He was brought up, together with his younger brother Francis, by King Charles I with his own children, and was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained the degree of M.A. in 1642. He fought for the king in the Civil War, and took part in the attack on Lichfield Close in April 1643. Subsequently, under the care of the Earl of Northumberland, the two brothers travelled abroad and lived at Florence and Rome. When the Second Civil War broke out they joined Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland[?] in Surrey, in July 1648.
Lord Francis was killed near Kingston, and Buckingham and Holland were surprised at St. Neots on the 10th, the duke succeeding in escaping to the Netherlands. In consequence of his participation in the rebellion, his lands, which had been restored to him in 1647 on account of his youth, were again confiscated, much of them passing into the possession of Thomas Fairfax; and he refused to compound. Charles II conferred on him the Order of the Garter on September 19, 1649, and admitted him to the Privy Council on April 6, 1650.
In opposition to Hyde he supported the alliance, with the Scottish presbyterians, accompanied Charles to Scotland in June, and allied himself with Argyll[?], dissuading Charles from joining the Royalist plot of October 1650, and being suspected of betraying the plan to the convenanting leaders. In May he had been appointed general of the eastern association in England, and was commissioned to raise forces abroad; and in the following year he was chosen to lead the projected movement in Lancashire and to command the Scottish royalists. He was present with Charles at the battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651, and escaped safely alone to Rotterdam in October.
His subsequent negotiations with Cromwell's government, and his readiness to sacrifice the interests of the church, separated him from the rest of Charles's advisers and diminished his influence; while his estrangement from the royal family was completed by his audacious courtship of the king's sister, the widowed princess of Orange, and by a money dispute with Charles. In 1657 he returned to England, and on September 15 married Mary, daughter of Lord Fairfax, who had fallen in love with him although the banns[?] of her intended marriage with the earl of Chesterfield had been twice called in church. Buckingham was soon suspected of organizing a presbyterian plot against the government, and in spite of Fairfax's interest with Cromwell an order was issued for his arrest on October 9. He was placed under house arrest at York House in April 1658, and having broken bounds was rearrested on August 18 and imprisoned in the Tower, where he remained till February 23, 1659, being then freed after promising not to assist the enemies of the government, and on Fairfax's security of £20,000. He joined the latter in his march against Lambert in January 1660, and afterwards claimed to have gained Fairfax to the cause of the Restoration.
On the king's return Buckingham, who met him at his landing at Dover, was at first received coldly; but he was soon again in favour, was appointed a gentleman of the bedchamber, carried the orb, at the coronation on April 23, 1661, and was made lord-lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire on September 21. The same year he accompanied the princess Henrietta to Paris on her marriage with the duke of Orleans, but made love to her himself with such imprudence that he was recalled. On April 28, 1662 he was admitted to the privy council. His confiscated estates amounting to £26,000 a year were restored to him, and he was reputed the king's richest subject. He took part in the suppression of the projected insurrection in Yorkshire in 1663, went to sea in the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665, and was employed in taking measures to resist the Dutch or French invasion in June 1666.
He was, however, debarred from high office by Clarendon's influence. Accordingly Buckingham's intrigues were now directed to effect the chancellor's ruin. He organized parties in both houses of parliament in support of the bill of 1666 prohibiting the import of Irish cattle, partly to oppose Clarendon and partly to thwart the duke of Ormonde. Having asserted during the debates that "whoever was against the bill had either an Irish interest or an Irish understanding," he was challenged by Lord Ossory. Buckingham avoided the encounter, and Ossory was sent to the Tower. A short time afterwards, during a conference between the two houses on the 19th of December, he came to blows with the marquess cif Dorchester, pulling off the latter's periwig, while Dorchester at the close of the scuffle " had much of the duke's hair in his hand." According to Clarendon no misdemeanour so flagrant had ever before offended the dignity of the House of Lords. The offending peers were both sent to the Tower, but were released after apologizing; and Buckingham vented' his spite by raising a claim to the title of Lord Roos held by Dorchester's son-in-law. His opposition to the government had forfeited the king's favour, and he was now accused of treasonable intrigues, and of having cast the king's horoscope. His arrest was ordered on February 25, 1667, and he was dismissed from all his offices. He avoided capture till June 27, when he gave himself up and was imprisoned in the Tower.
He was released, however, by July 17, was restored to favour and to his appointments on September 15, and took an active part in the prosecution of Clarendon. On tho latter's fall he became the chief minister, though holding no high office except that of master of the horse, bought from the duke of Albermarle[?] in 1668. In 1671 he was elected chancellor of Cambridge, and in 1672 high steward of Oxford university. He favoured religious toleration, and earned the praise of Richard Baxter; he supported a scheme of comprehension in. 1668, and advised the declaration of indulgence in 1672. He upheld the original jurisdiction of the Lords in Skinner's case. With these exceptions Buckingham's tenure of office was chiefly marked by scandals and intrigues. His illicit connexion with the countess of Shrewsbury led to a duel with her husband at Barn Elms[?] on January 16, 1668, in which Shrewsbury was fatally wounded. The tale that the countess, disguised as a page, witnessed the encounter, appears to have no foundation; but Buckingham, by installing the "widow of his own creation" in his own and his wife's house, outraged even the lax opinion of that day.
