Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Villiers, George (1592-1628)
VILLIERS, GEORGE, first Duke of Buckingham (1592–1628), court favourite, born on 28 Aug. 1592, was second son of Sir George Villiers of Brooksby in Leicestershire, and his second wife, Mary, daughter of Anthony Beaumont of Glenfield, Leicestershire (Wooton's Life in Harl. Misc. ed. 1810, viii. 613). His brothers, Sir John, first viscount Purbeck [q. v.], and Christopher, earl of Anglesey [q. v.], and his half-brother Sir Edward [q. v.], are separately noticed. His mother had formerly been a waiting-gentlewoman in the household of Lady Beaumont of Cole Orton [see under Villiers, Sir Edward] (Weldon, Secret Hist. of the Court of James I; Wilson in Kennet, ii. 698).
At ten years of age George was ‘sent to Billesdon school, in the same county, where he was taught the principles of music and other slight literature till the thirteenth year of his age, at which time his father died’ (Wotton, in Harl. Misc. viii. 614). After this he lived with his mother at Goodby, where, being ‘by nature little contemplative,’ he learnt merely to dance and fence, in preparation for the life of a courtier. With this object in view his mother sent him at the age of eighteen to France, strangely enough in company with Sir John Eliot, ‘where he improved himself well in the language for one that had so little grammatical foundation, but more in the exercises of that nobility, for the space of three years.’ After his return he remained for a year under his mother's roof. In 1614, in his twenty-second year, young Villiers came to London. His first thought was to marry a daughter of Sir Roger Aston, but his poverty was such as to render an immediate marriage unadvisable, and he was recommended by Sir John Graham, a gentleman of the bedchamber, to throw the lady over and to try his fortune at court (ib.)
In August 1614 Villiers was introduced to the king at Apethorpe. The good-looking sprightly youth caught James's fancy. An attempt made in November to procure him a post in the bedchamber failed in consequence of Somerset's opposition, but the office of cupbearer was given him, placing his foot on the first rung of the ladder (Chamberlain to Carleton, 24 Nov. 1614, State Papers, Dom. lxxviii. 61). Yet Somerset by his demerits contributed most to the young courtier's advancement. Haughty and irritating, Somerset gradually alienated the king by his ill-temper and his airs of superiority. Villiers, whose temper was amiable in these days, was pushed forward by the crowd of courtiers who took umbrage at the arrogance of Somerset, and even by statesmen, to whom the close connection between Somerset and the Spanish party, headed by the Howards, was in itself a ground of offence. Among these was Archbishop Abbot, who won over the queen, and it was on her entreaty that on 23 April 1615 James, in defiance of Somerset's remonstrances, appointed Villiers gentleman of the bedchamber (Abbot's narrative in Rushworth, i. 456). On the 24th Villiers was knighted (Nichols, Progresses, iii. 80), a pension of 1,000l. being granted him for his maintenance.
As yet, however, the rise of Villiers was of no political significance. Somerset maintained his ascendency, shaken indeed by the united opposition of the anti-Spanish party, but by no means overthrown. When the crash came in the autumn of 1615 the removal of Somerset was not immediately followed by the further rise of Villiers, but it made such a rise inevitable. It was not a case of one official succeeding another, but rather of personal influence asserting itself, which might gradually be transformed into political power. In the case of Villiers the transformation came very gradually indeed. He had neither political principles nor political alliances, and for the time all he asked was to sun himself in the king's favour. Considering himself the wisest of mankind, James needed a young companion, full on the one hand of mirth and jollity, and on the other hand ready to carry out his bidding in political matters, whatever it might happen to be.
A purely domestic relation with the king is indicated by the appointment of Villiers on 3 Jan. 1616 to the mastership of the horse, which gave him the control of the royal stables, and by his investiture with the order of the Garter on 24 April. Yet, as a matter of fact, such a restrained position was quite untenable. James could not, as Elizabeth had done, distinguish between personal favourites and political advisers. Independent as he imagined himself to be, he fell too readily under the sway of an intimate companion, and those who wanted to gain the king to their ends had learnt by this time that the easiest way was to approach him through the favourite. Bacon, in tendering advice to Villiers on the policy which appeared to him desirable to pursue, and in his general expectation that Villiers would be an instrument for establishing better relations between the king and the nation, probably only did that which scores of less thoughtful persons were doing in the interests of their own advancement.
Villiers, who on 27 Aug. 1616 was created Viscount Villiers and Baron Waddon, to which was soon added a grant of land valued at 80,000l., and who on 5 Jan. 1616–7 became Earl of Buckingham, could not be brought to interest himself in such high matters. He had been anti-Spanish at his first appearance at court because Somerset was on the side of Spain, and in 1616 he declared for the Spanish marriage because it was at that time agreeable to the king. What he really wanted was to acquire notability as the dispenser of patronage. In 1616 he insisted on clearing away all other claims in order to place his own nominees in an office in the king's bench formerly held by Sir John Roper. In 1617 he stopped the appointment of Yelverton to the attorney-generalship, though it had been sanctioned by the king, till the candidate had made some kind of submission to himself. Buckingham, however, had not merely to assert his own importance; he had to please his mother by providing his brothers and sisters with good marriages; and in 1617 he made his first essay in the case of Sir John Villiers, his eldest brother by the whole blood. Sir John had set his mind on marrying Frances Coke, the daughter of the great lawyer. Coke, with some reluctance, came into the scheme; but Bacon, now lord-keeper, remonstrated with Buckingham, on the ground that it would be politically unwise to contract an alliance with one who had been so stubborn an opponent of the king's wishes. James, however, took up his favourite's part, and Buckingham treated the lord-keeper with the utmost coolness, only according his forgiveness after receiving a humble apology. On 28 Sept. Coke was reintroduced to his seat at the council table. ‘I am neither a god nor an angel,’ said James on the occasion, but ‘a man like any other, and confess to loving those dear to me more than other men. You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than any one else. … Christ had his John, and I have my George.’ The result was that ‘George’ was to have his way whenever he chose to ask for it (Gardiner, Hist. of Engl. iii. 86–98).
