339 A Scandal in Bohemia


As Buckingham acquires wealth and influence, the English court is rocked by an event in far-off Bohemia that will result in devastation throughout Europe. Also there is news of a History of England App for members! To access the app go to The History of England Mobile App.

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It is said by the wise and noble that James’ reign can sort of be separated into two. To be honest, if you are going to divi up the cake that is James VIth and Ist into two parts, there are a number of ways you can do it; in Scotland you might argue that James left the land of the free a successful monarch in 1603, but died in 1625 leaving significant problems for his lad to inherit, particularly in concerns over becoming a province of England and in the Five Articles of Perth and religious direction. But if we are talking about James I you might think about a different division. Up to 1618 ish, give or take, James had done a pretty good job really; the church had its tensions as churches frequently do – you know, the early modern equivalent of ‘who’s doing the flowers this week?’ but there was very little separatism, and James maintained a nice balance between the opposing wings of Puritanism and Arminianism; he had his barneys with parliament but was holding the line, finances were bad it’s true, but Cranfield was already having an impact, and, most importantly of all the land was at peace.

So, James could pat himself on the back that things were going Ok, and afterall being king was you know, a reasonably high powered job. But after 1618, things start going awry; finances begin to get seriously out of whack; a gap appears between the views and policies of the king and those of his people, and for once it matters, because there’s much more of a public forum in which to discuss this stuff, which formerly had been completely out of the ken of ordinary folk, except when they were asked to die for it, periodically, which generally they did happily enough.

Obviously the reason for heading pear-wards are many and various – and fear not gentle listener, we will spend some time talking it all through and picking over the bones of Jacobean England. However, I would also advance another contributor to the forthcoming tussles, which is the physical condition of the main decision maker, our hero, Jimmy I and VI. Because although the fifties are the new 20’s these days, or at least they are for this podcaster, spry, lithe, performance athlete, stunningly good looking and all that – in 1618 they really weren’t. In terms of age the fifties were in fact the new 80’s, and James, aged 52, was showing some of the signs of wear and tear, as you do. I remember Bilbo at the age of eleventy one saying that he felt like butter scraped thinly over bread, and James was probably feeling worse – he suffered from gout, he had kidney problems, bad circulation and arthritis. He was a bit feeble in the leg area, had to be carried to his chair in parliament and often had bronchitis. He drank too much, if there is such a thing, and since he’d lost most of his teeth, bolted his food without chewing, because as Albert’s lion Wallace found out, ‘you couldn’t chew lad ont’ gums’. Bit of Stanley Holloway there for you oldies. Maybe this coloured James’ attitude you have to wonder; though it is nonetheless clear that he didn’t make like Edward III and lose his mental faculties, he remained intellectually sharp.

You might think age and the physical stages of bits dropping off would make him more and more dependent on his favourite, George Villiers, now Marquis of Buckingham. And James was most certainly smitten with his beautiful young man. But, just to follow through on the Edward III analogy, Buckingham does not become James’ Alice Perrers; James makes the decisions, and retains the ability to put his paramour right when he disagrees.

However, by 1620 things had got to the stage where no courtier could hope to prosper without Buckingham’s goodwill. That doesn’t mean he always got his way; for example in 1619 James chose his own candidate as secretary of State against Buckingham’s nominee, and in 1621 the same happened with the Chief Justice of Common Pleas. And if a Buckingham candidate did get the job but messed up, then Buckingham’s protection would not keep them from the chop – such as was the case for a certain John Naunton, forced to resign in 1623 by the king, ending his political career. But where the king had no very strong opinion, then he usually accepted Buckingham’s choice. And Buckingham could also block or subvert ideas for new appointments if your face did not fit into his vision.

So Buckingham’s tentacles insinuated themselves throughout government, in the form of his expanding clientage. Now, you might want to avail yourself of the sick bag I know many of you keep by the ironing board specially for when you listen to the history of England, because I am going to give you an example of the kind of language grateful recipients of favour tended to use. In 1619, Buckingham managed to wangle a £1,200 grant for his client, Francis Bacon; Bacon, despite being a very influential statesman and politician, and a natural philosopher of lasting legacy, tended to be constantly short of a bob or two, so he was very grateful and told Buckingham so.

