Last week Paul Andruss shared some of the secrets behind the scenes in the court of Charles II and his mistress Barbara Villiers: Barbara Villiers Part One
Barbara Villiers Part 2: Uncrowned Queen
Barbara as the Virgin Mary & her rival Frances Stuart (Nation Portrait Gallery)
When Charles became king, the great and good of the land queued up to pimp their wives and daughters to him for political favour. Barbara had the brains to get in first and do it on her own behalf while he was in exile as the Prince of Wales. Perhaps this was the reason she was almost universally hated by her peers.
Barbara was an irresistible combination: womanly wiles and balls bigger than any man. Safe under the king’s protection as the mother of his children, she played male courtiers at their own game and won. Something no Restoration gentleman could easily swallow.
Despite her volatility and adultery with the king, the famous diarist of the age, Samuel Pepys, was besotted by her loveliness although even he admitted ‘while I admire her beauty I know she is a whore’.
Courtiers sourly described her as a woman of unremitting personal vileness and greed, who wasted little time on social inferiors. Even close friends described her as querulous, fierce and infamously rude. Yet she was fun and generous, with a heart to match her temper. When scaffolding collapsed in the theatre, Barbara was the only court lady to rush to assist an injured child.
Critics claimed Barbara held sway over the king because she was skilled in the arts of Aretino, a 16th century Italian erotic poet. The truth is probably simpler. While gentlemen of the time were expected to publically flaunt their mistresses, Barbara was probably one of the very few people Charles could be entirely himself with.
It was the same with Louis, the much admired Sun King, whom Charles modelled himself on. A King was the source of all bounty, splendour and favour, and as such could trust no one; especially those closest. Charles knew Barbara’s limitless ambition, rapaciousness and sexual appetite matched his own. The fact he understood her so well made her safe. It certainly amused him to use her to put down others.
Having given birth to their first child while Charles was in exile, Barbara became Charles’ uncrowned queen. Charles could not marry her as she was already married and divorce was out of the question. In need of cash and allies, he married the rich, plain, convent-schooled Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza to whom he was betrothed as a child.
In the process he gained a valuable ally against Spain in Portugal and a dowry rumoured to be £360,000 (over £29 million in today’s money) of which he lavished an annual income of £5,000 (£400,000) on Barbara. He also bought her expensive presents: £10,000 on a pair of diamond earrings (around £800,000 today).
Charles and Catherine were married less than a month after Charles’ coronation. He spent every night before the wedding in Barbara’s bed, despite the fact she was heavily pregnant with their second child. While the royal couple honeymooned in Hampton Court Palace, Barbara insisted she was also lodged there, on hand, so to speak.
Against Catherine’s wishes, Charles appointed Barbara a lady-of-the-Queen’s-bedchamber: allowing him easy access to his mistress. When Barbara was presented, the Queen fainted and refused her. But Catherine was no match for Barbara, who had a quiet word with the King: suggesting he rule his wife before she ruled him. Charles took her advice, dismissing all of Catherine’s Portuguese ladies and in effect isolating the queen until she complied. After this Barbara used every opportunity to humiliate the queen.
She flaunted her position by helping herself to money from the Privy Purse and taking bribes from the Spanish and the French. She meddled in politics and sold audiences with the King to those seeking advancement. When Barbara’s cousin, Charles’ most trusted advisor, declared her an embarrassment to the court and begged Charles to give her up, Charles replied Lady Castlemaine’s enemies were also his. Barbara never forgave her cousin and did not rest until he was dismissed from the king’s service.
Barbara loved to show off her wealth. She would go to the theatre wearing £30,000 in jewels. She thought nothing of losing enormous sums gambling; once losing £25,000 (or around two million) in one evening. The King in an attempt to cover her mounting debts gave her the old Tudor royal palace of Nonsuch in Surrey, which she proceeded to tear down, selling it off piecemeal.
The new broadsheet newspapers eagerly reported Barbara’s exploits. The public adored her. Her official portraits, in dresses revealing her bosom, were copied onto engravings and sold to a besotted public, making Barbara one of the most recognised women in England. In one famous portrait she cheekily posed as the Virgin Mary with her bastard first born as the infant Christ.
