Last Days of the Duke
With this characteristic gesture Villiers retired to Yorkshire. All he had left of his many possessions were some scattered pieces of land, his father-in-law's riverside house in York and Helmsley Castle, once the greatest stronghold in England, now a mass of gigantic ruins enclosing a small portion of Elizabethan architecture in which the Duke made his home. He had inherited this property and the surrounding estate from his mother; shortly before he regained it by his marriage, his father-in-law, by Cromwell's order, had utterly destroyed the Castle itself, leaving the little sixteenth century wing almost untouched; it consisted of a two-storied suite of rooms, attached to a thirteenth-century tower. Here, surrounded by piles of shattered stonework and a double moat beyond which stretched the hills and moors of the wildest and poorest county in England, Buckingham, with such companions as his circumstances afforded-seedy poor gentlemen, drunken fox-hunting boors-settled down to the life of a country squire.
He did his best to keep up the round of pleasures and hobbies to which he had been accustomed; he built an annexe to the house in York for his chemistry, a portion of which still exists; in a cupboard in the wall may be seen the little oven in which he heated his brews and distillations. All that is left of this great building is a tiny public house, registered as The Plumbers' Arms and known locally as "the Cock and Bottle ". Here are the little rooms, the winding staircases, the heavy, undecorated oak panelling, of the house in which Buckingham continued his hopeless search for gold. From the diamond-paned windows he could still see the wooden turret with its revolving lights that he had installed on the Minster Tower in the event of an invasion by the Dutch during the days of his greatness. In the grounds below, with their “noble ascent out of Skeldergate, and gardens extending to the ramparts of the city walls beyond,” he could walk up and down among the trees and the flowers of which his father-in-law had been so proud; and here, " according to his natural gaiety of temper, he set all those diversions on foot in which his whole life had hitherto been spent.
What diversions were these? Alternating between York and Helmsley, he who had once been the finest gentleman in England arrived one night at the Castle with a 'company of ruffians' and made a riot at an inn. Here, where he 'never went out of his way to open a gate' for all his land, stretching from Helmsley to the sea was still-and how characteristically-unenclosed, Buckingham threw himself into the last excitement that was left him. With his shoddy, toss-pot companions he hunted with the Stantondale, the Sinnington and the Bilsdale, the oldest pack in England, of which he was Master. The days were, perhaps, endurable and even happy; but when the weary hounds were whipped in for the journey home and dusk crept over Helmsley and rush-lights were set in cottage windows and the waters of the moat gleamed black and steely round the shapeless ruin-then, as he rode in under the shattered portcullis the long evening must have stretched ahead of him in deathly gloom. Then he had time to feel his age, his failing health, his loneliness, his obscurity, to recall the demands of his creditors, to wonder whether the remedies for his perpetual chills and rheumatism were doing him any good, whether his huntsman Foster was neglecting the hounds and whether that last combination was getting him any nearer the philosopher's stone ... And yet, what use had he made of liberty and power?
"Methinks thy body is not a prison, but rather a tavern or bawdy house to thy soul," he reflected.
The rooms that Buckingham inhabited during the last months of his life are as time, not the hand of man, has left them. After he died they were never used again and fell into decay. The delicate panelling, the plaster frieze in which the Manners and Villiers arms are interspersed with dolphins, mermaids and fleurde-lys, the Tudor roses on the ceiling, the glazed tiles on the floor are still there among a heap of fragments half a silver sugar-sifter and a brass chessman stand out, reminders of uneventful days and quiet evenings. Colourless and worn, the decoration of this final refuge yet reflects a taste that must have seemed to Buckingham hopelessly old-fashioned and depressing. Cliveden, Owthorpe, Wallingford House, Burley-on-the-Hill, Barn Elms with its dark memories, Whitehall, with its long galleries and innumerable doors, the house in Dowgate by the busy Thames … all, all were lost and he was alone, in spirit if not in fact, in a little room with rats in the wainscoting, owls and curlews sweeping round the walls --- and for neighbours and companions a set of Yorkshire squires, celebrated even then for their independence, their churlishness, their contempt for the polished manners and sophisticated outlook of which he had been the best example. A writer of the sixteenth century has summed up the atmosphere in which Villiers now moved in some lines which he may have read and would certainly have agreed with;
"They have no superior to court, no civilities to practise; a sour and sturdy humour is the consequence, so that a stranger is shocked by a tone of defiance in every voice, and an air of fierceness in every countenance."
No possessions, no associations, could prevent Buckingham from being a stranger in such a circle. Brooding, remembering, he longed for sleep, 'sound as death and swift as life' and then started from it, because it
"torments me with such dreams that it is rather the imagination of hell than of death."
