A few years ago, I did a piece on the Duke for my Outsports series on LGBT sports history. I wanted to celebrate the Duke's fame as a 17-century sporting figure. He was credited as the greatest horseman of his time -- also as the breeder of Spanker, one of Britain's first great horse-racing champions. As one of those iconic "beautiful men" whose type is still so prominent in the LGBT world today, Villiers was said to make every eye follow him with his luminous smile and gracefully prowling walk. He was also a Renaissance man of many talents. A brilliant and witty talker, whether in private chats or making a fiery speech in Parliament, he could keep people listening spellbound. Creatively gifted, he wrote some passable poetry, essays and plays. As a member of Britain's Royal Society, he was a patron of scientific innovation.
The Encyclopedia Britannica sums him up well: "Even his critics agree that he was good-humoured, good-natured, generous.... With his good looks, in spite of his moral faults and even crimes, he was irresistible to his contemporaries."
As I researched the Duke's many-faceted life, I was surprised to note the passion for religious liberty that dominated the final years of his life. George Villiers forged a powerful connection with the Quakers, and made some major public efforts to stop persecution of Quakers and other dissenters by an Anglican-dominated Parliament. The great Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, was a friend of Villiers.
Indeed -- Penn and his ideas about tolerance and democracy might not have made it to America if he hadn't been championed by the Duke of Buckingham.
Sad to say -- this part of Villiers' life has been neglected by many historians, especially the ones who would rather fume about his "moral faults."
Growing Up Fast
Born in 1628, George inherited the greatest family fortune in England -- and a family history that was already notorious for its sexual nonconformity.
His father, the 1st Duke of Buckingham, had dared to be openly gay in the early 1600s -- though married and a father, he was also the beloved "favorite" and "wife" of King James I for more than a dozen years. Indeed, the 1st Duke was so hated by English puritans that, after James Stuart died and was no longer there to protect him, the 1st Duke was assassinated in 1628. Young George's sister Mary Villiers became a bold proto-feminist figure at court, with her fondness for dueling and men's clothes, and some lesbian-themed poetry that has been attributed to her.
After his father's assassination, George Jr. had to grow up fast. He and Mary were adopted by the new king, Charles I (son of James Stuart) and raised by the royal family.
Closeness with the Stuarts was putting the Villiers family into a dangerous situation with religious liberty. Ever since Henry VIII had broken with Rome and established the Church of England, Catholic belief and practice had been outlawed in England. When Henry VIII's daughter Queen Elizabeth died without an heir, her closest living relative was James Stuart, king of Scotland. So the British Parliament felt compelled to invite James to rule in England as well. This brought the Scottish royals, with their historical tradition of sympathies for Roman Catholicism, and their more liberal cultural views, into direct contact with English society and government. This contact was bound to make sparks fly. The king was official head of England's state church, so James had to go through public motions of upholding official Anglican policy. But Parliament watched James like a hawk, for any signs of pro-Catholic sympathies. So did the growing number of Puritans, that increasingly powerful English sect, who felt that Christianity had gotten way too lax and needed to be "purified."
By the time Charles Stuart came to the throne, the stage was set for a fierce struggle between the crown and Parliament over policies relating to religion.
In 1643, when King Charles came under fire from growing Puritan resistance to his policies, and fighting broke out, George rode to war for his king. He was only 15. By age 21, he had lived through years of civil war and was royal cavalry commander. After King Charles was defeated and beheaded by the Protestants, and the monarchy was done away with, England veered into a time of grim social control by the new Puritan commonwealth government. Gambling, drinking, sports, theater-going, luxurious clothing -- all were prohibited. Any sex outside of marriage was ferociously punished.
George Jr. survived in exile on the Continent with his foster brother, the royal heir Prince Charles II. Back home, his family fortune had been confiscated by the Puritan government.
The ties among William Penn's family, George Villiers' family and his adopted royal family came early. Penn's father was an admiral, Sir William Penn. The Penns were long-time gentry in Buckinghamshire, the county from whence the Dukes of Buckingham had their title. After the Protestant government fell in 1660, most members of Parliament were ready to restore the monarchy and invite the Stuarts back. Admiral Penn was sent to France to fetch Prince Charles home so he could be crowned. Subsequently the socially repressive puritan legislation was ditched. Favorite English enjoyments, including horse racing, were legal again
George served in the new king's government, starting as Master of the Horse. On the side, he launched himself into the fantastic circuit-party-type life that became typical of the Restoration court. For the moment, he wasn't thinking about religious liberty -- just about having a good time.