In 1663, the fifteen-year-old Lady Frances Stuart was appointed a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. Pepys described her as ‘the prettiest girl in all the world’. Frances was immortalised as Britannia on the obverse face of the old British Penny (until decimal currency arrived in 1971).
Charles was smitten with Frances. Her refusal to yield to him only inflamed his desire. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Barbara abetted the king in seducing her young rival. She invited Frances to her rooms. As the evening turned silly, they played at marriage, with Barbara being the husband and Frances the bride. Unknown to the girl, it was arranged for Charles to surprise them and consummate the nuptials. Somehow Frances escaped.
Barbara was not pleased when a few later the Queen became so ill Charles believed she would die. He declared if she did, he would marry Frances, simply to get his way. Fortunately the Queen recovered and soon after Frances eloped with the Duke of Richmond, the King’s cousin: earning the queen’s undying gratitude. A furious Charles vowed never to forgive Frances. It says something for his temperament that he did. When Frances was widowed, he settled a life pension on her, and had his physician attend her when she suffered smallpox, which left her scarred for life.
In 1168 Charles became enamoured with actress Nell Gwynne. The King delighted in being called Charles III, as Nell had two lovers before him also called Charles. At 28 Barbara’s beauty was fading and her appeal coming to an end, yet despite being supplanted in the king’s bed she still held a lot of power. The King’s mistresses were expected to turn a blind eye to his dalliances and remain constant. Not so Barbara she was furious and jealously took lovers of her own, which only amused the King.
Young John Churchill (National Portrait Gallery)
Three years later Barbara took as a lover 21-year-old John Churchill, grimly ambitious and ten years her junior. She settled an income of £5,000 a year on him (£400,000): the same amount Charles initially gave her. Winston Churchill’s ancestor is another fascinating story but not one for here. The story goes when Charles surprised Barbara and John in bed, he laughed it off, telling the young man he knew he had to earn a living. The great whore now had a whore of her own.
In 1663, when Charles’ was pursuing Frances Stuart, 23-year-old Barbara became a Catholic. It is not known why; although Charles was a secret Catholic sympathiser. At the time it was laughed off by the Royal court who claimed the Rome gained nothing, and the Church of England lost nothing, by her conversion. The King joked he was interested in ladies’ bodies, not their souls.
It was to prove Barbara’s undoing when a decade later a new law forbade Catholics from holding official positions. At the age 33 Barbara lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber, and the King cast her aside in favour of a new mistress Louise de Kérouaille.
The King advised Barbara to live quietly and cause no scandal, in which case he ‘cared not whom she loved’. Barbara did everything except live quietly. She lost everything due to her huge gambling debts. Happily she was briefly reconciled with the King. They spent a night together (for old times sake?) shortly before he died. Barbara died of dropsy aged 68 in Walpole House in Chiswick: a place she is said to haunt.
Barbara descendants include Prince Andrew’s ex-wife Sarah Ferguson and Prince Charles’ Lady Diana Spencer. One cannot help think, given the way things turned out, if would be far more appropriate for Barbara to have been an ancestor of Camilla Parker Bowles: Charles mistress and love of his life during his marriage to Diana, and now his current wife. Unfortunately Camilla is not. She is descended from Charles II through an illegitimate son to Louise de Kérouaille: the woman who replaced Barbara in Charles’ affections.
As I said previously: small world!
©Paul Andruss 2018
As Paul says… a very small world, and nothing new in history! Thanks as always to Paul for his informative and highly entertaining post. Barbara Villiers was quite the woman….
About Paul Andruss.
Paul Andruss is a writer whose primary focus is to take a subject, research every element thoroughly and then bring the pieces back together in a unique and thought provoking way. His desire to understand the origins of man, history, religion, politics and the minds of legends who rocked the world is inspiring. He does not hesitate to question, refute or make you rethink your own belief system and his work is always interesting and entertaining. Whilst is reluctant to talk about his own achievements he offers a warm and generous support and friendship to those he comes into contact with.
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