Vile Villiers

During the Seventeenth Century the Villiers were one of the most socially ambitious families in England. The following are some of the most notorious of the lot…

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, attributed to William Larkin
oil on canvas, circa 1616. NPG 3840. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Ah, the first of the ambitious Villiers. Pretty-boy George was so incredibly beautiful that he immediately came to the attention of King James I. Now, there is speculation about James – was he bisexual, homosexual? We can’t be sure, but there is a heck of a lot more evidence pointing in that direction than there ever was about William III (whom people incorrectly tend to think of as bisexual or gay). You have to admit, the following sentence written by James I to George indicates a strangely complicated relationship:

“And so God bless you my sweet child and wife and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.”

Child and wife? Dad and husband? No wonder historians have been scratching their heads for generations. Whatever their relationship may have been, George became very powerful and rich under James’s favour. His name was immortalised throughout London in various street names – most notably, Villiers Street, near St. James’s Square.

But, not all was sweetness and light for George. At the age of thirty-five, he was murdered in a pub – stabbed to death by a soldier named John Felton; and was so hated by the general populace that crowds cheered as he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey (And, by gum, did he get an ostentatious monument!). George subsequently was popularised in the historical fiction novel, The Three Musketeers, in which Dumas made him one of the characters. As such, he’s been portrayed in countless films.

Barbara Villiers, Countess Castlemaine

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles Fitzroy, as Madonna and Child by Sir Peter Lely, oil on canvas, circa 1664. NPG 6725.

Barbara Villiers married Roger Palmer in 1659, but soon became the mistress of the exiled Charles II. Now, if you know about Barbara Villiers, you’ll understand how cheeky the above painting of her is. There she is, known mistress of Charles II, holding his illegitimate child in her hands, and ironically portraying the Virgin Mary! Ha! Virgin my foot! This woman had a voracious sexual appetite that not even randy Charlie could satiate! She had trysts with her cousins, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, & John Churchill, who would later become the 1st Duke of Marlborough. From all accounts, this woman knew what she was doing in the bedchamber, and so she inevitably wielded great power over the lusty monarch. With her Elizabeth-Taylor-like violet eyes, and voluptuous figure, she was considered one of the most attractive women in the country. Fortunate aesthetics aside, she was capable of some of the worst case of histrionics and temper tantrums I’ve ever read about. She even threatened to bash her baby’s brains in unless Charles recognised him. Egads! She disrespectfully flaunted herself in front of Charles’s wife, Queen Catherine. She was so nasty a person, that John Evelyn described her as:

“curse of the nation!”

Beautiful Barbara, however, did not have a fairy tale ending. As an older woman, she married a much-younger rake, Robert Fielding, who spent a lot of her money, and then it was found that he had already been married, thus, their union was bigamous.

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, by Sir Peter Lely, oil on canvas, circa 1675. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

George was the son of the aforementioned George, and infamously part of the Merry Gang of debauched courtiers and friends of King Charles II (this included John Wilmot and Charles Sedley, among others). George was one nasty dog. He tried to seduce Mary Stuart, Princess of Orange, and this left him in bad terms with her Stuart family. He eventually married Mary Fairfax, daughter of the esteemed General Fairfax. Most historians cannot understand how Fairfax could possibly have found this guy a suitable suitor for his daughter.

The man was a libertine – not a great husband. As a matter of fact, he was known for bedding another man’s wife. Enter Francis Talbot, 11th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, Countess Anna Maria. Anna Maria started to sleep with bad boy George and her husband found out and, understandably enraged, requested a duel with the blackguard. Unfortunately, George killed Francis in the duel, and Anna Maria moved in with George and his wife! They all lived in this strange menage a trois until Buckingham tired of Anna Maria, and sent her packing. What George didn’t count on is that Anna Maria and Francis had a son, Charles Talbot, and that son was would become the powerful and respected 1st Duke of Shrewsbury.

[I really respect Charles Talbot especially after reading, Private and Original Correspondence of Charles Talbot, Duke of Shrewsbury, With King William, the Leaders of the Whig Party, and Other Distinguished Statesmen.]

Elizabeth Villiers, Countess of Orkney

From another line of Villiers, and with a reputation for being quite ugly, Elizabeth, aka “Squinting Betty, ” was nevertheless a shrewd, arrogant, ambitious woman. When I was first researching William & Mary, I thought Betty was the innocent target of William III’s attentions. How silly to think so! It was completely against his nature to take a mistress, and she was a Villiers, and as such was after as much gain as she could, regardless of whom she hurt. And she hurt Mary, William’s wife, for whom she was a lady-in-waiting. She was no different from other Villiers folks of her time- she meddled in politics and intrigues as much as the other Villiers did, and she exerted a great deal of influence over William III, and later on King George I (though she was not the latter’s mistress). Betty had a bit of a temper, it appears from a letter written by a certain Mrs Lundee to the Duke of Shrewsbury:

“She still wishes you could change, as she is convinced the king desires the same…She is angry, but it is in your power to make her otherwise.”

If she didn’t get her way, she’d get cross.

Betty fared much better than the other Villiers. After finally getting dumped by William (following a massive realisation of who he really loved) after the death of his beloved wife, Mary II, he married her off to a good bloke- George Hamilton – who had served him well in several battles. He made them Earl and Countess of Orkney and generously gave them the estate of Cliveden. This, on top of the Irish land he had given to Betty following his accession to the throne of England, Scotland, & Ireland in 1689, made Betty a rich woman. She became a socialite and entertained notable minds of the day such as Jonathan Swift, who wrote that she:

“squints like a dragon.”

George and Betty had a happy life and several children.

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Hear ye! 7 thoughts — so far — on “Vile Villiers”:

  1. Deborah Grant

    I was interested in your take on Elizabeth Villiers. I find what N. A. Robb had to say about her very interesting:

    Was she a woman so much in love that she was content to have the man she loved on any terms, even the most unrewarding? Or a cold, ambitious woman, to whom the possession of an oblique influence on ‘the first personage in Europe’ was a sufficient satisfaction? Or a maternal soul bound by compassion to a sorely tried man who had sought her out in his moments of weakness?
    (William of Orange: A Personal Portrait, volume 2, page 220-221)

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  2. Lauren Hairston Collado

    If I ever give birth, I’m totally planning on having myself painted à la Barbara. Wasn’t she a nasty piece of work? Love her, though, for being so interesting. I wrote a paper about her poor husband once. I don’t know whether he was incredibly unlucky or just cursed. The paper was about Barbara’s first husband, Roger Palmer, not that wastrel Robert Fielding! (Although he was amusingly vile, too.)

    Reply
  3. tammyvill

    I am a Villiers and would love to know more, not a history buff by any means just happened to google my name…Interesting! Feel free to share your knowledge with me.. my twitter @tammyvill

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  4. EuropaSylvia

    Elizabeth Villiers is not a person I can appreciate since I am a great admirer of Queen Mary II, and Elizabeth caused so much sorrow to her.
    I just wonder what relationship she really had with William III, since I know that William loved Mary very deeply during the last years of their marriage, but I just can’t understand why he didn’t break out with Elizabeth during these years, for I think his affection for her was not love.

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