Charles II was known as the merry monarch. The reason for this name is he reopened the theaters; he mingled with the general public and gambled. He enjoyed life rather than being separate from most of his subjects to be looked upon as a semi divine being. Another reason for him being the merry monarch was for his love of women. Charles had many mistresses in his lifetime, and flaunted them openly in court, even though he was happily married. He would have at least 14 illegitimate children by them. He gave them wealth and positions of power, some of them had rooms within the walls of Whitehall Palace, very close to, the kings own quarters.
There was is Lucy Walters who gave birth to his first son, the future Duke of Monmouth. There is Frances Stuart who was able to keep Charles at bay and refused him. Charles was so infatuated with her he used her image as Britannia on a gold medal and can now still be seen on the back of a 50p coin. And the list goes on. This week I am going to tell you a bit more about three of these women in Charles life – Barbara Villiers, Louise Keroualle and Nell Gwyn who are the most prolific and known about today. I will also talk a bit about his relationship with his wife Catherine of Braganza.
Let’s start with Barbara, Charles mistress before he was crowned King of England. She was the daughter of a viscount and because of the Civil War grew up in very restricted circumstances; she was of an age to know what she had lost as a result of the war. Barbara married Roger Palmer in 1659 but would not be faithful to him. She was not liked at court and if she was unable to charm people she would often result to temper tantrums. She also knew how to use her body to get her way in the Royal court. Pepys says that she was a tyrant to Charles and was able to control when she was in power and John Evelyn, the diarist would refer to her as ‘That Woman’.
Barbara was Charles mistress before he was even crowned king in 1660. Her and her husband had moved to Brussels, where the king was in 1659 when the negations were going on to restore the King. They were part of his close circle. It is even said that Charles spent his first night at Whitehall Palace with her. Her first official recognition came when her husband was made Earl of Castlemain, and therefore making Barbara Lady of Castlemain. Some historians believe this title was given more for Barbra than of her husband’s advancements in the court.
When Charles married his wife Catherine in 1661, Barbara was adamant that she was to be one of the Queens ladies and have rooms at court. Poor Catherine refused at the start, throwing her own tantrums, insulted at the lack of respect Charles was showing her. Barbara won in the end holding rooms at court from 1662; regularly dining with the king in her rooms rather than Charles dining with his wife. In common gossip Barbara was credited with every kind of sexual practice from seducing her own servants to lesbianism and even to removing the private parts from a mummified corpse which spilt from its tomb in St Pauls during the Great fire – with her teeth.’ (Wilson, D 2004 p188)
Nineteen years from when she had first met Charles she was an ‘accomplished courtesan. With her long auburn hair, flashing blue eyes, voloumptous figure and unrestrained behaviour. She was acknowledged by many as the finest looking woman of the age.’ (Wilson, D 2004 p135) Her life as a mistress ended around the middle of 1668 as Charles attention began to dwindle and he became infatuated on younger women. The records state that Barbara gave Charles 5 children, but it is believed that some of these were not fathered by Charles and Barbara forced Charles to acknowledge them. Even though she was no longer a mistress, she still held some power over Charles until he died in October 1709
We are now going to move on to Louise de Keroualle. Louise was a lady of the French Court and probably caught the eye of Charles when she was visiting as part of his sister Minette ladies. Some believe that it was possible that she was a French spy and King Louis of France sent her to Charles in order to try to keep the English king sweet on the French.
Louise was her own person and very proud. She would milk her position knowing she would not hold it forever. By the time she was a mistress to Charles in 1671, Barbara had already lost his interest. She would have preferred to have been Charles wife rather than his mistress but settled in her role. In fact, Louise and the Queen actually got on. Whereas Barbara had flaunted her position and ‘rubbed’ the Queens face in it, Louise kept it subtle. It is also believe that Catherine, the Queen, encouraged her relationship with Charles, maybe a kind of better the devil you know. Louise never upstaged the queen when they were together.
At the start, Louise did not flaunt herself in front of Charles to get him. She caught his attention and eventually would allow him to sleep with her. It was probably on this occasion that she fell pregnant with their first child, a son who was given the titles of not only Duke but Earl as well, a very high status. Louise herself was given her own title of Duchess of Portsmouth.
Louise did hold rooms within Whitehall and it is said that her bedchamber became known as the ‘unofficial cabinet council’. She had the finest food and drink, musicians and luxury Louis XIV furniture along with a collection of jewels, which eclipsed the queens own. She concentrated on becoming the fashion guru of the age, the arbiter of style. Her allotted quarters at the end of the Stone Gallery, between the queen’s apartments and the privy garden, were much closer to the heart of the Palace than Barbara’s accommodation. (Wilson, D 2004, p282).
Louise and Charles only had the one son and it is through his line that Lady Diana Spencer, Camilla Parker-Bowels and Sarah, duchess of York are descended from today. On his deathbed, Charles is said to have asked his brother James to tell Louise he loved her. James seemed to have honoured his wish and even gave Louise a pension to live off. She would eventually go and live permanently in Paris and died in 1784.
