19 August 2009

Men: George Villiers

By Anita Davison

George and Francis Villiers by Van Dyck

The son of the murdered 1st Duke, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham is often judged as ostentatious, licentious, and unscrupulous, but even his critics agreed he was also good-humoured, good-natured, generous, an unsurpassed mimic, and the leader of fashion. His good looks and wit made him irresistible to his contemporaries, in spite of his lack of morality, and even his crimes. John Reresby called him "the first gentleman of person and wit I think I ever saw," and Dean Lockier, after alluding to his unrivalled skill in riding, dancing and fencing, added, "When he came into the presence-chamber it was impossible for you not to follow him with your eye as he went along, he moved so gracefully." According to Gilbert Burnet, "He gave himself up, to a monstrous course of studied immoralities."

When their father was murdered by John Felton, George was only seven and his brother Francis, two years younger. Under the care of the Earl of Northumberland, their early childhood was spent in Florence and Rome. At fourteen, George attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained the degree of Master of Arts. When the Second Civil War broke out, the Villiers boys joined Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland in Surrey. Francis was killed near Kingston-upon-Thames, at the age of twenty. Buckingham escaped to the Netherlands and joined Charles II in exile, while his lands were confiscated and given to Thomas, Lord Fairfax.

Buckingham was given the Order of the Garter (KG) and admitted to the Privy Council by Charles II. A sworn enemy of Edward Hyde, Buckingham supported the alliance with the Scottish Presbyterians and accompanied Charles to Scotland in June 1650. Allying himself with the Marquess of Argyll, he fought at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, and escaped the field to arrive in Rotterdam and re-joined Charles II in exile.

A fervent supporter of religious toleration, Buckingham's negotiations with Oliver Cromwell's government, and his readiness to sacrifice the interests of the church, separated him from the rest of Charles's advisers. This estrangement was compounded by his audacious courtship of the king's widowed sister Mary, Princess of Orange, and by a money dispute with Charles.

Tired of exile and determined to regain his estates, Buckingham argued with Charles II and returned to England and went to court Lord Fairfax. Uneasy with certain Protestant excesses, Fairfax hadn't supported Charles I's execution, and the retired general quickly became a friend of the handsome, and charming Buckingham. Whether by accident or design, knowing Buckingham it was probably the latter, the general's daughter, Mary, fell in love with him although the banns of her intended marriage with the Earl of Chesterfield had been twice called in church. They were married at the Fairfax estate in Yorkshire and as a wedding gift, Lord Fairfax signed the two Villiers properties back to his son-in-law.

When news of the wedding reached London, the Lord Protector was furious. Suspicious that Buckingham might be secretly working with royalists to undermine the republic, Cromwell saw the marriage as a potentially treasonous alliance with the power to turn the army against him. Buckingham was arrested and held at York House, from where he escaped. Re-arrested, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, and again his properties confiscated.

Buckingham lived for months with a traitor's death of being hanged, drawn and quartered hanging over him, but in 1658, Cromwell fell ill. Through the window of his cell in September, Buckingham heard the cannons boom to announce the dictator's death. He wrote later: "If Oliver had lived for three more days, I would surely have been put to death."

Freed in February 1659 on Fairfax's security of £20,000, having promised not to assist the enemies of the government, Buckingham joined Fairfax in his march against General John Lambert in January 1660, and claimed to have persuaded Fairfax to the cause of the Restoration.

In May 1660, King Charles II was restored to his throne. Theaters and inns opened again. Boys were allowed to play football on Sunday, and Charles legalized horse racing in the first week of his reign. Meeting him at Dover, the king received Buckingham coldly for his desertion, but the Villiers charm soon did its work, and he was appointed a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, made him a member of the Privy Council a year later, and George carried the Sovereign's Orb at the coronation on 23 April 1661. He accompanied Princess Henrietta Anne to Paris to marry the Duke of Orleans, but made such shameless advances to her, that he was recalled. Admitted to the Privy Council, Buckingham’s confiscated estates, amounting to £26,000 a year, were restored to him, and he was said to be the king's richest subject.