Party Time, Mid-1600s Style
Charles II became wildly popular as the "Merry Monarch." He got the country back on its feet after long years of civil war, so he would be remembered as one of England's greatest Kings. But the "merry" part referred to sex. During Charles' reign, according to historian George S. Rousseau, "Sexual liberty was condoned in ways previously unknown. The Restoration was an age of transformation in philosophy and science....Though the libertinism of the court was overtly heterosexual, underneath resided what we today would call a tolerated bisexuality that had few parallels in prior European history."
The king himself had dozens of mistresses, including George's beautiful cousin Barbara Villiers. As per the spirit of the times, Charles was also rumored to go both ways.
For about 15 years, Charles II was attended by the Merry Gang, a posse of young nobles and gentry, many of whom were clearly gay or bisexual. Leader of the Gang was George Villiers, whose progressive views included a visible contempt for traditional church morality. According to Rousseau, "The king himself was accused of engaging in overt sodomitical liaisons with the Duke of Buckingham."
Many conventional biographies about George Villiers refrain from mentioning that he was bi. But historian Howard Love says flatly in his English Clandestine Satire, 1660-1702, that Buckingham "was a bisexual rake who was prosecuted for sodomy." There was no concept of "coming out" in those days, but the permissive atmosphere of Restoration high society meant that George made no secret of his liking for both men and women. From childhood he would have been well aware of his father's loving relationship with King James I.
In one of his poems, George wrote:
Nothing is harder in the world to do
Than to quit what our nature leads us to
Sometimes George Jr. went for men who were less rugged than himself. Rumor had it that he enjoyed the favors of Edward Kynaston, a celebrated young actor famed for playing female roles. (Kynaston is well-played by Billy Crudup in the film Stage Beauty.) Another of George's BFFs was "gentle" (code word of the period for gay) poet Abraham Cowley. Buckingham had a visibly warm relationship with him ever since they were teen students at Cambridge. But Villiers's longest male relationship was probably with playwright George Etheredge, Fair-haired and slender, always beautifully dressed, Etheredge penned some of the era's most sparkling comedy.
For sporting and macho party stuff, George's best bud was John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Wilmot was another good horseman who loved racing. But he was too drunk most of the time to stay in the saddle, so he hired a professional "boy ryder," as jockeys were called in those days. (In the recent film The Libertine, Wilmot is masterfully played by Johnny Depp.)
The Merry Gang had their daily schedule. According to Wilmot, they rose at ten, breakfasted at two, were drunk by five. Wilmot once admitted to being drunk for five years. The booze of choice was imported wine spiked with opium -- this drug was making its debut in Europe, thanks to trade with China.
While under the influence, Villiers and Wilmot loved to organize wild practical jokes, often in disguise. Adding risk and spice to their adventures, sodomy laws were still on the books. Restoration liberality had reduced punishment from Puritan death sentence to a day in the stocks. But sodomy charges could still be used as a lethal political weapon, as we will see.
Between parties, Villiers devoted himself to horse-racing. He had retrieved some of his family property from Protestant confiscation, including his father's great stud farm at Helmsley in Yorkshire, where he started breeding his own racehorses. With an income of over £20,000 a year, the Duke lived grandly -- for a while.
In 1666, feeling that the Helmsley horse-farm was too rough-cut for wooing his new mistress, George built a splendid mansion at Cliveden on the Thames and installed the Countess of Shrewsbury there. His liaison with this lady set off a huge scandal, since he had killed her husband in a duel. To prevent his properties from ever being confiscated again, he turned everything over to a board of banker trustees, who refinanced his debts and gave him an annual allowance to live on.
His wife, Mary Fairfax, daughter of an old Yorkshire family, found George as irresistible as everyone else did. So she put up with whatever he did -- especially since her father, Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron, was one of George Villiers' best friends and admirers.
