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John Felton
Felton in Prison, illustration from 'Cassell's illustrated history of England (1865)[1]
Bornc. 1595
possibly Suffolk, Kingdom of England
Died29 November 1628(1628-11-29) (aged 32–33)
Tyburn, London, Kingdom of England
Criminal statusExecuted by hanging
  • Thomas Felton
  • Elanor Wright
Conviction(s)Assassination of the Duke of Buckingham
Criminal chargeMurder
PenaltyDeath by hanging
Military career
Allegiance England
Service/branchEnglish Army
Years of service1625–1627
Battles/warsAnglo-Spanish War

John Felton (c. 1595 – 29 November 1628) was a lieutenant in the English Army who stabbed George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham to death in the Greyhound Pub of Portsmouth on 23 August 1628.

King Charles I trusted Buckingham, who made himself rich in the process but proved a failure at foreign and military policy. Charles gave him command of the military expedition against Spain in 1625. It was a total fiasco with many dying from disease and starvation. He led another disastrous military campaign in 1627. Buckingham was hated and the damage to the king's reputation was irreparable. Buckingham's assassination by Felton was widely celebrated by members of the public in England, even after his execution.[2]

Early life

John Felton was born around 1595, possibly in Suffolk, to a family related to the Feltons of Playford in Suffolk and distantly related to Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel. His father, Thomas Felton, prospered as a pursuivant, one appointed to the task of hunting down those who refused to attend Anglican church services (see recusancy). His mother, Elanor, was the daughter of William Wight, the one-time mayor of Durham.[3]

The family's fortunes declined when Thomas' lucrative position was given to Henry Spiller in 1602. Thomas died around 1611, while he was imprisoned in the Fleet Prison for debt although his widow was later able to secure a £100 per annum pension from the crown.[3]

Army career

Nothing is known of John Felton's life until the mid-1620s, when he was an army officer. He served in the Cádiz Expedition of 1625, an attempt to capture the Spanish city of Cadiz that was backed by Buckingham. This resulted in a decisive Spanish victory, with 7,000 English troops and 62 out of 105 ships lost. Felton then served as a lieutenant in Ireland in 1626, during which time his commanding officer died and Felton tried, but failed, to be appointed as his replacement.[3]

In May or June 1627, Felton petitioned to be appointed a captain on Buckingham's military expedition of 1627, part of the Anglo-French War of 1627 to 1629. The purpose of the expedition was to capture the French fortress of Saint-Martin-de-Ré on the Île de Ré. This would secure the sea-approaches to the city of La Rochelle and encourage the French Huguenot population of the city to rebel against the French crown.

Felton had connections in political circles. But despite help from two Members of Parliament, Sir William Uvedale and Sir William Beecher, his initial request to join the expedition was turned down. Two months later, he was appointed a lieutenant with the second wave of troops that left for the Île de Ré in August 1627.[3]

The expedition was a disaster for the English; the troops were ill-supplied and lacked the large artillery needed for the siege they laid at Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Many were lost on 27 October, during a final, desperate assault on the fortress of Saint-Martin that failed because the attackers' siege ladders were shorter than the walls of the fortress. The English evacuated soon after, losing 5,000 out of 7,000 troops during the campaign.

After returning to England, Felton lived in London for nine months. Although his mother, brother and sister lived in the city, he did not stay with them but lived in a lodging house.[3] Those who encountered him during this time later described him as being taciturn and melancholic. His sister recalled that, since his return from Ré, Felton had been "much troubled by dreams of fighting".[3] This was possibly indicative of what would be described as post-traumatic stress disorder in modern terms. During this time, Felton submitted petitions to members of the Privy council over two matters, £80 of back-pay he believed he was owed, and his promotion to captain, which he believed he had been unfairly denied. He had no success in resolving these grievances and came to believe the Duke of Buckingham was responsible for both of them.

Assassination of Buckingham

The Assassination of Buckingham. Illustration from Cassell's illustrated history of England (1865)[4]
The former Greyhound Inn, Portsmouth (2017)

Buckingham was hugely unpopular in the land for the national disgrace of defeat by the French, although, with the help of the king, Charles I, he had avoided legal moves against him by Parliament for corruption and incompetence. By August 1628, Felton had come to believe that his personal grievances against Buckingham were part of a larger picture of treacherous and wicked governance of England by the Duke. He resolved to kill Buckingham and, after saying goodbye to his family, traveled to Portsmouth.[3] Buckingham was staying there while trying to organise a new military campaign.

