The English statesman George Villiers, 2d Duke of Buckingham (1628-1687), was influential in Restoration England. An advocate of religious toleration, he was also known as a rake and as the author of lewd poetry and prose.
Elder son of the Duke of Buckingham, Charles l's most powerful subject, George Villiers was born on Jan. 30, 1628. In November his father was assassinated by a Puritan fanatic, and George, his brother Francis, and his sisters became wards of the King. Educated with the royal princes, Buckingham and his brother then attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and George received a master of arts degree in 1642. With the outbreak of civil war in the same year, George (age 15) and Francis (13) left their studies to fight for their guardian. Their youthful valor resulted in the sequestration of their estates by Parliament.
By summer 1643 anxious relatives had prevailed upon the boys to abandon the fighting and to complete their educations abroad. For the next 4 years they came under the influence of the dissolute Ferdinand II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and George began his long career of debauchery. On his way back to England, Buckingham renewed his friendship with Prince Charles in Paris.
Support of Charles II
Upon the conclusion of the civil war in 1646, Buckingham's lands were restored to him. During the renewed hostilities of 1648, his brother was killed in battle. Buckingham fled to Holland, and his estates were again seized by Parliament. After the execution of Charles I, the young Prince Charles became a king in exile. Charles II gave what recompense he could to his friend and follower— Buckingham was made a knight of the Garter in 1649 and became a member of the Privy Council the next year. He soon proved to have a great deal of influence over the King.
The combination of Buckingham's influence, insolence, and outspokenness alienated many in Charles's entourage. Among those who were less than enchanted with the young duke was Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, the King's chief adviser. Over the older man's objections Buckingham convinced the King to ally himself with the Scottish Presbyterians and, accompanying Charles to Scotland, helped to keep him firm in his alliance.
Charles's projected invasion of England had no chance of success. Buckingham was with the King at the battle of Worcester in 1651 and, with some difficulty, managed to escape overseas, as he had done 3 years earlier. By 1657 Buckingham had tired of his life in Holland and returned to England. Convincing Oliver Cromwell that he was harmless, Buckingham sought to win back his property by wooing and marrying the heiress of the man who held most of his lands—Lord Fairfax, late general of the parliamentary forces. To everyone's surprise the duke's scheme succeeded, and Mary Fairfax broke off an engagement to marry Buckingham.
Cromwell's suspicions of the duke's intentions were soon aroused, and Buckingham was subjected first to house arrest and, then, having broken his oath not to escape, to close imprisonment in the Tower, where he remained until Cromwell's death in 1659. He then joined his father-in-law and Gen. George Monck in the task of suppressing the more radical Puritan forces and clearing the way for Charles's restoration to the throne in 1660.
For the next decade the duke was at the height of his power. He was in favor with Charles, his lands were restored, and he entered government service as lord lieutenant in Yorkshire. Buckingham wanted more than the trappings of favor, however. He sought to exercise power in the state but was, at first, blocked in his attempts by Clarendon. He then devoted much of his energy to bringing about Clarendon's ruin. By 1667 an unsuccessful war against the Dutch, a rising tide of discontent at home, and the unceasing attacks of Buckingham had brought Clarendon's government down and had sent the old statesman into what proved permanent exile. Seemingly, at least, Buckingham was now supreme.
At this time, however, Charles began to direct his own policy; surrounded by five chief ministers (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley, Lauderdale—whose initials spelled Cabal), the King confided fully in none and made use of them all.
Buckingham favored an alliance with France; in this his wishes accorded with those of his sovereign. Buckingham, however, sought only a political and military treaty, while Charles had his Catholic members of the Cabal negotiate a secret agreement with Louis XIV in which he promised to return England to the Catholic faith. Buckingham, unaware of Charles's real intentions, was given the task of overseeing the signing of the public treaty, which ostensibly marked the end of negotiations between the English and the French.
When Buckingham learned of the existence of the secret treaty in 1673, he sought to have Arlington impeached but was himself subjected to scathing attacks in the Commons (where it was thought that he was the papist) and in the Lords (where the vagaries of his private life were under attack). But the resultant confusion served his purpose —the Cabal was destroyed, and England was no longer the ally of France.
During the period of Buckingham's greatest authority his public career had been made more difficult by his private life. His feuds with literate such as John Dryden had led him to compose the brilliant, slashing satire The Rehearsal. His changing relationships with the King's several mistresses intruded onto the public scene as well. It was, however, his long-standing affair with the Countess of Shrewsbury that formed the basis for the attack in the Lords in the 1670s. Buckingham had killed his mistress's husband in a duel, had then moved her into his own home, and had sired a son by her. When the infant died, the parents, with incredible effrontery, had the child buried in Westminster Abbey. Buckingham was forced to abjure his mistress and apologize to the Lords for his behavior.
Buckingham now retired for a time to private life and contented himself with spending one of the largest fortunes in England. But he soon became active in the Country party (the opposition party to Charles II), which had been founded by Lord Shaftesbury (formerly Lord Ashley, a member of the Cabal). Buckingham's support of religious toleration appears to have been one of his few constant beliefs; he had supported the King's Declarations of Indulgence in the past and now opposed Parliament's narrow religious beliefs.
In 1677 his opposition to the government led Buckingham to be imprisoned in the Tower for a short time. Upon his release he was restored to Charles's personal favor but was not reconciled to the government. Indeed his hostility to Charles's chief minister, Lord Danby, led him to solicit funds from Louis XIV to bring about Danby's downfall. It also led him to join with Shaftesbury in promoting the monstrous accusations of Titus Oates—the "Popish Plot." Quite cynically Buckingham used Oates's preposterous accusations to destroy Danby's government.
But as Shaftesbury's schemes grew wilder and as the idea of excluding James from the succession grew, Buckingham tended to withdraw from active participation in events. He played no role in the events of Shaftesbury's last Parliament but defended the earl when the latter was arrested by Charles's order. This defense was his last public role, for in 1682, his health ruined by his vices, he retired finally into private life. His own words provide his best epitaph: "Fortune filled him too full, and he run over."
Further Reading on 2d Duke of Buckingham
The most readable biography of Buckingham is Hester W. Chapman, Great Villiers: A Study of George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham, 1628-1687 (1949). Other biographies include Robert P. Tristram Coffin, The Dukes of Buckingham: Playboys of the Stuart World (1931), and John Harold Wilson, A Rake and His Times: George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1954). Valuable insights into his life can be found in the works of his contemporaries, such as Pepys, Chesterfield, Clarendon, Rochester, and Burnet.
Additional Biography Sources
National Trust (Great Britain), Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, London: The Trust, 1978.
O'Neill, John H., George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.