Murder, sex and skullduggery abound in “Mary & George,” a new limited series about a mother and son who schemed to win the attention of the English king James I. Described by Time Out as “Wolf Hall” meets “Love Island,” the show takes liberties with the historical record while deftly capturing the raucous, competitive environment of the era, when successfully currying the king’s favor could lead to unmatched influence.

The real story behind the duo was in many ways even stranger than the new fictionalized retelling. James indeed lavished wealth and status on his much-younger male favorite, George Villiers, referring to him as “my sweetheart” or “sweet child and wife.” Later, George was accused of fatally poisoning the king before being assassinated himself.

Scholars have long debated the exact nature of James and George’s relationship, disagreeing on whether it was sexual or simply an intense romantic connection that remained unconsummated. But “Mary & George,” produced by Sky Atlantic and distributed by Starz in the United States, takes a more definitive stance on the issue, presenting the two men as lovers whose liaisons were engineered by George’s mother, Mary Villiers, as part of her quest to gain power.

Mary & George | Official Trailer ft. Julianne Moore & Nicholas Galitzine | STARZ

Based on Benjamin Woolley’s 2017 nonfiction book, The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I, the show stars Julianne Moore as Mary, Nicholas Galitzine as George and Tony Curran as James.

“[Mary] is someone who has no autonomy and no agency, and no property, and no value, except through the men that she’s married to, or her male children,” Moore tells BBC Culture. “There’s something very overt about what she does. … It’s like, ‘Why not? Why not try?’” The actress adds, “She sees with George that he’s a proxy for her. He’s who she wishes she could be.”

Here’s what you need to know to separate fact from fiction in “Mary & George,” a seven-episode series that starts streaming on Starz on April 5.

Becoming the king’s favorite

James inherited the Scottish throne in 1567, when his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, abdicated in favor of her then-1-year-old son. His father had died under suspicious circumstances a few months earlier, and most of the regents who subsequently ruled on his behalf met violent ends.

In 1587, Tudor queen Elizabeth I ordered the execution of James’ mother, who’d spent the past 19 years in captivity in England. When Elizabeth died childless in 1603, 36-year-old James—her cousin and the great-great-grandson of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII—succeeded her, becoming James VI and I of Scotland and England, respectively.

A circa 1605 portrait of James
A circa 1605 portrait of James Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A 1625 portrait of George
A 1625 portrait of George Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As historian Tracy Borman writes for History Extra, “The lonely and dangerously volatile childhood that James endured may account for the fearful, almost neurotic nature that became manifest in his adult life.” The Gunpowder Plot, a failed 1605 conspiracy to assassinate the newly crowned English king, only exacerbated his paranoia.

Given the instability of James’ early years, notes historian Kate Williams for the Telegraph, “It was hardly surprising that when he grew to adulthood, he became dependent on men he felt he could trust.” One such male favorite was Esmé Stewart, an older cousin whose worldly perspective impressed the young James. Later, around 1607, Scottish nobleman Robert Carr caught the king’s attention. Over the next decade, Carr leveraged his relationship with James to secure an earldom and various other titles and properties. But Mary and George Villiers would soon scheme to supplant Carr in the king’s esteem.

Born in the 1570s, Mary came from a respectable family, but one of little means. She had four children, including George, with her first husband. Left in dire financial straits following his death, Mary arranged a strategic second marriage that enabled her to raise the necessary funds to send George to France to learn the ways of the continent.

Mary’s reasons for granting George opportunities that normally would have gone to his older brother are self-evident. He was “the handsomest-bodied in England, his limbs so well-compacted and his conversation so pleasing and of so sweet a disposition,” one source reported. Another contemporary found “everything in him full of delicacy and handsome features.” Indeed, when James first met 21-year-old George in 1614, he readily succumbed to the young man’s charms, appointing him to increasingly prestigious positions at court. “No one dances better, no man runs or jumps better,” a 17th-century writer observed. “Indeed, he jumped higher than ever [an] Englishman did in so short a time, from a private gentleman to a dukedom.”