Then he wrote these two lines, the last of all his verses:
"In all those mighty volumes of the stars
There's writ no sadder story than my fate."
On another page of his note-book he put the heading "Tears" and wrote beneath it …
"You must water your life well, if you would have it grow again."
But he was not entirely forgotten. One day, riding across the moors and the flat country where the Danes had landed, came a messenger, bearing a letter. It was from Etheredge, 'gentle George', the friend of his prosperous days. Elegant, urbane, Sir George wrote from Ratisbon, in terms that indicated his determination to impress posterity. He expostulated with Buckingham for 'leaving the play at the beginning of the Fourth Act ', and declared his amazement that
". . the Duke of Buckingham, who never vouchsafed his embraces to any ordinary beauty, would ever condescend to sigh and languish for the heiress-apparent of a thatched cottage in a straw hat, flannel petticoat, stockings of as gross a thrum as the Bluecoat Boys' caps at the Hospital and a smock (the Lord defend me from the wicked idea of it) of as coarse a canvas as ever served an apprenticeship to a mackerel boat. Who would have believed that Your Grace . . . would, in the last scene of life, debauch his condition in execrable Yorkshire ale? and that he who all his life-time had either seen princes his playfellows or companions would submit to the nonsensical chat and barbarous language of farmers and higglers?"
To Etheredge or to some other correspondent (his letter bears no address or date , but is ascribed to this period) Buckingham explained that
“I neither am nor desire to be out of the world, but I confess I am grown old enough to be unwilling to lose my time, and therefore . . . I thought it better to do nothing by myself than to play the fool in company.”
Did he not think of Frances Stuart and her card-castles as he wrote the last words? He then gave an extremely guarded and purposely obscure account of the political situation as he had left it and spoke of himself as
“... intent about looking after my farm ... in order to the securing every man in England his religion and liberty and estate (things which we conceive to be of some importance, though they have not of late been much talked of ...) "
Broken, old and ill, George Villiers could still dream of a free England; but he had been so busy nailing his colours to the mast that he had let the ship sink beneath him. This is his last surviving letter.
His fifty-ninth birthday was now behind him, and he was again at Helmsley for the hunting. On the Fourteenth of April, 1687, the meet was held in the courtyard of the Castle. Foster, with one of his sons as whip, was there, their charges, Dido, Spandigo, Truelove, Bonnylass, Dairymaid, Ruler and the rest, made a moving patch of brown and black and white between the grey stone and the pale spring flowers. The Bilsdale had formerly hunted both fox and red deer; the only deer now left in Yorkshire wandered at ease within park walls.
Presently the hunt, the tall figure of the Master at its head, rode past the scattered cottages below the moat and away beyond the ring of the hills. The Castle was empty and silent. Morning sank into afternoon. The light began to fade from the portraits of Villiers and Manners ancestors and from the painted emblems of past glories. Darkness covered the wild country and the birds of night swept over the broken battlements and roofless towers. Still there came no sound of hoofs beneath the archways, no faint echo of the huntsman's horn from the moors or the forest.
Eighteen miles away, at an inn in York, James Douglas, Earl of Arran, was resting on his way into Scotland. Presently news came to him that the great Duke of Buckingham was dying - was perhaps already dead - at Kirkbymoorside, six miles from Helmsley. Lord Arran, now in his thirty-first year, was Buckingham's second cousin once removed. Respectable, high-minded, not very clever, he could not but deplore the course of life which had brought his magnificent relative into the squalor and obscurity that now surrounded him. He had kept in touch with the Duke's trustees in the hope that something might have been saved out of his ruined fortunes; after the Duchess of Buckingham, Arran was next of kin, and he could not help thinking that he must be mentioned in the Duke's will, even though there was so little to leave. It would be unfair to suggest that he wished to profit by the confusion of Buckingham's affairs; but where there had been so much there might still remain, unknown to the Duke himself, some little property or possession worth having. So Lord Arran went to Kirkbymoorside as quickly as possible.
Where the Bilsdale found and what area they covered during the morning and afternoon of the Fourteenth of April is not known; but they ended with a three hour run. The climax was reached, for Buckingham, when his horse dropped dead beneath him at a cross-roads called Chop Gate, some twelve miles from Helmsley. Here the fox went to ground, and huntsman and whip began to dig. Meanwhile Buckingham waited, presumably sending for another horse, and helped with the digging. He was exhausted and very hot; he probably threw off his coat as he sank back on the grass, which was soaking; several hours passed before his groom arrived with fresh horses.
