There were probably few who thought that the infant born George Villiers on August 28, 1592 would be destined for great things. After all, he was the fourth son and seventh child of a minor gentleman, which usually means you get shoved into the clergy or the army and have to make your own way. But the baby who made his appearance that fine day would go on to become a favorite (some say the lover) of a king who would make him a duke and the most rewarded royal courtier in history.
George’s mother, who was widowed in 1604, gave her son an education fit for a courtier, even sending him to France at one point. He excelled at these lessons, learning to dance, fence, and speak French. He was also, apparently, considered quite the hottie, and he was introduced to King James I in 1614 by those who hoped to see George eclipse the king’s current favorite, Robert Carr, 1st Earl of Somerset.
James took to George immediately, referring to him as his “sweet child and wife.” In return, George wrote James affectionate letters, and he was rewarded with a knighthood in 1615, a baronetcy in 1616, and an earldom in 1617. He was named Marquess of Buckingham in 1618, and Earl of Coventry and Duke of Buckingham in 1623, putting him at the pinnacle of British society (just below the royal family, of course).
George, in turn, helped promote the interests of his family and friends. He helped Sir Oliver St. John get appointed Lord Deputy in Ireland and helped his loved ones build up extensive Irish estates. When Parliament started to investigate his doings in the Emerald Isle, he managed to instigate a quarrel between the King and Parliament that led to Parliament being dissolved in December 1621.
Buckingham was less popular with royals abroad than he was with the King of England. When he was sent to Spain with the Prince of Wales to attend to marriage negotiations between Prince Charles and the Infanta Maria, his crass behavior managed to torpedo the whole arrangement, which was, at the time, all but a done deal. The Spanish ambassador was so outraged by Buckingham’s behavior he asked Parliament to have him executed. Buckingham responded by urging Parliament to declare war on Spain.
Buckingham was given permission to lead an expedition to seize the main Spanish port at Cadiz and burn the fleet in the harbor, something Sir Francis Drake had once done. Unfortunately, the expedition was a disaster—the ground troops found a warehouse full of wine and just got wasted, and the fleet only managed to occupy a small port further down the coast. After that embarrassment, Buckingham started negotiating with French Prime Minister Cardinal Richelieu, offering him English ships to fight the French Huguenots. The Protestant English weren’t so keen on their ships being used to fight French Protestants, and Buckingham’s popularity took another hit. Another military disaster in 1627, the Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Re, resulted in him losing more than 4,000 out of a force of 7,000 men. Despite this staggering loss, he was ready to regroup and try the campaign again when he was stabbed to death by an army officer who’d been wounded in the siege. Surprisingly, the assassin, John Felton, didn’t kill Buckingham for being such a suicidally piss poor military leader; he did it because he believed he’d been passed over for promotion. He was hanged in October of 1628. Buckingham was buried in a lavish tomb in Westminster Abbey, under a Latin inscription that may, bizarrely, be translated as “The Enigma of the World.”