How to get your son into the king’s bed: the true story behind Mary & George

'The handsomest-bodied man in England': George Villiers, painted by Paul van Somer
'The handsomest-bodied man in England': George Villiers, painted by Paul van Somer - incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

In August 1614, George Villiers, 21, was on the brink of an astonishing coup. While travelling across the country that summer, James I had stopped at Apethorpe, a Northamptonshire stately home with excellent hunting grounds. There, he came face to face with the athletic, accomplished, extra­ordinarily handsome Villiers, and king or not, he was powerless to resist the young man’s charms.

Within a year of this first encounter, Villiers had been appointed Gen­t­leman of the Bedchamber – and was rumoured to have worked his way into the monarch’s bed. In quick succession, over nine years, he was made an earl, a marquess, Lord High Admiral, and, fin­ally, in 1623, the first Duke of Buckingham – making him the only Eng­lish duke who wasn’t a member of the royal family. As one commentator said, “No man dances better, no man runs or jumps better”, and this son of minor gentry had jumped higher than any man ever had.

How did it happen? According to a new Sky Atlantic drama, Mary & George, the answer lies with ­Villi­ers’s mother, Mary. The series suggests that Mary (played brilliantly on screen by Julianne Moore) had both the political genius and determination to drive her son’s giddy ascent; and that she would go as far as ­murder to install George in position as the king’s lover and secure the family’s fortunes. Mary has been  painted by historians as “busy, intriguing, masculine and dangerous”, “ambitious and unscrupulous”, obsessed with her family’s advancement. But did she actually plot for her son to strike up an illicit romance with the king? While we can’t be certain of the historical Mary’s motives, this much we know.

Born in 1570, Mary Villiers gave birth to George, her second son, when she was about 22, at Brooksby, in Leicestershire. Her husband died in early 1606, when George was 13, leaving Mary penniless. With four children to support, she swiftly married again, this time to a local nobleman half a century her senior. But when he fell ill later in the year, she heard that he intended to exclude her from his will and so hurried to one of his properties and made off with about £2,000 – a huge sum at the time – and valuable bundles of wool.

After she was intercepted, the goods were sent back to her husband; when he died a month later, the estate went to his daughter, Elizabeth, who tried to prosecute Mary for theft and fraud, but Mary claimed she had only been trying to pay her husband’s taxes, and appears to have been cleared.

Mummy's boy: Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in the title roles of Mary & George
Mummy's boy: Julianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in the title roles of Mary & George

Vivacious, pragmatic and clever, Mary was brilliant at capturing husbands. Not long after the death of her second husband, she wed Sir Thomas Compton, a log merchant who was said to be rather slow, and  was not ­possessed of particular lineage, looks, social cachet or wealth. But she saw the potential in him – for his elder brother, William, was extremely wealthy and had been given a key role at court. These were just the kind of connections she needed for her son.

George Villiers was said (by a future bishop) to be the ­“handsomest-bodied man in England”. Graceful, an expert hunter, intelligent, polite and charismatic, he was a 17th-century Saltburn type, the kind of young man who’d now be the most popular student in a college bar. Around 1609, when he was 16, Mary had gained special permission for him to be allowed to travel and sent him to France for two years. Villiers returned an accomplished rider and dancer with a French sophistication that set him apart. (We might recall how Anne Boleyn captivated Henry VIII with her stylish French ways.)

Mary certainly wished her talented son to become a courtier, as many families desired for their children – but with no tradition of royal service in her family, she was aiming high. Her hopes might well have come to nothing if it weren’t for the fact that court insiders had their own reasons to dangle George before the king.

A large faction at court wanted to displace the king’s favourite, the Earl of Somerset, hated because he was high-handed and possessive of the king, and others thought James’s Scottish friends had too much influence over him. So George was put in James’s way when he visited Apethorpe, and was given the role of royal cupbearer, allowed to hand the king his drinks. The king’s junior by 26 years, he was soon always by James’s side, hunting with him, riding with him, entertaining him.

As Gentleman of the Bedchamber, George was catapulted into an elite group of noblemen who were the king’s closest attendants, assisting him to dress, offering him dishes at table, guarding his chamber and accompanying him everywhere. The Earl of Somerset rapidly fell from fav­our and he and his wife were prosecuted for murdering his former adviser and sent to the Tower.

Once George was Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Mary was observed by her enemies to be “always so much at Court”. She won over the king and became extremely friendly with the Countess of Salisbury, one of the most influential women at the court. Mary soon had trails of courtiers at her door, recognising that she was a source of patronage and power. Even George begged her to be less present and “not to intermeddle with business”. She certainly encouraged George to use his position to enrich his family with titles, money and land; the ­Villiers family became wildly wealthy and the siblings were given titles. She herself gained the astonishing title of Countess of Buckingham in 1618, in her own inde­p­endent right, with her husband Sir Thomas Compton given no title.