Of all George Villiers' "excesses" this, a prolonged sitting on damp ground, is the one that has caused most comment among his contemporaries. To be incapably drunk every night, rotten with disease and frequently subject to the languor that follows extreme self-indulgence, all this was the natural concomitant of wealth, position and breeding. But to sit on the wet grass was a folly that shocked as much as it bewildered them. Only a madman would do such a thing; and Buckingham's sudden and fatal sickness was always ascribed to this last piece of eccentricity.
By the time the Duke was able to leave Chop Gate and the stone, ever afterwards called Buckingham's Stone, where his horse had fallen; it became plain that he was too ill to go very far. At Kirkbymoorside he decided to dismount and rest at one of his tenants' houses - the best in the town - in the market-place; he would stay the night and move on to York the next day: Helmsley was too draughty and uncomfortable for a man in his condition. A few hours later he changed his mind and sent a messenger to Brian Fairfax to ask for a bed at his house in Bishopshill.
Kirkbymoorside was an exposed, lonely little town. Straggling groups of stone houses sloped upwards to the market place on one side and to the churchyard on the other, with the heathercovered dales above and the flat country stretching away below. 'The King's Head', with its gaily-painted sign of Henry VIII, stood next to Tinley Garth, a two-storied building with four square rooms on each floor, twisting oak staircase and small leaded windows. Each room was panelled in the same heavy, unornamented style; the ceilings were low, the atmosphere close, smoky and cold. Here, in the largest of the four upper rooms, Buckingham was put to bed. The rheumatism which had been hanging about him for so long had now turned to an aching fever; he was in great suffering and discomfort from swelling and inflammation of the stomach; no one seemed to know what remedies to apply for this, for there was no doctor handy, and the Duke ordered fomentations to relieve the pain. He was not much perturbed about himself but distressed at not being able to leave so dreary and uncomfortable a refuge.
After a miserable day and a night which brought an increase rather than a diminution of his sufferings, Buckingham was told that Lord Arran had come from York. He roused himself, and greeted his cousin with something of his old grace and energy. But as soon as Arran drew near the bed he saw that the Duke was dying. Buckingham told him of his symptoms and said that when the swelling went down he would be at ease; as Arran looked doubtful he declared emphatically that so far from being dangerously ill, he would be about again in a few days-he had been on horseback only two days earlier but the ague that had long hung about him had made him weak.
"I am sure," the sick man added hastily as he saw his kinsman's swarthy face lengthen, "I am in no danger of my life."
"His understanding was as good as ever," says Arran, "and his noble parts were so entire that though I saw death in his looks at first sight, he would by no means think of it."
Arran then sent his groom back to York for Dr. Whaler; Buckingham suggested that his cousin should stay until he was able to move and Arran, consenting, had time to observe the "miserable condition" the Duke was in and in what a "pitiful place" he was.
"I confess it made my heart bleed ", he said afterwards.
As soon as Dr. Whaler, accompanied by another physician, arrived, he saw that the Duke's case was desperate, and told Arran so. His Grace now felt some relief from pain; this was due, not to the remedies he had been taking, but to the mortification that had set in and was rapidly ascending; though he 'enjoyed the free exercise of his senses, in a day or two at most, it would kill him'.
But there was something about the Duke's alertness and his commanding manner that made it impossible for them to tell him of his condition. Arran, who believed that the end was near, agreed that his cousin should be told, and by him; but it was hard. Very much discomposed, he left the doctors and again entered the bedroom.
Arran began by warning Buckingham as gently as possible of his danger; he was sharply contradicted.
"It is not as you apprehend," said the Duke, "In a day or two I shall be well."
Again Arran withdrew; this time he sent for a clergyman, not the local incumbent, but the Reverend Mr. Gibson, who was a neighbour of Buckingham and lived only a mile away. Then, remarking to Gibson that it was high time His Grace "began to think of another world, for it was impossible for him to continue long in this," Arran again approached Buckingham and told him bluntly that he was dying.
At this point, no doubt, Mr. Gibson let fall one or two of those scriptural aphorisms with which he had primed himself on his journey across the moors. But Villiers seemed not to hear him. His expression altered: he was overcome: he could not face death. Arran was sympathetic; but, as he said to Gibson, they would not have discharged the duty of honest men "or I of a faithful kinsman," he added, "if we had suffered him to go out of this world without preparing for death, and looking into his conscience."
So the grisly work began. For the next six or seven hours, until the Duke began to lose consciousness, Arran and Gibson took it in turns to urge him to make his peace with God and declare his heir; for a long time he would do neither. It would be unjust to blame the upright, intensely conscientious Arran for this badgering; he saw his once splendid cousin in danger of everlasting punishment and the wrangles over his estate prolonged indefinitely; but it is certain that he made Buckingham's last hours of consciousness a torment and a misery; instead of sinking peacefully into oblivion he was bothered and bullied about a number of things that had long ceased to concern him.