Into a Darker Time
Slowly but surely, events moved George Villiers towards a collision with religion. It was risky for the King to show political support for a beautiful man who was rumored to be his "favorite." But in 1662 Charles stuck his neck out and appointed George Jr. as a member of the Privy Council, a body that advised him privately on crucial matters of state. George's father, the 1st Duke, had served King James in this same capacity.
Well into the 1670s, the Merry Gang galloped on. But the party was finally winding down. Abraham Cowley died in 1667. George was devastated, and put a monument over the poet's tomb in Westminster Abbey.
The Earl of Rochester, fading horribly from the effects of alcoholism and venereal disease, would also be dead before long. Buckingham escaped the addictions that struck down his Merry bro, but years of abuse had damaged his own health. He suffered from rheumatism and liver problems, gained weight, and stopped riding races. Now he too had to hire "boy ryders."
Worse, things started going bad for George politically, as the Restoration lost its fizz and sank into one of England's darker times. In 1671, his wife's father Lord Fairfax, one of his most loyal supporters, also died.
Ultraconservative religious viewpoints were gaining ground in Parliament once again, and the Duke's sex life was becoming a national issue. The Earl of Clarendon, who was pushing for Parliament to repress in all directions, took the position that George was a godless monster. Parliament debate was noisy, with George Villiers making some fiery speeches. At one point the Duke got into it with another peer and they yanked each other's wigs off. Both were thrown in the Tower of London for a few weeks to cool off.
In 1667 Clarendon got George disbarred from the Privy Council. But Buckingham fought back with icy ruthlessness, and engineered the Earl's downfall.
Through it all, King Charles still managed to stay supportive of his adopted brother, and re-appointed George to high office as his chief minister in 1670.
Lobbying King and Parliament
As the newest crowned member of the Stuart dynasty, King Charles II had his personal Catholic sympathies -- he even married a Catholic princess from Portugal -- and wanted to see freedom of religion established for the Catholic Church. But what about freedom of religion for the few Jews remaining in England? And all the dissenting sects that were springing up in England? Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists? Especially those bothersome Quakers, who recognized no authority but God, refused to fight in the royal army, and even refused to bend the knee to the King?
But Parliament aimed to maintain the Church of England's absolute supremacy, and passed harsh laws that targeted all "dissenters. " All sects were required to attend the Anglican Church. None could legally assemble or talk about their beliefs publicly. Catholics were barred from holding public office.
As head of the Church of England, the King -- like his grandfather James Stuart -- was compelled to go along with Parliament on these repressions. This led to some serious tensions with his Villiers brother.
George was horrified by this trend. He was a Freemason (Grand Master of the York lodge in Yorkshire). His foster-grandfather James I had brought Freemasonry to England, and it was now well-established in liberal circles. As a Mason, George had progressive views on many issues. He was sympathetic to the Quakers, whose pacifism and simple approach to spiritual things were appealing to him. Hundreds of Quakers were being imprisoned, tortured and hung for their refusal to kowtow to Anglican demands.
For George, the core issue was coercion -- the willingness of a ruling religious elite to force its beliefs on their subjects by any and all means necessary.
Admiral Penn's son William -- a brilliant, charismatic, highly educated young man -- had emerged as a Quaker convert and leader. Young Penn had become a friend of George's, and shared his horror of coercion. (It isn't known if their relationship was ever closer than that.) When Penn was arrested for the illegal act of preaching a Quaker sermon in public, he spent 14 months in solitary confinement in the Tower of London. From his freezing jail cell, he sent a message to King Charles saying, "The Tower was the worst argument in the world to convince me; for whoever was in the wrong, those who used force for religion never could be in the right."
But the king was unmoved, and Penn was put on trial. When the jury dared to find him not guilty, Parliament had the jury thrown in prison. But the jury stuck out their jaws and refused to change their verdict. The whole episode created such embarrassment for the government that Villiers and other noble advocates were able to get Penn released.
In 1672, George's lobbying for religious liberty persuaded King Charles to momentarily shake free of Parliament pressures. He suspended the penal laws that enforced adherence to the Church of England. But Parliament browbeat the king until he agreed to withdraw the edict. In its place, in 1673, they made him proclaim the Test Acts, which required all public officials in England to take communion in the Anglican Church.
