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Portrait of George Villiers by Peter Paul Rubens

Meet King James I's 'husband': George Villiers 'The 'handsomest-bodied man in all England'

The new Sky drama 'Mary & George' tells the story of how Mary Villiers transformed her son from relative obscurity to one of the wealthiest men in the country. But who was the real George Villiers?

Image: George Villiers commissioned several lavish portraits of himself, including this one by Peter Paul Rubens | Public Domain

The life of George Villiers

Beautiful, charismatic and cunning, George Villiers caught the eye of one king, was the favourite of another, and soared to heights of power and wealth in 17th-century England – only to come to a violent end.

Mary & George

Born in 1592, George Villiers was the son of a minor country gentleman who died when George was a boy. His mother, Mary Villiers, understood the potential of her pretty son from an early age, scraping together enough money to educate him in the courtier’s life. He learnt fencing, dancing and aristocratic etiquette, and spent time in French royal circles.

He emerged from these years a precocious, talented and exquisitely attractive figure, acclaimed by one contemporary as the ‘handsomest-bodied man in all England’. Mary, who would herself get ahead by landing two more husbands who were both well-connected knights of the realm, manoeuvred George into the orbit of King James VI and I.

The two men – one more than twice the age of the other – first met in 1614, and the king was enamoured from the start.

More than just friends?

Villiers was an eye-catching addition to the king’s court, showing off his lithe and athletic form by dancing at masques and other gatherings. Before long, he was officially the king’s new favourite, who knighted him and later made him the Earl, the Marquess and finally the Duke of Buckingham.

James didn’t disguise his fondness for the much younger man, saying, ‘I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else’ and even going as far as saying, ‘Christ had John and I have George’. But were they simply BFFs or was there a romantic connection?

Historians have long disagreed on the matter, although some of the words exchanged by the pair certainly convey a deep and sincere passion. The king referred to Villiers as his ‘wife’, while Villiers told him that he would ‘live and die a lover of you’.

In one letter, Villiers even seems to explicitly reference sleeping with the king in Farnham Castle, musing, ‘whether you loved me now… better than at the time which I shall never forget at Farnham, where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog’.

Wealth and power

With the king as his best friend and patron, Villiers enjoyed unbridled influence and power, and was even appointed the ceremonial head of the Royal Navy in 1619. His mother continued to play a role in his dizzying ascent, orchestrating his marriage to Lady Katherine Manners, thought to be the richest non-royal woman in Britain. It was a controversial match – her Catholicism meant that James opposed the relationship, and Lady Katherine’s father was furious when she agreed to convert to Protestantism.

Mary’s matchmaking paid off when Villiers and Lady Katherine tied the knot in 1620, cementing her son’s status as one of the wealthiest men in the land. Quite an achievement for someone born into relative obscurity, with only his looks and personality in his favour.

His rise also earned him enemies, and his various court intrigues and business dealings led many to consider him corrupt and vain. Villiers was undoubtedly an unashamed self-promoter, adorning himself in jewellery and commissioning lavish portraits of himself, including some by the great Flemish painter, Peter Paul Rubens.

If his opponents expected his star to fade following the death of the king in 1625, they were mistaken. By this time, Villiers had become the favourite of the next in line: James’s son, Charles I.

Military mayhem

Villiers and Charles had bonded in 1623 when he had accompanied the then-prince to Europe to negotiate a politically favourable marriage with the Infanta Maria Anna, daughter of Spain’s Philip III. The negotiations didn’t work out, in part because the Spanish royals were put off by the irreverent, overly-familiar and entitled attitude of Villiers.

Charles eventually married Henrietta Maria of France, an arrangement which Villiers, as the new king’s favourite, was also closely involved with. That same year, Villiers masterminded a naval raid on Spain, in an ill-judged attempt to recreate the English successes of the Elizabethan era.

A vast armada of ships was dispatched, but the mission became a fiasco – at one point, English forces who landed near the Spanish city of Cádiz simply got drunk on Spanish wine and were roundly defeated.

The reputation of Villiers, who had already been associated with other failed military expeditions by this point, was dealt a huge blow by this disaster. But worse was still to come.

Killing the king’s favourite

Another naval campaign a few years later – this one personally led by Villiers – ended in another humiliating defeat and the deaths of thousands of English sailors. Stubborn in the face of consecutive catastrophes, Villiers was in the middle of organising yet another military adventure when his life came to a sudden end in August 1628.

While sitting in the Greyhound Inn in Portsmouth, Villiers was fatally stabbed by John Felton, a solider who’d served in the doomed Cádiz expedition and had – like many in England – come to despise Villiers. Though he was hanged for the assassination, Felton was widely feted as a national hero, with one poet writing, ‘The Duke is dead and we are rid of strife / by Felton’s hand that took away his life’.

George Villiers was only 35 at the time of his murder. His mother, who was also widely perceived as greedy and self-obsessed, died four years later, ending a fascinating but controversial chapter in the history of the English royals and those they loved.