On 1 Jan. 1618–9 the earl became Marquis of Buckingham. In the course of the year he was found in opposition to the Howards. It does not appear that he felt any dislike to them on account of their support of the Spanish marriage, but it was enough for him that by their possession of high political offices they presented the only possible bar to his own influence. Before the end of the year Suffolk had been driven from the treasurership and Nottingham from the admiralty; Suffolk's son-in-law, Wallingford, from the mastership of the wards; and Lake, a dependent of Suffolk's, from the secretaryship of state. On 19 Jan. 1619 Buckingham became lord high admiral.
So far as it was possible for a man of his character, Buckingham did what he could to save the navy from the wretched state into which it had fallen under Nottingham. A navy commission, of which the leading spirit was Sir John Coke, was appointed, which substituted the habits of business men for the peculation which had prevailed under the shadow of Nottingham's name. Buckingham, however, had neither the requisite knowledge of seamanship nor the stern self-devotion needed for a great administrator, and, although he appears to have been desirous of making satisfactory appointments, a favourite surrounded by favourites was hardly the man to restore the navy to the efficiency of Elizabeth's reign (Oppenheim, The Administration of the Royal Navy, i. 184–205).
In managing the navy Buckingham had a free hand. In questions of foreign policy he still worked as the mere instrument of the king. Up to the end of 1619, whenever his action can be traced, he appears as James's mouthpiece in advocating an understanding with Spain for the settlement of the Bohemian troubles. In February 1620, after the election of Frederick to the Bohemian crown, Buckingham is found urging his master to defend the palatinate, and was only restrained by James from offering a contribution of 10,000l. to that cause. There was, however, no political constancy in him, and two months later, irritated by injuries suffered by English sailors from the Dutch in the East Indies, he allowed his indignation to extend to all protestants, and was once more hand and glove with Gondomar. It is not unlikely that this change of feeling was strengthened by his courtship of Lady Katherine Manners, a Roman catholic, daughter of the Roman catholic Earl of Rutland. James, however, forbade his favourite to marry a recusant, and it was only after the lady's nominal conversion that the king's consent was obtained. On 16 May 1620 the couple were married by Williams, the worldly-wise clergyman who had secured Buckingham's good-will by the skill with which he had plied his bride with arguments in favour of the church of England [see Williams, John, 1582–1650].
The question of defending the palatinate was still pressing, but James had resolved not to take part in it further than by giving permission to Frederick's ambassador, Dohna, to levy volunteers to be sent to the scene of action. Buckingham had at once a candidate for their command to propose in Sir Edward Cecil, but Dohna refused to accept him, and in June named Sir Horace Vere, a far better general, in his stead. Buckingham treated the rejection of his nominee as a personal affront. At the same time that he was ostensibly taking part in a scheme for the defence of the palatinate, he was discussing with Gondomar not only an alliance with Spain against the Dutch, but an actual partition of the territory of the republic. In one way or another Buckingham had cooled down so far as the palatinate was concerned. ‘The palatine,’ he said to Gondomar, ‘is mounted upon a high horse, but he must be pulled off in order to make him listen to his father-in-law's advice.’
When parliament met on 30 Jan. 1621, Frederick having been defeated and driven out of Bohemia, there was a prospect of the defence of the palatinate being openly undertaken by James. As soon as it appeared that James was more ready to negotiate than to fight, the House of Commons, embittered by its disappointment, raised a cry against the monopolies which had been lavishly granted of late years, for the most part with the idea of protecting English industry. In these grants Buckingham was to some extent involved. His half-brother, Sir Edward Villiers, had invested 4,000l. in the manufacture of gold and silver thread under a patent of monopoly, and on 16 April 1617 Buckingham wrote to Yelverton, the attorney-general, asking him to support the patent. In 1618 the monopoly was taken into the king's hands, and a pension of 500l. a year was granted to Sir Edward Villiers out of the profits, and another pension of 800l. a year to Buckingham's younger brother, Christopher. When the commons decreed the patent to be illegal and oppressive, they naturally complained that one of its results had been to put money, or hopes of money, at the disposal of two of Buckingham's brothers. It seems that others of Buckingham's dependents made something out of other monopolies, and indeed, as affairs then stood at court, it is unlikely that any one would secure a lucrative concession without his goodwill; but though it is probable that, after the fashion of the day, he received presents from these men, no formal payment of money to himself is traceable. Nevertheless, when the storm broke by the flight of Sir Giles Mompesson [q. v.], Buckingham took alarm, and sought to clear himself by throwing the blame on the referees—the members of the council who had recommended the monopolies as legal or useful. Williams counselled him to swim with the tide and to place himself at the head of the angry commons. Buckingham carried Williams to the king, and the result was that James himself on 12 March announced his readiness to redress grievances. On the 13th Buckingham spoke much more strongly before the commons in a conference with the other house. Naming his two brothers as having been implicated in the monopolies, he said that if his father had begotten two sons to be grievances to the commonwealth, he had begotten a third son who would help in punishing them. Buckingham played his part well; but there was something ignoble in this disclaimer of those who had profited by a system of which he had himself been the chief support.