‘my affection may and doth daily receive addition, but cannot, nor never could, receive alteration

And again when James mentioned some good things his Steenie had relayed about Francis, Bacon wrote tearfully

I can be but yours, and desire to better myself, that I may be of more worth to such an owner

All a little sick making; but it’s worth noting that this was to a degree just the form, the way it was done, like those florid formal letter sign offs we used to use in the dim and distant when we still wrote letters to each other. You know, ‘I remain madam, your most humble and obedient servant and pray that all the felicitations of the season hover on your brow’. That sort of thing. And clientage brought with it obligations rom both sides not just the client; the client was expected to deliver and to listen to his patron’s desires and advice; in return Buckingham was noted for his consistent courtesy to all, and to the extent of which he was capable, his loyalty and constant support.

Now, the whole system seems very corrupt and dirty to the modern eye. Buckingham, profited vastly from the favour of the king. When he arrived at court, as you may remember, he had nothing more than £50 a year, was spotted at the races in a holey black gown – that’s a relic in physical terms rather than religious – and a carried pencil he’d half-inched from his time at school as pencil monitor. By 1620, with the lands, honours, grants and jobs he’d accumulated from his grateful king, he was turning over an income of £18,500 a year. I had a look on the National Archives Currency Converter, which is a lot of fun by the way, and in modern terms that’s £2.5m. In 1620 it could buy you 10,000 cows, which is more than enough to keep you in beef and horseradish sandwiches for a while. Nor was this largesse limited to George; he was assiduous in making sure his family profited to boot. So his brother Kit, for example would become Earl of Anglesey, despite being, in George’s own words, ‘little deserving’. Another brother Edward Villiers gained various diplomatic roles; John Villiers became Viscount Purbeck. His sister Susan Villiers had married William Field, and George engineered him into the role of Master of the King’s Wardrobe.

There were also marriages he brokered. The worst story probably is that of John Villiers’ bride, Frances Coke, and here I have to crave your indulgence for a digression into a potted history of Frances, because I probably won’t have a chance to get back to her.




So, Buckingham and Edward Coke, that Edward Coke the famous jurist, put their heads together in 1617 and cooked up, ha ha, the idea that Coke’s daughter Frances, 13 years old, should marry the 26 year old John Villiers. For Edward Coke this would hopefully get his career back over the political shoals he’d hit by an alliance with the most influential man in the land. For Buckingham – Frances stood to inherit a pile, and John was mentally ill, so George was keen to see him married.

Frances and her mother Elizabeth Cecil were not keen however, not keen at all. They fought the idea tooth and nail. So Mum removed Frances from the Coke household and hid her with her relatives. But Dad found her, put a posse together, broke down the doors and took her away, and housed her with his relatives the Yelvertons. During the process he had his daughter whipped to get her to agree to the marriage. Still Mum and Daughter resisted and put the case before James – who ruled that a father’s rights were absolute. Huh, the Patriarchy, all a bit hideous, and Frances was forced to marry at a sumptuous event at Hampton Court in front of the of the king. John Villiers did his best to be gallant

‘I would have been pleased to have taken her in her smock’,

And Ben Jonson praised her beauty in a play, which she was at. One of the Gypsies in the play says

Never yet did Gypsy trace

Smoother lines in Hands or Face;

Venus here doth Saturn move

That you should be Queen of Love

I’d like to be in the audience when someone described me as a looker on stage. Don’t think it’s going to happen, but there’s time yet.

The story gets worse; as John Villiers’ condition got worse, the pair separated, and Buckingham took the opportunity to take possession of Frances’ £10,000 dowry and kept Frances meanwhile, in penury; until forced to cough up an annual stipend for her by James. Then, Frances had an affair with a man called Robert Howard, and gave birth in secret to a child they called Robert Wright. Frances swore blind the child was John Villiers’ son, which he patently wasn’t, and they were found guilty of adultery. Howard was excommunicated, Frances was to do public penance – which involved standing in a public place dressed in white, barefoot pronouncing her guilt. Frances was having none of it, remained loudly defiant in court yelling at the judges

‘that they should make their own Wives set the good example, by swearing that they were free from all Faults’.

