In the winter of 1621, and the succeeding year, Buckingham was entirely in Gondomar's hands; and it was only with some difficulty that in May 1622 Laud argued him out of a resolution to declare himself a Roman Catholic. In December 1621 he actively supported the dissolution of parliament, and there can be little doubt that when the Spanish ambassador left England the following May, he had come to an understanding with Buckingham that the prince of Wales should visit Madrid the next year, on which occasion the Spanish court hoped to effect his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church before giving him the hand of the infanta Maria. They set out on their adventurous expedition on the 17th of February 1623, arriving at Madrid, after passing through Paris on the 7th of March. Each party had been the dupe of the other. Charles and Buckingham were sanguine in hoping for the restitution of the Palatinate to James's son-in-law, as a marriage gift to Charles; while the Spaniards counted on the conversion of Charles to Roman Catholicism and other extreme concessions (see Charles I.). The political differences were soon accentuated by personal disputes between Buckingham and Olivares and the grandees, and when the two young men sailed together from Santander in September, it was with the final resolution to break entirely with Spain.
James had gratified his favourite in his absence by raising him to a dukedom. But the splendour which now gathered round Buckingham was owing to another source than James's favour. He had put himself at the head of the popular movement against Spain, and when James, acknowledging sorely against his will that the Palatinate could only be recovered by force, summoned the parliament which met in February 1624, Buckingham, with the help of the heir apparent, took up an independent political position. James was half driven, half persuaded to declare all negotiations with Spain at an end. For the moment Buckingham was the most popular man in England.
It was easier to overthrow one policy than to construct another. The Commons would have been content with sending some assistance to the Dutch, and with entering upon a privateering war with Spain. James, whose object was to regain the Palatinate, believed this could only be accomplished by a continental alliance, in which France took part. As soon as parliament was prorogued, negotiations were opened for a marriage between Charles and the sister of Louis XIII., Henrietta Maria. But a difficulty arose. James and Charles had engaged to the Commons that there should be no concessions to the English Roman Catholics, and Louis would not hear of the marriage unless very large concessions were made. Buckingham, impatient to begin the war as soon as possible, persuaded Charles, and the two together persuaded James to throw over the promises to the Commons, and to accept the French terms. It was no longer possible to summon parliament to vote supplies for the war till the marriage had been completed, when remonstrances to its conditions would be useless.
Buckingham, for Buckingham was now virtually the ruler of England, had thus to commence war without money. He prepared to throw 12,000 Englishmen, under a German adventurer, Count Mansfeld, through France into the Palatinate. The French insisted that he should maroh through Holland. It mattered little which way he took. Without provisions, and without money to buy them, the wretched troops sickened and died in the winter frosts. Buckingham's first military enterprise ended in disastrous failure.
Buckingham had many other schemes in his teeming brain. He had offered to send aid to Christian IV., king of Denmark, who was proposing to make war in Germany, and had also a plan for sending an English fleet to attack Genoa, the ally of Spain, and a plan for sending an English fleet to attack Spain itself.
Before these schemes could be carried into operation James died on the 27th of March 1625. The new king and Buckingham were at one in their aims and objects. Both were anxious to distinguish themselves by the chastisement of Spain, and the recovery of the Palatinate. Both were young and inexperienced. 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 favourite, who was never at a loss what to do next, and who unrolled before his eyes visions of endless possibilities in the future. Buckingham was sent over to Paris to urge upon the French court the importance of converting its alliance into active co-operation.
There was a difficulty in the way. The Huguenots of La Rochelle were in rebellion, and James had promised the aid of English ships to suppress that rebellion. Buckingham, who seems at first to have consented to the scheme, was anxious to mediate peace between the king of France and his subjects, and to save Charles from compromising himself with his parliament by the appearance of English ships in an attack upon Protestants. When he returned his main demands were refused, but hopes were given him that peace would be made with the Huguenots. On his way through France he had the insolence to make love to the queen of France.
Soon after his return parliament was opened. It would have been hard for Charles to pass through the session with credit. Under Buckingham's guidance he had entered into engagements involving an enormous expenditure, and these engagements involved a war on the continent, which had never been popular in the House of Commons. The Commons, too, suspected the marriage treaty contained engagements of which they disapproved. They asked for the full execution of the laws against the Roman Catholics, and voted but little money in return. Before they reassembled at Oxford on the 1st of August, the English ships had found their way into the hands of the French, to be used against La Rochelle. The Commons met in an ill-humour. They had no confidence in Buckingham, and they asked that persons whom they could trust should be admitted to the king's council before they would vote a penny. Charles stood by his minister, and on the 12th of August he dissolved his first parliament.