'Murder Most Foul': The Assassination of the Duke of Buckingham
Who was the Duke of Buckingham?
George Villiers was born in 1592, the son of an undistinguished Leicestershire knight. He was trained from boyhood to attract the King’s favor at court. As he matured, he had every quality likely to please James I: he was engaging, dashing, spirited, and reputedly an exceptionally handsome man.
George was introduced to the Court in 1614 and was almost immediately rewarded with lands and honors. He climbed the hierarchical ladder at court, successively becoming a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Knight, Viscount, Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, Earl of Buckingham, Lord High Admiral of the Fleet and finally Duke. He was both high-handed and generous. He made friends easily, but his success attracted enemies.
The young Prince Charles, at first jealous of the Duke, changed his opinion after a journey abroad when Villiers accompanied him on a voyage to court the Infanta of Spain in 1623. Although unsuccessful as far as the king was concerned, Buckingham was created Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports as a result of this voyage.
Between 1623 and 1627, Buckingham was given a free hand by Charles to improve the effectiveness of the Navy, a national asset which had been neglected since the death of Elizabeth I. He improved, enlarged and repaired docks and storehouses in the dockyards. He increased the number of rope houses and encouraged rope makers to settle in England and teach others their craft. The captains of ships invited junior officers from other vessels on board and set up the first system of regular gunnery instruction in the Navy.
Despite these improvements the expedition against Cadiz in 1625 was a disaster. In 1627 the expedition to relieve the Huguenots of La Rochelle with Buckingham in command was also a complete failure and Buckingham was becoming very unpopular with both his officers and his sailors.
Buckingham in Portsmouth
In 1628, Buckingham came to Portsmouth to raise another force to sail to France in an attempt to make good the failure of the 1627 expedition.
Portsmouth was said to be unfit to receive the King at this time, owing to the indiscipline of the town and the presence of a large number of sick and wounded sailors and men who had returned from the earlier expeditions.
The King stayed nearby at Southwick, while Buckingham, determined to enter Portsmouth to make his preparations. Despite warnings of danger, Buckingham refused to take any precautions however, and failed to wear a protective coat of mail believing that no-one would harm him.
Trouble began on the 16th of August when a mob of some three hundred sailors surrounded his coach, demanding pay and the release of a prisoner held in the town. Facing down the mob, Buckingham calmed the mob and released the prisoner. But later, when Buckingham had the man re-arrested, violence flared up again. The men were eventually driven back to their ships by the Duke and his men but many of the sailors were killed in the incident. Meanwhile, an embittered army lieutenant was plotting revenge.
John Felton was born in 1595 near Sudbury to a Suffolk family. Felton entered the army at an early age, but his career proved lackluster. Increasingly surly and morose, he was unpopular with his comrades. In 1627, when war began with France, Buckingham had organized the ill-fated expedition to assist the Huguenot rebels at La Rochelle. Felton had twice applied for command of a company for this adventure, but was refused on both occasions. Further woes found him in 1628, when Felton petitioned the crown for arrears of pay as, according to his own accounts, he was owed £80. Increasingly embittered and angry, Felton suffered increased poverty and melancholy.
With the news that the Buckingham would again be recruiting soldiers in Portsmouth, Felton began to plan his assassination of the Duke of Buckingham, believing he would be doing Parliament and the country a great service. On the 19th August 1628 he obtained a small amount of money from his mother and bought a dagger-knife from a cutler at Tower Hill in London. Felton then rode to Portsmouth, arriving on the morning of the 23rd of August. On arrival, he made his way to a public house, ‘The Greyhound’, on Portsmouth’s High Street. Here, he waited for his chance.
