“George’s political vision has generally been underestimated. I think Dumas has something to do with this, fixing a not entirely undeserved image of him as a dandy and libertine.”
The rise of George Villiers from regional obscurity to the heart of the Jacobean court defied logic. A meteoric royal favourite, the young gallant enraptured James VI & I. Britain’s first Stuart king even declared that he wanted the beloved courtier to become his ‘wife’. For a decade, Villiers was at the king’s side – at court, on state occasions and in bed, right up to James’ death in March 1625.
As Charles I’s reign dawned Villiers’ star was reaching its zenith. Villiers had groomed the shy and awkward Charles to don the very public mantle of monarchy. Villiers’ tempestuous relationship with the late king, his closeness to Charles, and their not-so-private clashes with the old King over Britain’s place in Europe led many tounges to wag. Was George Villiers more than a spectator at James’ deathbed? Almost immediately a parliamentary investigation was launched. Scurrilous pamphlets and ballads circulated London’s streets. But the charges came to nothing, and have since been relegated to a historical footnote.
In The King’s Assasin Benjamin Woolley reexamines the evidence and plots a course through the murky Jacobean interplay of hubris and vulnerability with that flare for historical narrative, intricate detail, and big personalities familiar both in print and on television. Woolley is the author of the bestselling The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr John Dee. His first book, Virtual Worlds was shortlisted for the Rhone-Poulenc Prize and has been translated into eight languages. His second, The Bride of Science, examined the life of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter.
He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC on subjects ranging from the fight for liberty during the English Civil War to the end of the Space Age. He has won the Arts Journalist of the Year award and an Emmy for his commentary for Discovery’’s Three Minutes to Impact. He lives in London.
The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I was published in August 2017 by Macmillan. To find out more click here.
Why George Villiers?
I first encountered George many years ago, researching another story. I found a long-forgotten transcript of a notebook written by a member of parliament. It was one of very few eye-witness records of a secret trial of this extraordinary figure who had become a favourite of King James. The notes were fragmentary and difficult to piece together, but despite this I caught glimpses of a character so beguiling, so mischievous, so charismatic, so besotted by his friends and despised by his enemies that I could not resist.
How accurate is Alexandre Dumas’s portrait of George Villiers in The Three Musketeers?
Of George, Dumas wrote: ‘At thirty-five…he passed, with just title, for the handsomest gentleman and the most elegant cavalier of France or England. The favourite of two kings, immensely rich, all-powerful in a kingdom which he disordered at his fancy and calmed again at his caprice’. That is a pretty accurate summary (though he was not exactly a favourite of Louis XIII – indeed, he made several passes at the French king’s his wife, which did not go unnoticed). Dumas also noted that he ‘lived one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity’.
Did James VI & I and George Villiers have a physical or a platonic relationship? Does it matter either way?
Male relations in this period were generally more physical. For warmth as well as protection, powerful men would routinely share a bed with their underlings. But I believe James and George’s relationship to have been carnal. This is a complicated issue, as the boundary between physical intimacy and sex has shifted over the centuries. James undoubtedly doted on George, and wrote of his ‘dog’ with deep affection. The intensity of their relationship was revealed by their frequent bust-ups. After one, James fantasised about George becoming his ‘wife’. Following another, George recalled their first night together at Farnham Castle, ‘where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog’.
Can George Villiers role in government be thought of as that of a proto-Prime Minister, a signpost to later first ministers managing both parliament and the executive?
One point of comparison certainly holds. Parliament became his political nemesis. Despite being a dominant figure in government, parliament proved impossible to manage. For a while, he was a favourite of MPs, hailed as ‘St George on Horseback’ for standing up to the Spanish. But leading up to James’s death in 1625 and following a series of military disasters, they turned against him. It led to the charges that he had murdered the king, as well as abused his office. Efforts by James’s heir Charles to defend George led to the antagonisms between crown and parliament that culminated with the Civil War.
Did George Villiers have a vision or public policy agenda beyond his own ambition?
George’s political vision has generally been underestimated. I think Dumas has something to do with this, fixing a not entirely undeserved image of him as a dandy and libertine. But as he matured, he developed a strong vision of national renewal, culminating with ambitious (and ultimately disastrous) efforts to put Britain at the heart of a new global order, built around an alliance with Europe’s Protestant states that would challenge the dominance of the Spanish and Holy Roman empires. It was this vision that led to him falling out with James, who was much more cautious and conciliatory when it came to foreign affairs.
Did James VI & I die unaided?
Big question. In 1625, while the king lay on his sickbed, apparently recovering from a bout of malaria (common in England at the time), George administered a ‘potion and plaster’ which led to a sudden and catastrophic deterioration in the king’s condition. No one knew what was in the medicine, and the only person who claimed to have tasted it before it was administered (the standard method of checking for safety in the era before phase 3 drug trials) was the man who had mixed it on George’s behalf. That much we know from the royal doctors who treated the king during his final illness and (reluctantly) testified before the secret House of Commons committee set up to investigate the episode. A toxicologist I consulted was fairly certain that the potion was a poison—he even identified the toxin. Others are sceptical, and there is certainly room for doubt. What we do know is that George interfered at a vital moment, and the outcome was one that enabled him to put into place the policies James had been so fiercely resisting in his final months.
How seriously should high Anglicans, such as The Society of King Charles the Martyr, take the accusation that Charles I was a patricidal regicide?
After George had given James the unauthorised ‘potion and plaster’, a delegation of royal doctors had gone to Charles to protest, begging him to intervene. He refused. Following his succession, Charles also issued pardons and pensions to the doctors who had turned a blind eye. It was certainly a suspicion among MPs that Charles was involved. Two were arrested and had their houses searched for implying it might be the case, precipitating a parliamentary crisis.
Did Francis Bacon have any genuine esteem for George Villiers, or were his motivations simply venal?
More sexual than venal. Accused throughout his career of being a ‘sodomite’ (then a capital crime) and a ‘pederast’, Bacon was certainly infatuated by George. But he had to tread carefully to avoid upsetting the king, who was notoriously jealous. He nevertheless became devoted to George, becoming a loyal mentor and advocate, and offering advice on statecraft at a crucial moment in the favourite’s rise. He also cut a pathetic figure when George spurned him.
Was the Royal College of Physicians a force for good in the early modern period about which you write?
No. Another of my books, The Herbalist, about the radical medic Nicholas Culpeper, shows how corrupt the College had become by this time. Medical practice was based on the notion that health was determined by a balance of four bodily ‘humours’, a theory formalised by the Roman medic Galen in the second century AD. One of the leading members of the College, William Harvey (who was at James’s bedside in his final moments and became close to Charles following the king’s death) is rightly hailed as one of the greatest figures in medical science. He performed a series of experiments disproving the prevailing assumption that blood seeped through the body like sap in a tree by showing its circulation, pumped by the heart. His discovery made a nonsense of the notion of humours, yet Harvey was one of the College ‘censors’ who expelled any physician who questioned Galen’s theories.
The College also enjoyed a monopoly over medical practice throughout London and the suburbs, which they used to restrict the number of doctors who could practice. This ensured demand and fees for their services were kept well beyond the reach of most ordinary people. In 1625, London was hit by one of the worst epidemics of the plague in recorded history. Nevertheless, while James lay sick at his country retreat, more Fellows of the College were at his bedside than in all of London.
What are you currently working on?
A history of Black Bile – the ‘humour’ associated melancholy.