He was thought to have had the idea of obtaining the divorce of the childless queen, Catherine of Braganza (though this never happened). He intrigued against James, against Sir William Coventry[?]--one of the ablest statesmen of the time, whose fall he procured by provoking him to send him a challenge--and against the great duke of Ormonde, who was dismissed in 1669. He was even suspected of having instigated Thomas Blood[?]'s attempt to kidnap and murder Ormonde, and was charged with the crime in the king's presence by Ormonde's son, Lord Ossory, who threatened to shoot him dead in the event of his father's meeting with a violent end. Arlington, next to Buckingham himself the most powerful member of the cabal and a favourite of the king, was a rival less easy to overcome; and he derived considerable influence from the control of foreign affairs entrusted to him. Buckingham had from the first been an adherent of the French alliance, while Arlington concluded through Sir William Temple in 1668 the Triple Alliance. But on the complete volte-face and surrender made by Charles to France in 1670, Arlington[?] as a Roman Catholic was entrusted with the first treaty of Dover of May 20--which besides providing for the united attack on Holland, included Charles's undertaking to proclaim himself a Romanist and to reintroduce the Roman Catholic faith into England,--While Buckingham was sent to France to carry on the sham negotiations which led to the public treaties of December 31, 1670 and February 2, 1672. He was much pleased with his reception by Louis XIV, declared that he had "more honours done him than ever were given to any subject," and, was presented with a pension of 10,000 livres a year for Lady Shrewsbury.
In June 1672 he accompanied Arlington to the Hague to impose terms on the prince of Orange, and with Arlington arranged the new treaty with Louis. After all this activity he suffered a keen disappointment in being passed over for the command of the English forces in favour of Schomberg. He now knew of the secret treaty of Dover, and towards the end of 1673 his jealousy of Arlington became open hostility. He threatened to impeach him, and endeavoured with the help of Louis to stir up a faction against him in parliament. This, however, was unsuccessful, and in January 1674 an attack was made upon Buckingham himself simultaneously in both houses. In the Lords the trustees of the young earl of Shrewsbury complained that Buckingham publicly continued his affair with the countess, and that a son of theirs had been buried in Westminster Abbey with the title of earl of Coventry; and Buckingham, after presenting an apology, was required, as was the countess, to give security for £1o,ooo not to cohabit together again. In the Commons he was attacked as the promoter of the French alliance, of "popery" and arbitrary government. He defended himself chiefly by endeavouring to throw the blame upon Arlington; but an address was voted petitioning the king to remove him from his councils, presence and from employment for ever. Charles, who had only been waiting for a favourable opportunity, and who was enraged at Buckingham's disclosures, ccnsented with alacrity.
Buckingham retired, reformed his ways, attended church with his wife, began to pay his debts, became a "patriot," and was claimed by the country or opposition party as one of their leaders. In the spring of 1675 he was conspicuous for his opposition to the Test oath and for his abuse of the bishops, and on November 16 he introduced a bill for the relief of the nonconformists. On February 15, 1677 he was one of the four lords who endeavoured to embarrass the government by raising the question whether the parliament, not having assembled according to the act of Edward III once in the year, had not been dissolved by the recent prorogation. The motion was rejected and the four lords were ordered to apologize. On their refusing, they were sent to the Tower, Buckingham in particular exasperating the House by ridiculing its censure. He was released in July, and immediately entered into intrigues with Barillon, the French ambassador, with the object of hindering the grant of supplies to the king; and in 1678 he visited Paris to get the assistance of Louis XIV for the cause of the opposition.
He took an active part in the prosecution of those implicated in the "Popish Plot[?]", and accused the lord chief justice (Sir William Scroggs) in his own court while on circuit of favouring the Roman Catholics. In consequence of his conduct a writ was issued for his arrest, but it was never served. He promoted the return of Whig candidates to parliament, constituted himself the champion of the dissenters, and was admitted a freeman of the city of London. He, however, separated himself from the Whigs on the exclusion question, probably on account of his dislike of Monmouth and Shaftesbury, was absent from the great debate in the Lords on November 15, 1680, and was restored to the king's favour in 1684.
He took no part in public life after James's accession, but returned to his manor of Helmsley[?] in Yorkshire, probably because of poor health and exhausted finances. In 1685 he published a pamphlet, entitled A short Discourse on the Reasonableness of Man's having a Religion (reprinted in Somers Tracts (1813, ix. 13), in which after discussing the main subject he returned to his favourite topic, religious toleration. The tract provoked some rejoinders and was defended, amongst others, by William Penn, and by the author himself in The Duke of Buckingham's Letter to the unknown author of a short answer to the Duke of Buckingham's Paper (1685). In hopes of converting him to Roman Catholicism James sent him a priest, but Buckingham turned his arguments into ridicule. He died on the 16th of April 1687, from a chill caught while hunting, in the house of a tenant at Kirkby Moorside[?] in Yorkshire, expressing great repentance and feeling himself "despised by my country and I fear forsaken by my God."
