Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Marriage of George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham and Lady Katherine Manners

by Pamela Womack

George Villiers, 1st Duke 
of Buckingham attributed 
to William Larkin, and 
studio of William Larkin 
(circa 1616) 
© National Portrait Gallery 
When early in 1619 it became known that King James I wished his powerful favourite George Villiers, Marquis of Buckingham, to marry, there was a flurry of excitement in the court as wealthy courtiers with daughters of marriageable age scrambled to push them forward. However, Buckingham and his redoubtable mother Mary Beaumont, Countess of Buckingham, had already determined that George would marry Lady Katherine Manners, the greatest heiress in England. Although this marriage, achieved through deception and coercion, has often been briefly mentioned in works about Buckingham and judged to have been either unusually happy or a one-sided love affair, research reveals a complex and fascinating story of a relationship which was characterised by continuous infidelity on one side and passionate devotion on the other, but which also reveals that Katherine was neither meek nor subservient, but was a spirited and determined woman who was prepared to flout convention to marry the man she loved.

Katherine Manners was the daughter of Francis Manners, 6th Earl of Rutland and Frances Knyvett.  After the death of his first wife Rutland married Cecily, the daughter of Sir John Tufton, who bore him two sons who died in apparently mysterious circumstances which were the centre of a notorious witchcraft case. Their deaths resulted in Katherine becoming the heir not only to the Knyvett property from her mother, but also to the unentailed estates in Yorkshire and Northamptonshire.

Portraits of Katherine show her to have been a rather plain woman, but doubtless her inheritance more than made up for her lack of beauty, and Buckingham and his mother opened negotiations. However, there were complications: Rutland was a Roman Catholic and the king would only permit his favourite to marry a Protestant, therefore pressure was brought to bear upon Katherine to abandon her religion. Rutland may well also have heard the talk and speculation about the exact nature of King James’s intense relationship with his handsome young favourite; the Earl was often at court and must have witnessed the very public display of kissing and caressing. The amount of dowry demanded, too, was exorbitant and Rutland was offended. The negotiations floundered, but Buckingham and Mary’s solution to the deadlock was a plan which reflects badly on them both.

In March 1620 Mary visited the Countess of Rutland in the absence of the Earl, and invited Katherine to dine with her, promising to bring her back home before night-fall. It has been commonly assumed that the invitation was to Mary’s Leicestershire home at nearby Goadby Marwood. However, Mary brought the innocent girl to her lodgings at the Gatehouse in Whitehall. Even worse, Katherine stayed overnight, and so did her suitor, despite the fact that his own lodgings were within walking distance. The next day Katherine was returned home, but her outraged and furious father refused to receive her at Belvoir. The fact that Buckingham had also slept under the same roof ensured that Katherine’s reputation was ruined. Rutland was now forced into the position of insisting that Buckingham marry his daughter to save both her and the family’s honour.

The affair caused great scandal and despite Buckingham’s importance, the marriage did not take place at court with the usual lavish and lengthy entertainments, instead the couple were married privately in 1620, witnessed only by the Earl and the King.

The Buckinghams lived a lavish life-style, but it seems clear that this was not the fairy-tale life which Katherine had imagined. Perhaps she had unrealistically believed that Buckingham would leave his life at court and devote himself exclusively to her, and in a bitter, reproachful letter in 1627 she told him that, ‘… there is none more miserable than I am, and till you leave this life of a courtier which you have been ever since I knew you, I shall think myself unhappy.’

The Duke of Buckingham and his Family 
after Gerrit van Honthorst (1628) 
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Whatever the dreams and hopes for her marriage had been, Katherine had to contend with reality and accept that she had not only gained a husband but also all his family, which included the doting King himself. Then there were the mistresses, notably the spirited court beauty Lucy, Countess of Carlisle. When Buckingham was in Madrid with Prince Charles in 1623, during which time he was created a Duke, his behaviour at the straight-laced Spanish court caused great offence.

Buckingham again outraged convention and stretched Katherine’s devotion to the uttermost when he travelled to Paris in May 1625 to escort England’s new Queen, Henrietta Maria, to her new home. The English favourite scandalised the French court by blatantly making love to the French Queen Anne of Austria, giving scant thought to his pregnant wife at home. The Duke’s obsession with Anne, which he did not try to disguise, must have caused Katherine great heartache, and he made determined attempts to see the queen again.

