The King’s Assassin: Benjamin Woolley

★★★½

The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I

History is littered with stories of royal favourites who’ve clawed their way up from modest roots to dazzling heights of influence – but few did so quite as spectacularly as George Villiers. At the age of twenty, the future Duke of Buckingham had precious little going for him. He was a penniless gentleman, the second son of a second marriage, whose dead father had left everything to the children of his first marriage. In most cases this would have been a one-way ticket to obscure poverty, but George had several key advantages. He had a remarkably tenacious and ruthless mother, Mary Villiers, who recognised potential when she saw it. He had extraordinary good looks, remarkable charisma and intelligence. He (Mary decided) would be the catalyst by which his family dragged themselves to wealth and power – and there was one very obvious way to do that: to catch the king’s eye. This is one of British history’s great stories of social climbing, and Woolley delves into the detail with relish – even if I felt the book lacked the vivacity and panache that its captivating subject wielded with such ease.

Ambitious parents had been thrusting their daughters under kings’ noses since time immemorial, so perhaps it was only fair that, during James I’s reign, the boys got a chance. James’s predilection for handsome young gentlemen had been apparent ever since his accession, and his passion for particular favourites had already caused political ructions – his beloved Esmé Stuart had been exiled from Scotland, while Robert Carr had aroused envy and loathing at the British court. But the British suspicion of favourites, ironically, made George’s path easier. Those who were disaffected with Carr’s arrogance thought they might benefit from promoting a new, younger, more pliable favourite, who could be relied upon to advance their own agendas. Of course, this didn’t quite happen. As George grew closer and closer to the king, he paid lip service to those who’d supported him, but he also had his own ambitions – and those, as always with the Villiers family, came first. Somehow, using all his guile and charm, he managed to keep James’s interest long beyond the point where other favourites had failed.

And then there was George’s relationship with James’s son, the awkward, sickly, chronically shy Charles. Woolley devotes a lot of space to the issues surrounding Charles’s prospective marriage – the ‘Spanish Match’ – drawing out all the implications of these fraught negotiations. Royal marriages were never simple, but a proposed match with Spain was especially problematic. The British people were horrified at the thought of their royal family having marital ties to a country which had attacked England with the Armada within living memory. To make matters worse, the Spanish were irredeemably Catholic – not a virtue in a fiercely Protestant country. (The future French queen, Henrietta Maria, would make herself desperately unpopular for just the same reason.) The final straw was that the Spanish were implicated in the deeds of the Holy Roman Emperor, who’d recently deposed James’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband from the throne of Bohemia. It was very helpful to go over this in such detail, because I find the European politics of this period to be enormously confusing.

Unfortunately, young Charles had rather set his heart on the Spanish Infanta, and this led to the marvellous (and highly irresponsible) escapade in which he and George travelled incognito to Madrid, in the hope of winning over the beautiful princess and convincing her to come back to Britain. Spoiler: it didn’t work. (You can read a Spanish take on said escapade in the first Captain Alastriste novel.) But it ultimately did make George’s position stronger, because his participation in this madcap scheme made Charles almost as dependent on him as James I had been. And that’s where things started to go wrong. The British establishment could just about stomach a favourite, knowing that he or she would fall from grace with the accession of a new monarch. But what if the heir to the throne showed every sign of keeping George on, as adviser and partner in crime?

Having read Woolley’s book, I now appreciate several things that I didn’t before. I didn’t realise exactly how close Charles and George were – not, one presumes, in the same way that George and James had been, but certainly friendly enough that the king began to feel left out. Nor had I realised how indecisive James was, especially in his last years, petulantly wavering on foreign policy and threatening to undo all the goodwill that Charles had managed to earn with Parliament. And that was something new to me as well: the extent to which the young Charles was committed to the role of Parliament, which is rather ironic considering everything that happened later. At the heart of all these stories, one finds George Villiers. Whether or not one believes that he knowingly poisoned James I – and Woolley lays out the facts in so neutral a way that it’s hard to know exactly what he thinks – there is no doubt that he exercised astonishing power over British policy in this period. He tried to prove himself as a diplomat during the discussions about the Spanish match, and its French successor, with varying degrees of success. (Woolley seems to accept the rumour that George had a fling with Anne of Austria, which gave me flashbacks to The Three Musketeers.) His desire to live up to his title of Lord Admiral led to a disastrous campaign against Spanish treasure ships, with huge loss of British life. And the decision to bring him to trial, early in the reign of Charles I, seems to have been a major factor in turning Charles against Parliament, which he’d previously championed. It seems that our boy made good from Leicestershire had fingers in every single pie.

I knew little about George Villiers before, so can’t judge how Woolley’s book measures up against other biographies. He’s definitely thorough. There are many quotes from contemporary documents, which really helps to bring the period to life – although on a couple of occasions we’re given the same quotes twice in quick succession, which should have been picked up in editing. This jarred with me but isn’t the end of the world. For some reason, though, I found the book very tough to get through, and can’t ascertain why. The story is full of incident, with some colourful passages, such as those describing a royal hunt in the early part of the book. The narrative doesn’t leap around too much; and, as you can see above, I got a good sense of George Villiers as a person. But overall it just felt heavy and I felt that I had to plough through it, rather than being lightly carried along. Maybe there are slightly too many digressions about relatively minor characters, which made the pace feel slower than it should? Maybe the elements of repetition frustrated me more than I thought they did? Maybe I simply wasn’t in the right mood?

I find myself in a very odd position in rating the book. While I can’t deny that it’s a solid biography of a fascinating person, I felt that it was hard work: I can’t quite push it up to four stars, despite its intellectual weight and profusion of quotes, of which I feel compelled to approve as a historian. But perhaps that density was the very problem. I felt that I had to read it with one end of the thread constantly in hand, like Theseus, to stop myself from getting lost in the detail. But does that say more about me than about the book? I’d be extremely interested to know how other people found it. Could it be that my brain is beginning to shut down as I approach the brink of middle age? Good heavens, I hope not. I’ve got far too many Russian novels and history books to get through before my intellect dribbles out through my ears…

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgallery in return for a fair and honest review

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