The miserable picture of his end drawn by Alexander Pope is greatly exaggerated. Buckingham was buried on June 7 1687 in Henry VII's chapel in Westminster Abbey, with greater splendour than the late king. With his death the family founded by the extraordinary rise to power and influence of the first duke ended. As he left no legitimate children the title became extinct, and his great estate had been completely dissipated; of the enormous mansion constructed by him at Cliveden[?] in Buckinghamshire nothing remains.
The ostentatious licence and the unscrupulous conduct of the "Alcibiades of the 17th century" have been deservedly censured. But even his critics agree that he was good-humoured, good-natured, generous, an unsurpassed mimic and the leader of fashion; and with his good looks, in spite of his moral faults and even crimes, he was irresistible to his contemporaries. Many examples of his amusing wit have survived. His portrait has been drawn by Burnet, Count Hamilton in the Memoires de Grammont, [[John Dryden[[, Pope in the Epistle to Lord Bathurst, and Sir Walter Scott in Peveril of the Peak. He is described by Reresby as " the first gentleman of person and wit I think I ever saw," and Burnet bears the same testimony. Dean Lockier, after alluding to his unrivalled skill in riding, dancing and fencing, adds, " When he came into the presence-chamber it was impossible for you not to follow him with your eye as he went along, he moved so gracefully." Racing and hunting were his favourite sports, and his name long survived in the hunting songs of Yorkshire. He was the patron of Cowley[?], Sprat, Matthew Clifford[?] and Wycherley. He dabbled in chemistry, and for some years, according to Burnet[?], "he thought he was very near the finding of the philosopher's stone." He set up glass works at Lambeth[?] the productions of which were praised by Evelyn; and he spent much money, according to his biographer Brian Fairfax, in building insanae substructiones. Dryden described him under the character of Zimri in the Quarterly Review, January 1898, celebrated lines in Absalom and Achitophel (to which Buckingham replied in Poetical Reflections on a late Poem ... by a Person of Honour, 1682):
" A man so various, that he seemed to be Not one, but all mankind's epitome; Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong, Was everything by starts and nothing long; But in the course of one revolving moon, Was chymist, fiddler, statesman and buffoon. ... Beggar'd by fools, whom still he found too late, He had his jest, but they had his estate."
Buckingham, however, cannot with any truth be called the "epitome of mankind." On the contrary, the distinguishing features of his life are its incompleteness, aimlessness, imperfection, insignificance, neglect of talents and waste of opportunities. "He saw and approved the best," says Brian Fairfax, " but did too often deteriora sequi." He is more severely but more justly judged by himself. In gay moments indeed he had written--"Methinks, I see the wanton houres flee, And as they passe, turne back and laugh at me," but his last recorded words on the approach of death, "O! what a prodigal have I been of that most valuable of all possessions--Time!" express with exact truth the fundamental flaw of his character and career, of which he had at last become conscious.
Buckingham wrote occasional verses and satires showing undoubted but undeveloped poetical gifts, a collection of which, containing however many pieces not from his pen, was first published by Tom Brown in 1704; while a few extracts from a commonplace book of Buckingham of some interest are given in an article in the Quarterly Review of January 1898. He was the author of The Rehearsal, an amusing and clever satire on the heroic drama and especially on Dryden (first performed on December 7, 1671, at the Theatre Royal, and first published in 1672), a deservedly popular play which was imitated by Henry Fielding in Tom Thumb the Great, and by Sheridan in the Critic. Buckingham also published two adapted plays, The Chances, altered from Fletcher's play of the same name (1682) and The Restoration or Right will take place, from Beaumont and Fletcher[?]'s Philaster (publ. 1714); and also The Battle of Sedgmoor and The Militant Couple (publ. 1704). The latest edition of his works is that by T Evans (2 vols. 8vo, 1775). Another work is named by Wood A Demonstration of the Deity, of which there is now no trace.
The life of Buckingham has been well and accurately traced and the chief authorities collected in the article in the Diet, of Nat. Biography (1899) by CH Firth, and in George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, by Lady Burghchere (1903). Other biographies are in Wood's Athenae Oxon. (Bliss), iv. 207; in Biographia Britannica; by Brian Fairfax, printed in Horace Walpole's Catalogue of Pictures of George Duke of Buckingham (1758); in Arber's edition of the Rehearsal (1868); and by the author of Hudibras in The Genuine Remains of Mr Samuel Butler, by R. Thyer (1759), ii. 72. The following may also be mentioned: Quarterly Review, Jan. 1898 (commonplace book); A Conference on the Doctrine of Transubstantiation between ... the Duke of Buckingham and Father FitzGerald (1714); SR Gardiner's Hist, of the Commonwealth (1894-1901); Hist, of Eng. Poetry, by WJ Courthope (1903), iii. 460; Horace Walpole's Royal and Noble Authors, iii. 304; Miscellania Aulica, by T Brown (1702); and the Fairfax Correspondence (1848-1849).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.