Lady Mary Villiers

Category: 17th century women’s history

Sometimes it seems as if the 17th century St John family is related to just about everyone of any note …or otherwise, actually!

For example, Lady Mary Villiers’s father was murdered by a relative of the husband of her first cousin once removed. Now how’s that for a coincidence.

NPG 711; The Duke of Buckingham and his Family after Gerrit van Honthorst

The Duke of Buckingham and his Family

Lady Mary Villiers was the eldest child and only daughter of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham and his wife Catherine Manners. George was one of those characters one either loved or loathed. James VI Scotland and I England obviously loved him – a lot. In her latest BBC 2 series Fit to Rule: How Royal Illness Changed History, Dr Lucy Worlsey looks at letters from the King to his favourite and reveals the complex relationship between the two men. Good looking, charming George played the role of lover, father, son, best friend, slave and dog, but perhaps we won’t delve into the ‘dog’ role too deeply.

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

After the King’s death in 1625 Charles I kept George close to him, as friend and advisor, much to the exasperation of Charles’s ministers and his Queen. George definitely got in the way of not only the king’s parliamentary progress but procreation with his Queen as well.

When Lieutenant John Felton polished him off there were a lot of people who were none too sorry. Especially Queen Henrietta Maria who produced a son Charles James nine months later. But Charles did mourn his friend and took George’s three young children into his protection, raising them alongside his own family.

Lady Mary Villiers

Lady Mary Villiers

Consequently young Lady Mary became a desirable proposition in the marriage stakes. And in January 1634/5 she was wed to Charles, Lord Herbert of Shurland, the son of another of James’s favourites. Lady Mary was twelve years old and her groom fifteen. She appears with her husband to be and his family in a painting by Anthony van Dyck. However, the marriage was a brief one as young Charles contracted smallpox while on military service in Italy and died a year after the wedding.

Lady Mary Villiers 2

Lady Mary – posing as St Agnes

On August 3, 1637 Lady Mary married for a second time. Her new husband was a royal cousin, James Stuart 4th Duke of Lennox, and a marriage much favoured by Charles I who gave the bride away at the ceremony held in the Archbishop’s Chapel at Lambeth Palace.

Lady Mary’s second marriage lasted 18 years and produced two children, a son Esme born in 1649 and a daughter Mary born in 1651.


Lady Mary and her two children

James Stuart, Duke of Lennox and Duke of Richmond, died in 1655, impoverished by his long and faithful service to Charles I, £65,000 poorer and ostracized by the reigning Parliamentarians.

In 1668 Lady Mary married for the last time. Her third husband was Colonel the Hon Thomas Howard, Lieutenant of the Yeoman of the Guard, whom she outlived by seven years.


Lady Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox

So was Lady Mary ever anything more than a very marriageable proposition?

Now we already know that the Villiers clan were pretty broadminded, and with a father like George it seems inevitable that Mary and her brothers would be pretty uninhibited.

Described as a ‘bisexual adventuress’ Lady Mary has been identified as Ephelia, an anonymous 17th century poet, whose work contained lesbian and bisexual references. And they say she liked to share a tipple with that legendary St John drinker John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. And she may have had a fling with the king’s handsome nephew Prince Rupert – oh, and she liked to wear men’s clothing and she enjoyed various ‘manly’ sports such as shooting and fencing. So she was quite a gal!

Lady Mary died in November 1685 and was buried in Westminster Abbey close to her father George and her aunt Barbara.

So how was she and her father’s murderer related to the St John family? Right – are you sure you’re ready for this?

Copyright Lydiard House / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Barbara St John – wife of Sir Edward Villiers

Lady Mary’s father George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, had an elder half brother Sir Edward Villiers. Sir Edward married Barbara St John, the daughter of Sir John St John and Lucy Hungerford, who appear on the St John polypytch in St Mary’s Chruch Lydiard Tregoze. Their granddaughter Elizabeth Howard married Sir Thomas Felton, 4th Baronet of Playford Hall, Suffolk.

Now George was murdered by Lieutenant John Felton. Felton had taken part in Buckingham’s unsuccessful expeditions in Cadiz 1625 and the Isle of Rhe 1627. Overlooked for promotion and out of pocket, Felton harboured a grudge against Buckingham and decided it was his duty to rid the country of this menace. He bought a dagger for tenpence and walked to Portsmouth where Buckingham was preparing for an expedition to Rochelle. He gained entrance to Buckingham’s house and on August 23, 1628 stabbed him over the heart, killing him pretty much instantly. Felton was later hanged at Tyburn. John Felton was a member of the junior branch of the Playford Hall Feltons.

Ta – da *takes a step forward with arms outstretched.* Now please don’t ask me to go through all that again.