George Villiers, first Duke of Buckingham has almost a unique place in history. Few other figures gained such prestige, power and influence on events because they had a charming manner and a delicately handsome masculine face.
Villiers rose to power during the reign of James I because he was able to present himself to the king and make use of a peculiarity of the first Stuart monarch. Although James was not a practising homosexual in any manner that we would accept today, he had an abnormally strong attraction to handsome young men and loved to have them as companions. In the seventeenth century, this meant that a successful ‘friend’ of the king could gain great power, even though he might make serious enemies.
Villiers first attracted James in 1614, and the next few years saw him become established as the leading controller of patronage in the kingdom. As someone who controlled patronage, he was not different in any way from any other power broker, and patronage was an accepted practice in all of the courts of Europe. By 1623, however, Buckingham wanted to throw his weight into the delicacies of foreign policy, and this led to great trouble, both for himself and, ultimately, for the English monarchy itself. One of the cornerstones of James’ foreign policy, that caused some irritation among individuals who were elected to Parliaments, was a proposed marriage alliance with Spain, which had been England’s great enemy during the reign of Elizabeth and continued to be the greatest foe of Protestantism in Europe. This marriage project became extremely difficult after 1618, when James’ son-in-law, Elector Frederick of the Palatinate, accepted the crown of Bohemia, an affront to the Austrian Hapsburg emperor that triggered off the Thirty Years’ War.
In an open desire to please his monarch, Buckingham at first championed the proposed ‘Spanish match.’ Because negotiations were dragging, in 1623, he coaxed Prince Charles, with whom he also had become a close friend, into travelling by horseback directly to Madrid to hasten proceedings. The attempt was a dismal failure, and, in the following year, Buckingham joined ranks with the hawkish Parliamentarians who wanted a naval war against Catholic Spain. It is unclear, at this point, whether James had ever wanted a royal favorite to have such controlling influence over foreign policy as well as domestic patronage, but Buckingham proceeded to play a leading role in disastrous events for the next four years.
Although England had fared well in the Elizabethan war with Spain, the navy had suffered neglect during the reign of James and the country had little more than mustered locals to stand as an army. The kingdom was ill prepared for a major naval or land war with a continental power. Buckingham undertook a marriage alliance with France, which, although Catholic, was a potential enemy of Spain. Here, he stumbled headlong into the situation that had annoyed so many of his countrymen in the proposed Spanish marriage. Charles, as heir to the throne, would have to marry a Catholic princess, and the price of the marriage would be Catholic attendants at court and extensions of the rights of Catholics among English citizens. Nevertheless, the marriage of Charles to Henrietta Maria, sister of Louis XIII of France, took place in 1625, the same year that James died and Charles became King Charles I.
Having to face an unpopular Catholic marriage that he had engineered, Buckingham might have staved off great personal unpopularity if military campaigns executed under his overall command went smoothly, but these did not. Because Buckingham aroused such intense hostility, Parliaments were unwilling to grant sufficient funds for military undertakings. A naval expedition to the Spanish port of Cadiz was a fiasco. Because French mmilitary support, under the sly machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, were being delayed, Buckingham tried the very delicate and dangerous tactic of putting pressure on the greatt French cardinal by forming a military alliance with the French protestant Huguenots, based in the port city of La Rochelle. A naval expedition of 1627 to La Rochelle also was a catastrophe
While preparing a second expedition to La Rochelle in 1628, the Duke was assassinated in Portsmouth and his meteoric career came to an abrupt end. Charles, grieving inconsolably for the loss of his friend, perpetuated the same pattern of unpopular royal policies that had begun during the heyday of Buckingham, and the end result was the English Civil War of 1642-46, with the eventual trial and execution of Charles for treason in 1649.
In his substantial biography of Buckingham, Roger Lockyer, a lecturer at the University of London, has accomplished a feat that nobody has seriously attempted since 1860, when a long but somewhat superficial attempt was made by one Katherine Thompson. Mr. Lockyer chose to differ from other authorities in some of his overall judgments of Buckingham. He avoids using such terminology as ‘homosexual’ in describing the relationship between the favorite and James, and judges Buckingham to have attempted serious statesmanship in his dabblings in foreign policy. Most students of the early Stuart period agree with such venerable authorities as S. R. Gardiner in seeing the royal favorite in a very unfavourable light. However, the depth of Lockyer’s scholarship makes the biographer welcome to historical writing in general, and Stuart historiography in particular.