Was George Villiers Gay? Was He Really King James’ Lover?

Starz’s historical series ‘Mary & George’ chronicles George Villiers’ relationship with James VI and I, the King of England and Ireland. George garners the monarch’s attention after his mother Mary Villiers asks him to use his charm to become the ruler’s favorite. James, who is surrounded by beautiful young men, soon gets drawn to George and it doesn’t take a long time for the duo to start cherishing a sexual relationship. Over the years, several historians have dived into the intricate togetherness George and James shared. Even though there is a lack of solid proof to state the nature of their relationship conclusively, there are several pieces of evidence that open a window into their lives and sexuality!

George and James’ Companionship

For the last several decades, historians have been trying to unravel the truth about George Villiers and King James VI and I’s relationship. Since whatever happened inside the walls of James’ chamber may remain a secret forever, there are several letters and statements that offer insight into the nature of the companionship the two men cherished. Based on these documents, multiple historians have concluded that George and James were most likely lovers, or in other words, the former was one of the lovers of the monarch. One of the prominent experts is Joe Ellis, a historian from the University of York.

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“I also think it’s likely, based on the very small amount of evidence available, that the relationships between James and his favorites were more than platonic,” Ellis told HistoryExtra. The historian’s understanding is rooted in the general nature of same-sex relationships that existed in the 17th century, a time when sexual acts between men were “reasonably common” and just “physical,” rather than a “kind of partnership.” Ellis noted a letter George, who was rewarded by James with the title of the Duke of Buckingham, sent to the king to support his understanding. “In this letter, Buckingham mentions that he shall never forget at Farnham when they were on progress: ‘when the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog,’” he added.

George and James did exchange such letters in which they explicitly revealed their passion for one another. “I desire only to live in this world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the Earth with you than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you. 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,” James wrote George in 1623, according to ‘King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire’ by David Moore Bergeron. The words like “wife” and “widow” indicate that the two were most likely lovers.

Benjamin Woolley, who wrote ‘The King’s Assassin: The Secret Plot to Murder King James I,’ the source text of the series, believes that Bergeron’s collection of James’ letters validates the theory that the king had a sexual relationship with George. “If you read [Bergeron], they’re a set of love letters. There’s lots of ambiguous, suggestive phrasing in these letters. There are also very moving parts, such as when James sent a letter at Christmastime to George, after the death of James’s queen, Anne, sort of pleading with George to become his wife. And that kind of language clearly shows a very deep, complex, probably sexual relationship between them,” he told HistoryExtra.

However, James did try to explain his relationship with George differently. Whether this was to counter the rumors regarding the alleged same-sex relationships he had, we may never find out. “[…] I act like a man and confess to loving those dear to me more than other men. You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here, assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George,” stated the king on one occasion, comparing his companionship with George to the relationship between Jesus and John.

George Villiers’ Sexual Orientation

Image Credit: Gerard van Honthorst/National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

It is important to note that diverse sexual orientations became prominent centuries after the lifetime of George Villiers. During George’s period, nobody identified themselves as gay, and terms like “bisexual” didn’t exist to define one’s identity. However, according to contemporary understanding of sexuality and sexual orientations, he could be bisexual. While possibly cherishing a same-sex relationship with James, George shared his life with a woman, Lady Katherine Manners, and became the father of four children. Even though his marriage and fatherhood are not definite evidence to state that he was bisexual, the possibility does exist.

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