Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Extraordinary Death of the Duke of Buckingham, Part 2

For Part One check here.

It seems that Buckingham is untouchable. Clearly protected by the king, Buckingham heads off to Portsmouth to start organizing another sea-going venture. It is here though that events take a turn for the unexpected.

What he does not appreciate is the degree of anger amongst the navy’s sailors. One in particular, the 40 year old John Felton is particularly aggrieved. He is owed 80 pounds in back pay and is angry about having been passed over for promotion twice. Parliament issuing an Act of Grievances is the final spur for him to set in motion his own solution for dealing with Buckingham, murder. Before leaving home Felton writes and sews into his hatband two apologies for his planned murder. In them, he insists that he has acted as a patriot, a gentleman and a soldier. 

Felton finds Buckingham in Captain Mason's Greyhound Inn house on the morning of 23 August 1628. As Buckingham leaves the breakfast room, John Felton appears suddenly, leaps forward and manages to stab him in the breast. In a scarcely audible voice Buckingham mumbles "The villain hath killed me!" pulls the dagger out of the wound, lurches forward a few paces, collapses in the hall, with blood gushing from the wound and from his mouth and dies.

In the confusion that immediately follows the stabbing, Felton makes his way through the building and into the kitchen area. At the point of successfully escaping he thinks he will be celebrated as a hero so he returns to the scene of the murder and gives himself up.

News of his death provokes markedly different reactions. When Charles I hears it he retires to his room stricken with grief. However when Buckingham’s funeral is held at Westminster Abbey several soldiers have to form an armed guard to protect the coffin from the cheering crowds who are glad to hear of his demise.

As for John Felton the authorities feel unsure of his motives and want to know if he is part of a wider conspiracy. He is taken under armed guard from Portsmouth to the Tower of London, where he is repeatedly interrogated, possibly under torture, about his motives and accomplices. For three months the authorities attempt to uncover the conspiracy they are sure lie behind the Duke’s murder, but the Felton insists he acted alone. The King asks for torture to be used but is refused. By late November, the investigation is over and Felton is put on trial for Buckingham’s murder. He is soon convicted and sentenced to death. Two days later, at Tyburn on 28th October 1628 he is put before the gallows and perhaps because he seeks remission he confesses before a crowd of onlookers, and openly repents his crime. It makes no difference and he is hanged.

Afterwards his body is cut down, carried to Portsmouth and then strung up again to rot in chains. This is a mistake. Large numbers treat his body with respect as Portsmouth is a sailing community and many have suffered loss at the hands of Buckingham. This explains how a victim is seen as a villain and a murderer as a hero.


Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Extraordinary Death of the Duke of Buckingham, Part 1

For Part One check Here

The Duke of Buckingham is one of the most despised people alive in the era of King James I. His Majesty’s decision to allow the Duke to get involved in policy matters and decision-making he is ill suited to proves to be ruinous for the nation. In the process he also manages to alienate powerful groups in Parliament who feel more and more alienated from both the king and decision-making.

A good example of Buckingham’s ineptitude is his attempt to seize Cadiz, a Spanish port in 1625 with his army. Unfortunately his army is composed of troops who are so ill-equipped, ill-disciplined and ill-trained that when they come upon a warehouse filled with wine, they simply get drunk, and rather embarrassingly the attack has to be called off.

None of this seems to matter though because Buckingham has the all important ear of the King even all the way through to his Majesty’s final months of life. In one of the last letters written by James to Buckingham in December 1624, James signs off with:

“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.”

For all those who suppose that the death of King James on March 27th, 1625 will mark the end of Buckingham there is great disappointment. The reason is that the Duke has anticipated this possible loss of status and got around it by cultivating a friendship with his successor, Prince Charles, since the time the future ruler was but a boy. This is why the new ruler is more than happy to have him by his side and the Duke becomes his new chief minister.

For many people this is simply too much. They had hoped that Buckingham would disappear from the political scene but now he seems as strong as ever. Parliament in particular is very angry. When Buckingham signs treaties with Denmark and Holland for English participation in the Danish phase of the Thirty Years War he involves the nation in a costly affair. Eventually 12,000 men set sail. Astonishingly  8,000 manage to die on board their ships without even landing in the Netherlands due to disastrous organisation. Blame is laid squarely on Buckingham.

In 1626, Parliament, led by radicals such as Sir Edward Coke, start impeachment proceedings against him. Charles escalates the crisis by dissolving Parliament. Buckingham desperately tries to turn around the situation. In July 1627 he leads 6,000 men to the Isle de Rhé in support of the Huguenot defenders at La Rochelle. Once again though calamity strikes and he leaves in November 1627 having achieved nothing except the loss of nearly half his force. “Since England was England, it received not so dishonourable a blow.” says one contemporary chronicler called Denzil Holles.

The attacks by Parliament mount. In 1628 Coke calls him the “grievance of grievances”. One seditious ballad of the time even sneers 'Who rules the Kingdom? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devil.' Parliament sends a remonstrance to Charles with this resentment in mind declaring that they fear for England’s religion, her standing in Europe and her success in the Thirty Years War if Buckingham continues in power. Charles merely absolves Parliament.

The Extraordinary Death of the Duke of Buckingham, Part 2