Scarcely had Buckingham cleared himself from the monopolies before he seemed likely to be involved in the attack on Bacon. Bacon had expected much from him when Buckingham first entered on his career, and had, even after he had shown himself little capable of greatness, remained his devoted counsellor. Buckingham, however, had shown himself unready to take good advice, and had pestered Bacon with constant attempts to interfere in suits depending in chancery. At the end of March, when charges of corruption had been raised against Bacon, Buckingham indeed threw himself impetuously into his friend's defence, and called on the king to dissolve the accusing parliament. In April this chivalric impetuosity had cooled down, and he talked of Bacon as having richly deserved the disgrace which had fallen upon him. When, however, on 18 April, Bacon's case came before the House of Lords, Buckingham raised what points he could in his favour, and on the 24th obtained a vote excusing him from being brought to the bar. Buckingham, in short, was ready to do as much for his old friend as could be done without risking his own position.
On 30 April the favourite sustained a new shock. Yelverton, brought from his prison in the Tower to the bar of the House of Lords, talked of the threats brought against him for refusing to support some of the most questionable of the monopolies, and threatened Buckingham with the fate of Hugh Spencer [see Despencer, Hugh] for ‘placing and displacing officers about a king.’ Buckingham haughtily urged that his accuser might be allowed to proceed with his charge. ‘He that will seek to stop him,’ he said, ‘is more my enemy than his.’ On 12 May Buckingham moved that the House of Lords should censure Yelverton for an attack on the king's honour. The house insisted on hearing the prisoner's defence, but on the 16th delivered a sentence which included the payment of five thousand marks to Buckingham. With a magnificent show of generosity Buckingham remitted his portion of the fine, and then boasted that he was ‘parliament proof.’ At the same time the charges against Sir Edward and Christopher Villiers were allowed to drop (Gardiner, iv. 112–16).
That Buckingham had saved himself was partly owing to his own versatility, but still more because a quarrel with him was tantamount to a quarrel with the king, for which neither house was as yet prepared. He was always ready with a display of magnanimity, and in July he obtained the liberation of a number of political prisoners, some of whom had been placed in durance in consequence of their hostility to himself. When parliament met after its summer adjournment it was occupied with foreign affairs, but Buckingham did not, so far as we know, openly take part in the discussions. Yet there could be no doubt that he was at this time opposed to any war in defence of the German protestants, while he eagerly advocated a war against the Dutch on account of their ill-treatment of English merchants in the East Indies. In September 1621 he even went so far as to betray to Gondomar a letter sent by Frederick to the king, assuring him at the same time that not a penny of English money should be spent in the palatinate. When the opposition between the king and the commons had grown to a head, Buckingham, on 30 Dec., supported in the council James's resolution to dissolve parliament, and immediately afterwards congratulated Gondomar on the result.
Whatever changes might take place in the political world, there was no change in Buckingham's unbounded influence at court. In the early part of 1622 he used it to wring from Bacon the sale of York House by refusing to allow him to come to London till the house passed into his own possession (Spedding, Life and Letters of Bacon, vii. 304–47). About the same time Buckingham, whose wife had now virtually reverted to the Roman catholic faith, was thinking of changing his own religion, while his mother was looking in the same direction. James, however, was apparently displeased, and on 3 Jan. Buckingham, with his wife, mother, and several kinswomen, was confirmed by the bishop of London. On 24 May a conference took place between Laud and the jesuit Fisher, ostensibly for the satisfaction of Buckingham's mother—now Countess of Buckingham—but in reality for the satisfaction of Buckingham himself. As far as the old lady was concerned all Laud's arguments were thrown away; but either by the conference itself or by reasoning used in private, Buckingham resolved to abandon all thought of change, and accepted Laud as his confessor. On the great question of the day—the Spanish marriage—he had been on the side of Spain, and as he had now as much influence over Charles as he ever had with his father, he can hardly have been a stranger to the promise given by the young prince to Gondomar before the latter returned to his own country that he would follow him to Madrid if the Spaniard advised him to do so (Gardiner, iv. 369).
For Buckingham, as for James, the Spanish marriage could not now be dissociated from the maintenance of the palatinate in the hands of the king's son-in-law, and in September 1622, when Tilly was besieging Heidelberg, he addressed a strong remonstrance to Gondomar (Cabala, p. 224), and, after the news of the fall of the place reached England, despatched Endymion Porter to Madrid to prepare the way for a visit from the prince to fetch home his bride, in a fleet of which Buckingham was to be in command. Buckingham was sanguine enough to suppose that, after so unwonted a display of personal confidence, the king of Spain would force or persuade the emperor to abandon all claims against Frederick in Germany, and he had no difficulty in impressing his own audacity on the irresolute mind of Charles. In February 1623, when the prospect of the compliance of Spain with James's political demands had grown darker, Buckingham and Charles wrung from the old king his consent to an adventurous journey which they were to take incognito to Madrid. On 17 Feb. they set out, arriving in Paris on the 21st, and in Madrid on 7 March.
