1902 Encyclopedia > George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham
English courtier
(1592-1628)




GEORGE VILLIERS, DUKE OF BUCKINGHAM, (1592-1628), born August 20, 1592, was a younger son of Sir George Villiers of Brooksby. His mother, who was left a widow early, educated him for a courtier's life, and the lad, being by nature little studious and contemplative, took kindly to the training. He could dance well, fence well, and talk a little French, when in August 1614 he was brought before the king's notice, in the hope that he would take a fancy to him.
The moment was favourable. Since Salisbury's death James had taken the business of government upon himself. But he wanted some one who would chat with him, and amuse him, and would also fill the office of private secretary, and save him from the trouble of saying No to importunate suitors. It would be an additional satisfaction if he could train the youth whom he might select in those arts of states-manship of which he believed himself to be a perfect master. His first choice had not proved a happy one. Robert Carr, who had lately become earl of Somerset, had had his head turned by his elevation. He had grown peevish toward his master, and had placed himself at the head of the party which was working for a close alliance with Spain.
The appearance of Villiers, beaming with animal spirits and good humour, was therefore welcomed by all who had an interest in opposing the designs of Spain. With such powerful backing Villiers prospered at court, became a gentleman of the bed-chamber, was knighted, and received a pension of £1000 a year. For some little time, however, Somerset's pre-eminence was maintained. But the charge of murder brought against him completed his ruin, and Villiers at once stepped into the place which he had vacated. In August 1616 he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Villiers. In January 1617 he became earl of Buckingham. In January 1618 he was a marquis by the same title. Estates to the value of some £15,000 a year were settled on him. With the exception of the earl of Pembroke he was the richest nobleman in England.
Those who expected him to give his support to the anti-Spanish party were at first doomed to disappointment. As yet he was no politician, and he contented himself with carrying out his master's orders, whatever they were. In his personal relations he was kindly and jovial towards all who did not thwart his wishes. But James had taught him to consider that the patronage of England was in his hands, and he took good care that no man should receive promotion of any kind who did not in one way or another pay court to him. As far as can be ascertained, he cared less for money than for the gratification of his vanity. But he had not merely himself to consider. His numerous kinsfolk were to be enriched by marriage, if in no other way, and Bacon, the great philosopher and statesman, was all but thrust from office, because he had opposed a marriage suggested for one of Buckingham's brothers, whilst Cran-field, the first financier of the day, was kept from the Treasury till he would forsake the woman whom he loved, to marry a penniless cousin of the favourite.
In the meanwhile Buckingham had found an appropriate position in the mastership of the horse, which gave him control over the royal stables. In January 1619 James made him lord high admiral of England, hoping that the ardent, energetic youth would impart something of his own fire to those who were intrusted with the oversight of that fleet which had been almost ruined by the peculation and carelessness of the officials. Something of this, no doubt, was realized under Buckingham's eye. But he himself never pretended to the virtues of an administrator, and he was too ready to fill up appointments with men who flattered him, and too reluctant to dismiss them, if they served their country ill, to effect any permanent change for the better.
It was about this time that he first took an indepen-dent part in politics. All England was talking of the revo-lution in Bohemia in the year before, and men's sympathy with the Continental Protestants was increased when it was known that James's son-in-law had accepted the crown of Bohemia, and that in the summer of 1620 a Spanish force was preparing to invade the Palatinate. Buckingham at first had thrown himself into the popular movement. Be-fore the summer of 1620 was at end he had swung round, and was in close agreement with Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador. He had now married Lady Catherine Manners, the daughter of the earl of Rutland, who was at heart a Roman Catholic, though she outwardly conformed to the English Church, and this alliance may have had something to do with the change.
Buckingham's mistakes were owing mainly to his levity. If he passed briskly from one camp to the other, an impartial observer might usually detect some personal motive at the bottom. But it is hardly probable that he was him-self conscious of anything of the sort. When he was in reality acting under the influence of vanity or passion it was easy for him to persuade himself that he was doing his duty to his country.
The Parliament which met in 1621 broke out into a loud outcry against the system of monopolies, from which Buckingham's brothers and dependants had drawn a profit, which was believed to be greater than it really was. At first he pleaded for a dissolution. But he was persuaded that it would be a wiser course to offer to put himself at the head of the movement, and when he came forward to say that he would rather sacrifice his brother than countenance wrong doing, he only gave utterance to those sentiments of patriotism which he really felt, when patriotism did not call upon him to sacrifice his own wishes. When, at a later period of the session, Bacon's case was brought forward, he made no attempt to meet the attack directly, but he did his best to shield the falling chancellor from the extreme penalties demanded by his adversaries. It was not long before he showed on how shallow a basis impulsive generosity rests. Bacon clung, after his fall, to the possession of York House, the home of his childhood. Buckingham desired to purchase it, and he stood in the way of the king's favour to the great philosopher till he had consented to sell him the house.
