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Mary & George
Photograph: Sky UK

Is ‘Mary & George’ a true story? The surprising history to know behind the royal drama

Sex, witchcraft and murder most foul in the court of James I

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Turns out our history teachers lied to us – the Gunpowder Plot wasn’t the most exciting thing to happen during the reign of James I. 

Happily, Sky Atlantic’s new period romp ‘Mary & George’ is here to fill in the gaps. It stars US indie cinema darling Julianne Moore as a Jacobean widow searching for a new fortune in the court of the Stuart monarch. With British actor Nicholas Galitzine (‘Red, White and Royal Blue’) playing George Villiers, her ladder-climbing smokeshow of a son, it combines the exquisite salaciousness of ‘The Favourite’ with ‘Bridgerton’s gossipy tongue – or think ‘Pride and Prejudice’ on Viagra. Or ‘Wolf Hall’ meets ‘Love Island’. Anyway, you get the idea.

But how accurate is the history behind the show? And how queer was this era in British history? We’ve gone full Letts revise to fill in the gaps. 

Warning: contains ‘Mary & George’ plot spoilers

Mary & George
Photograph: Sky UKJulianne Moore and Nicholas Galitzine in ‘Mary & George’

Is Mary & George based on a true story? 

Yes, mainly. Adapted by playwright English DC Moore from Benjamin Woolley’s 2017 non-fiction book ‘The King’s Assassin’, ‘Mary & George’ dramatises events that took place in the court of James I (or James VI and I, to give him his full Anglo-Scottish title) in the – specifically, the affair between King James and George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham.

Mary’s instincts were both Machiavellian and maternal. The death of her husband – at her own hands, admittedly – left her in a parlous state, financially and socially. Her plan to escape penury involved securing a place for her son in the court of James I (‘Outlaw King’s Tony Curran) and, ideally, see him supersede the King’s favourite, the Earl of Somerset. James’s love of handsome young men being the key that could unlock the kingdom for both mum and son. 

It’s racy stuff… even before James’s death in 1625 would cast George in the role of possible conspirator and assassin. 

Mary & George
Photograph: Sky UKTony Curran as King James in ‘Mary & George’

Who was Mary Villiers, Countess of Buckingham? 

Julianne Moore has played plenty of colourful characters, from ‘Boogie Nights’ porn star Amber Waves to ‘Maps to the Stars’ fading Hollywood starlet, but few have been as strategic as Mary Villiers. She rose with her son, becoming Countess of Buckingham when George was ennobled and wielding increasing influence in a court that once ridiculed her as a bit of a goose when she first got there. She was never popular, but her instincts and determination made her formidable.

‘There’s not very much written about Mary Villiers,’ says executive producer Liza Marshall, ‘and pretty much everything there is states how evil she was – that she was basically a witch. 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 I.’

Who was George Villiers? 

The son of Mary, George Villiers was an ambitious courtier who caught the eye of James aged 21 while the monarch was out hunting and soon came to replace Somerset (played by Laurie Davidson in the show) in the king’s affection. He was soon anointed ‘the gentleman of the royal bedchamber’ and then bestowed with the title of Duke of Buckingham, going on to outlive the king and becoming, briefly, a staple in the court of his son, Charles I, too. During James’s reign he became a powerful – and controversial – figure in European powerbroking, overseeing disastrous military blunders in France and Spain and A figure that came from nowhere and achieved such prominence, he died seriously unpopular – both with the public at large and his fellow grandees. 

‘He had this kind of charisma, over which he seemed to have limited control,’ the book’s author Benjamin Woolley tells History Extra. ‘He was rather impulsive, and he could be extremely arrogant. But one of the characteristics that I found most fascinating about him is that he was also capable of incredible humility.’

Mary & George
Photograph: Sky UKNicholas Galitzine as George Villiers and Julianne Moore as Mary Villiers

Was King James I really gay? 

Your history teacher may have forgotten to mention it – James is much better known for naming a new version of the Bible – but he was renowned for having male lovers. ‘I did history at university, and I had absolutely no idea that he was potentially gay,’ says ‘Mary & George’ producer Liza Marshall. ‘I started to research the period and found out James I had three different “favourites”.’ Of the three, Villiers was arguably the most significant – and the last. At the time, homosexuality was criminalised and socially taboo, but James’s popularity meant that commoners looked the other way. 

Mary & George
Photograph: Sky UKGeorge Villiers must dislodge the Earl of Somerset (Laurie Davidson) in the King’s affections

Did George kill King James VI and I? 

No, it’s much likelier that the sickness-prone James died of natural causes. Buckingham was at his bedside throughout, though, and at one point, administered some form of non-prescription cordial to the King. This didn’t help, because the dysentery-racked James had a stroke and died a few days later. Understandably, the London scuttlebutt had it that Buckingham had poisoned James, but it remained unproven and he was 

What happened to George Villiers? 

Villiers survived his accusers’ allegations, but still met with a sticky end – in 1628, three years after James’s death. He was stabbed to death by a naval officer, John Felton, who had served on one of his disastrous campaigns on the continent. His unpopularity was such that Londoners celebrated news of his demise. 

Mary & George
Photograph: Sky UKMary with Niamh Algar’s courtesan Sandie

Where was Mary & George filmed?

‘Mary & George’s locations made use of a variety of grand monuments to 16th and 17th century England. The Tudor-era Charterhouse in Barbican doubled as the London Palace, as well as London’s Meat Market and the King’s Banquet Hall. Nearby, the church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, a staple in period pieces for decades, was used for the Royal Coronation scenes and as Parliament. Other locations include Ham House in Richmond, which stands in for St James’s York House, the National Trust property of Knole in Kent, Hatfield House, Stirling Castle, Hertfordshire’s Ashridge Estate – used for hunting scenes – and Dover Castle.

Mary & George
Photograph: Sky UK‘Mary & George’s hunting scenes were filmed at Hertfordshire‘s Ashridge Estate

How to watch Mary & George

The show is streaming now on Sky Atlantic in the UK. It airs on Starz in the US on April 5. 

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