On the morning of Saturday 23 August, Buckingham left his lodgings, the Greyhound Inn in Portsmouth, after having breakfast. Felton was able to make his way through the crowd that surrounded Buckingham and stabbed him in the chest with a dagger. He missed a chance of escape in the ensuing chaos and, shortly after the murder, he presented himself before the crowd that had gathered and, expecting to be well received, announced his guilt. He was immediately arrested and taken before magistrates, who sent him to London for interrogation.


The authorities were convinced Felton had not acted alone and were anxious to get from him the names of any accomplices.[3] The privy council attempted to have Felton questioned under torture on the rack, but the judges resisted, unanimously declaring its use to be contrary to the laws of England.[5]

The unpopularity of the Duke meant Felton's action was met with widespread approval. While he was awaiting trial, it was celebrated in poems and pamphlets. Copies of written statements he carried in his hat during the assassination were also widely circulated.[3] A poem by the Oxford scholar and cleric Zouche Townley claimed that Felton had saved England and King Charles from the corruption of Buckingham's politicking.[6] The number of surviving copies of this work suggest it was widely circulated. However, contemporary reports state Townly fled to Holland after it became known he was the author.[7]

An anonymous poem, Upon the Duke's Death, begins

The Duke is dead, and we are rid of strife
by Felton's hand that took away his life

The work goes on at length with an argument that claims Buckingham's assassination was not even a crime, arguing that the Duke himself had been a criminal who had placed himself above the law.[8]

A rotten member, that can have no cure,
Must be cut off to save the body sure

Other works contrasted the Duke, who was claimed to be popish, cowardly, effeminate and corrupt, with Felton, who was described as Protestant, brave, manly and virtuous.[3] The writer Owen Feltham described Felton as a second Brutus.[9]

The son of Alexander Gill the Elder was sentenced to a fine of £2,000 and the removal of his ears, after being overheard drinking to the health of Felton, and stating that Buckingham had joined King James I in hell. However these punishments were remitted after his father and Archbishop Laud appealed to King Charles I.[10]

After being tried and found guilty, Felton was hanged at Tyburn on 29 November 1628.[3] In a miscalculation by authorities, his body was sent back to Portsmouth for exhibition where, rather than becoming a lesson in disgrace, it was made an object of veneration. A gulf was revealed between a public who revered Felton, and the authorities that punished him.[3]

A dagger, alleged to have been the one used by Felton, was displayed at least until the 19th century at Newnham Paddox in Warwickshire, the seat of the Earls of Denbigh.[11] How the Earls of Denbigh acquired it can be explained by the fact that Buckingham's sister, Susan, married William Feilding, 1st Earl of Denbigh.

In fiction

The Three Musketeers

Felton's assassination of the Duke was fictionalised in Alexandre Dumas, père's The Three Musketeers (1844) and features in several film adaptations of the novel.

In Dumas's novel, Felton is portrayed as a Puritan who serves the fictional Lord de Winter. Felton is entrusted by de Winter to guard Milady de Winter, the widow of his brother and a French spy. Milady's master Cardinal Richelieu has ordered her to have Buckingham murdered so that he will not aid the Huguenot cause in the city of La Rochelle. As they question each other she puts on a façade of sorrow and broken innocence, even pretending to be a Puritan like Felton, and inventing a story of being drugged and raped by the duke. Milady manages to seduce Felton in a matter of days. They finally escape together, and Felton is sent to stab Buckingham, which he then justifies on the grounds of his lack of promotion in order to protect Milady. However, Felton realises that he has been deceived when Milady sails away without him, and he is left to be hanged for his crime.

In the 1961 French film Les Trois Mousquetaires, Felton was played by Sacha Pitoëff; in 1969 film of the Three Musketeers, Felton is played by Christopher Walken.

In the 1973 film The Three Musketeers and its 1974 sequel The Four Musketeers, Felton is played by Michael Gothard. Felton appears briefly in the first film as a Puritan servant of the duke of Buckingham[12] (Lord de Winter does not appear in the films). The second film portrays his gradual seduction by Milady at some length, and then his assassination of Buckingham, carried out under her influence.

