by Benjamin Woolley
The rise of George Villiers from minor gentry to royal power seemed to defy gravity. Becoming gentleman of the royal bedchamber in 1615, the young gallant enraptured James, Britain’s first Stuart king, royal adoration reaching such an intensity that the king declared he wanted the courtier to become his ‘wife’. For a decade, Villiers was at the king’s side–at court, on state occasions, and in bed, right up to James’s death in March 1625.
Almost immediately, Villiers’ many enemies accused him of poisoning the king. A parliamentary investigation was launched, and scurrilous pamphlets and ballads circulated London’s streets. But the charges came to nothing and were relegated to a historical footnote.
Now, new research suggests that a deadly combination of hubris and vulnerability did indeed drive Villiers to kill the man who made him. It may have been by accident–the application of a quack remedy while the king was weakened by a malarial attack. But there is compelling evidence that Villiers, overcome by ambition and frustrated by James’s passive approach to government, poisoned him.
In The King’s Assassin, acclaimed author Benjamin Woolley examines this remarkable, even tragic story—keep reading for an excerpt.
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His charcoal moving across the paper in graceful arcs and sweeps, Peter Paul Rubens put the finishing touches to his sketch of George, being careful to capture the lively frizz of the duke’s long hair. He paid close attention to his eyebrows, delicately delineating each strand to emphasize their shape, and finished off the mustache with touches of a tawny-red chalk to catch the coloring. He tinted the lips with the same color, giving them the sort of full, rounded quality that came to be known as ‘Rubenesque’.
The irises of the eyes, which looked slightly askance at him, were filled in with cross-hatching and a light smudging of the chalk. A circle was drawn around them to give them definition. Rubens picked up a pen, dipped it into an inkwell, and marked a sharp punctuation point in the center of each eye, bringing a startling intensity to the duke’s gaze.
The sketch was to form the basis of two new commissions from George for an equestrian portrait that would become the centerpiece of the main reception room in York House, and a ‘plafond’ or ceiling painting, for his bedchamber.
Rubens had already been given a commission to work on pictures to decorate the new Banqueting House in London, but there had been a dispute over the quality of the work he had produced, which turned out to be by his studio staff rather than his own hand. He had been forced to take it back and offer a replacement. Here was his chance to redeem himself.
George had seen Rubens’s work in Madrid, including a magnificent portrait of the Duke of Lerma in full armor mounted on a white steed, a military treatment which captured with vivid intensity the subject’s majestic confidence and power. That was the sort of quality the artist was now expected to reproduce for George. The plafond was to represent George’s astonishing social ascent using a classical theme. He would be featured in an almost Christ-like pose being conducted up to a temple in the heavens by Mercury and Minerva, with the figure of Envy pulling at his ankle, and a lion representing Anger threatening to bite his foot. A considerable fee of £500 had been agreed for the works – nearly twice the price the almost bankrupt duke had paid for Titian’s Ecce Homo.
Rubens was seated with a bandaged foot, a cobbler having wrenched it fitting a boot. As he sketched they talked. He was a diplomat and politician as well as a sought-after artist, a devout Catholic who acted as a confidential advisor and agent of Archduchess Isabella, governor of the Spanish Netherlands and aunt of Philip IV of Spain. A meeting with George provided him with a chance to size up a significant political figure, and one of the archduchess’s main antagonists.
They talked about the need for peace between religions as well as nations, Rubens later recalling the duke as showing a ‘laudable zeal’ for the ‘interests of Christianity’. Rubens had heard the military threats that had accompanied James’s final weeks, and expressed the hope that, now Charles was securely installed on the throne, his father’s more peaceful approach to diplomacy might be revived, focused on preventing rather than stirring up war, the ‘scourge from Heaven’.
Yet from behind the easel, the shrewd eye of the artist could see little to reassure him. George’s expression has both a relaxed and threatening quality to it, a suggestion of what Rubens later characterized as ‘caprice and arrogance’. The hint of a smile could be misleading, as an upward curve at the corners of the mouth was exaggerated by the flick of the long whiskers of his mustache. He emanated a vitality that teetered between the tragic and the heroic, the mercurial resolve of a man who had everything and nothing to lose. ‘He seems to me forced by his own daring either to triumph or to die gloriously,’ Rubens would recall.
Benjamin Woolley is an author and broadcaster whose work covers subjects ranging from the origins of virtual reality, to the Elizabethan philosopher, scientist and conjurer John Dee, and from the mathematician and computing pioneer (and daughter of Lord Byron) Ada Lovelace to the history of colonial America. His books, including The King’s Assassin, have been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese, and his documentaries broadcast across the world. He lives in London.