money remained, as always, an intractable problem, and Buckingham was frequently distracted from his principal task by hungry sailors who thronged round his house and coach, demanding relief. The duke caused a proclamation to be set up in the Royal Exchange, reminding the sailors that

I have done more for you than ever my predecessors did. I procured the increase of your pay to a third part more than it was. I have parted with mine own money to pay you, and engaged all mine own estate for your satisfaction.

Bodl. Oxf., MS Tanner 276, 114

His commitment to the Huguenot cause did not make him any more popular. The passions aroused by the debates in the Commons had created a climate of barely suppressed violence, and while he provided bodyguards for his own safety he could not protect his associates. These included the astrologer John Lambe, whom he had frequently consulted. On 13 June, the day before the Commons formally adopted the remonstrance against the favourite, Lambe was set upon by a London mob who taunted him with being 'the Duke's devil' and hacked him to death. 'And shortly after', as Rushworth records,so high was the rage of people that they would ordinarily utter these words:

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

Rushworth, 1.618Before leaving town Buckingham took steps to strengthen his position by rewarding his friends and extending an olive branch to his enemies. The earl of Marlborough, who had succeeded Cranfield as lord treasurer, was replaced by Sir Richard Weston, one of the duke's clients. At the same time Buckingham gave up the lord wardenship of the Cinque Ports, which he had purchased in 1624 in order to complement his authority as lord admiral, to a close friend, the second earl of Suffolk. The bishop of Lincoln, John Williams, and the earl of Arundel, both of them opponents of the duke, were invited to York House and given a warm reception, while one of the duke's most outspoken critics in the lower house, Sir Thomas Wentworth, was created a baron.

Buckingham arrived at Portsmouth, where the expedition was assembling, on 14 August, and established his headquarters at The Greyhound inn, near the dockyard. He kept in close touch with Charles, who had taken up residence at Southwick House, just outside the town. It was while he was preparing to ride over to the king, on 23 August, that Buckingham met his death. He went down into the hall of the inn, which was, as usual, crowded with people, and while he was talking to one of his colonels he was suddenly stabbed through the left breast. The assassin escaped in the confusion but later gave himself up. He was John Felton, a professional soldier who had served under Buckingham in Ré and blamed him for lack of promotion and indebtedness. However, as he later explained, it was 'reading the remonstrance of the House of Parliament' that convinced him that by 'killing the Duke he should do his country great service' (Bodl. Oxf., MS Rawl. B 183, 191).

Buckingham's corpse was carried back to London by coach, appropriately escorted, and lay in state at Wallingford House while preparations were made for the funeral. This took place at night on 18 September, and he was given his final resting place in Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, where, in 1634, his widow set up a tomb with effigies of herself and her husband by Hubert Le Sueur. In the following year she married Randal MacDonnell, second earl and first marquess of Antrim. Another monument was erected in Portsmouth parish church (later Portsmouth Cathedral) by Buckingham's sister, Susan, countess of Denbigh.

Before leaving for Ré, Buckingham had drawn up a will. The greater part of his estate went to his widow and his son, the second duke, but there were also bequests to relatives and to members of his household. It was not easy to honour these, for he died heavily in debt, with many of his lands mortgaged. His wealth had derived from the crown, but he had spent much of it in the king's service, and although Charles I appointed a special commission to try to sort out the dead duke's finances it was unable to clarify them beyond a certain point. The debts seem to have been paid off, presumably with Charles's assistance, within two years, but probate was not finally granted until March 1635.


Buckingham was vilified during his lifetime, and historians have, in general, echoed the opinions of his contemporaries. One of the main charges against him, that of corruption, is clearly valid. He used his position to build up his power and wealth and was unscrupulous about the methods he and his associates employed. Because he was royal favourite the scale of his operations surpassed that of his contemporaries, but the quantitative difference should not be taken as implying a qualitative one. In early Stuart England there was a general assumption that the holding of public office opened the way to personal enrichment. The distinction between acceptable and unacceptable conduct was hazy, and varied with persons and circumstances. Buckingham has been linked with a decline in public morality, but there is no clear evidence that standards were slipping in James's reign. Moreover, if they were, the primary responsibility was the king's.

Another charge against the duke is that he was essentially a playboy, who took from the state but gave nothing back. This is far from the case. His administration of the navy was effective, and the mounting of both the Cadiz and Ré expeditions would have been impossible without his personal involvement. He used his own money and the credit he could command to fill the gaps left by the shortage of public funds, and he chose as his assistants men such as Sir John Coke and Edward Nicholas who were dedicated to the state's service.

Buckingham has been accused of allowing personal considerations, such as his dislike of Olivares and Richelieu, to determine his attitude towards foreign powers in and after 1623, and of engaging England in unnecessary wars, conducted without due regard to the resources available. Yet there are good grounds for arguing that he had a clearer perception of the power struggle in Europe, and of how England should react to this, than most of his critics. The house of Austria, under the leadership of Philip IV and the emperor Ferdinand, was expanding its authority and, in the process, imposing an intolerant Catholicism on large parts of Europe. This was a threat to all non-Habsburg states, both protestant and Catholic, and the Hague league which he brought into existence was an appropriate response.

Buckingham was correct in his assumption that the adhesion of France to the league was essential, if it was to succeed in its aims, and although it is clear, with hindsight, that he misread Richelieu, he was not alone in this respect. During his first years as Louis XIII's principal minister the cardinal cultivated ambiguity as a means of winning support. Only once he felt secure in office did he reveal himself as a determined opponent of Spain. It was Buckingham's misfortune that his attempts to bind France into the anti-Habsburg league coincided with this period of uncertainty in French politics—a confusion compounded by the Huguenot revolt, which Charles and Buckingham felt bound to support, even though it held back France from participating in operations against the common enemy.