The Duke Fights for His Life
By 1674, Parliament aimed to destroy the political influence of that dangerous new advocate of religious liberty, the Duke of Buckingham. First George was openly attacked over his "illicit" relationship with Lady Shrewsbury, and his powerful enemies were actually able to compel the two to stop living together. Then Parliament put the thumbscrews on Charles II, who fired Buckingham from all royal employment "forever."
Since George had a cat-like ability to land on his feet, he rebounded as leader of something unheard-of in English history -- an opposition party that openly advocated religious freedom. This was George's finest moment. He was taking a huge risk -- countless thousands of English had died horrible deaths at the fiery stake or the headsman's block over this issue. In 1675 the Duke kept a promise he'd made to William Penn and introduced a bill in Parliament that would stop persecution of Quakers and other sects.
George's bill was scuttled. But England had now decided to get rid of the troublesome Quakers in a less bloody way -- by letting them emigrate to the New World.
Between 1677 and 1682, the crown settled an old debt to Penn's father by granting him a huge chunk of land comprising today's Pennsylvania. Some of this land had been owned by the king's brother, James Duke of York, who was sympathetic to tolerance issues. King Charles signed the charter, in which Penn made clear his determination to establish a democracy of his own, complete with not only religious freedom but free elections and a non-royal government.
Now the shiploads of persecuted minorities -- not just Quakers but Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish, Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews -- began streaming to the new colony. William Penn boarded ship with them.
But by 1678, the Duke of Buckingham was in deeper trouble, as England veered into a national hysteria over something called the "Popist plot." Many were sure that Catholic enemies were planning the King's murder and the downfall of government. A series of state trials chewed up people's lives. Tower Hill was busy with grisly public executions, including some victims who turned out to be innocent.
Buckingham's enemies tried to implicate him in these alleged conspiracies. They charged that George had committed sodomy with a young Popist conspirator named Philip Le Mar. If the enemies had managed to spin things into actual charges of treason, the Duke would have joined those slaughtered victims on Tower Hill. He spent more time imprisoned in the Tower, was put through a state trial in Parliament, and defended himself with savage wit.
Ironically, while all this uproar was going on, his great horse Spanker was winning on the national racecourse at Newmarket.
Eventually the charges were dropped. On May 21, 1680, George was freed from the Tower for the last time.
The Final Years
The following year, the 53-year-old Duke left public life in disgust. Retreating to the rugged reaches of Yorkshire and the antiquated manor-house at Helmsley, he and his wife led a reclusive and modest life. Income from tenant farmers and a small allowance from his trustees provided survival funds. A few old retainers had stayed loyal, so he kept a tiny staff.
The once-gorgeous gentleman whose smile and athleticism had dazzled the world was now a hefty country squire with a few wooden teeth. George spent his days fox-hunting with the locals, and drinking with them at the Cock and Bottle Inn. But even in these reduced circumstances, a certain shredded glamour still clung to him. A mistress or two still came and went from Helmsley, along with George Etheredge, who was still in touch.
Finally his long-suffering wife moved out.
The day came when George's fabled racehorses had to be sold to keep the bills paid. Spanker went to Sir Charles Pelham in Lincolnshire, where he sired his own line of Newmarket winners. Soon the rundown Helmsley stables sheltered only a few hunter hacks.
In February 1685, word came from London by galloping messenger that his brother King Charles had suddenly died. Since Charles had no legitimate children, he was succeeded by his brother the Duke of York, now James II. This set off a new religious uproar, since James II's Catholic ties were so strong that non-Catholics insisted their safety was at risk under the new regime.
Later that year, from his stable door, hoping to inspire the new king to a public display of greater tolerance, the Duke fired one last cannon shot at the church establishment. He published a pamphlet titled "A short Discourse on the Reasonableness of Man's having a Religion." In it he asked this question: "whether there be anything more directly opposite to the doctrine and practice of Jesus Christ, than to use any kind of force upon men, in matters of religion?" In short, he accused those who used force of being anti-Christian.
In a letter to his long-time devoted secretary Martin Clifford, Villiers fumed, "The world is made up, for the most part, of fools and knaves, both irreconcilable foes to truth."
