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Criminal or minister: who was George Villiers?

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Image of Dominic Ingram
Dominic IngramHistorian
Landscape detail of a portrait of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, wearing a brown wig and red and white peer's clothes
Detail from a portrait of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628–1687) | © National Trust Images

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628–1687), was a powerful courtier and politician during the reign of Charles II (1660–1685). It was during Charles’ reign that he acquired the Cliveden estate and built a mansion, part of which remains standing today.

Civil War

Buckingham had a complicated early life. Siding with the royalists during the second English Civil War (1648–1649), Buckingham joined Charles II’s court-in-exile in France, though he and the king fell out in 1651.

Relations remained awkward and Buckingham returned to England in 1657. However, he supported the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and sought the king’s favour, successfully acquiring offices such as the West Riding lieutenancy.

Their relationship continued to have its ups and downs, with Buckingham spending brief spells in the Tower of London.

Political peak

When the king’s chief minister, the beleaguered Earl of Clarendon, was dismissed in 1667, Buckingham rose to the top. He became an influential advisor with positions on important committees.

The Cabal Ministry

Buckingham was one key minister among several who became known as the Cabal. This was not only an acronym of their names (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, and Lauderdale) but also, particularly in the hands of political satirists, evoked shadowy political intrigue.

The term implies that the five men worked together as a coherent ministry, however this was not the case.

Scandal and secrecy

The secret treaty of Dover signed in 1670 between England and France contained a clause in which Charles II pledged to convert to Catholicism. However, three of the Cabal, including Buckingham, were unaware of this treaty. Instead, Buckingham was sent to France to negotiate a public treaty that did not include this incendiary clause.

By January 1674, the increasingly scandal-ridden Buckingham was dismissed and driven into political opposition.

Buckingham and Cliveden

Buckingham spent much of the rest of his life causing trouble for the government and was sent to the Tower again in 1677. At one point during this imprisonment he was authorised to leave the Tower, to direct work at Cliveden where he was building a new house.

This was completed shortly afterwards and described by John Evelyn as a ‘building of extraordinary Expense’ in 1679. Buckingham died in 1687 without an heir and Cliveden was sold to the earl of Orkney in 1696.

Places and collections with Villiers connections

Portrait of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, wearing a brown wig and red and white peer's clothes
This portrait is in the collection at Cliveden | © National Trust Images

Portrait of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

Dressed in his peer’s robes in this painting after Sir Peter Lely, we are reminded that in addition to his career in politics, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham was also an accomplished dramatist. One of his most famous plays was the satire, The Rehearsal.

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Trusted Source

This is a Trusted Source article, created in partnership with the University of Oxford. This article contains contributions from Dominic Ingram, a historian specialising in architectural and cultural history in 18th century Britain.

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