James I and the duke of Buckingham: love, power and betrayal

Today is the first in a trio of blogs to celebrate LGBT+ History Month. Paul M. Hunneyball, Associate Editor of the House of Lords 1604-1629 project, kicks off with a sequel to his blog from last LGBTHM, ‘James I and his favourites: sex and power at the Jacobean Court’. In this new blog he explores the evolution of the duke of Buckingham’s position at court in the 1610s and 1620s, and the intricacies of his relationship with James I…

George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, is probably best known today for his decade-long liaison with James I. However, in historical terms he is equally notable for being the principal court favourite of two successive monarchs, James and his son Charles I, an unparalleled feat in Europe during that era. When one considers the very different nature of his relationships with the two kings, Buckingham’s achievement seems all the more remarkable. He initially rose to prominence because the homosexual James found him physically and emotionally appealing, and this remained the vital consideration which sustained their affair. Charles, in marked contrast to his father, shared the conventional homophobic prejudices of his time, disapproved of James’s gay dalliances, and at first took an intense dislike to Buckingham. The role that the duke eventually assumed with him was that of confidante, indispensable adviser, and chief minister. The emotionally reserved Charles developed a deep and unshakeable affection for the duke, but their friendship was firmly platonic in character. The fact that Buckingham was able to effect this transition so successfully raises some interesting questions about the true nature of his relationship with James.

At the Jacobean court, rival factions openly sought influence with the king by promoting handsome young men whom they hoped would gain his favour. Buckingham himself began his court career as the client of George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury and William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke, who exploited his charms to displace the previous royal favourite, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset. The young Villiers, who had reportedly come to court in search of an advantageous marriage, took to his new role with aplomb. According to Godfrey Goodman, later bishop of Gloucester, ‘he was the handsomest bodied man in England; his limbs so well compacted, and his conversation so pleasing, and of so sweet a disposition’ (G. Goodman, Court of King James the First, i. 225-6). Another observer, Sir Simonds D’Ewes, found him ‘full of delicacy and handsome features; yea, his hands and face seemed to me, especially, effeminate and curious’ (J.O. Halliwell (ed.), Autobiography and Correspondence of Sir Simonds D’Ewes, i. 166-7).

We can get a sense of these characteristics from a portrait painted to mark his creation as a knight of the Garter in 1616, which shows Buckingham clean-shaven, and with his long, elegant legs prominently displayed. Nine years later, however, following Charles’ accession as king, the duke was keen to promote a rather different image, as seen in this equestrian portrait by Rubens. Here a bearded Buckingham consciously projects an air of machismo and strength, and this was how he chose to present himself for the rest of his career.

What might this transformation tell us about his relationship with James? For seven or eight years it suited Buckingham to cultivate a more effete persona. The king remained completely enamoured with him, and indeed became emotionally dependent on him. Judging from their surviving correspondence, Buckingham developed considerable fondness for his royal lover. But there was one fundamental problem. This was no modern-style gay partnership. James was in a sense the ultimate 17th-century sugar daddy, showering his lover with wealth, titles and influence. Buckingham, who came from minor gentry stock, rose to the summit of society, dukedoms at this time normally being reserved for members of the royal family. He achieved a degree of informal intimacy with the king that was denied to other courtiers. Nevertheless, he was never allowed to forget that James controlled their relationship. The king liked to boast of Buckingham as his finest creation, which by implication meant that he could unmake him again. The duke’s lavish thanks for all the benefits that he received reflected his awareness that he had a lot to lose if circumstances changed, and he was painfully aware that his rivals at court sought his downfall by tempting James with other pretty young men. Over time Buckingham assumed the role of a surrogate son, and James took to signing his letters as ‘thy dear dad’. But the duke knew his place, and invariably described himself in reply as ‘your Majesty’s most humble slave and dog’ (D.M. Bergeron, King James & Letters of Homoerotic Desire, 177, 182). There was surely an element of humour in that moniker, but it also reflected the fundamental imbalance in their relationship, and Buckingham’s perennial insecurity.

The duke’s success in finally winning over Charles offered him a way out of that situation. Exactly how the two men became such close friends has never been fully explained, but by 1623 Charles and James were effectively competing for Buckingham’s attention. Charles gained the upper hand that year when he travelled to Spain in a misguided bid to finalise his marriage to a Spanish princess, and the duke went with him. Once there, Buckingham adopted a flamboyantly heterosexual image, and acquired a reputation for womanizing. By the end of that trip, he and the prince were virtually inseparable, the proof coming a few months after their return to England. Charles, smarting from his treatment in Madrid, had abandoned any thought of a closer alliance with Spain, and was now intent on war. James, who had spent his entire reign promoting Anglo-Spanish peace, naturally opposed this strategy. Buckingham, while as solicitous as ever of his royal master’s wellbeing, sided with Charles. The now ailing king complained loudly about his favourite’s behaviour, but, as Buckingham had no doubt calculated, could not bring himself to dismiss him. These conflicts further enhanced the duke’s standing with Charles, and when the latter finally became king in March 1625 it was generally acknowledged that, in political and social terms, Buckingham’s position was now stronger than ever. Indeed, it was only an assassin’s knife that finally ended his dominance three years later.

Assessing same-sex love and desire in the early modern period is fraught with difficulty, and Buckingham’s case is no exception. His ability to switch between two radically contrasting modes of behaviour may seem strange to a modern eye, but such sexual fluidity was arguably less exceptional at the time. The undeniable warmth of his correspondence with James indicates a fair degree of genuine mutual affection, and indeed it’s hard to see how the duke could have sustained his role as royal favourite for so long without this. Nevertheless, when he had to choose, Buckingham valued his long-term security above loyalty to James, and this suggests that for him, ultimately, their relationship was based not on love but on the pursuit of power and wealth.


Further reading:

R. Lockyer, Buckingham (1981)

M.B. Young, King James and the History of Homosexuality (2016)

Biographies of Buckingham, Prince Charles, Archbishop Abbot, the earls of Pembroke and Somerset and Bishop Goodman will appear in the History of Parliament’s forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-29. A biography of Sir Simonds D’Ewes is being prepared for the volumes on the House of Commons 1640-60.

12 thoughts on “James I and the duke of Buckingham: love, power and betrayal

  1. What a clever favourite, though I would add: his primary pursuit of power and wealth does not negate the love between him and James (dilutes it, but doesn’t negate it).

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