George Villiers was said to be the “handsomest-bodied man in all of Europe.” He had been educated in France, where he had learned to ride, duel, and dance, and had become quite well known for his skills. Although only the son of a minor English noble — and not an eldest son at that — his future looked rosy.
In 1614, the 22-year old Villiers was introduced to the King of England. James I was then a 47-year-old, rather corpulent man, with weak legs and a tendency to ogle the young men of the court. His weakness had led to his habit of leaning on other men’s shoulders, and gave him a tendency to walk in circles. It was said that he had a tendency to fiddle with his codpiece as he walked.
James was enchanted with the young Villiers, and the following year, he made him a Master of the Bedchamber. The year after that Villiers became Master of the Horse, was made a Knight of the Garter, and then became a Baron and a Viscount. By 1617, he was also Earl of Buckingham. In 1618 he was a Marquess. He had to wait until 1623 before he was made Earl of Coventry and Duke of Buckingham. Clearly, Villiers had caught the King’s eye.
Over the same period of time, Villiers had also been building up his holdings in Ireland. He took ownership of quite an impressive list of Irish estates, and dominated the Irish faction at court. He had acquired considerable influence — and income — from the sale of Irish titles.
With such a history of rapid advancement, it was inevitable that rumors would start to fly about the nature of the King’s relationship with Buckingham. To be sure, James did little to balk the rumors. He called Buckingham his “sweet child and wife,” kissed and embraced him “wantonly” in public, and called him his “Sweet Steenie” — a nickname Buckingham had acquired in reference to St. Stephen, who was said to have had the face of an angel. James wrote to Buckingham, “I only desire to live in the world for your sake, and I had rather live banished in any part of the world with you, than live a sorrowful widow-life without you.”
No doubt some of James’s language can be attributed to poetic license, but if he did have a romantic or sexual relationship with the man, Buckingham certainly wouldn’t have been the first for James. The first was Esme Stewart, the 1st Duke of Lennox, whom James’s nobles managed to oust by holding James prisoner for ten months and forcing him to banish the man. Afterwards, James kept up a secret correspondence with him and was devastated when he died. Lennox bequeathed James his embalmed heart, and James wrote a poem about him, in which he compared him to a phoenix, a bird of amazing beauty slain by envy.
James’s next big crush was on Robert Carr, the 1st Earl of Somerset. This relationship had its ups and downs, and at one point James complained of Somerset’s “withdrawing [himself] from lying in [his] chamber.” Somerset married the divorced Frances Howard — James had persuaded a court of bishops to grant the divorce — and James became envious of the new bride. When it later came out that Frances had poisoned Somerset’s best friend, who had opposed the marriage, the pair were tried for murder. Somerset attempted to blackmail the King by threatening to reveal their sexual relationship, and James had two men posted beside him during the trial, ready to muffle him with their cloaks if he tried.
No muffling was necessary, and, although Somerset protested his innocence, his wife confessed, and both were sentenced to death. James commuted the sentence, and the pair spent seven years imprisoned in the Tower of London, after which they retired to obscurity.
James’s relationship with Buckingham followed fast upon his disenchantment with Carr, and by 1621 Buckingham was a successful man, with a lot to lose. In that year, Parliament began investigating monopolies and abuses in England, with the presumption that the investigation would later extend to Ireland. In the beginning, Buckingham sided with Parliament, but he was worried. He managed to stir up a diversion regarding the conflict between James and the Parliament over relations with Spain, and the Parliament was dissolved early as a result. When the matter came up again in 1622, Buckingham and James diverted attention to the impeachment of the Lord Treasurer.
In 1623, Buckingham went with the 23-year-old Prince of Wales (who later became Charles I) to Spain to claim Charles’s bride. Negotiations had not been progressing well for some time, and the idea was that the romantic gesture would seal the deal. Instead, negotiations stopped altogether, apparently largely because of Buckingham’s behavior. The Spanish ambassador asked Parliament to have Buckingham executed for his actions. When Charles and Buckingham returned to England, they declared war on Spain, and Charles was married to a French princess instead.
The trip to Spain marked the beginning of Buckingham’s favor with Charles, who came to depend on him almost as much as his father had, although not for the same reasons. When Charles assumed the throne, Buckingham was the only one of James’s court who kept his position.
Among Buckingham’s many titles was that of Lord High Admiral, and he was responsible for several military expeditions that failed miserably. In 1625 he attempted to seize the Spanish port of Cadiz, planning to burn its fleet, as Sir Francis Drake had earlier. The troops were undisciplined and ill-trained. When they discovered a wine warehouse they simply got drunk and called the attack off. Needless to say, this didn’t enhance Buckingham’s reputation any. Parliament attempted to impeach him, but Charles dissolved the Parliament before they could do so.
He planned another sea attack to intercept Spanish ships returning from their American colonies, but the Spanish heard about it and simply avoided the trap. The English ships returned home, the men sick and starving.
Buckingham also negotiated with Cardinal Richelieu of France for help in the fight against the Spanish. In return, he agreed to furnish ships to help Richelieu attack the Huguenots. Parliament was horrified at the idea of English Protestants attacking French Protestants. For his part, Buckingham came to distrust Richelieu, and, believing that he had betrayed him, cultivated his enemies — including the Huguenots.
In 1627, in an attempt to assist his new Huguenot allies, Buckingham led another disastrous expedition. He took 7,000 men to lay siege to the city of Saint-Martin-de-Re, and lost more than half of his men — some say as many as 5,000. Buckingham was attempting to organize another campaign when he was stabbed to death by John Felton, an army officer who believed that Buckingham had withheld pay and stalled his advancement.
Felton was tried and hanged. Buckingham was buried at Westminster Abbey, where his tomb reads “The Enigma of the World.”
Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_28; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Villiers,_1st_Duke_of_Buckingham; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_relationships_of_James_I_of_England; http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/george-villiers.htm; http://rictornorton.co.uk/jamesi.htm; http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/villiers1.htm; http://www.british-civil-wars.co.uk/biog/buckingham1.htm; http://history.wisc.edu/sommerville/361/361-23.htm; http://www.family-ancestry.co.uk/history/stuart/people/george_villiers/.