The difficulties of the situation were not long in revealing themselves. The Spaniards could not imagine that the step would have been taken unless Charles had intended to allow of his conversion, and Buckingham had to protest that such a course was not to be thought of. Steenie, as James called him from some fancied resemblance to a picture of St. Stephen, wrote to the king in praise of the infanta's beauty; but he soon found that the infanta's hand was not to be secured without extravagant concessions. Disillusioned as he soon was, he gave offence by studied rudeness, and also, if the Spanish accusations are to be trusted, by the open dissoluteness of his life in the midst of a court which was at least decorous in public. On 18 May James created him a duke—the first known in England since Norfolk's execution—but the accession of dignity gave him no assistance in his rash enterprise. Before long he had entered on a personal quarrel with Olivares, and on 30 Aug., in company with the prince, he left Madrid, convinced that the Spaniards had been deluding the English government ever since the commencement of the negotiations.
Upon his arrival in England Buckingham set to work to draw James into a war with Spain, urging him to make the restitution of the palatinate an indispensable condition of the prince's marriage. On 1 Nov. he made a declaration—probably a highly coloured one—on his proceedings in Spain before the committee of council appointed to deal with Spanish affairs, and, finding James not sufficiently warlike, urged him to summon parliament. When, on 14 Jan. 1624, the committee, by a majority of nine to three, voted against war, he took it as a personal insult, striding up and down the room ‘as a hen that hath lost her brood, and clucks up and down when she hath none to follow her’ (Hacket, Life of Williams, i. 169). Buckingham, however, appealed from the committee to a new parliament which met on 16 Feb. In that parliament Buckingham figured as the popular leader in a popular war. On 24 Feb., with all but royal state, he told, after his own fashion, to the two houses the tale of the visit to Spain, ending with a request that they should give advice whether the negotiations with Spain for the marriage and the palatinate were any longer to be kept on foot.
The two Spanish ambassadors then in England, Inojosa and Coloma, complained to James of the rude language which Buckingham used of their master. Votes in both houses on 27 Feb. cleared him from blame. ‘In the way that Buckingham holds,’ said Phelips, ‘I pray that he shall keep his head on his shoulders to see thousands of Spaniards' heads either from their shoulders or in the seas.’ ‘And shall he lose his head?’ cried Coke. ‘Never any man deserved better of his king and country.’ On 28 Feb. the lords condemned the negotiations with Spain, and on the following day the commons followed suit. After much resistance James, appealed to by parliament and bullied by Buckingham, at last, on 23 March, declared the negotiations with Spain to be dissolved. James had now found a master in his favourite. Buckingham would not allow him to receive the Spanish ambassadors except in his own presence, that he might insist afterwards on their requests being disallowed. The combination of Buckingham with the two houses and the heir-apparent was irresistible. Buckingham was not content with getting his way. He must signalise in the eye of the world the hopelessness of resistance. With this object he, supported by Charles, fixed on the lord treasurer, the Earl of Middlesex, who had all along been opposed to a war with Spain. They stirred up the commons to impeach him on charges of peculation, and, though James told them that they were preparing a rod for themselves, rejoiced when the lords sentenced him to dismissal from office and to a heavy fine. With no less obstinacy did Buckingham insist on the harsh treatment of Bristol, who had but obeyed orders as ambassador at Madrid, and who persisted in resisting the policy of a war with Spain.
It was easy for a man in Buckingham's position to gain a fleeting popularity. Enduring leadership requires other qualities than those possessed by the brilliant favourite of fortune. His first difficulty arose from the wish of the commons to limit the area of the war. James wanted to have a land war, mainly aimed at the recovery of the palatinate, while the commons wished the war to be mainly a sea war against Spain. It may be argued that the commons misunderstood the conditions of European politics, and that they underestimated the power of the empire and the league, while they overestimated the power of the king of Spain. On the other hand England had neither a disciplined and well-organised army on foot nor the habit of bearing the taxation needed for its support, while the Spanish treasure-ships offered a tempting bait, and the memory of the Elizabethan privateers was a strong incitement to follow their example. Little as Buckingham knew it, the crisis of his fate had come. Shouting for war would no longer suffice for a leader. He had to resolve in what way and with what enemies the war was to be made. He resolved characteristically to fight as many enemies as possible, and to fling to the wind all considerations of difficulty and expense.
Nor was this all. The wider the conflagration the more need there was of allies, even though the allies were not exclusively protestant. He failed to learn the lesson of the Spanish fiasco, and aroused the resentment, as yet muffled, of the commons by forwarding a scheme for marrying the prince to Henrietta Maria, the youngest sister of Louis XIII; and this scheme he urged in the old headstrong way which had led to his failure in the Spanish negotiation. At first it was intended that there should be no binding agreement with France in the matter of the English catholics, and Charles had given a personal engagement to that effect. After parliament had been prorogued the French government insisted that an agreement to that effect should be made, and it was Buckingham who, having first overcome the scruples of Charles, carried the prince with him to overcome the scruples of James. When the marriage had been settled on these terms, it was hopeless for Buckingham to advise a speedy meeting of parliament, lest it should advise that the marriage negotiations should be broken off while there was yet time.
