'The brightnes of the noble leiutenants action': an intellectual ponders Buckingham's assassination *

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Date: Nov. 2003
From: The English Historical Review(Vol. 118, Issue 479)
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 10,061 words

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ON the morning of Saturday, 23 August 1628, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, beloved favourite of two English kings, was stabbed and mortally wounded as he prepared to leave his lodgings at the Greyhound inn in Portsmouth. In the confusion that followed the stabbing, the Duke's assassin had both time and opportunity to slip away undetected. But he chose not to run, instead wandering off to the inn's kitchen before giving himself up to the Duke's frantic men with the words, 'I am the man.' He was a melancholy army lieutenant who had served with the Duke during the Ile de Rhe fiasco the previous year. His name was John Felton. (1)

Historian have long agreed that Buckingham's assassination marked a watershed in early Stuart political history. Felton's knife removed at one stroke the most important and controversial political actor of the 1620s, and the structure and dynamics of court politics, indeed of Caroline politics tout court, were fundamentally transformed by the murder. (2) Historians have been much slower, however, to recognize that the Duke's assassination was also the subject of widespread contemporary debate. (3) This debate--between, to simplify brutally, those who vilified the assassination and those who celebrated it--was conducted in various public and semi-public media before a variety of audiences from across the social spectrum. The debate might be said to have begun with the carefully chosen words, both written and spoken, of the assassin himself, most of which soon became items of public consumption in the form of manuscript copies. The debate was then joined in the legalistic and ritualized language of the trial and execution that followed somewhat belatedly upon Felton's arrest, in which the authorities offered their interpretation of the crime to the wider public. The debate continued for months, indeed years--from the alehouses and college butteries where labourers and students raised toasts to the assassin, to Westminster Abbey and Portsmouth where the favourite's grieving patron and family erected monumental memorial scupltures lauding the victim's virtues. Most important of all, the debate raged in the literary underground of manuscript newsletters, separates, poetic libels and counter-libels that circulated beyond the grasp of effective censorship, in London and the provinces, spreading information, speculation and political argument to the literate classes, and, occasionally, through squib and song, to their illiterate tenants, servants and neighbours. (4)

This debate centred on the meaning of Buckingham's life and death, but it came to encompass much more. Indeed, I want to argue that analysing this debate allows us to take the ideological temperature of England in the late 1620s, to evaluate the health of the body politic on the eve of the Caroline personal rule. By exploring the dynamic interaction among competing perceptions of the assassination, the victim and the murderer, we can, I suggest, identify some of the rifts that Buckingham's political ascendancy had opened in English political culture. Divergent and ultimately incompatible attitudes towards the Duke and his assassin grew out of, and exacerbated, very different perceptions of the political...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A113182796