As we wait to hear who has triumphed in the latest contest to become prime minister, Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section considers a leading 17th-century courtier who seemed destined for the top, but never quite made it…
It’s tempting to assume that present-day politics has little in common with government 400 years ago, but in fact there are quite strong parallels. Then as now, to get to the top an aspiring politician needed the right personal profile, good connections in government, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and a certain amount of luck. In the early Stuart context, the targets were of course somewhat different. Under the system of monarchical government, central administration was intimately linked to the royal court, and almost everything depended on access to the king, and the latter’s personal favour. However, competition for the principal royal offices such as lord treasurer, lord privy seal and lord chamberlain, the 17th-century equivalents of major ministerial roles in a modern cabinet, played out in a recognizable fashion. Individual courtiers jockeyed for position, building and breaking political alliances, their relative standing at court and chances of promotion carefully monitored by the political commentators of the day. And, then as now, certain figures emerged who were seen as big hitters, most likely to get the best jobs.
One of the biggest beasts in the Jacobean political jungle was William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke. Regarded by his contemporaries as almost the perfect courtier, he was good looking, cultured, generous, a skilled jouster and huntsman, dignified but affable, a master of the art of dissembling, so that he got on well, at least superficially, with almost everyone he met. The owner of great estates in south Wales and the West Country, with strong ties to numerous other noble families, he was also a competent administrator who espoused the most popular political views of the day – international Protestantism, hostility to Spain, and domestic government by consensus, with king and Parliament working in harmony. Such opinions could in fact be a disadvantage under James I and Charles I, who periodically espoused prerogative rule and rapprochement with the Habsburgs. However, both monarchs recognised that Pembroke was fundamentally loyal to the crown, a consummate insider with no real desire to rock the boat. And because his presence at court helped give balance and credibility to the regime, it was sound policy to keep him actively involved in the inner circles of government.
That’s not to say that the earl’s path towards England’s political summit ran smoothly. Having entered public life while still a teenager, his early success as a courtier was temporarily derailed in 1601 by a sex scandal. Not only did he get one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honour pregnant, but he then compounded his fault by refusing to marry her. The outraged queen banished him from court, and his disgrace lingered until the end of her reign. Fortunately the next monarch, James I, quickly took a liking to both Pembroke and his younger brother Philip Herbert, who became one of the king’s minor favourites, and acquired the earldom of Montgomery. Pembroke’s personal relationship with James guaranteed him regular privileged access to the king, which in turn meant that he possessed status and influence at court. Even so, the earl still needed other allies in order to secure one of the major offices of state and a real say in government policy. Accordingly, he attached himself to James’s powerful chief minister, Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury, and by 1611, aged just 31, Pembroke was a privy councillor and one of Salisbury’s closest friends, trusted to handle the most sensitive government business.
Then in 1612, just when Pembroke’s rise to the top seemed assured, Salisbury died. For the next two years, the most influential royal adviser was Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, a crypto-Catholic Hispanophile, who loathed Pembroke and did everything in his power to marginalize him at court. Pembroke responded to this setback by trying to win round Northampton’s nephew, Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk. In 1614 Northampton himself died, prompting a government reshuffle. Suffolk became lord treasurer, and Pembroke was widely expected to succeed him as lord chamberlain, having to that end surrendered a claim he possessed on the mastership of the horse. However, Suffolk double-crossed Pembroke, and instead handed the chamberlainship to the king’s principal favourite, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, who had recently married Suffolk’s daughter. Once again, Pembroke found himself frozen out.
Recognising that Suffolk had strengthened his own position by forming an alliance with Somerset, Pembroke now tried using similar tactics to bring down the Howard clan. A handsome new arrival at court, George Villiers, had started to catch the king’s eye, and Pembroke took the young man under his wing, grooming him as a potential successor to Somerset as royal favourite. The clear expectation was that would undermine Suffolk, and allow Pembroke to replace him. Unfortunately, this scheme backfired spectacularly. Villiers did indeed supplant Somerset, but once he felt secure in the king’s affections he quickly repudiated Pembroke as his mentor, and set about building his own power base. To make matters worse, the Howard faction imploded of its own accord, Somerset being brought down by his complicity in the Overbury murder case, while Suffolk succumbed to a corruption scandal. Had Pembroke simply bided his time, he might well have got what he wanted. Instead, while he did succeed Somerset as lord chamberlain in 1615, his career then stalled again, since Villiers, better known to history as the 1st duke of Buckingham, achieved a virtual monopoly over government patronage, and Pembroke was too proud to do the bidding of his former protégé. In the country at large the earl continued to be seen as a serious candidate for high office. There was talk in 1618, 1620, 1621 and 1624 of him becoming lord treasurer, but nothing came of these rumours, because no candidate stood a chance without Buckingham’s backing.
Matters came to a head in 1626, when Pembroke mobilised his own allies to launch the impeachment of Buckingham in Parliament. When this attack also failed, due to the duke’s hold over the new king, Charles I, Pembroke was finally forced to come to terms with his bitter enemy. On paper, he secured a reasonable deal, gaining promotion to the post of lord steward, and passing the chamberlainship to his brother Montgomery. However, Buckingham ruthlessly dismantled Pembroke’s powerbase, and ensured that he lost any real influence at court. Even so, there were more twists yet to come. Following Buckingham’s assassination in 1628, Charles repudiated many of the unpopular policies associated with the duke, and rehabilitated Pembroke as a clear signal that he wanted a fresh start. The earl eagerly embraced the role of elder statesman, sensing that his time had finally come. By early 1630 it was even reported that he would become lord admiral, filling the vacancy left by Buckingham. In the event, this appointment was delayed, but Pembroke’s prospects were still looking bright when, without warning, he died on 10 April that year, two days after his fiftieth birthday. After a lifetime of waiting, success had come too late.
Thomas Birch, The Court and Times of James I ed. R.F. Williams, 2 vols. (1848) [online resource]
Roger Lockyer, Buckingham (1981)
Biographies or further biographies of William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke, Philip Herbert, earl of Montgomery, Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury, Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, and Charles I as prince of Wales may be found in our recent publication, The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).