Buckingham's pamphlet went viral around the country and stirred up a firestorm of discussion. Ten other political writers weighed in, and a pamphlet war was on. William Penn -- ever the Duke's loyal friend -- was back in England on Quaker business and he bravely went to George's rescue, when he published his own "Defence of the Duke of Buckingham's Book of Religion & Worship."
Throughout that twilight period, the Duke continued to correspond with William Penn.
One day in April 1687, while the aging Duke was out hunting, he fell ill. As word went out that he was dying, churchman rushed to his bedside, hoping to get the old party boy to repent. On April 16, George Villiers died. He was 59.
Since he and Mary had never had children, his title reverted to the crown. His trustees sold everything left in the estate, including Helmsley, to pay the residue of his debts.
The new King thumbed his nose at Parliament by staging a magnificent state funeral for the Duke. George joined his gay father and his college love Abraham Cowley among the quiet tombs of Westminster Abbey.
That Buckingham Legacy
The same year that George died, England boiled over on the religious-liberty issue. In 1687, the new king -- possibly inspired by the pamphlet in the way that Villiers had hoped -- defied Parliament in his own turn. James II issued another declaration of indulgence -- the so-called "Declaration for Liberty of Conscience," in which he used his royal power to strike down the laws punishing Catholic and Protestant dissenters.
This time, the Anglican Church and Parliament went so furious that they forced James II to abdicate and flee to Europe. Eventually the Hanovers, a distantly-related German branch of royals who were agreeable to Parliament policy on religion, came to London to rule.
Inevitably, however, as European nations began exploding with people's growing hatred of state religion, England had to avoid risking a bloody revolution like the one that tore France apart in the 1790s. She gradually gave up most laws and social practices that institutionalized intolerance -- though today the Anglican Church still remains as England's official religion.
Meanwhile the Duke's thread of liberty-thinking wove its way into the rebellious colonies on the other side of the Atlantic.
A copy or two of George's fiery pamphlet may have found its way into Pennsylvania with the founder who had risked his life to defend it. During and after the American Revolution, William Penn's Pennsylvania became a driving force that helped to establish certain principles of democracy throughout the new nation. Bucks County, Pennsylvania, is named after Buckinghamshire in England, where the Penns and the Dukes of Buckingham had their roots.
Meanwhile, Villiers' pamphlet may have circulated into colonial Virginia as well. There, many royalist refugees had settled during the English Civil Wars -- including some of the Fairfaxes and the Washingtons, two old Yorkshire families that were closely related to the Villierses. Virginia's own Buckingham County is said to have been named after the Duke. General Washington himself, who was something of a churchgoer but also a staunch Freemason, had strong feelings about religious liberty and made blunt statements about the evils of coercion. Writing to Jews in Rhode Island in 1790, our first President said:
"The Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."
Villiers' sentiments were also echoed by another Virginia statesman who had Yorkshire family roots, namely Thomas Jefferson. In 1779, when Jefferson persuaded the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass its Statute for Religious Freedom, he hammered on Penn's and Buckingham's old theme that religion had no right to impose itself by force. He wrote:
"No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor... otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief."... The same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
Through all his years in public life, Jefferson piled up a mountain of commentaries about religious freedom, building his case for separating church and state.
Today, ironically, some gay historians might go into a frenzy of hair-splitting about whether George Villiers should really be counted among our own ancestors. Was he really "gay" -- or was he "just uncommitted and experimenting?" If so, they will miss the point about what we owe to this provocative Englishman of 300 years ago. After all, along with the right to religious liberty, the other thing that George was clear about -- and that today's LGBT community is also clear about -- is the right to live your life somewhere outside the pale of heterosexual conformism.
The Duke's story stands as an example of how real history shocks us into thinking outside the box, if we want to see the real influences that shape our past, and our present.
William Penn's writings relating to the Duke
George Villiers bio
Thomas Jefferson and his many quotes on religious liberty
Some of the Duke's political writings in:
Plays, Poems, and Miscellaneous Writings associated with George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham: Volume I, Robert D. Hume and Harold Love, editors (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Some of this material appeared in my Outsports.com article on George Villiers.