The next morning, Buckingham rose early and was attended by his barber before breakfast in the parlor. Many visitors were milling about in the room and in the hall. As the Duke was leaving the house to visit the king at Southwick, Felton seized his chance. In the commotion and press of people, Felton stabbed Buckingham, wounding him severely. Surprisingly, no one at first noticed anything amiss. But Buckingham lived just long enough to stagger and shout out, "Villain!". Buckingham then attempted to chase after his assailant, but suddenly fell down dead. Felton did not in fact get far. With all the attention focused on the Duke, Felton emerged from the kitchen and proudly confessed to the crime.
On the 27th of November, Felton was tried in the Court of the King’s Bench. He pleaded guilty and was hanged at Tyburn the next day. His body was afterwards removed to Portsmouth and hung in chains in a gibbet as a warning to others. The Duke’s body was taken to London and buried in Westminster Abbey, where a huge monument was later erected.
Buckingham’s body was first taken to the Governor of Portsmouth’s house and later was escorted to the Tower of London. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
A memorial was erected in Portsmouth in St Thomas’s Church, today known as Portsmouth Cathedral, and remains today as an example of an early Baroque monument. Constructed in black and white marble, it was erected on the instructions of the Countess of Denbigh, sister of the Duke of Buckingham, in 1631 and originally placed in the centre of the east wall of St. Thomas’s parish church.
The top half of the memorial resembles the entrance to a mausoleum with the tall recess containing an elongated funeral urn. Above the urn is a phoenix rising from the ashes and, surmounting this, the coronet and family coat of arms.
The lower part of the memorial consists two figures, the first representing Pietas, the Roman goddess of piety and devotion, holding up a heart in her right hand and a funeral garland around her left wrist. On the left side is Fama, the Roman goddess of rumor and report, blowing her trumpet to broadcast the news of the Duke’s death to the people. Between these figures is Buckingham’s epitaph inscribed in Latin:
Epitaph to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham
To George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, a man sprung from most famous stock, his father being George Villiers, knight of Brooksby in the county of Leicester, and his mother Mary Beaumont, Countess of Buckingham. He was distinguished in all endowments of nature and fortune, through the favour of two most prudent princes. By his own merits he surpassed the promise of his own gifts, proving equal to the weight of state affairs and unequal only to envy and jealousy. While he was preparing armies a second time against the enemy, in this very town, fatal theatre of monstrous murder, where a new ocean overflows of blood and tears, he was struck down by the impious hand of a most accursed assassin on the twenty-third day of August in the year of Our Lord 1628.
To such a man, born to everything of greatest worth, Susanna, his sister, Countess of Denbigh, in tears and everlasting grief, erected this monument in the year 1631. His bowels, together with hers, are buried here.
You, traveller, if you have any bowels of pity, groan with indignation at such unworthy fate of so great a man, and so depart.
A carved skull rests at the base of the memorial - a memento mori - reminding visitors of their mortality. The cherubs adorn the top, positioned nearest to heaven.
Buckingham’s life is represented by the carvings on the panels situated either side of the urn. His military status, on the left side from the top features a shield, drum, trumpets, a torso in Roman uniform, and lastly a knight in armor holding a 17th century musket. His naval status, on the right side from the top, is represented by a Roman torso, a ship’s sail, an anchor, compass and rope.
A note on sources used and recommended reading
- Crooks, Christopher and Debbie Caton Crooks, A Guide's Guide to Portsmouth Cathedral, (Portsmouth: Portsmouth Cathedral Council, 1996)
- Gates, William G., City of Portsmouth: Records of the Corporation, 1835-1927, (Portsmouth: Charpentier, Ltd., 1928)
- Lockyer, Roger, Buckingham: The Life and Political Career of George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham 1592-1628, (London: Routledge, 1983)
- Quail Sarah, Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths Around Portsmouth, (London: Wharncliffe Books, 2008)
- Slight, Henry and Julian Slight, The Chronicles of Portsmouth, (London: Lupton Relfe, 1828)
- Spring, Laurence, The First British Army, 1624-1628: The Army of the Duke of Buckingham, (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2016)
- Thomson, A.T., The Life and Times of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, (London: Palala Press, 2015)