Who, Arran began, should be "an assistant " to his cousin, " during the short time he had to live? " Buckingham made no reply; he was still adjusting his mind to the idea that life was slipping from him. Arran considered a moment and recalled the gossip he had heard about a conversion, and one of the King's Jesuits visiting Buckingham before he left London. Should he send for a priest? he asked. "No, no - I am not one of that persuasion," replied the Duke angrily, " I will hear no more of it, I will have nothing to do with them -" and he muttered something about a "parcel of silly fellows".
Rather relieved, Arran suggested that he should send for Mr. Gibson or the parson of the parish, Mr. Shepherd. Buckingham refused.
“A Presbyterian, then?”
"No," said Villiers wearily, "those fellows always made me sick with their whine and cant."
"I thought," added Arran, in extenuation of his own lack of orthodoxy, "any act that should be like a Christian was what his condition now wanted most."
So the night went by. At seven o'clock the next morning, the tireless relative was at the bedside again. Surely it was now time to send for the parson of the parish? To his immense gratification, the exhausted Duke consented. "Yes, pray send for him," he said quietly. He was feeling very low, very weary; perhaps he was dying, after all, though somehow he could not believe it, for his mind was still perfectly clear.
Mr. Shepherd then arrived, and began to read the prayers for the dying; before continuing however, he felt it his duty to ask a question. The answer to one of the most absorbing, most discussed secrets of the day was within his grasp.
"What is Your Grace's religion?" he enquired respectfully.
There was a pause. The watchers round the bed were on tenterhooks for the answer. At last the dying man gasped out
"It is an insignificant question."
Then, aware perhaps of the thrill of horror which greeted the words, he added feebly,
"I have been a shame and a disgrace to all religions - but if you can do me any good, do."
Mollified, Mr. Shepherd began the prayers again; and Buckingham joined in them
'very freely'. Dying as he had lived, he desired to adapt himself, and succeeded in doing so. There was, surely, no more ironic moment than this in all his long life.
Arran, Gibson, Shepherd and the weeping servants were now joined by Colonel Liston, an old friend of Buckingham's. During the course of the afternoon Mr. Gibson asked the Duke about his will-had he made one?
"None ", was the answer.
At this point Arran found it prudent to withdraw and the clergyman, no doubt instructed to find out all that he could, continued his enquiries on worldly matters. Who was to be His Grace's heir?
Buckingham said nothing. Heir to what? he might have answered: but his strength was going.
Gibson then named various persons in order, as it were, of probability.
"My Lady Duchess?"
A long list of cousins and collaterals followed, with the same result. "The Earl of Purbeck?"
"By no means."
Still there was no answer, and Gibson, in despair, applied to Lord Arran for further advice.
Arran, hearing that his name had met with the same negative as all the others, began to lose his patience. He told the Duke sternly that it was "absolutely fit, during the time he had the exercise of his reason " (for Buckingham now showed signs of nearing collapse) " to do something to settle his affairs." But Villiers remained firm. He had nothing to settle on anyone, and nothing to say.
Very much disturbed, Lord Arran then pointed out the desirability of a Christian death.
"Since you call yourself of the Church of England," he said coldly, " the parson is ready here to administer the sacrament to you."
"I will take it," said Buckingham, and Arran left him to give the necessary orders.
Meanwhile Brian Fairfax had received a second message - the Duke was dying. In spite of the fact that they had drifted apart during these last years, he loved his old patron and friend with all his heart. As he hurried towards Kirkbymoorside, riding post for greater speed, the afternoon wore away into evening and, in the little room above the silent street, Buckingham was receiving the last sacraments of the Church of England, Gibson and Colonel Liston receiving with him. As the prayers were begun he called out, very loudly, three or four times, in protest, as Arran seems to imply, for he was not yet willing to "take death to him ". A few moments later he became perfectly composed and received the sacrament "with all the decency imaginable ". Again Arran felt a twinge of pity.
Gibson, who seems to have shared the Earl's passion for correctness, was "somewhat doubtful of [the Duke's] swallowing the bread because of his weakness and pain." But long afterwards he remarked on the dying man's " seeming devotion " and added modestly, " So far as I ever had any discourse with His Grace, he was always pleased to express a love for good men and good things, how little able soever he was to live up to what he knew."
At this moment Brian Fairfax hurried into the room, thrust aside the bed-curtains and grasped the Duke's hand; but Buckingham was speechless now, and could only look " very earnestly ", as if he wanted to say something; he held on to Brian's hand. Lord Fairfax of Gilling then arrived: but the Duke did not recognise him. So the evening passed into night. At eleven o'clock, without a struggle or a sigh, George Villiers ceased to breathe."