Starz’s Steamy New Show Mary & George Explores a Scandalous Historical Story

The appeal of Starz’s new historical series Mary & George lies in its cast and their embrace of unapologetic sexuality. Julianne Moore portrays a viciously cunning 17th century matriarch, veteran Scottish actor Tony Curran as a devil-may-care king with male courtiers at his disposal, and Nicholas Galitzine as the matriarch’s enchanting son who titillates with raunchy scenes that make his character in seem as innocent as a kitten.

Equally intriguing as the performances in this seven-episode miniseries, though, is its grounding in actual English history. Based on the 2017 book The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I written by British history writer and media journalist Benjamin Woolley, Mary & George is inspired by the true story of Mary Villiers, an Englishwoman of inconsequential social rank, and how she used her son, George, to climb into the higher echelons of English society by orchestrating his sexual relationship with then-sitting monarch, King James I.

“There’s not really any big bits of popular entertainment or art that have dealt with this story—either James or Mary and George,” says D.C. Moore, the British playwright behind Killing Eve who serves as showrunner for Mary & George. “It’s ironic to use the phrase, given the nature of the show, but it’s virgin territory.”

Much of what’s popularly known about the Jacobean era, or the period of King James I’s rule spanning from 1603 to 1625, is its cultural impact. Literary greats William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson flourished during this period, and the monarch sponsored a new translation of the Bible, resulting in the now widely used King James version. But despite studying history at university, Liza Marshall, the show’s producer, said she had never heard anything about James I’s sexual conquests—until 2018, when she came across a listing of a lecture about the monarch’s sexuality on Time Out.

“We’re also not really taught the Jacobean era in schools and universities in England,” she says. Following the lecture, she did a deep dive into the king’s history to find a way into the story until she came across Woolley’s book, which became the show’s narrative compass. “We just fell in love with it as a period,” she adds.

Mary & George doesn’t present itself as factual truth, but Moore claims the show’s creators did what they could to “dance around” the history.

“We, particularly in the UK, have seen history through very much a Victorian kind of puritanical lens—and actually, things were much more fluid,” Marshall says. “I think we want a contemporary audience to realize that actually, people back then were exactly like we are now with the same sexual appetites and the same desires and love affairs.”

TIME breaks down what you need to know before your steamy viewing of Mary & George.

Who was Mary Villiers?

Mary Beaumont, believed to be born around 1570, was part of a provincial English family. A Leicestershire native, Mary eventually earned the Villiers surname after marrying Sir George Villiers, a parliamentarian and English knight. They had four children—Susan, John, George, and Christopher.

Woolley, who studied piles of documents and correspondences to parse through the convoluted history, describes Mary in his book as a “shrewd judge of men and opportunity”—and her sons were not spared.

Mary had married for power and financial security, but Sir George’s death in 1606 left her in a tight spot with four children to raise. To make ends meet, she married a local nobleman half a century her senior with several estates to his name. But that union went south fast when the new husband fell ill, and Mary learned she was to be cut out of the will. So she stole £2,000 and bales of wool worth £300, which at the time was considered a fortune. Although she was caught and accused of theft and fraud, Mary appears to have argued her way out of prosecution by saying she merely wanted to pay her husband’s taxes.

She only waited weeks before marrying again—this time to Sir Thomas Compton, but not without brokering a deal that Sir Compton would fund her son, George, in his trip to France for a high-society education to help elevate his status in British society, and eventually, hers.

“She wanted to find a secure and safe place for herself,” Woolley says. “That involved an active policy of improving her social rank. She didn’t really have any other options.”

Who was George Villiers?

George Villiers, born in 1592, is the namesake of his father, though his mother Mary would have a greater impact on his life. “In George, Mary had her paragon”—Woolley writes—”a charismatic, handsome young man,” who became a vehicle for her ambitions, thus explaining Mary’s constant efforts to educate him and improve his prospects of entering the royal court.

At 21, George crossed paths with James I, who also ruled Scotland as King James VI, in August 1614 at Apethorpe, a courtly home in rural Northamptonshire. George at the time was tasked to be royal cupbearer, attending to the King’s drinks, and only managing to enter the court because of a ploy devised by those surrounding the royal seat to oust the Earl of Somerset, Robert Carr, a Scottish aristocrat then close to the King.

Though James I emphatically rebuked sodomy, he was always seen with a coterie of males and had a “favorite”—a close courtier and confidante that also influenced his political decisions. Historians have debated what happened between the king and his favorite inside royal bedchambers, but James had not shied away from voicing his love for these men in letters that have survived him: besides George and Carr, King James I also expressed affection for another favorite, French noble Esmé Stewart.

George vied for the king’s attention—mostly through his dancing, and he eventually caught the king’s eye and replaced Carr. Being the king’s favorite gave George political power and he rose swiftly among the ranks. Just a year after meeting James I, he was knighted as Gentleman of the Chamber. By 1617 he became the Earl of Buckingham, and by 1623, he became a Duke—a title rarely given to non-royals. In the latter part of their relationship, George pressured James I to lead England into the Anglo-Spanish war in 1625, following the breakdown of marriage negotiations between James I’s son, Charles, and the daughter of the Spanish king.

George eventually married Lady Katherine Manners and sired four children with her, but his relationship with James I persisted until the king’s death.

What do we know about King James’ death?