An advocate of religious tolerance, George was horrified by the trend of Catholics being barred from public office. As a Freemason, he had progressive views on most issues, and contempt for the established church. But he was sympathetic to the Quakers, who were being imprisoned, tortured and hung for their refusal to conform to Anglican demands. William Penn was a fellow Yorkshireman and friend of George's.

For about 15 years, Charles II was attended by the 'Merrie Gang,' a posse of young nobles and gentry, many of whom were clearly gay or bisexual. Naturally their leader was Buckingham, who according to Rousseau, "The king himself was accused of engaging in overt 'sodomitical liaisons' with the Duke of Buckingham."

The permissive atmosphere of Restoration high society meant that George made no secret of his liking for both men and women. From childhood he would have been aware of his father's relationship with King James I. Sodomy laws were still on the books in England, but Restoration liberality had reduced punishment from death to a day in the stocks.

Being an amateur playwright, George often dallied with actors--and rumours spread that he was intimate with young Edward Kynaston, famed for playing female roles. Playwright George Etheredge. Known as "Gentle George" to his friends, ('gentle' was a euphemism for gay in the Restoration court), Etheredge was fair-haired and slender, beautifully dressed, and wrote some of the era’s most sparkling comedy. Buckingham mentioned Etheredge in a poem, saying that Apollo had his eye on gentle George--an allusion to the Greek god's fondness for handsome mortal men.

Yet another "gentle" favorite was poet Abraham Cowley, with whom Buckingham was a student at Cambridge. It was said that Cowley never spoke a word of love to a woman in his life. Many conventional biographies of Buckingham refrain from mentioning that he was bisexual, but historian Howard Love says flatly in his English Clandestine Satire, 1660-1702, that Buckingham "was a bisexual rake who was prosecuted for sodomy."

George's closest cohort was another civil war hero, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who was known to write witty gay erotica and was clearly bisexual. According to Wilmot, the ‘Merrie Gang’ rose at ten, breakfasted at two, and were drunk by five. Wilmot once admitted to being drunk for five years. Their drink of choice was imported wine spiked with opium--which was making its debut in England thanks to trade with China. On occasion, George had dinner at 2 AM, washed down with a French drink he had introduced to English high society, called champagne. While drunk, Villiers and Wilmot loved to disguise themselves, and pull off mad escapades and practical jokes.

With most of his pre-war property retrieved, and a vast income, George lived well. In 1666, he built a vast mansion at Cliveden on the Thames where he installed his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury. This affair with Anna Maria Brudenell, led to a duel with her husband at Barn Elms in January 1668 that turned into a massacre with two deaths and several injuries. It was rumoured, but unsubstantiated, that the Countess of Shrewsbury held her lover's horse, in the dress of a page during the duel. The Earl of Shrewsbury was fatally wounded, and subsequently, Buckingham provoked an outrage when he installed the "widow of his own creation" in his own and his wife's house.

Pepys’ reference to this 'duell,' says,
....it was all 'about my Lady Shrewsbury, at that time, and for a great while before, a mistress to the Duke of Buckingham; and so her husband challenged him, and they met; and my Lord Shrewsbury was run through the body, from the right breast through the shoulder; and Sir John Talbot all along up one of his arms; and Jenkins killed upon the place, and the rest all in a little measure wounded.'
George was not the only sexual nonconformist in his family. Mary Villiers, his sister, was an influential writer and early feminist, who kept the court buzzing with gossip about her swordsmanship, duelling, fondness for men’s clothes, and the erotic lesbian tinges in her poetry.

When the 'Merrie Gang' weren't getting high, drinking and womanising, they raced horses. Charles' grandfather, the gay King James I, had first developed a court and racecourse at Newmarket. Charles II built a huge stable there so racers could board horses there--"the oldest training establishment in the world,"* In 1665 the king established the Newmarket Town Plate, an annual race over a 4-mile course, in several heats, the first race run under written rules. Riders had to be a gentleman. Each horse to carry 12 stone (168 pounds). No whipping each other by the riders. No cruelty to the horses. The first horse to win three heats was the victor. Wagering on all races reached preposterous levels, so King Charles II, alarmed by bankruptcies of titled bettors, issued a royal decree limiting the size of bets. On Sunday evenings, Buckingham would often entertain the court with what he called a 'sermon'--a bawdy stand-up comedy monologue that had their audience screaming with laughter.

