The following post is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Sue Vincent,
fellow Buckinghamshire blogger and supremely talented writer and artist.
A kindred spirit in so many ways,
she loved history and ancient sites and revered nature.
Sue, I will miss our long, rambling conversations and your amazing work.
Save that glass of mead for me…
As many of my blogging friends will be aware, I’m currently up to my ears researching and writing my dissertation, the final project that will mark the end of my history degree. I’ve barely managed to look up from my work so far this year, but in the rare moments I have come up for air I’ve been looking into a bit of local history. In particular, I’ve been finding out about our own Dukes of Buckingham, named after my nearest town, and what a sorry lot they were! Of course, my interest in the dukes lies mainly in the middle ages when the title was created, but despite there having been ten incumbents in total, no single family that received this seemingly cursed title could cling onto it for more than three generations. For the most part, theirs is a hapless tale of misfortune, misjudgement, misplaced allegiances and financial mismanagement.
Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham
The first family to be awarded the Dukedom of Buckingham was the Staffords, descendents of the youngest son of Edward III. Born in 1402, Humphrey Stafford’s future looked rosy when he was knighted by Henry V in 1421 before becoming Constable of Calais the following year. On the death of his mother Humphrey inherited the Earldom of Buckingham but the title was soon promoted to Duke, and this new status put him above all other English dukes outside the royal family. But in 1455 Humphrey’s fortunes changed. As a devoted Lancastrian, he backed the wrong horse at the start of the Wars of the Roses, being captured at the Battle of St Albans in May of that year when he led King Henry VI’s army to the field. He later managed to secure his own release and for a short time his status was reinstated when Richard, Duke of York (father of Edward IV and Richard III) was killed, only to lose his own life at the Battle of Northampton in 1460. His son had predeceased him, falling victim to the Plague, so the title went straight to his grandson, the notorious turncoat Henry, or ‘Harry’ Stafford.
Henry, or ‘Harry’ Stafford, the duplicitous 2nd Duke of Buckingham
Harry succeeded to the Dukedom at around five years old, but as he grew up he became increasingly keen to flaunt his rank and status. However, having expected to make a suitable marriage with some great heiress, his ambitions were thwarted early on when the Yorkist king Edward IV intervened, marrying him to his queen’s younger sister, Catherine, while the couple were still children. Unfortunately for Harry, Edward had chosen to marry a commoner, the widow of a lesser noble, so the young Buckingham seethed with resentment throughout the ceremony and beyond at being forced to marry some low-born nobody. But in 1483 he sprung into the limelight as the self-appointed supporter of Richard, Duke of Gloucester as he became King Richard III. In return for Buckingham’s support Richard showered his friend with favours and high offices, making him the supreme power in Wales and the Welsh Marches. Although Harry held considerable lands elsewhere, the two friends maintained a link with Buckingham itself, enjoying hunting expeditions around the town where Richard’s hawks were kept on Castle Hill, once the site of a Norman castle.
Castle Hill in Buckingham, where Richard III’s hawks were kept
But despite all the privileges and gifts bestowed on him, Buckingham turned his back on Richard. Teaming up with the opposition, Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, Harry led a rebellion against the king from his estate in Brecon. What possessed him to turn on Richard is a mystery. Perhaps he had designs on the crown himself, a scheme to redress the humiliation previously heaped on him by Edward IV. However, the rebellion failed spectacularly, plagued by bad weather and a lack of support, and at 28 years old, having been captured in Salisbury, Buckingham was beheaded for treason on 2nd November 1483.
A church now occupies the top of Castle Hill where once a Norman castle stood
The last Stafford to bear the Buckingham title was Edward, Harry’s son, who succeeded to the Dukedom after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. As a ward of Margaret Beaufort in his early years, Edward held minor positions during the reign of Henry VII, but he clawed his way up in the world and secured the role of Lord High Constable. He carried the crown at Henry VIII’s coronation, a task he must have undertaken grudgingly, as the young Edward had inherited his father’s inflated ambitions, believing that as a descendent of Edward III he had a stronger claim to the throne than Henry. Soon rumours began to fly around court concerning Edward’s designs on kingship, and some say he was even heard mouthing off about killing the new king. Unsurprisingly then, in the spring of 1521 Edward went the same way as his father. He was tried for treason, with Henry VIII presiding over the hearing in person, and with the resulting guilty verdict Edward also lost his head. His lands, including his manor of Buckingham, were seized by the king and over time redistributed and bestowed on other lords, while the ducal title was effectively made redundant. Thus, the first family of Dukes came to an ignominious and abrupt end.
Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham
Eventually, in the seventeenth century, the Dukedom was revived and handed to a new family, the Villiers. The lucky recipient was George Villiers, son of a minor gentleman of Leicester, who had become a firm favourite – and lover – of King James I. Again, the future looked bright for the dashing and handsome George as he raced through the ranks to reach the dizzy heights of the senior Dukedom in 1623. But the Buckingham curse struck again, and his political and military blunders made him enemies in high places, with parliament twice trying to impeach him until he was saved by the king. Despite his unpopularity, George managed to retain his title after James died, but not for long. After two disastrous military expeditions to France, he was facing bankruptcy and public feeling against him was at an all time high. On 23rd August 1628 he was stabbed to death in a Portsmouth pub by an angry army officer who was hailed as a hero for the deadly deed.
George, the first Villiers Duke of Buckingham and favourite of James I
Things finally began to improve for the dukes after the death of George, with his son supporting the royalist cause during the Civil Wars and living into his retirement, and the next incumbent, John Sheffield, building a colossal London house in 1703 that was to become Buckingham Palace. The final family to hold the grand title, later recreated as Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, were the Grenvilles of Stowe, who held long-established connections with the town. From 1776, another three generations received the title, and although they too tasted the curse of the Buckingham Dukedom, their misfortunes were more of the financial sort.
The first duke grew fat through greed, and his famed arrogance saw him run up huge debts. The second was declared bankrupt, and when he died the best the local newspaper could say of him was ‘He lost everything but his name!’ In the end, it was the final duke, Richard Plantagenet Campbell Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville (imagine how he signed his cheques!), who finally recouped the Buckingham fortune. Known as the ‘Safe Duke’ in contrast to his reckless forebears, Richard restored the family’s fortunes during the nineteenth century. He served as Conservative MP for Buckingham, embraced the coming of the railways and was a respected philanthropist supporting local good causes. When he died in 1889, the town of Buckingham grieved the loss of its beloved patron, and this time the local newspaper printed many heartfelt tributes in an issue edged in black. Leaving three daughters but no son, the ducal title died with Richard, but with his good business acumen and generosity of spirit, the Dukedom of Buckingham finally went out on a high.
Richard Plantagenet Campbell Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville,
the last Duke and redeemer of the Buckinghams
And if my degree is also to go out on any kind of high, I must return to my mountain of books once more for this last, most intensive period of work. So for now, I hope you enjoyed this chaotic slice of Buckinghamshire’s past, and I look forward to emerging into the light in June, when my studies will finally be complete. For the time being, anyway…
1958 – 2021
Fly free, my friend.