An engraving of Mary Villiers
An engraving of Mary Villiers Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
James' wife, Anne of Denmark, circa 1614
James' wife, Anne of Denmark, circa 1614 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As George’s star rose, Carr’s waned. In a dramatic turn of events, Carr and his wife were found guilty of murdering a former friend, cementing their fall from grace. Other young Scottish courtiers found themselves similarly cut out of the king’s inner circle, replaced by George and other English gentlemen. James, who was born and raised in Scotland as the son of one of the country’s most famous monarchs, finally started embracing the traditions of his new home.

How Mary and George exercised their influence

Appointed to the position of royal cup-bearer in 1614, George served the king drinks and monitored his cup to safeguard against any poisoning attempts. He used his close proximity to James to ingrain himself in the ruler’s life, ensuring his rapid ascension from cup-bearer to gentleman of the bedchamber, master of the horse, earl, marquess, lord high admiral and finally Duke of Buckingham, all within the span of nine years. “His grip on policy, as well as the king personally, seemed almost total,” Woolley tells History Extra. “He was a polarizing figure.”

Tony Curran (center) as James I and Nicholas Galitzine (right) as George Villiers
Tony Curran (center) as James I and Nicholas Galitzine (right) as George Villiers in "Mary & George" Starz

George’s rising stature at court benefited his mother, Mary, too. She married for a third time following the death of her second husband and was a regular fixture at court, visiting with such frequency that George eventually advised her to “stay away … and not to intermeddle with business,” according to official state papers. In 1618, the same year that James elevated Mary to the position of Countess of Buckingham, the ruler publicly stated, “I desire to advance [the Villiers family] above all others; of myself, I have no doubt, for I live to that end.”

Written records of Mary’s life are scarce, “and pretty much everything there is states how evil she was—that she was basically a witch,” Liza Marshall, executive producer of “Mary & George,” tells Time Out. “But she must have been incredibly clever, because women had no formal power during that period. She managed to use her wiles to raise not only her son but also herself, and she became the closest woman to James.”

In 1620, George married Lady Katherine Manners, one of the wealthiest heiresses in Britain. Mary’s detractors later claimed that she’d forced Katherine to spend a night in the same house as George, thereby casting doubt on the young woman’s honor and pressuring her father to agree to the marriage. The couple had four children, three of whom went on to have distinguished careers at English court.

An Anthony van Dyck portrait of George and his wife, Katherine Manners, as Venus and Adonis
An Anthony van Dyck portrait of George and his wife, Katherine Manners, as Venus and Adonis Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

James wasn’t the only Stuart monarch to bestow favor on George. The courtier also cultivated a close relationship with James’ oldest surviving son and heir, the future Charles I. In 1623, the pair, who were closer in age than James and George, secretly traveled to Madrid in hopes of securing Charles’ marriage to the Infanta Maria Anna. The proposed union was doomed from the start, as the Spanish princess was a devout Catholic, while Charles was a Protestant who had no intention of converting to secure her hand in marriage. Unsurprisingly, negotiations failed, leaving both Charles and George with a vendetta against Spain. The duo tried to convince James to declare war on the rival empire, but the king was determined to maintain peace.

The nature of James and George’s relationship

In 16th- and 17th-century England, intimate (but not necessarily sexual) relationships between men were a natural byproduct of “growing up in the all-male environments of school, university and Inns of Court,” writes historian Fiona McCall for the Conversation. Both Francis Bacon and Michel de Montaigne, two leading philosophers of the day, wrote about such bonds, emphasizing the value of lessons passed down by older men to their younger friends, as well as the opportunities afforded by connections with seasoned statesmen.

Sex was a common component of these relationships: “It was very much seen as a physical act, as opposed to a kind of partnership in the sense that we see it now,” historian Joe Ellis tells History Extra. But sodomy was widely criminalized in early modern Europe, and James himself spoke out against the practice, including it in a list of “horrible crimes that you are bound in conscience never to forgive.”

A portrait of George by Peter Paul Rubens
A portrait of George by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1625 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A portrait of James by John de Critz
A portrait of James by John de Critz Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Evidence of a sexual relationship between James and George is inconclusive but suggestive, resting largely on contemporary accounts and letters exchanged by James and his companions. Recounting a fond memory, for instance, George once wrote to James, asking “whether [he] loved me now … better than at the time which I shall never forget at Farnham, where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog.” One observer described the “wanton looks and wanton gestures” exchanged by the pair, who publicly exchanged such lascivious kisses that many questioned what was unfolding behind closed doors. In 1617, in response to criticism of the relationship, James defended himself by declaring, “You may be sure that I love [George] more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled,” before comparing their relationship to that between Jesus Christ and John the Apostle.

