1st Duke of Buckingham

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1st Duke of Buckingham

The English courtier and military leader George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628), greatly influenced kings James I and Charles I. His power was such that he virtually controlled the British government from 1618 to 1628.

George Villiers was born in 1592, the son of Sir George Villiers of Brooksby, Leicestershire. After the death of his father when the boy was 13, his mother had him learn the essential arts of the courtier— fencing and dancing-and sent him to France. Villiers returned to London in 1614, was introduced to King James I, and became cupbearer, a low member of the royal household. His rise to importance at court he owed to his good looks and bright personality and to the King's powerful, and probably homosexual, attraction to him.

In a short time Villiers became the dominant influence on the King. He gained the titles of Viscount Villiers and Baron Waddon in 1616 and Earl of Buckingham in 1617. In 1618 he was made Marquess of Buckingham and 5 years later Duke. His chief office during this period was lord high admiral, but his influence ranged over a wide area of foreign and domestic policy. His vast pride prevented him from sharing authority with wiser and more experienced officials. He possessed no capacity for self-criticism and sought to turn each new fiasco aright with another equally ill-conceived scheme.

Buckingham's rise to power coincided with James's decision to seek an alliance with Spain through the marriage of Prince Charles to the Spanish Infanta. In this way James hoped to obtain Spanish support for his Protestant son-in-law, Frederick, the Elector Palatine, against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. Buckingham vacillated between advocating direct military aid to Frederick and supporting the Spanish alliance. In 1623 he accompanied the prince to Madrid. But when the Spaniards insisted that Prince Charles convert to Catholicism and that James repeal the English anti-Catholic laws, the marriage negotiations ended. After returning to England, Buckingham and Charles steered the aged king toward a pro-French alliance and active military campaigns against the German Catholics and the Spaniards.

The Parliament of 1624 saw Buckingham at the height of his popularity, as the nation favored the new foreign policy. He took advantage of his power to procure the condemnation of Middlesex, the lord treasurer, the most able of the King's advisers, of whom Buckingham was jealous. James sought vainly to save his valued treasurer, finally exclaiming to Buckingham: "By God, Steenie, you are a fool and will shortly repent this folly and will find that in this fit of popularity you are making a rod with which you will be scourged yourself."

Buckingham soon squandered his popularity. His military campaigns were poorly financed and precipitous. He was unable to obtain parliamentary subsidies for them because he insisted on personal control over all details. A Continental campaign led by Lord Mansfeld was stranded in 1625; a naval attack on Cadiz accomplished nothing and returned in 1626. Sir John Eliot, formerly one of Buckingham's chief supporters in the Commons, turned against the duke after the Cadiz fiasco. Eliot's demands for a complete accounting by Buckingham in the Parliament of 1626 led to an attempt to impeach the duke, but Charles, now king, protected his favorite by dissolving Parliament.

During 1626 and 1627 the Crown took high-handed measures to obtain funds without calling Parliament, and the proceeds were wasted by Buckingham in an expedition to aid French Protestants on the Isle of Rhé. In the wake of this new disaster, in 1628 Parliament drafted a Petition of Right, by which it hoped to place some restraints on monarchical power. To avoid another attack on his favorite, Charles assented. The Commons voted substantial subsidies for the King, and once again Buckingham planned to sail for France. While at Plymouth preparing for embarkation, on Nov. 27, 1628, Buckingham was stabbed to death by a sailor, John Felton, one of the survivors of the Cadiz campaign.

Further Reading

Buckingham has been the subject of many biographies. Among the better portraits are M. A. Gibbs, Buckingham (1935); Charles Richard Cammell, The Great Duke of Buckingham (1939); and Philippe Erlanger, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1951; trans. 1953). Nowhere does Buckingham come to life more than in David Harris Willson, James VI and I (1956). For a competent and lucid account of Buckingham's influence during the early years of Charles l's reign see G. M. Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts (1904; 21st ed. 1961).

Additional Sources

Lockyer, Roger, Buckingham, the life and political career of George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham, 1592-1628, London; New York: Longman, 1981. □

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