It is true that Buckingham did not match his aims with his resources, but had he postponed action until assured of parliamentary support he would never have acted at all. The political nation wanted England to intervene effectively in the Thirty Years War, but its representatives in the Commons showed no understanding of the true costs involved or any willingness to vote the requisite sums. Given this situation, the best response, as James I instinctively understood, was to do nothing, but inaction at such a critical juncture diminished the prestige of the monarchy and raised doubts about its commitment to the protestant cause. Buckingham attempted to give the political nation what it demanded and showed that the administrative system of the ancien régime could be goaded into activity as long as he was there to exert the necessary pressure. His assumption was that if only he could get England fully committed to the war, the country would unite behind the king and give him the moral and financial support he needed. This turned out to be a miscalculation and he became a scapegoat instead of a hero. Since part of the function of a favourite was to shield the monarch from blame for the actions of his government, Buckingham's fate was not inappropriate.


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  • W. B. Bidwell and M. Jansson, eds., Proceedings in parliament, 1626, 1: House of Lords (1991)
  • R. C. Johnson and others, eds., Proceedings in parliament, 1628, 5 (1983)
  • F. Osborne, ‘Osborne's traditional memoires’, Secret history of the court of James the First, ed. W. Scott, 1 (1811), 1–297
  • E. W. Harcourt, ed., The life of the renowned Doctor Preston, writ by his pupil, Master Thomas Ball, D.D., minister of Northampton, in the year 1628 (1885)
  • J. Nichols, The progresses, processions, and magnificent festivities of King James I, his royal consort, family and court, 4 vols. (1828)
  • The letters of Peter Paul Rubens, ed. and trans. R. S. Magurn (1955)
  • [A. Weldon], The court and character of King James (1650)
  • A. Wilson, ‘The life and reign of James I, King of Great Britain’, A complete history of England: with the lives of all the kings and queens thereof, ed. [W. Kennett, J. Hughes, and J. Strype], 2nd edn, 2 (1719), 661–792
  • H. Wotton, ‘The life and death of George Villiers, duke of Buckingham’, Reliquiae Wottonianae, 3rd edn (1672), 207–38
  • H. Wotton, ‘Of Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, and George Villiers, duke of Buckingham’, Reliquiae Wottonianae, 3rd edn (1672), 161–83
  • S. R. Gardiner, History of England from the accession of James I to the outbreak of the civil war, 2–6 (1883–4)
  • R. Lockyer, Buckingham: the life and political career of George Villiers, first duke of Buckingham, 1592–1628 (1981)
  • A. P. McGowan, ‘The Royal Navy under the first duke of Buckingham’, PhD diss., U. Lond., 1971
  • M. Prestwich, Cranfield: politics and profits under the early Stuarts (1966)
  • R. E. Ruigh, The parliament of 1624: politics and foreign policy (1971)
  • C. Russell, Parliaments and English politics, 1621–1629 (1979)
  • V. Treadwell, Buckingham and Ireland, 1616–1628: a study in Anglo-Irish politics (1998)


  • Berks. RO, corresp.
  • BL, Harley MSS, corresp. and papers
  • BL, letter-books, Add. MS 11309; Egerton MS 860
  • Bodl. Oxf., financial papers
  • CUL, household account book; speeches and papers
  • Herts. ALS, papers relating to impeachment
  • Leics. RO, commissions and papers
  • LPL, corresp.
  • NA Scot., corresp.
  • NL Scot., papers relating to impeachment
  • NRA, priv. coll., material relating to expenditures
  • Parl. Arch., papers relating to impeachment and parliament
  • S. Antiquaries, Lond., corresp.
  • Sheff. Arch., papers relating to impeachment
  • BL, Sloane, Royal, King's MSS, letters and papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., MSS Tanner, corresp.
  • CKS, corresp. with Lionel Cranfield
  • Hunt. L., letters to Temple family


  • attrib. W. Larkin, portrait, 1616, NPG
  • S. de Passe, line engraving, 1617, BM
  • B. Gerbier, miniature, 1618, Syon House, Brentford
  • D. Mytens, portrait, 1620–1622, Royal Collection
  • portrait, 1623 (after B. Gerbier?), Palace of Westminster, London; on loan from Clarendon collection
  • M. J. van Miereveldt, portrait, 1625, Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire
  • P. P. Rubens, chalk drawing, 1625, Albertina, Vienna
  • P. P. Rubens, portrait, 1625, Palazzo Pitti, Florence [see illus.]
  • P. P. Rubens, sketch, 1625, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
  • D. Mytens, portrait, 1626, Euston Hall, Suffolk
  • group portrait, oils, 1628 (Family of the duke of Buckingham), Royal Collection; version, NPG
  • H. Le Sueur, tomb effigy, 1634, Westminster Abbey, London
  • C. Turner, mezzotint, pubd 1810 (after C. Johnson), BM, NPG
  • Black and Hopwood, aquatint, pubd 1812 (after MacKenzie), NPG
  • attrib. B. Gerbier, portrait, NMM
  • W. Marshall, line engraving (after unknown artist), BM, NPG
  • portrait (after D. Mytens), Royal Collection
Camden Society
Historical Manuscripts Commission
Warwickshire County Record Office, Warwick
Journals of the House of Lords
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London