James had been similarly demonstrative in his previous relationships, kissing and hugging Esmé in public and even writing a poem about him, which talked “about a phoenix resting between the thighs of this figure in a way that was highly suggestive,” as Woolley tells History Extra. In 1615, James wrote to Carr, complaining that he was “withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber, notwithstanding my many hundred times earnestly soliciting you to the contrary.”

“[I] think it’s likely, based on the very small amount of evidence available, that the relationships between James and his favorites were more than platonic,” Ellis says. Still, the scholar cautions against labeling James—who fathered seven children with his wife, Anne of Denmark—as gay or bisexual, as these terms only came into use centuries after the king’s lifetime.

Robert Carr
Robert Carr, First Earl of Somerset Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A posthumous portrait of Esmé Stewart, one of James' favorites
A posthumous portrait of Esmé Stewart, one of James' favorites Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The death of James I and the reign of Charles I

Though James and George clashed on policy in the final years of their relationship, their bond remained strong. When James died on March 27, 1625, likely of a malarial fever, George was reportedly at his bedside. Rumors soon circulated, speculating that the unpopular duke had murdered the king, perhaps to ensure the ascension of the more malleable Charles.

“Both [George and Charles] were young and inexperienced,” noted the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “But Charles, obstinate when his mind was made up, was sluggish in action and without fertility in ideas, and he had long submitted his mind to the versatile and brilliant favorite, who was never at a loss [of] what to do next, and who unrolled before his eyes visions of endless possibilities in the future.”

Portrait of Charles I, circa 1623, when he was still the Prince of Wales
Portrait of Charles I, circa 1623, when he was still the Prince of Wales Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A 1621 portrait of James
A 1621 portrait of James Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 1626, the Catholic poet, physician and polemicist George Eglisham published a pamphlet accusing George of giving the ailing James a white powder that immediately made him feel “worse and worse, falling into many soundings and pains, and violent fluxes of the belly.” Eglisham also implicated Mary, claiming she had “applied a plaster to the king’s heart and breast, whereupon His Majesty grew faint, short-breathed and in great agony.”

Eager to capitalize on the inflammatory pamphlet, members of Parliament began impeachment proceedings against George (then the lord high admiral and de facto foreign minister), whom they accused of monopolizing offices, accepting bribes, damaging England’s naval strength and exhibiting “transcendent presumption in giving physick to” James, among other offenses. But the new king dissolved Parliament before the legislative body could rule against his favorite. (Most historians dismiss the idea that George poisoned James, but Woolley subscribes to the theory, telling History Extra, “I think it’s almost certain that George had [a] hand in—how can one put it?—helping James into the grave.”)

Two years later, on August 23, 1628, John Felton, a disgruntled lieutenant who’d served in a disastrous military expedition led by George, stabbed the 35-year-old duke to death at an inn in Portsmouth. The assassination sparked widespread celebration, as George was a much-hated figure; Charles ordered his friend’s burial at Westminster Abbey under cover of night, “for fear of a public uproar,” according to the London church’s website. Mary, meanwhile, outlived George by nearly four years, dying on April 19, 1632. She was buried alongside her son in a chapel at the abbey.

A 1628 portrait of George and his family
A 1628 portrait of George and his family Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Villiers’ influence extended beyond the reigns of both James and Charles, who was infamously executed for high treason in 1649 amid the upheaval of the English Civil Wars. Prominent members of the family include Barbara Villiers, a mistress of Charles II, and George’s son, also named George, who held the title of Second Duke of Buckingham. “The [Villiers] continue to serve in roles at the royal court in Britain through the 19th and 20th [centuries],” Cindy McCreery, a historian at the University of Sydney, tells ABC News. “This is not just a one-person or two-person dynasty. This is actually a very influential, long-lived dynasty.”

George’s funerary monument perhaps summarizes his legacy best. “Highly endowed in both body and mind,” its inscription states, he was “the intimate in turn of two most powerful sovereigns”—an impressive achievement given the difficulty of maintaining a single monarch’s favor for an extended period of time, let alone two.

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