If parliament was not to meet in the autumn, the financial difficulties would be very great. The money voted in the preceding session had been allocated to certain definite objects, and was almost all spent. In the meanwhile Buckingham had projected the sending of Count Mansfeld to the palatinate with twelve thousand English foot soldiers. When they were at last got away, in January 1625, there was no money left to support them, and they dwindled away, starved and sickening, never getting beyond the frontier of the Dutch republic. It was Buckingham's first gigantic failure—a failure clearly traceable to his determination to initiate an independent policy of his own, without consultation with those who held the purse-strings. Yet the scheme of Mansfeld's expedition formed but a part of the vast but incoherent plan which dangled before his eyes. He meant also to assist the armies of the Dutch republic, to send money to Christian IV of Denmark to enable him to invade Germany, to fit out a fleet which would assail Spain on its own coasts, and support the French in an enterprise against Genoa, a city entirely devoted to the interests of Spain.
All this while Charles had meekly followed in Buckingham's wake, and on 27 March 1625 he ascended the throne on his father's death. For the next three years or more Buckingham was, to all intents and purposes, king of England. It was this that, more than anything else, cast a shadow on the new reign. It was not in any real sense a change of sovereigns. Buckingham continued to direct the government of England as he had done before.
With a view to the coming war, Buckingham had in the course of 1624 purchased from Lord Zouch the wardenship of the Cinque ports (Agreement between Buckingham and Zouch, 17 July 1624, State Papers, Dom. clxx. 16), thereby overcoming the difficulties of divided maritime jurisdiction. Later on the cautious Williams incurred his displeasure by advising him to resign the admiralty to avoid risk. Under his orders the fleet was rapidly got ready for sea, and ten thousand soldiers were raised to serve on board. It was arranged that, as war had not been declared against Spain, Buckingham, who was to command in person, should carry a commission from Frederick. The exact destination of the fleet was not as yet determined on, and early in June Buckingham thought of employing it in an attack on the Flemish ports.
The keystone of Buckingham's vast enterprises lay in the alliance with France, and Richelieu, now the true ruler of the country, was the last man to follow Charles's meteoric favourite. Richelieu, indeed, while James was still alive, had through Buckingham's influence obtained the loan of an English warship, and permission to hire seven English merchantmen to help him to crush the Huguenots of Rochelle; but in May, when the ships were ordered to cross the Channel, Pennington, their commander, was directed to take no part against French protestants. By that time Buckingham had begun to doubt whether he could bridle Richelieu to his purposes. Buckingham went in person to Paris to discover how far he could count on French assistance. Having discovered that, though some help would be given to Mansfeld and the king of Denmark, there was no hope of that close alliance on which he had counted, he returned home in an angry frame of mind, revenging himself on Louis by publicly making love to the queen of France at Amiens.
When on 18 June, parliament met, Buckingham, having failed in his scheme of an alliance with France, and having almost boundless occasion for money, had no distinct lead to give. The bewildered House of Commons, before which no definite proposals, financial or otherwise, had been laid, contented itself with voting no more than two subsidies. On 7 July Buckingham directed his followers in the commons to plead for a larger supply, and on the following morning Eliot, who had hitherto been on good terms with him, urged him to desist. The conversation was not an edifying one on either side, as neither Buckingham nor Eliot went to the bottom of the situation, till in the end Buckingham revealed that he asked for additional supplies ‘merely to be denied’ (Eliot, Negotium Posterorum); in other words, to gain the credit of carrying out his own policy in the teeth of the commons. He at once directed Sir John Coke to set forth the enterprises to which the government was now committed—a naval expedition against Spain, assistance to Mansfeld and the king of Denmark. Underestimated as the expenditure was, it was sufficient to frighten the house, and no vote for money was taken. On July 11 the houses were adjourned to Oxford in consequence of an outbreak of the plague.
Before parliament met again Pennington's fleet had crossed the Channel, and, after some diplomatic fencing, had been finally delivered over to the French government, at a time when Buckingham had reason to believe that the war between Louis and his Huguenot subjects was at an end. As this proved not to be the case, Buckingham and his master were exposed to obloquy as having given assistance to an attack on a protestant city. When on 1 Aug. parliament met at Oxford, they had good reason to doubt Buckingham's capacity, and when Conway once more unrolled before the commons the long catalogue of the engagements of the government, and then contented himself with asking for 40,000l. to complete the equipment of the fleet, the house was more bewildered than ever. At first an attempt at a compromise was discussed with some hope of success. One of the stipulations, however, was that the king should advise on the subject of the war ‘with his grave council;’ in other words, that military and naval arrangements should not be entrusted to Buckingham alone. To this resolution the commons adhered. In vain Buckingham, in all but royal state, summoned the houses to appear before him on the 8th in Christ Church Hall, and pointed to the lucrative exploits to be expected from the fleet. The house would hear nothing of these visionary schemes, and thoroughly distrusted the schemer. Rather than compel him to share his responsibility with the council, Charles dissolved parliament on 12 Aug.
