George 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.