Mary was brilliant at capturing husbands: Julianne Moore in Mary & George
Mary was brilliant at capturing husbands: Julianne Moore in Mary & George - SKY UK

George, meanwhile, collected huge estates for himself and married a wealthy heiress, Lady Katherine Manners, much against her father’s wishes – those who hated Mary claimed she had forced Lady Katherine to spend a night under the same roof as George, prompting her father to agree to the marriage.

Why was the king’s head so easily turned? James I had come to the throne of England in 1603, at the age of 36, on the death of Elizabeth I. The life of the “cradle king”, declared King of Scotland at the age of 13 months, had been violent and replete with betrayals, including the murder of his father and the horrific execution of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. The regents in power over him were harsh and controlling, and played on his fear of assassination (a fear not allayed when he arrived in England only for the Gunpowder Plot to occur two years later). It was hardly surprising that when he grew to adulthood, he became dependent on men he felt he could trust.

James married Anne of Denmark in 1589 and became a devoted husband, having seven children with her, including the future Charles I. But James also had relationships with men, which most commentators assumed were sexual. As one MP and diarist put it, he “never yet saw any fond husband make so much or so great dalliance over his beautiful spouse as I have seen King James over his favourites, especially the Duke of Buckingham”. James referred to George as “my sweetheart”, declared he loved him as Christ had loved John, and called him “Steenie”, after St ­Stephen, who was said to have the face of an angel. Villiers sometimes called himself James’s dog, and once reminisced about a time at Farnham “where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog”.

James I called him 'Steenie' – after St Stephen, said to have the face of an angel: Nicholas Galitzine in Mary & George
James I called him 'Steenie' – after St Stephen, said to have the face of an angel: Nicholas Galitzine in Mary & George - SKY UK

As George knew, favourites trad­itionally fall with the death of the king. But he had also fostered a friendship with James’s lonely young son, the future Charles I, and been appointed his tutor – and so hoped his position might continue. In 1623, George and the prince went on a secret jaunt to Spain to try to speed up the prince’s marriage nego­tiations with the Spanish Infanta – the discussions had stalled and the prince was keen to be wed. The pair went off in a bizarre disguise, adopting false names and affixing fake beards to their faces (one fell off), and popped up in Madrid, much to the displeasure of King Philip of Spain, who did not like surprise visitors, and hadn’t particularly wanted to marry his sister to a Protestant, anyway (she also hated the idea).

Thanks to their ridiculous “boys on tour” mission, the negotiations collapsed, and Charles and George were so annoyed that they asked James to declare war. The king, who wished to be a peacemaker, refused. The next years saw George pushing for war with Spain, while he became increasingly unpopular, criticised for enriching himself and having too much power over the king and the prince.

With his reputation under attack, his position was even more fragile – to what lengths would he go to  defend it? Would he stop short of murder? The King’s Assassin by the historian Benjamin Woolley – the book that inspired Mary & George – explores the controversial theory that James did not die a natural death, but was, in fact, poisoned.

King James I referred to George as 'my sweetheart'
King James I referred to George as 'my sweetheart': a scene from Mary & George - Rory Mulvey

By 1625, the king was 58 and in poor health. In March, he caught a malaria-like fever, and, refusing to listen to his doctors, grew very ill. George was beside the king night and day. On March 21, on the advice of his own doctor, he gave him a cordial, without the permission of the royal doctors, and James grew sicker, with severe dysentery and dehydration. Six days later, the king died. Immediately, the rumour mill claimed that George had killed James to gain influence over the young Charles, now King Charles I, and to pursue war with Spain.

It was possible that he had done so. His remedies seem to have worsened James’s condition. But plenty of “remedies” at the time only intensified the symptoms of the patient, and if the doctors did not prescribe the potion, that doesn’t mean it was any more damaging than their own – it seems, indeed, that the rumours were fed by one of James’s resentful doctors. The suffering king was probably on course for death anyway.

When Charles I came to the throne, George had free rein for his wars, launching an attack on Spain. But his military efforts were failures and parliament tried to impeach the duke for “great Evils and Mischiefs” he had brought about, listing 13 charges – the last and most serious being “His transcendent Presumption in giving Physick to the King”. Charles dissolved parliament twice to protect his friend, and the duke became extremely unpopular. When George travelled to Portsmouth in 1628 to organise a further military campaign, he was fatally stabbed at an inn by a disgruntled soldier. Less than 15 years after he caught the eye of a king at Apethorpe, George was dead, aged just 35.

Charles I ordered him buried at Westminster Abbey, but under cover of darkness, in case angry crowds disrupted the ceremony. Mary died four years later, at the age of 62, and is also buried in the abbey, her effigy resting its feet on a lion. The inscription on George’s elaborate tomb reads “the intimate in turn of two most powerful sovereigns, he was famous in peace and war”. His mark on the country was great. George left behind him a young king bent on war, always ready to dissolve parliament and totally convinced of his own rightness – the very traits that helped sow the seeds for the Civil War.

Mary & George is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on March 5. Kate Williams’s Red Queens: A New History of Royal Women is out in November