This is 1627, so Frances was 25 by this time. Well, she flatly refused to do her penance and with the help of the Ambassador of Savoy, managed to escape to France dressed as a pageboy. By 1634, both Buckingham and Edward Coke were dead, so Frances returned to London and Robert Howard – which is sweet, love’s young dream and all. Sadly, Charles I was no more forgiving, into goal she went – only, would you believe it, to escape back to France. Robert Howard then jumped ship and joined her in France, where they both converted to Catholicism so as to be acceptable at the French court of Louis XIII. Still, she was pursued and now had no money to live on, so she and Robert lived in penury. In 1640 they both returned to England, and she died in 1645 in Oxford at the King’s court there during the civil wars. Her son fought for the king’s side, and his descendants would start a long, long court case that went on til 1774 when the line died out. Well, there’s a story for you. The author Johanna Luthman concludes that while a victim, Frances undoubtedly contributed to her own problems with her pride; but here was certainly also an incredibly resilient fighter for her rights with all of society arrayed against her. And while she was in Paris, an English observer was outraged by her exile, and complimented her on her

‘Prudence, sweetness, goodness, honour and bravery’

At very least she found a partner in Robert Howard who stuck by her through thick and thin, which is something I suppose.

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, we were talking about Villiers and nest feathering. Just to complete the story then, Buckingham also delivered other ways of enriching the family – all of them managed to get various monopolies.

So now that I have blackened Buckingham’s name to the modern ear – though I should once more stress that there is nothing unusual about this, either in English history or indeed European history – let me talk a bit more about what Buckingham actually did and his motivation – apart from enriching himself and his family.

The point I am going to make that Buckingham, like Cecil before him, might have enriched his family, but he also felt a keen sense of obligation to his king, his country and to the concept of service. He was not there just to rake in the cash. One of Buckingham’s earliest mentors was Francis Bacon, a very famous and in many ways impressive man on whom I should write more, but again forgive me, I will try to give you a bit more about the man, as an example of the more attractive attitudes of the rulers. Bacon intellectually is an interesting mix of the traditional and the forward looking; hopefully we’ll get a chance to look at his natural philosophy, but he was an early example of a man who expected the future to be different, a future driven by humans’ discovery of how the world works; as opposed to the Aristotelian view that the universe was set, understood and driven by a set of established principles, and a renaissance view that all we had to do was re-discover the wisdom of the ancients. Possibly a controversial statement, discuss.

Anyway, while Bacon was therefore in some ways radical in his natural philosophy, he was deeply traditional in holding views that Thomas More would have recognised as far as public service was concerned.  He believed in active citizenship; that his responsibility as an educated man was to advise his monarch on the best course of action. He owed it to serve his country, to serve his church – Bacon was a convinced Anglican – and to uncover knowledge for the good of humankind. He was an advocate of the king’s powers and prerogatives – but within a balanced constitution

‘The King’s Sovereignty and the Liberty of Parliament are as the two elements and principles of this estate … [which] do not cross or destroy the one the other, but they strengthen and maintain the one the other’

We have seen his defence of the rights of ordinary people in his act of 1597 to protect livelihoods from enclosure, just as Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey had tried to do, and his view that

Treasure and Moneyes, in a State, be not gathered into few Hands. And Money is like Muck, not good except it be spread’

And Bacon came from a family dedicated to public service and protestantism; his Father Nicholas Bacon had been a close associate of William Cecil, and Lord Keeper of the Seal under Elizabeth. His mother Anne Cooke had been a powerful intellect on her own account, a tireless advocate of Protestantism, translated John Jewels works into English; and we have letters from her to Francis talking about matters of government and church, and urging him to be a good man. Francis clearly admired his mother, and asked to be buried next to her when he died. My point is that Bacon saw public service as a duty, very much in the renaissance tradition.