In the winter of 1621, and the succeeding year, Buckingham was entirely in Gondomar's hands; and it was only with some difficulty that in May 1622 Laud argued him out of a resolution to declare himself a Roman Catholic. In December 1621 he actively supported the dissolution of Parliament, and there can be little doubt that when the Spanish ambassador left England the following May, he had come to an understanding with Buckingham that the Prince of Wales should visit Madrid the next year, on which occasion the Spanish Court hoped to effect his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church before giving him the hand of the Infanta Maria. By this time Buckingham had gained over Charles an influence which he never lost; and when he carried him in February 1623 to Madrid it was with the hope of effecting a great political object. The Palatinate had gradually fallen into the possession of Spain and of the Catholic League, and the two young men fondly expected that the grave statesmen of the Spanish monarchy would break with their co-religionists in Germany in order to present the Palatinate as a marriage gift to Charles.
It was not long before it became plain to Buckingham that the Palatinate was not to be gained at Madrid. From that time he urged the prince to return. Charles was not to be persuaded so soon to relinquish the hope of carrying his bride home with him to England. But at last his eyes were opened, and when the two young men sailed together from Santander in September, it was with the final resolu-tion to break entirely with Spain.
James had gratified his favourite in his absence by raising him to the highest title known in the English peerage. But the splendour which gathered round the new duke was owing to another source than James's favour. He had put himself at the head of the popular movement against Spain, and when James, acknowledging sorely against his will that the Palatinate could only be recovered by force, summoned the Parliament which met in February 1624, Buckingham, with the help of the heir apparent, took up an independent political position. James was half driven, half persuaded to declare all negotiations with Spain at an end. For the moment Buckingham was the most popular man in England.
It was easier to overthrow one policy than to construct another. The Commons would have been content with sending some assistance to the Dutch, and with entering upon a privateering war with Spain. James, whose object was to regain the Palatinate, believed this could only be accomplished by a Continental alliance, in which France took part. As soon as Parliament was prorogued, negotiations were opened for a marriage between Charles and the sister of Lewis XIII., Henrietta Maria. But a difficulty arose. James and Charles had engaged to the Commons that there should be no concessions to the English Catholics, and Lewis would not hear of the marriage unless very large concessions were made. Buckingham, impatient to begin the war as soon as possible, persuaded Charles, and the two together persuaded James to throw over the promises to the Commons, and to accept the French terms. It was no longer possible to summon Parliament to vote supplies for the war till the marriage had been completed, when remonstrances to its conditions would be useless.
Buckingham, for Buckingham was now virtually the ruler of England, had thus to commence war without money. He prepared to throw 12,000 Englishmen, under a German adventurer, Count Mansfeld, through France into the Palatinate. The French insisted that he should march through Holland. It mattered little which way he took. Without provisions, and without money to buy them, the wretched troops sickened and died in the winter frosts. Buckingham's first military enterprise ended in disastrous failure.
Buckingham had many other schemes in his teeminj. brain. He had offered to send aid to Christian IV., king of Denmark, who was proposing to make war in Germany, and had also a plan for sending an English fleet to attack Genoa the ally of Spain, and a plan for sending an English fleet to attack Spain itself.
Before these schemes could be carried into operation James died on March 27, 1625. The new king and Buckingham were at one in their aims and objects. Both were anxious to distinguish themselves by the chastisement of Spain, and the recovery of the Palatinate. Both were young and inexperienced. But Charles, obstinate when his mind was made up, was sluggish in action and without fertility in ideas, and he had long submitted his mind to the versatile and brilliant favourite, who was never at a loss what to do next, and who unrolled before his eyes visions of endless possibilities in the future. Buckingham was sent over to Paris to urge upon the French Court the importance of converting its alliance into active co-operation.
There was a difficulty in the way. The Huguenots of Rochelle were in rebellion, and James had promised the aid of English ships to suppress that rebellion. Bucking-ham, who seems at first to have consented to the scheme, was anxious to mediate peace between the king of France and his subjects, which would set him free from foreign enterprises, and save Charles from compromising himself with his Parliament by the appearance of English ships in an attack upon Protestants. When he returned his main de-mands were refused, but hopes were given him that peace would be made with the Huguenots. On his way through France he had the insolence to make love to the Queen of France. Unless the testimouy of his warmest admirers is false, he had convinced himself by a sad experience that women found it difficult to resist his seductive tongue and his handsome face.
Soon after his return Parliament was opened. It would have been hard for Charles to pass through the session with credit. Under Buckingham's guidance he had entered into engagements involving an enormous expenditure, and these engagements involved a war on the Continent, which had never been popular in the House of Commons. The Commons, too, suspected the marriage treaty contained engagements of which they disapproved. They asked for the full execution of the laws against the Catholics, and voted but little money in return. Charles adjourned then to Oxford, that he might plead with them more persuasively. Before they met there, the English ships had found their way into the hands of the French, to be used against Rochelle. The Commons met in an ill-humour. They had no confidence in Buckingham, and they asked that persons whom they could trust should be admitted to the king's council before they would vote a penny. Charles stood by his minister, and on August 12 he dissolved his first Parliament.