Other works

Felton is the central character in a play by the dramatist Edward Stirling. Called John Felton; or the Man of the People, it was first performed at the Royal Surrey Theatre in 1852.[13]

The Duke's assassination features in Philippa Gregory's novel Earthly Joys (1998). In Ronald Blythe's novel The Assassin (2004), Felton is depicted as a complex character whose motives for the assassination are altruistic.

See also


  1. ^ "Cassell's illustrated history of England". Cassell Petter & Galpin. 1865. p. 139. Retrieved 27 September 2017.
  2. ^ Thomas Cogswell, "John Felton, popular political culture, and the assassination of the duke of Buckingham." Historical Journal 49.2 (2006): 357-385.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Bellany (2004)
  4. ^ "Cassell's illustrated history of England". Cassell Petter & Galpin. 1865. p. 138. Retrieved 27 September 2017.
  5. ^ Jardine, David (1837). A Reading on the Use of Torture in the Criminal Law of England. London: Baldwin and Cradock. pp. 10–12.
  6. ^ Hammond (1990) p.60
  7. ^ Hutson, Lorna (2017). The Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700. Oxford University Press. p. 559. ISBN 978-0-19-966088-9.
  8. ^ Hammond (1990) p.61
  9. ^ Woodbridge, Linda (16 September 2010). English Revenge Drama: Money, Resistance, Equality. Cambridge University Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-1-139-49355-0.
  10. ^ Masson, David (1859). The life of John Milton: narrated in connexion with the political, ecclesiastical, and literary history of his time. Macmillan and co. pp. 150–151.
  11. ^ Scott, John; Taylor, John (1828). The London Magazine. Hunt and Clarke. pp. 71–.
  12. ^ The Three Musketeers. 1973. Event occurs at 67min.
  13. ^ The British drama, illustrated. 1870. pp. 1192–.

External links


This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Felton, John". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 10 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 246–247.

5 Annotations

First Reading

A. De Araujo  •  Link

"In 1626 a soldier had thought of assassinating the Duke of Buckingham,and perhaps the King too,so as to establish a republic or put the King of Bohemia on the throne. when Felton actually did assassinate Buckingham two years later,his popularity was so great that other men pretended they were Felton." cf Christopher Hill "The World turned upside down"

Vicente  •  Link…
"...but his mother was Eleanor, daughter of William Wright, mayor of Durham. He entered the army, and served as lieutenant in the expedition to Cadiz ....
He bought a tenpenny knife on Tower Hill, and on his way through Fleet Street he left his name in a church to be prayed for as a man much discontented in mind. He arrived at Portsmouth at ~ oclock in the morning of the 23rd of August 1628, and immediately proceeded to No. 10 High Street, where Buckingham was lodged....
being accompanied by cries of God bless thee from the people

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

FELTON, (John) an Englishman, in a fit of eccentricity, conceived it would be doing God and the nation service to assassinate George Villiers Duke of Buckingham, which he did at Portsmouth in 1628, as that nobleman was preparing for an expedition to Rochelle. For the murder he was tried, convicted, and executed. No attempt had ever been made to introduce the torture, which in other countries is called "Putting the Question" till James I, when Felton was informed that he should be put to the rack, to compel him to confess his abettors or confederates in the murder he had committed. The culprit replied with great calmness, that, "he did not know which of the judges on the bench he might possibly be induced to mention first." This declaration produced such an effect upon the court, that the intended experiment was entirely set aside, and the pernicious example avoided, so repugnant in its nature to every principle of humanity.

---Eccentric biography, 1801

Bill  •  Link

FELTON, JOHN (1595?-1628), assassin of the Duke of Buckingham; of a good Suffolk family; lieutenant at Cadiz, 1625; his application to Buckingham for a captain's commission scornfully refused, 1627; was incited by reading 'The Golden Epistles' to plan Buckingham's assassination, 1628; stabbed Buckingham at Portsmouth, 1628; described as a national benefactor In popular ballads; hanged.
---Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome. S. Lee, 1906.

Bill  •  Link


Awake, sad Brittaine, and advance at last
Thy drooping head: let all thy sorrowes past
Bee drown'd, and sunke with their owne teares; and now
O're-looke thy foes with a triumphant brow.
Thy foe, Spaine's agent, Holland's bane, Rome's freind,
By one victorious hand receiv'd his end.
Live ever, Felton: thou hast turn'd to dust,
Treason, ambition, murther, pride and lust.
---Poems and Songs Relating to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. F.W. Fairholt, 1850

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.


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