King Charles I 
by Gerrit van Honthorst (1628) 
© National Portrait Gallery, London
A cursory reading of Katherine’s letters gives the impression of a woman whose life was utterly bound up with her adored husband. However, further readings suggest a strong-willed woman who was no door-mat and whose relationship with her illustrious husband could be stormy. Buckingham pampered his ‘poor little wife’ as her father may have done, and it seems that she made clear her displeasure with his frequent absences, and was not above using emotional blackmail.

The evidence suggests that although Buckingham was never in love with his wife he nonetheless genuinely cared for her, and notwithstanding his inability to remain faithful, treated her well. When he discovered that Katherine had been ill, perhaps seriously, while he was in Madrid, he seems to have been genuinely alarmed, confessing his adultery and asking for forgiveness, and even telling her he would return home if she was still sick. Katherine was aware of her husband’s weakness, and comforted by his concern for her, she was able to be sufficiently magnanimous to tell him that he was a good man save for his one sin of "loving women so well."

The increasing attacks upon the Duke during the first three years of Charles I’s reign, and the attempts by Parliament to impeach him in 1626 caused Katherine serious alarm. The Duke survived because of the King’s deep attachment to him, but Katherine and his mother and sister were devastated to hear that Buckingham intended to command a naval expedition to La Rochelle to relieve the Protestant Huguenots in the summer of 1627. Such was Katherine’s distress that Buckingham promised her that he would not accompany the fleet, and she wrote to him several times reminding of his promise to her, telling him in one letter that, "I hope you will not deceive me in breaking yours, for I protest if you should, it would half kill me."

However, Buckingham lied and left without saying goodbye. When she realised that he had really gone, Katherine told him she could almost wish herself dead, but although she had failed to keep her husband at home, her letters indicate her continued attempts to control his behaviour.

Buckingham and Charles planned another attempt to liberate La Rochelle, but this time Katherine refused to allow him to quietly slip away, determinedly accompanying him to Portsmouth in August 1628. Fortunately she was still in her bedchamber when the Duke was stabbed to death by John Felton.

The Duchess returned to her Catholic faith after Buckingham’s death. The king, whose devotion to the Duke had matched her own, removed his beloved friend’s children from her care and had them brought up with his own children. Katherine again occasioned the king’s wrath when she married the Irish Randal MacDonnell, then Viscount Dunluce, in 1635 to general censure. Katherine’s second marriage was equally eventful but seems to have been a far more equal partnership, with Katherine playing a leading role. MacDonnell was deeply distressed when she died in November 1649.

Living through a time of political upheaval and the tumultuous events of the Civil War, Katherine Manners was fiercely loyal and passionately devoted to her two husbands, even to the extent of defying convention and incurring the displeasure of her father and the king to marry the men of her choice.


Pamela J. Womack is the author of Darling of Kings, published by Hayloft Publishing Ltd., an historical novel which tells the tragic story of the friendship between Charles I and George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham. She has also written An Illustrated Introduction to the Stuarts, published by Amberley Publishing Ltd. She is currently writing the Duke of Buckingham’s biography.

For more information visit her website at


  1. Fascinating, Pamela. I learned a great deal and enjoyed your post.

  2. I was on the edge of my seat just from the post...thank you ! Compared with many women at that time, she didn't have it bad. Did she have children with either husband? mentioned she was pregnant . Thanks again

    1. I'm pleased you enjoyed the post. Katherine had four children by Buckingham. Mary Villiers, Duchess of Lennox and Richmond (1622 – 1685),Charles Villiers, Earl of Coventry (27 Nov 1625 – 26 March 1627), George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628 – 1687), and Lord Francis Villiers (1629 – 48). Katherine miscarried shortly after her second marriage, but did not have any further children.

  3. I'm unfamiliar how titles are/were applied, so I was surprised to see that Buckingham's mother was addressed as Mary Beaumont, Countess of Buckingham. I'm guessing that by 1619 she was married to Compton ... did she ignore his last name? And when Katherine Manners and George were married, did Mary become the Dowager Countess? Perhaps Mary stayed the Countess, and Katherine was the Duchess? Downton Abbey didn't prepare me for this ...

  4. Thank you for your comments. Mary had been known as Dame Compton, but was created Countess of Buckingham suo jure in 1618, as a token of favour to Buckingham and herself by James I- her husband was pointedly not given a title. When Katherine Manners married Buckingham in 1620 she became the Marchioness of Buckingham, and when he was created Duke in 1623 her title became Duchess of Buckingham. Hope that helps!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.