Buckingham and his master set themselves to work to conquer public opinion. On the one hand, they threw over their engagements to France on behalf of the English Catholics. On the other hand they sent out a large fleet to attack Cadiz, and to seize the Spanish treasure-ships. Buckingham went to the Hague to raise an immediate supply by pawning the crown jewels, to place England at the head of a great Protestant alliance, and to enter into fresh obligations to furnish money to the king of Denmark. It all ended in failure. The fleet returned from Cadiz, having effected nothing. The crown jewels produced but a small sum, and the money for the king of Denmark could only be raised by an appeal to Parliament. In the mean-while the king of France was deeply offended by the treatmerit of the Catholics, and by the seizure of French vessels on the ground that they were engaged in carrying goods for Spain.
When Charles's second Parliament met on February 6, 1626, it was not long before, under Eliot's guidance, it asked for Buckingham's punishment. He was impeached before the House of Lords on a long string of charges. Many of these charges were exaggerated, and some were untrue. But as long as Charles refused to listen to the complaints of his minister's incompetency, the only way in which the Commons could reach him was by bringing _criminal charges against him.. Charles dissolved his second Parliament as he had dissolved his first.
To find money was the great difficulty. Recourse was had to a forced loan, and men were thrown into prison for refusing to pay it. There had been disasters to Charles's allies in Germany, and a French war was impending in addition to the Spanish one. The French were roused to reprisals by Charles's persistence in seizing French vessels. Unwilling to leave Rochelle open to the entrance of an English fleet, Richelieu laid siege to that stronghold of the French Huguenots. On June 27, 1627, Buckingham sailed from Portsmouth at the head of' a numerous fleet, _and a considerable land force, to relieve the besieged city.
His first enterprise was the siege of the fort of St Martin's, on the Isle of Rhe. The ground was hard, and the siege operations were converted into a blockade. On September 27, the defenders of the fort announced their readiness to surrender the next morning. In the night a fresh gale brought over a flotilla of French provision boats, which _dashed through the English blockading squadron. The fort was provisioned for two months more. Buckingham resolved to struggle on, and sent for reinforcements from England. Charles would gladly have answered to his call. But England had long since ceased to care for the war. There was no money in the exchequer, no enthusiasm in the nation to supply the want. Before the reinforcements could arrive the French had thrown a superior force upon the island, and Buckingham was driven to retreat with heavy loss.
His spirits were as buoyant as ever. Ill luck, or the misconduct of others, was the cause of his failure. He had new plans for carrying on the war. But the Parliament which met on March 17, 1628, was resolved to exact from the king an obligation to refrain from encroaching for the future on the liberties of his subjects.
In the parliamentary battle, which ended in the concession of the Petition of Right, Buckingham took an active share as a member of the House of Lords. He resisted as long as it was possible to resist the demand of the Com-mons, that the king should abandon his claim to imprison without showing cause. When the first unsatisfactory answer to the petition was made by the king on June 2, the Commons suspected, probably with truth, that it had been dictated by Buckingham. They prepared a remon-strance on the state of the nation, and Coke at last named the duke as the cause of all the misfortunes that had occurred. Though on June 7 the king granted a satisfac-tory answer to the petition, the Commons proceeded with their remonstrance, and on June 11 they informed the king that Buckingham had " so abused his powers," that it was no longer safe to continue him in office.
Once more Charles refused to surrender Buckingham, and a few days later he prorogued Parliament in anger. The popular feeling was greatly excited. Lampoons circu-lated freely from hand to hand, and Dr Lambe, a quack doctor, who dabbled in astrology, and was believed to exer-cise influence over Buckingham, was murdered in the streets of London. Rude doggerel lines announced that the duke should share the doctor's fate.
With the clouds gathering round him, Buckingham went down to Portsmouth to take the command of one final expedition for the relief of Rochelle. For the first time even he was beginning to acknowledge that he had undertaken a task beyond his powers. There was a force of inertia in the officials which resisted his efforts to spur them on to an enterprise which they believed to be doomed to failure. He entered gladly into a scheme of pacification proposed by the Venetian ambassador. But before he could know whether there was to be peace or war, the knife of an assassin put an end to his career. John Felton, who had served at Rhe, had been disappointed of promotion, and had not been paid that which was due to him for his ser-vices, read the declaration of the Commons that Bucking-ham was a public enemy, and eagerly caught at the excuse for revenging his private wrongs under cover of those of his country. Waiting, on the morning of August 23, beside the door of the room in which Buckingham was breakfasting, he stabbed him to the heart as he came out. The man who for four years had been practically the ruler of England fell dead upon the ground. He had only com-pleted his thirty-sixth year three days before, (s. E. G.)







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