George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham, devoted little of his active and irregular life to literature, a matter to him of amateur interest. Instead, he turned his major efforts to the pursuits of pleasure and statecraft, two interests that came naturally to him because of his birth and rearing. He was the oldest son of the first duke of Buckingham, who was a favorite courtier of James I and Charles I. Assassinated by a fanatic at the height of his power and fame, the duke left three children—two sons and a daughter. Out of respect for the father, King Charles I took the two boys as his wards and reared them as his own, allowing them to spend much of their time with the royal princes. Provided with the best education and with financial security, Villiers developed a strong attachment to the house of Stuart. From his father he inherited vast estates, treasures of art, and other properties. After the Restoration, his estates made him for a time the wealthiest man in England, ensuring him a base of support for his ambitions and his pleasures.
After the death of Charles I, Villiers attached himself closely to Prince Charles, sharing with him the adventures and dangers involved in his attempts to advance his claim to the throne. Villiers’s military exploits were marked by audacity, gallantry, and a total disregard of his own safety. During the period when he was assuming the role of military commander, he was also developing his political abilities. In the role of adviser to the prince, he revealed his mercurial nature, his intelligence, a certain instability, and a penchant for intrigue. Further, in some of his exploits, he showed himself a master of mimicry and disguise.
When the hopes of toppling the government of Oliver Cromwell collapsed following the Battle of Worcester, the prince and Villiers sought refuge on the Continent. Villiers, restless in inactivity, returned to England and there married Mary Fairfax, daughter of the parliamentary general Lord Fairfax. This alliance failed to reassure Cromwell of Villiers’s loyalty, and he had the duke imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he remained until Cromwell’s death. Following his release, he involved himself in intrigues intended to restore the Stuart monarchy and stood among the first to greet Charles II on his return in 1660.
The king appointed Villiers to the ruling Privy Council, a group of thirty ministers then under the leadership of the Lord Chancellor, the earl of Clarendon. Jealousies, rivalries, and intrigues among the king’s ministers proved the order of the day, and Villiers allied himself with those ministers opposed to Clarendon. After the fall of the Lord Chancellor, Villiers became one of the five ministers known as the Cabal—Lord Clifford, Lord Arlington, Villiers, Anthony Ashley Cooper, and Lord Lauderdale—who led in matters of state for seven years. During much of the period, Villiers remained the most powerful among them. He was entrusted with important foreign affairs and missions, carrying on negotiations in France and Holland, yet the king did not repose his entire trust in his childhood companion, for in his public career, Villiers consistently pressed two important principles that did not always suit the king’s purposes—religious freedom and English sea power. It was Villiers’s private life, however, that proved to be the pretext for his fall from power.
While serving as a minister of state, Villiers pursued a variety of interests and avocations. A frequenter of the theater and an amateur musician, he pursued...
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