Well into the 1670s, the 'Merrie Gang' continued, until Buckingham was devastated by the death of Abraham Cowley in 1667, and by 1679, the Earl of Rochester was fading horribly from the effects of alcoholism and venereal disease, and died in 1680.

Years of abuse left Buckingham with rheumatism, liver problems, and his sex life became a national issue. The Earl of Clarendon took the position that George was a godless monster. Parliament debate was noisy and at one point, Buckingham fought with another peer and they yanked off each other's wigs. Both were thrown in the Tower to cool off.

In 1667 Clarendon got George disbarred from the Privy Council, but Buckingham fought back with icy ruthlessness, and engineered the Earl’s downfall. Arrested and dismissed from all his offices, Buckingham evaded capture but he gave himself up and was imprisoned in the Tower. Restored to favour and his appointments three months later, Buckingham took an active part in the prosecution of Clarendon. When Clarendon fell, he became the chief minister, even though he had previously held no high office except that of Master of the Horse, bought from the Duke of Albermarle in 1668.

Buckingham was accused of: the instigation of the idea of a divorce from Queen Catherine of Braganza for her childlessness, plotting against James, Duke of York, the Duke of Ormonde, and Sir William Coventry--whose fall Buckingham procured by provoking him to send him a challenge to a duel.

Through it all, King Charles stayed supportive, and re-appointed George to high office in 1670. But in 1674, Buckingham was openly attacked in Parliament over his relationship with Lady Shrewsbury. In the Lords, the trustees of the young Earl of Shrewsbury complained that Buckingham publicly continued his affair with the Countess, and that a son of theirs had been buried in Westminster Abbey with the title of Earl of Coventry; Buckingham and the countess were required to apologize and give security for £10,000 not to cohabit together again.

By 1678, England veered into panic over Titus Oates and the "Popish plot." Half the country was sure that Catholic enemies were planning the King’s murder and the downfall of government. A series of ludicrous state trials resulted in some public executions of innocent men caught up in the hysteria. Buckingham's enemies tried to implicate him in the conspiracy, charging that he had engaged in sodomy with a young conspirator named Philip Le Mar. Buckingham was put through a state trial by Parliament, spent more time in the Tower, and defended himself with savage wit. Eventually charges were dropped. On May 21, 1680, George was freed from the Tower for the last time.

In 1681, at age 53, Villiers left public life in disgust. He paid off some of his debts by selling Cliveden and other properties. But he held onto Helmsley, in Yorkshire, making it his home for the first time. Income from tenant farmers provided some cash flow, and his old retainers stayed loyal, so under the shadow of the half-ruined castle, he and Mary lived a recluse life in the antiquated manor house.

The once-athletic, handsome cavalier was now a hefty country squire with a few wooden teeth, chugging ale with other squires at the Cock and Bottle Inn. He founded the Bilsdale Hunt, put together the first pack of hounds, and went fox-hunting with his new cronies. The odd mistress still came and went from Helmsley, along with a boyfriend or two, including George Etheredge. Finally his long-suffering wife Mary moved out.

In February 1685, King Charles died, and in April 1687, while the aging Duke was out hunting, he fell ill or had a riding accident-accounts vary. Carried to the home of a tenant in Kirkbymoorside, six miles from Helmsley, he lingered for several days until on April 16, George Villiers died. He was 59.

Buckingham was buried on 7 June 1687 in Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, with greater splendour than the late king. After his death, all his property, which had been deeply mortgaged, was sold, and did not realize sufficient to pay his debts. George and Mary had no children, so his titles became extinct. The family line continued through the 1st Duke's siblings. The Villiers' most famous descendent is Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, whose ancestry goes back to the Duke of Grafton, Charles II's illegitimate son with George's cousin Barbara Villiers.

* Newmarket historian John Sutton.