Witchcraft, scandal and the Duke of Buckingham

george villiers.jpgGeorge Villiers, pictured left, was not the scion of a powerful family but he had received the kind of education, at his mother’s insistence, that a courtier required. His good looks had attracted James I’s attention. This was enough to ensure that the enemies of Robert Carr, the king’s then favourite, paid to raise George to the post of the King’s cup bearer. The rest as they say, is history.


By 1619 George was the Marquis of Buckingham and in search of a wife. Families looked at their unmarried daughters and wondered if the investment of a bride would improve their own fortunes. However, Buckingham and his mother Mary Beaumont already had a bride in mind.

Lady Katherine Manners was the daughter of the 6th Earl of Rutland. She was the earl’s sole heir. Her older brothers, Henry and Francis, had died in mysterious circumstances. The whole family fell ill in 1613 after dismissing a woman and her two daughters from their service.   Henry died. Three years later nine women were hanged in Leicestershire having been found guilty of bewitching a child. Then in 1618 Francis also died and the Manners family sought the arrest of the three women and the monument to the two boys makes it clear that the earl held witchcraft responsible for the death of the boys, “Two sons – both died in infancy by wicked practice and sorcery”.


The three women became known as the Belvoir Witches. Joan Flower, the mother protested her innocence from her arrest and during her imprisonment in Lincoln but her daughter Margaret confessed that Joan was a witch and her other daughter Philippa said that they were all witches. Joan died in prison and was buried at a crossroads, Margaret was hanged and in some versions of the story Philippa escaped from jail.


Tracey Borman offers a different theory. She records that the Flower women were employed as servants prior to a visit by King James I but that they were unpopular with Belvoir’s other servants and accused of pilfering. Borman goes on to note that the women had a reputation for herbal cures and late night entertaining – of males. They, she argues, were convenient scapegoats.  In fact the boys had been murdered on the orders of George Villiers.

There is some evidence to suggest that by 1618 George Villiers, a Lincolnshire landowner, had his eyes set on a wealthy prize – which if she became a sole heiress would become even wealthy. Most historians consider that on the death of her brothers Katherine Manners became the wealthiest heiress in the country with estates in Yorkshire and Northamptonshire as well as her mother’s dower estates that came from the Knyvet family.


Katherine was considered a plain woman but more alarming so far as King James I was concerned, she was a Catholic. Both those factors aside Katherine’s father was against the proposed match. He knew about George Villiers. He had seen the king’s favourite at court and seen the way that the king and George fondled one another in public. Nor was Rutland terribly amused by the fact that George wanted a hefty dowry along with the plain heiress. For the time being the wedding was off.
But then in March 1620 Mary Beaumont, George’s mother visited the Countess of Rutland when the earl was away from home. She invited Katherine to dine with her, promising to bring her back home that evening. The countess of Rutland, Katherine’s step-mother, agreed.


Mary entertained Katherine in her lodgings in Whitehall but did not send the girl home. She claimed that Katherine was ill and could not return home. To make matters worse, George who had also been invited to dine, failed to return to his own lodgings which were within walking distance. Poor Katherine was ruined. She had stayed over night in the home of an unmarried man who had slept under the same roof. The earl of Rutland was furious. He refused to allow Katherine to return home and now found himself insisting that Villiers marry his daughter because her reputation was so badly tarnished. The scandal was so great that the lavish wedding that you might expect never happened. It was a private occasion witnessed only by the earl and the King on the 16 May 1620.


It is difficult to know whether Katherine connived with Villiers and his mother in her own ruin. She certainly appeared to dote on her husband even if he did not love her in return.  Nor did she lead a very happy life with George. She hated the way he lived his life at court, his relationship with the king and the fact that George didn’t stop having mistresses just because he was married. Come to think of it much of Europe was scandalised by George’s behaviour, especially when he travelled to France in 1625 and became besotted with the French queen Anne of Austria – as in Dumas’s story of The Three Musketeers.


Katherine had converted to Protestantism before the marriage but returned to Catholicism during the course of her married life and if her letters are anything to go by she did not simply accept George’s infidelities, sometimes using her health and emotions as a way of trying to control her husband’s behaviour.


Life cannot have become any easier for Katherine when George, a Duke since 1623, became the target of national hostility because of Charles I’s foreign policy. George was widely assumed to be responsible for the assorted disasters that beset the English. Parliament attempted to arrest him in 1626. It was only his friendship with the king that saved him. Two years later George was killed by John Felton in Portsmouth.