And Bacon communicated this view to Buckingham when Villiers was his young protégé at court, before he rose to power. He reminded Buckingham that

‘it is the life of an ox or beast always to eat, and never to exercise; but men are born (and specially Christian men), not to cram in their fortunes, but to exercise their virtues’.

He advised that Villiers should dedicate himself ‘to the public’ and

‘countenance, and encourage, and advance able men and virtuous men and meriting men’

Buckingham held this advice close. He felt a deep sense of personal obligation to the king who had enriched him so much, to his country, and to his class and its responsibility to serve. In 1619, he rose still further in the political firmament replacing the old warhorse the Earl of Nottingham as Lord Admiral. He wrote

being obliged far above others by His Majesty’s most gracious favour and trust in this principal charge. . . I thought it the best account I could give of the first fruits of my labour, out of former ill manners to beget some good laws by which the government of the ships may hereafter be settled and the governors and others contained in their duties

So Buckingham became immensely, rich, and in enriching his family would cause resentment and in some cases make poor decisions. But his motivations were more complex and more public spirited than his failures and acquisition of wealth might imply. A first example that Buckingham could be effective, lay in this early job as Lord Admiral. He did not treat it as a sinecure. He inherited a naval service that had become inefficient and riddled with corruption – Nottingham might have been a war hero, but administration wasn’t his jam. Buckingham was determined to change practices and appointed as Commissioner for the Navy one John Coke, another example of a hard working conscientious public servant; although on a dramatically different scale of income – he was pleased when he won an appointment that gave him an income of £300.

Coke was a family man with a close relationship with his wife Mary, he was an industrious and honourable if possibly rather dull sort of bloke, who declared that public service was ‘a stage to do good’, vowed not to ‘dispose of my life for wages’. He had a talent for administration; under his care, the navy halved its costs and began to meet the objective of producing two new ships each year – the first pair being launched in front of the king in July 1619.

Coke’s work was also part of Lionel Cranfield’s work to try and get the king’s finances under control -reduce spending and increase income, so that James could fulfil his lifelong and noble ambition to never call another parliament as long as he lived because parliaments were way, way too lippy. Trouble is of course, that James financial incontinence didn’t help. Poor Lionel. By the end of 1618, the king’s debt had risen to £900,000, despite all that rummaging around down the back of the sofa. Cranfield and Buckingham were allies in this; and you really have to be impressed with Cranfield’s relentless and slightly tiring optimism; positive people can be so difficult to deal with. He urged Buckingham

‘not to despair, no, not so much as be discouraged, for the more desperate the King’s estate is presented, the more honour will be to rectify it, and the more shall your lordship merit of his Majesty, to be that happy instrument to do it[1]

Impressive. Cranfield was pretty effective, while facing an impossible task; he reduced household expenditure by £18,000 a year, cut expenditure in the royal wardrobe by £8,000, increased customs dues – including on the new trade on tobacco from Virginia, incidentally. And he had some success – by 1620 he had reduced the debt to £712,000 and there was actually a surplus on the ordinary accounts of £45,000 a year. Gold Star, Lionel, sir! Please Pass Go, pick up £200.





Not that James was really helping. As an effective way of not saving costs, he commissioned the Banqueting house in Whitehall Palace to stage grand events and entertainments, as well as to host formal dinners. The absence of such a venue in the palace of Whitehall was a bit of an oddity in European terms – but Henry VIII had preferred to set up temporary purpose built structures. Anyway, Inigo Jones was appointed to build it, and finished by 1622, but of course it cost a bob or two. James’s son and daughter in law, Charles and Henrietta would also love masques, and Charles commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to paint the ceiling in 1636.  Which was nice, because Charles then got to look at something lovely as he walked through the hall, on his way to his execution in 1649.

James also shelled out in a major way in March 1619 for a funeral – for his wife, Queen Ann who died at Hampton court; the funeral apparently cost twice that which was spent on Elizabeth I’s funeral. Maybe this was guilt; James had paid increasingly little attention to Anne with the arrival of Buckingham, and visited her only 3 times in her final illness – unlike her son Charles, who frequently slept on her floor to be near her. The funeral was a grand affair with over 1300 mourners and a host of foreign dignitaries.