Buckingham's aim was now to overwhelm his critics by striking a hard blow at the enemy in time for a new parliament to take note of his success. The fleet was sent out under the command of Sir Edward Cecil, while Buckingham in person completed the network of European alliances with the help of which the overthrow of Spain and Austria was to be achieved. His proposal to revisit France was, however, rejected by Louis, naturally indignant at Buckingham's insolent addresses to the queen, and also at Charles's intention to enforce the penal laws against the English catholics in spite of engagements to the contrary made at his marriage. In November Buckingham proceeded to the Hague, and on the 29th concluded a treaty with Denmark and the States-General binding England to furnish 30,000l. a month to the king of Denmark. His attempt to raise money by pawning the crown jewels ended in failure, and on his return to England he was met by the news that the fleet had effected nothing before Cadiz. Troubles with the French government had already commenced. On the one hand Charles was enforcing the penal laws against the English catholics; on the other hand, English ships were bringing French vessels into port as prizes on the charge that they were convoying Spanish merchantmen or trading with Spanish ports. In January 1626 it was proposed that Buckingham should in person command a fleet sent to the help of Rochelle. For a time this proposal came to nothing, as on 16–26 Jan. an agreement was made between Louis and his Huguenot subjects; but any warm co-operation between France and England on the continent was equally at an end.
On 6 Feb. 1626 Charles's second parliament was opened. Buckingham and his master saw no reason to doubt that the commons would grant large supplies for the support of the war. The commons, on the other hand, led by Sir John Eliot, fixed their eyes on Buckingham's past failures, and saw in his readiness to embark in a war with France as well as with Spain an indication not of a sanguine temperament and an unpractical mind, but of a deliberate intention to neglect the interests of the state in pursuit of his own private aggrandisement. When it appeared that their inquiry into the causes of past disasters was baffled by Charles's refusal to sanction it, they came to the conclusion that the king's reluctance to allow adequate investigation was due to the influence of his minister. On 11 March Dr. Turner declared that the cause of all their grievances was ‘that great man the Duke of Buckingham,’ and charged him with neglect in guarding the seas against pirates, with causing the failure at Cadiz by appointing unfit officers, with engrossing crown lands for himself, his friends, and relatives, with selling places of judicature and titles of honour, and with accumulating many great offices on himself. The recusancy of his mother and father-in-law was thrown in as an additional crime. For the first time since the days of the house of Lancaster the commons ventured to hold a minister of the crown responsible for his actions. In 1625 they had contented themselves with asking that nothing should be done by the king except by the advice of his council. They now assailed the minister himself. On 30 March Buckingham spoke in a conference between the houses in his own defence (Add. MS. 22474, f. 22 b–31 b). The commons refused to accept his explanation, being specially irritated by the employment of the Vanguard and other ships against the Huguenots of Rochelle. In the House of Lords, too, Buckingham had raised up enemies enough. Through his influence orders had been sent to Bristol to absent himself from parliament. On 17 April Bristol appeared before the lords and claimed to be heard ‘both in the point of his wrongs and in accusation of the said duke.’ To ward off the blow, Charles charged Bristol with high treason on the slightest possible grounds. On 1 May the houses directed that the accusations against Bristol and Buckingham should be heard simultaneously. On 8 May a formal impeachment of Buckingham was brought up by the commons. In spite of all that Charles could do, they unrolled the long catalogue of the duke's offences. On 8 June Buckingham was heard in his own defence. It is quite true that in many respects the charges made against him were exaggerated, or even unsustainable by evidence. Against the underlying ground of complaint—his utter inefficiency for the high position he occupied—no defence was possible. If Charles had permitted his removal from office, the criminal charges would probably have been dropped. It was because Charles, from motives easily intelligible, rejected the doctrine of ministerial responsibility—which had fallen asleep for more than a century and a half—that the commons persisted in pressing for a judicial sentence. Yet they made one effort to gain the removal of the duke with the king's consent. On 12 June they voted a remonstrance in which they pleaded for the dismissal of the minister simply on the ground that any money they might vote would be misemployed as long as he was trusted with the spending of it. Charles had no ears for such a complaint, and on 14 June he dissolved parliament.
Even while the conflict was proceeding Charles showed his resolution to advance Buckingham to yet higher honours. Pressure was put on the university of Cambridge to elect the favourite as chancellor. On 1 June Charles had his way, though Buckingham secured only 108 votes against 103 cast for his competitor, the Earl of Berkshire. After the dissolution the king asked the managers of the impeachment to bring their case against Buckingham before the Star-chamber, and when the managers naturally refused to do so, the Star-chamber delivered a sentence in favour of the duke, which carried conviction to no one who was not already assured of his innocence. Before long Buckingham added one more item to his list of failures. A fleet was sent out under Lord Willoughby to attack the Spaniards. It soon returned, shattered by a storm, before it had had the opportunity to accomplish anything.
In the course of the summer of 1626 the misunderstandings with France were growing in intensity. Charles dismissed the queen's French attendants, and the capture of French merchantmen on suspicion of their being employed in carrying Spanish goods irritated the French government and led to reprisals. On 4 Dec. Buckingham offered to go in person to the French court to clear away misunderstandings; but it is not surprising that, considering his conduct to the queen at his last appearance in France, Louis refused to receive him. In the beginning of 1627 the two countries were openly at war.