During the next seven years Katherine could only watch as her four children with George were adopted into the royal family to be raised with Charles I’s children. In 1635, much to the king’s fury she married the 2nd earl of Antrim, Randall McDonnell, a man six years her junior. Eventually Katherine convinced Charles that she had married for love and that Randall had no intention of disinheriting her children.


She died in 1649.







Filed under Literary connections, Seventeenth Century, The Stuarts

3 responses to “Witchcraft, scandal and the Duke of Buckingham

  1. Sir Kevin Parr , Baronet.

    I have read about this before but well said. Witchcraft was all over Europe. The last witch burnt Elizabeth Fothergill in Cumbria Brown Rigg Hall a window dedicated to her memory is in the little church nearby. Not far from Orton. Tebay area. When I was but 4 years old I had what my parent thought an imagined friend. I called her Kate. This went of for some six months and when asked I called her my sister. I had two sisters but not called Kate. Eventually I forgot and grew up maybe. One day years later I recalled her face at my school desk in a maths lesson. Not a good idea then to day dream in class. Kates face i could see clearly in my mind. It was scary stuff and eventually I was dragged out by my hair to front of class. I was 8 or 9 i think. Jesuits have no love of nicety so I was deeply delved and out came this silly dream of a sister not mine but felt it should be fact. One man a real thug of a priest shot out of class whilst I was stood on chair in corridor as punishment
    About half hour went by as end of lesson was about. Kids piled out racing for refectory in order to grab all the bread first. The Jesuit stromed up to me and held up picture of a well dressed old fashioned lady. He roared at me ,” Is this the face in your dream boy?” To my horror it was in fact that very face. The misery that man put me through calling me a witch a demon and kicking my backside all over the quad. My father took me away from that school soon after. Later i was to find that that face was that of Kate Parr Queen of England and even now my ancestor. Did I live a life before and same family? Worried me all my life for how did I know all I do if not. It was in summer 1989 I was working in Warwick castle area and booked into hotel called Horse and Jokey opposite that said castle. I had never been there until that day. I worked near by for Law Society with client. I had seen some twenty people in interviews that day and was tired at 6pm went back to hotel and found it a pub. Not my scene I went out for dinner and walked back after that around 7.50pm I noticed a door in an old wall with notice saying way to Talbot Tomb. Well blow me down Talbot was Henry V man. So in I went and saw a fellow bent over a book on stand. He looked up told me tour was over come back tomorrow. Then the funniest feeling came over me. I suddenly asked were I was buried. Then felt silly as it just came out that way.
    He looked at me. Parr , he uttered. I looked at him. Yes Parr it is how did you know.? I did a history lecture at your school. God you have not change one single bit. Witch craft is it? He told me no Parr was buried there. I asked to go down the cellar as lights had not been switched off. We did and I went cold I saw it all in a flash. I felt faint. Nothing was left down there as Victorian workers had dismantled all tombs to lay tiled floor. I told him that a tomb for a Parr lay on the wall side of outer wall. It was marble alabaster and decorated with Royal arms and Parr shield and crest with motto. He shook his head. Ill check but nothing like that has ever been recorded in any church papers. I gave him my phone number and we parted . i never saw him again that week . some five weeks later at home one Sunday the phone rang. It was Church Commission thanking me for information leading to burial of Queen Elizabeth I uncle William who was MARQUIS of Northampton and Queen donated a fine marble and alabaster tomb bearing Royal arms and PARR family crest. All church records had gone up in fire some 100 years before. I rang next day my old tutor at varsity and asked if he knew where Sir William Parr of Kendal who was brother to Queen kateryn Parr and so brother in law to King Henry VIII was buried. No idea he told me so I could not have read or been told that that was so by anyone as even the church did not know.
    They all know now. So do I. Funny thing is I am still that same never grew older in looks since leaving school. I wear glasses and here had to show my birth cert and passport and pension papers in order to have a eye test under Russian rules as no one believed I am 68.My old Jesuit lecturer would have me in the stocks and calling me more than a witch or demon if he had lived and known this story. Do we live more than once? I am forced to say yes we do.

    • JuliaH

      My mother’s family come from East Anglia – where history is well versed in witchcraft. You occasionally read of some unfortunate skeleton being recovered during road expansion activities – there must have been something about the time. Perhaps the change from Catholicism, perhaps the fact that women’s roles were changing – certainly as a consequence of the English Civil war in the seventeenth century – Shakespeare (and lets leave his identity out of it) had it right when he said that there were more things on this Heaven and Earth than we could possibly understand – he did it better in iambic pentameter obviously.

  2. sandy gibbons

    I enjoyed your article and your site. I look forward to more.

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