Anne’s hearse proudly displayed the motto Beati Pacifici – Blessed are the Peacemakers, although I am told makers of dairy products were also mentioned. And James’s use of the term would become significant; because things were about to flare up in Bohemia, and were threatening to drag James’ kingdoms into the abyss. Over the next few years James would resolutely play the role of peacemaker. He did this against the background of something of a negative feeling among some at court. Anne’s death very much emphasised James’ fondness and reliance on his male favourites. There was a general air of decay as far as some were concerned, of worrying accommodation with Catholicism, of corruption. The Venetian Ambassador Piero Contarini felt there was a general lack of esteem for the Stuart Dynasty; that people were pining for the glory days of Elizabeth. He reported back that he had

Heard great lords deplore the present state of affairs with bitter tears and complain that England, which once stood high in the world, had now forgotten her past glories and almost fallen into oblivion of herself’[2]

What then, I hear you ask, what had happened in Bohemia? Although you probably know, given that you’ll all have heard from the episodes in this parish about the Thirty Years War. We are heading, gentle listeners, towards another defenestration, a fine and honourable tradition in Prague. It’s rather nice when you look up the topic on Wikipedia you get a page which is in the plural – Defenestrations rather than simply defenestration. Are there, I wonder, any locations that can compete with Prague in the history of defenestration? Answers on a postcard and all.

But let’s go over it again just one more time. First just to remind you about the Hapsburg family. Although once upon a time Charles V had ruled all the Hapsburg lands, from Spain and Germany, he’d split up the job as too big for one person, and so we have two branches; the King of Spain, currently Philip III until 1621, and the Emperor of the HRE, Ferdinand II. This is important; because although in theory the Spanish Empire and the HRE were two different entities, getting them to take each other on was something of a long shot, and in practice they wore the same strip, and sat in the same stands at the match on a Saturday afternoon.

The largely protestant Bohemians did not much like their King Ferdinand. He had two faults in their view – firstly he tried to reverse many of what they believed to be their secular privileges and freedoms; and secondly he intended to restore all of the Empire’s lands to Catholicism. If there had been a ballot box available, this would have earned him a cross in the chad, if I remember that age old discussion of pregnant chads from years ago, or indeed earned him a spoiled ballot paper. Duly and rebelliously in August 1619 the Estates, deposed Ferdinand, a bold move, and 4 days later they offered it to a sprig of 23 years old, Frederick V Elector of the Palatinate of the Rhine. This was yet more bold. This also had direct relevance to James and to England for four reasons really. Firstly, there’s a general one of the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, which many in England and more widely in Europe saw, in a carefully, balanced and moderate way as an eternal struggle between good and evil in the millennial tradition. This, by the way, has nothing to do with the design and manufacture of hats, but with the second coming of Christ, and the establishment of a thousand year rule of saints before the last judgement.

Secondly, it was a question of what’s important in life; war or peace, to boil it down. James, bless his cotton socks – well probably bless his woolly hose – felt it was peace. Those piners after the glory days and fervent protestants thought that was the wrong choice. This will be a continuing matter for increasingly public debate. Thirdly, there’s the issue of monarchy and it’s status. This falls slap bang into the heart of the resistance theory debate; that idea – which had its supporters in both Protestant and Catholic circles by the way – that if a monarch didn’t do right by religion, it was meet, right and our bounden duty to chuck them out on their ear. James had no truck with such a concept, as far as he was concerned, if a people were unfortunate enough to have a tyrant as a king, all they could do was bow they heads, pray, suck it up and sit it out. Although monarchs should do their best to rule well in the interests of their people, they were ultimately responsible only to their employer and boss, otherwise known as God. So, the removal of Ferdinand was viewed in a different way depending on where you stood on that debate.

The last reason though was probably more immediate in 1619; Frederick was family. Because as you might remember, in February 1613 Frederick had married James’ daughter Elizabeth, to general rejoicing among his relieved subjects. Relieved, because it hadn’t been long since it looked as though James might be considering an alliance with his heir Henry to the Catholic Spanish which would of course have been an abomination as far as many Protestants of the hotter sort were concerned. So. This was personal.