Buckingham's sanguine nature was at the bottom of most of his troubles. In February he empowered Gerbier to offer peace to Spain at Brussels on the condition of her agreeing to a suspension of arms with the Dutch republic and the king of Denmark. In March, upon the rejection of this overture, he sent out Pennington to sweep the seas of French merchantmen. In May he made up his mind to head an expedition to relieve Rochelle, at that time besieged by the king's troops. The remains of the force which had returned from Cadiz were made up to eight thousand by new levies, and a great fleet was at the same time made ready for sea, to re-establish the reputation of the English navy as well as to free from danger the Huguenots of south-western France. According to instructions issued on 19 June, no doubt drawn up by himself, he was, if the Rochellese were ready to accept English aid, to hand over the soldiers to Soubise to be used in their defence, and to go on to Bordeaux to recover English merchant ships seized as a reprisal for the French prizes taken in the Channel, and then to break up the trade of Spain with Flanders and the West Indies. The scheme was certainly not wanting in largeness of conception. On 27 June Buckingham sailed from Stokes Bay with about a hundred ships and six thousand soldiers. On 10 July he was before the Isle of Rhé, and on 12 July he landed his troops and opened the siege of St. Martin's, the principal fortress in the island. The first check came from the Rochellese themselves, who refused to receive the offered succour till they had consulted their co-religionists. In August the siege of St. Martin's was turned into a blockade. Sickness decreased the numbers of the English, and Buckingham had to send home for reinforcements. Charles, however, had no money in hand, and when at last reinforcements were ready to sail under the Earl of Holland, the expedition was detained by contrary winds at Plymouth till it was too late. In the meanwhile Buckingham found his difficulties increasing and his army diminishing. Though on 27 Sept. Toiras, the commandant of the fort, whose provisions had come to an end, offered to surrender, a French flotilla, laden with supplies, broke the blockade that very night, and the siege had to be commenced afresh. On 20 Oct. a French force landed in the island. On the 27th Buckingham made in vain one desperate attempt to storm the fortress. Even then Buckingham postponed his retreat to the 29th, by which time the numbers of the French force on the island had been augmented to six thousand. It was only with heavy loss that the embarkation was effected. On 20 Oct. the English army consisted of 6,884 soldiers. On 8 Nov. no more than 2,989 were landed at Portsmouth and Plymouth.
So far from being disheartened by the disaster, Buckingham was as exuberant as ever. He now proposed an attack on Calais, and talked of continuing the war for many years. Though the returned soldiers and sailors were starving, he refused to accept overtures for peace made by the king of France, and—so certain was he that no serious charge could be brought against him—even advocated the calling of a new parliament to vote supplies for the war. As Charles hesitated, Buckingham tried another tack, and advocated the establishment of a standing army of eleven thousand men, to be supported by an excise arbitrarily imposed. In January 1628 Dalbier, Buckingham's military adviser, was sent to Germany to levy a thousand horse for service in England. Efforts to raise an excise, and even ship-money, having ignominiously failed, there was nothing left but to summon parliament, if Rochelle, now strictly blockaded, was to be succoured. Denbigh, Buckingham's brother-in-law, had indeed been placed in command of a relieving force, but, without money, he was unable to leave Plymouth.
The third parliament of Charles I met on 17 March 1628. Its leaders had previously decided that, as the main work of the session must be to place constitutional restrictions on the king himself, there should be no repetition of the impeachment of Buckingham. In the conflict which followed, Buckingham championed the king's claim to commit without showing cause; but the House of Lords was by this time too incensed to follow his leadership. When, on 2 June, Charles gave an unsatisfactory answer to the petition of right, the commons held Buckingham responsible for the mischief. On the 7th Eliot attacked his policy without mentioning his name. On the 8th Coke named him. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘the Duke of Bucks is the cause of all our miseries, and till the king be informed thereof we shall never go out with honour, or sit with honour here. That man is the grievance of grievances.’ Selden proposed that his impeachment should be renewed. The commons proceeded to draw up a remonstrance, in which Buckingham's demerits were set forth, and on the 7th Charles gave his assent to the petition of right in due form.
After the king's acceptance of the petition of right the commons voted five subsidies, which enabled Buckingham to complete his preparations for a new expedition intended to relieve Rochelle. Yet, though they dropped the proposal to impeach the favourite, they completed their remonstrance, in which his excessive power was declared to be the principal cause of the evils under which they suffered. They further declared that no man could manage ‘so many and weighty affairs of the kingdom as he hath undertaken, besides the ordinary duties of those offices he holds,’ finally expressing a desire that he might no longer continue in office, or ‘in his place of nearness and counsel about’ the ‘sacred person’ of the king. Charles stood by his overbearing subject. On 16 June he commanded all documents relating to the sham prosecution of Buckingham in the Star-chamber in 1626 to be taken off the file, ‘that no memory thereof remain of the record against him which may tend to his disgrace.’ On the 17th, when the commons appeared with their remonstrance, he prohibited Buckingham from answering, though the duke begged to be allowed to speak in his own defence.
