On this day 392 years ago, John Felton died. A man who might otherwise have not gone down in history at all, those that do not recognise his name will most likely be familiar with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Felton’s connection to Villiers is rather morbid: he was the man who killed him.
Prior to assassinating the Duke, Felton was a lieutenant in the English Army who fought in Spain and France under his command. The expedition he participated in at Saint-Martin-de-Ré failed spectacularly, costing some 5,000 English lives to a French loss of around one-tenth the size, despite the English army outnumbering the French. Felton had also attempted to gain captaincy of some troops during the expedition but had been denied his request. This would have undoubtedly led to some resentment of Villiers on Felton’s part along with his belief that he was owed — but had been denied — £80 pay. Despite this, it’s hard to imagine that Felton would have gone as far as murdering Villiers were it not for his extreme unpopularity among the nobility and the general public.
George Villiers was made a Gentleman of the Bedchamber in 1615, Master of the Horse the following year, and Duke of Buckingham in 1623. Quickly becoming the most important favourite of King James I, essentially replacing Robert Carr who had been the king’s closest friend (and possibly lover) until he was brought into scandal following the murder of Thomas Overbury in 1613 and the fallout it caused from 1615 onwards. As James I’s closest advisor, friend, and probably lover, as well as the only person outside of the royal family to preside over a Dukedom, Villiers quickly became the target of scrutiny from political opponents. Following the ascension of Charles I, Villiers negotiated a marriage between the new king and Henrietta Maria who was a Catholic, angering the Protestant nobility. Things only worsened following the disastrous military campaigns over which Villiers commanded against France.
Villiers’ physician and adviser, John Lambe, was also a target of criticism and vicious accusations which included witchcraft. King James I’s physician, George Eglisham even wrote in 1626 that Lambe had poisoned James, resulting in his death. A popular chant at the time proclaimed:
Who rules the Kingdom? The King.
Who rules the King? The Duke.
Who rules the Duke? The Devil!
The ‘Devil’ in this case was a reference to Lambe and his supposed relationship with the devil. Lambe himself was murdered on 13 June 1628 by a mob as he was leaving a theatre in London. A ballad by Martin Parker released shortly afterwards was critical of the late physician, describing him as ‘The Devill of our Nation’, although the authors of such works were also careful not to implicate themselves in anything resembling treason.
Nonetheless, it was clear that Villiers was the next target. A new rhyme emerged:
Let Charles and George do what they can,
The duke shall die like Doctor Lambe
Not six months following the death of John Lambe, Villiers was to be assassinated by Felton as he left the Greyhound Inn in Portsmouth, attempting to organise another military campaign. Felton, blending in with the crowd through which Villiers passed, lunged at the Duke and stabbed him in the chest. The Duke died nearly immediately, although some accounts (apocryphally) claimed that he jumped up decried his murder shortly before perishing.
Felton was arrested and put on trial in London. Found guilty, he was hanged on 29 November 1628. Felton was lauded by much of the general public and many poems published after his death venerated him and saw his actions as not only justified but morally righteous. There is no provably authentic account of what Felton may have said before his execution. Some people, claiming to have borne witness to his conversations, attested that he did not repent at all. A pamphlet released by the authorities after his execution claimed to detail his confession ‘word for word’, including an apology to Villiers’ wife and to King Charles I, to whom he wished long life, admitting that he ‘seduced by the Devil.’ Although this was the view of Felton that the Crown undoubtedly wished to make public — a repentant, sorrowful, and wretched man — it was not the impression which the public formed of him. When his body was publicly displayed in Portsmouth, it became close to a shrine for those who viewed Felton as a hero rather than a criminal.
A disgruntled, impoverished soldier who felt betrayed by his commander and possibly suffered from some form of post-traumatic stress, John Felton was surely doomed to live out his days in obscurity. Yet in a single action, that of plunging his tenpence dagger into the chest of the Duke of Buckingham, Felton secured his place in British history. On its own, the assassination would have made him one of a few prominent successful English assassins, yet his actions had far broader consequences. Villiers’ death did little to quell the discontent felt among many, rather it inspired those who disliked King Charles I, who would lose his head (at the hands of the same people who decried Villiers and lauded Felton) only eleven years later.