As far as James was concerned also, personal was the word we are talking her. There were matters of policy a monarch was obliged to discuss and consult on with and their people – reluctantly, James agreed this included some, though not all, public subsidies. But foreign affairs – ooh no people and parliament, you just keep your sticky little fingers off that, this is big boy and girl stuff, this is a matter for monarchs, not for the perusal of the people or for comment from the commons. Keep your nose out. Well, that nose would soon be out of joint.

There was a further factor here, since I would like to avoid saying ‘and fifthly’ which was that James was once again eying the idea of a marriage between the houses of Stuart and Hapsburg – this time between Charles and the Spanish Infanta, Maria Ana. Obviously it would be a glorious union, but also there was the issue of money; one way of avoiding the need to summon the lippy to London for another parliament, was to remove the need to touch them for a few quid. And the Spanish had deep pockets, and might stump up a decent dowry, and help the happy father live in the way in which he was accustomed without all that faff. Negotiations had been dragging on since 1616; dragging at least in part because Charles was 18, but Marie Anna a tender 12 years old, so there didn’t seem to be a terrible hurry. The Spanish Ambassador, Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, 1st Count of Gondomar, who shall henceforth be known as Gondomar, had established a good relationship with Buckingham, and negotiations usually involved him as well. It became a trope of all this that James was a puppet dancing on Gondomar’s string, but in fact this doesn’t seem to be the case; James was a slippery customer, and Gondomar viewed him as an incorrigible heretic and deeply untrustworthy.

Frederick and Elizabeth gave the offer of the crown from Bohemia serious consideration; and wrote to James for his advice, as did Elizabeth to the ABC, George Abbot. George saw the whole thing less as a subtle matter of policy and the balance of power, and more in terms of well, the apocalypse.

The kings of the earth that have their power unto the beast…shall now tear the whore and make her desolate

On the other hand, the diplomatic professionals thought rather differently; the English Ambassador in Brussels, William Trumbell worried that Frederick might

Be so badly advised as to accept the dignity which will bring him a cruel and an almost eternal war

Well, when George Abbot wasn’t frothing at the mouth, he rather cunningly advised Elizabeth not to ask Dad until they’d decided; he knew full well what James’ view would be; namely, that you can’t go around stealing crowns from anointed monarch and handing them out like prizes at a fairground coconut shy. But he reckoned that when presented with a fait accompli, James would be forced to take a different, family view. So before he could expect a response from James, Frederick accepted the offer and he and Elizabeth set off for Prague and their shiny new crown. James was furious; he agreed entirely with the Trumbell view of life, not the Abbot version; his son in law was participating in rebellion, and would start a quarrel as he said, ‘that would never be ended’.

I’m not going to tell you that James was wrong to be honest.

[1] Lockyer, Buckingham. P 72

[2] Jackson, C ‘Devil :Land’ pg 155





9 thoughts on “339 A Scandal in Bohemia

  1. Thanks David, with your help I am slowly getting a handle on the early 1600’s and how defenestrations relate to ME. PS, did they say “Think of this as an opportunity” as they threw them out the window?

  2. Interesting take on Buckingham. In an old fashioned history of England written by an American historian named Edward Cheyney, he wrote essentially that Buckingham was not without ability but was drastically over-promoted. That seems to fit with your take. And, as you’ve often pointed out, people in his position always sought to profit from their relationship with the king. That was expected by every one.

  3. Well, this episode was a nice run-up to “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war, that this foul deed shall smell above the earth with carrion men groaning for burial”. To steal a little more, nice to know that, although “the evil that men do lives after them”, James was right about what his son-in-law’s action would lead to.
    Before COVID time, I visited Heidelberg and toured the ruins of Frederick and Elizabeth’s castle. The guide seemed to think they were both bird brained.

    1. I think the guide might have been right! Actually, I’ve been quite impressed with some of the insights James has. In the next one he’ll tell Charles and the Buck that in using the tool of impeachment they are making a rod for their own backs. How right he was!

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