Buckingham was now the object of the common hatred. He was held up to obloquy in satires and pasquinades. Of these he took no notice, but after parliament had been prorogued he aimed at limiting the extent of the war by making peace with Spain, vainly hoping that some settlement of the question of the palatinate might in this way be reached. He even offered to go once more in person to Madrid. He did something to place himself in better relations with the country by employing Williams, to whom he had been reconciled before the end of the session, to place him in contact with one or other of the parliamentary leaders. With this object in view he resigned the wardenship of the Cinque ports. The policy thus adumbrated was deficient in brilliancy, and the duke turned aside from it to listen to Carleton, for whom he obtained the viscounty of Dorchester, who was sure to urge him to quit himself of the war with France and to turn his attention to the recovery of the palatinate. Both the Dutch and the Venetian ambassadors combined to give him the same advice, which he would perhaps have taken if it had been possible. It was not, however, easy to divert to a fresh object the preparations for the relief of Rochelle. Yet the insufficiency of the means at Buckingham's disposal was a terrible obstacle in the way of his securing efficiency in the fleet gathered at Portsmouth. While the king went down to Sir Daniel Norton's house at Southwick to be near the scene, Buckingham remained in London to hasten the necessary supplies. The limits of his authority, long known to others, were now becoming visible to himself. ‘I find nothing,’ he wrote on 6 Aug., ‘of more difficulty and uncertainty than the preparations here for this service of Rochelle. Every man says he has all things ready, and yet all remains as it were at a stand. It will be Saturday night before all the victuals will be aboard, and I dare not come from hence till I see that despatched, being of such importance.’ No wonder Buckingham received favourably a definite proposal from Contarini, the Venetian ambassador, that the Rochellese should treat directly with their own sovereign. In the hope that these negotiations might be effectual, Buckingham gave orders with a view to transferring the war to Germany. Charles, however, made objections, and when, on 17 Aug., Buckingham appeared at Portsmouth, the deputies from Rochelle protested warmly against the scheme. It was agreed that there should be a meeting on 23 Aug. in the king's presence, when a final resolution would be taken.
In Buckingham's mind there was a presentiment of danger. In taking leave of Laud, he had begged him to recommend his wife and children to the king. ‘Some adventure,’ he said, ‘may kill me as well as another man.’ It was not of assassination that he was thinking. A friend who urged him to wear a shirt of mail under his clothes found him not to be persuaded. ‘A shirt of mail,’ he replied, ‘would be but a silly defence against any popular fury. As for a single man's assault, I take myself to be in no danger. There are no Roman spirits left.’ On the 22nd he was exposed to danger from mutinous sailors. When he came down to breakfast on the morning of the 23rd, in the house in the High Street of Portsmouth occupied by Captain Mason, he received news—false as it turned out—that Rochelle had been relieved. When breakfast was over, as he stepped out into the hall he stopped for an instant to speak to Sir Thomas Fryer. As his attention was engaged a man who was standing close to the entrance of a passage leading to the breakfast-room struck him heavily with a knife in the left breast, calling out ‘God have mercy on thy soul!’ The duke drew the knife out of the wound, and, crying ‘Villain!’ attempted to follow the assassin. After tottering for a step or two he fell heavily against a table, and sank dead on the ground. The duchess, warned of her husband's murder, rushed in her night-dress to the gallery, and looked down on his bleeding corpse. The murderer was John Felton (1595?–1628) [q. v.], a discharged officer, who, meditating on his own wrongs, had found in the remonstrance of the House of Commons an inspiration to the deed as ridding the earth of a tyrant. He had acted, he believed, as the champion of God and his country. Buckingham was privately buried in Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey on 10 Sept. A pretentious and inartistic monument was subsequently erected above his grave by his widow.
Buckingham left three sons and one daughter. The daughter, Mary, married, first, Charles, lord Herbert, son and heir of Philip, earl of Pembroke and Montgomery; secondly, James Stuart, fourth duke of Lennox and first duke of Richmond [q. v.]; and, thirdly, Thomas Howard, brother to Charles, earl of Carlisle. Of the sons, Charles, the eldest, died an infant, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on 17 March 1627; George (1628–1687) succeeded to the dukedom, and is separately noticed; Francis, a posthumous child, born on 2 April 1629, was killed near Kingston in 1648. The first duke's widow subsequently married Randal Macdonnell, viscount Dunluce and second earl and marquis of Antrim [q. v.]
There is a fine portrait of the duke by Rubens in the Pitti gallery at Florence. Another, by Gerard Honthorst, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. A portrait of Buckingham and his family, painted by Cornelius Janssen, is at Buckingham Palace; another of the duke and his family, by Gerard Honthorst, is at Hampton Court. Janssen also painted a separate portrait of the duke, which is also at Hampton Court; and a portrait by Van Dyck belongs to the Marquis of Northampton (for various engravings, of which three were by Faithorne, Simon and William Pass, see Bromley, p. 70).
[For the political life of the duke see Gardiner's Hist. of England, 1603–42, vols. ii–vi. passim, where the references to original authorities will be found. Sir Henry Wotton's contemporary biography is reprinted in the Harl. Misc. (ed. 1808–12), viii. 613. Clarendon wrote The Characters of Robert, Earl of Essex, and George, Duke of Buckingham. In 1758 Horace Walpole edited A Catalogue of the Curious Collection of Pictures of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. A collection of ballads relating to him was published for the Percy Society by F. W. Fairholt.]