Let us now move on to one of my favourite women in history, Nell Gwyn. Nell was of humble beginnings, starting as an orange seller then an actress where she caught the eye of King Charles himself. For Nell King Charles was her third Charles, she would refer to him as Charles III. She had previously been with an actor Charles Hart, then was with a courtier, Charles Sackville (who owned Knole House, Kent) before moving on to King Charles.
She had an oval face, clear skin, hazel eyes, thick brown eyebrows and hair. She stood out among the dark haired, slant eyed beauties with her unfastened tawny hair and turned up nose and she was petite and curvy…extremely fine legs. She was described as the most indiscreet and wildest creature that ever was in a court…she acted all persons in so lively a manner and was such a constant diversion to the king that even a new mistress could not divert him away…’
Originally Nell was not Charles first choice. She initially requested £500 per year for being his mistress so instead he went for Moll Davis, another actress, who was to be his mistress on and off for 6 years. On one occasion when Moll was due to meet with Charles, Nell slipped something into her drink making her indisposed for the night giving Nell her chance to step up. Nell was able to hold her ground, speaking the truth to all she met. She had even made up names for Charles mistress Louise, calling her ‘Squitabello’ or ‘weeping willow’. She had no mercy for her rival.
The people loved Nell and on one occasion they attacked a coach, believing it to be the coach of Louise but it was Nell. They held the coach up. Nell poked her head out and told them their mistake stating that she was the protestant Whore. In response, the laughing mob blessed her and bid her be on her way. Unlike the other mistresses, as Nell was a commoner she could not hold rooms within Whitehall Palace instead she would stay nearby. In February 1671, Nell moved into a brick townhouse at 79 Pall Mall. The property was owned by the crown and its current resident was instructed to transfer the lease to Nell. It was in this house that Nell would suffer two strokes and eventually die in 1687 of apoplexy. That house has since been demolished but a blue plaque marks it spot today.
Nell had four children from Charles. Her eldest son was named Charles Beauclerk, born in 1670 and given the title of Duke of St Albans. He produced 8 children and by 1901 there was at least 311 people who were descended from the union of Charles II and Nell. A number which has probably now doubled. Her appeal to Charles seems to be that she made him laugh and smile.
Now what of Charles wife? How did she fit in with all of his other women, who was she? She was a princess of Portugal and was chosen to marry Charles as she came with a massive dowry- bringing with her to England 300,000 and the islands of Bombay and Tangier. This was the largest dowry that a consort has ever brought, and Charles and parliament needed the money. The two married in May 1661 and did not really get off to a good start. Catherine arrived in England on the 13th May but was too ill to travel any further. When she was, Charles was then delayed on business. The two did not actually meet until 20th May. When they did marry, they were unable to consummate the marriage on the first night. Catherine was a very staunch Catholic and so the two had a secret Catholic ceremony first and a then, a public Anglican one which Catherine reluctantly took part.
Catherine tried really hard with Charles II. Within months of her arriving, she adopted the English fashion rather than the Portuguese, something her servants frowned upon as the English dress was more revealing. You can see the transformation in these two portraits of her. The first was painted when she arrived in 1661 and this one painted 4 years later. She learned various English pastimes and the ways of court. She loved Charles and even knowing about his mistresses would still show her affection for him. Charles held Catherine in high regard; in fact, he probably looked after her a lot better than many aristocratic husbands of the time did. Although she would not be as exciting as his mistresses would, she was still able to keep a special place in his heart. The two would go out together heavily disguised in public, getting drunk. Charles also discussed important matters with her, seeking her advice.
In looks she is described as having ‘a good, modest and innocent look’…’her face is not so exact as to be called a beauty though her eyes are excellent good’. The tragedy of Catherine is that she was unable to give Charles any children. We know of at least two miscarriages. It must have been hard for her to see Charles with his many illegitimate children; he would have 14 in total. Charles adored his children and doted on them, especially his eldest James Scott, the future Duke of Monmouth.
Below is a plan of Whitehall Palace in 1670. On it I have shown roughly where the King and Queens apartments were along with Barbara Villiers apartments and Louise Keroualle apartments and how they moved closer to the king over time. This highlights the important place they held and that they were not just playthings of the king but women with influence. The yellow shows Charles II apartments with the brown his wife’s. The blue is Barbara’s and red Louise’s’.
Even though they have long since left, Charles’ women have left legacies, whether on purpose or not, that we still have around today. I have already mentioned Frances as Britannia on our coins. Barbara has been immortalised in many of sir peter Lely’s portraits, inspiring many to copy her beauty, which is why many of the women look the same. Even Catherine has influenced us as she played a part in bringing tea to England. And of course thorough their children their legacies live on. Prince William Duke of Cambridge, when he becomes king is a descendant of Louise Keroualle and Charles and will be the first descendant of Charles to sit on the English throne.
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