Charles II, the Restoration Court and an Abundance of Mistresses

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by Charles II and his mistresses. This was exacerbated when I chose to write about the royal succession of the Stuarts for my dissertation last year and I got to write a whole section about my favourite merrie monarch and his parade of charismatic mistresses. It also meant I could do some reading about Charles’ wife, Catherine of Braganza, and find out some more about their relationship. Having recently visited Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire and seen the beautiful portrait of Nell Gwyn there in the style of Peter Lely, I thought it was time to revisit Charles and Catherine, tell a bit more of her story, and of course include the royal mistresses of the Restoration and write about something a bit different on my blog.

The Restoration is immortalised as a period of decadence and debauchery – when Charles was restored to the throne in 1660, a new libertine age commenced following the Puritan years under Oliver Cromwell. I read a really brilliant book about Charles II by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh called The King’s Bed and they commented that the “sexual revolution began in the sixties – the 1660s.” This is undoubtedly true. Charles’ actions meant that the monarchy were now seen to celebrate sexuality rather than divine virtue – never before had royal mistresses been so publicly displayed. Peter Lely’s famous portraits of Charles’ mistresses made sure that pleasure, sex and playfulness were the order of the day. By contrast, Catherine, Charles’ queen, was often shown as virtuous and cultural, and it was seen as a shame that their marriage was not the success that people had hoped for.

me-and-charles-ii
Admiring a portrait of Charles II in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery

A Royal Wedding

Catherine and Charles’ wedding was pretty much the first time the public celebrated a royal wedding akin to today – commemorative memorabilia was produced for ordinary people to buy. Their marriage was celebrated nationally as it implied security for the Stuarts following the Restoration. Pamphlets written in celebration of the marriage show how impatient the public was to meet their new Portuguese queen. One published in London in 1662 eulogised:

“Hay!! Royal beauty! Virgin bright and Great,/ Who doe our hopes secure, and joys compleat./ We cannot reckon what to you we ow,/ Who make Him happy, who makes us be so.”

John Crouch decided to compare Catherine’s dark and exotic Portuguese  beauty to Charles’ swarthy Mediterranean appearance in his offering, entitled Flowers Strowed by the Muses 

O may your likeness of complexions find/ Similitude of Vertue, Temper, Mind!”

Catherine was not unaware of Charles’ debonair reputation: her mother had warned her not to let his already established mistresses usurp her position as wife and queen. This was evident in Catherine angrily insisting that Barbara Villers, Charles’ mistress since his ascension to the throne, be left out of her ladies in waiting, but Charles putting his foot down and forcing Catherine to have Barbara in close proximity to her all the time. Catherine also struggled because she could not give birth to a royal baby. This was perhaps made worse as Charles was producing so many illegitimate heirs with his mistresses, placing the blame for no legitimate heir on his wife. It was clearly a wider worry as well: Catherine was quite seriously ill in 1664 and upon her recovery, a doctor named Edmund Cooper wrote a note to the royals not only expressing joy that the queen was now well again but also addressing her childbearing difficulties. He advised:

“betake you to an English Dyet, so brave an alteration will be made in your Majesties Constitution, that we shall have a Prince built out of You like His Father, to make Us up a long lasting happiness here”.

Though Charles constantly humiliated his wife with his highly visible affairs, he seemed to genuinely care for her and despite being advised several times to divorce her, Charles refused.

As a person, Catherine was the antithesis of the type of woman that Charles selected to be his mistresses. She had been tutored in a strict convent attached to the royal palace in Lisbon, which had taught her to be a modest and obedient wife and thus never to use her own sexuality to her advantage (the distinct opposite of Charles’ scheming mistresses). Aware that she could never carry favour in Charles’ eyes quite like his mistresses could, Catherine showed herself to be independent from the sexual politics at court and patronised the arts. She was a good sport at court and people viewed her as a kind and intelligent woman, so many people liked her. However, she could not hold Charles’ interest in the same way as his mistresses.

NPG 2563; Catherine of Braganza by or after Dirk Stoop
Catherine of Braganza by or after Dirk Stoop, oil on canvas, c.1660-1, (c) National Portrait Gallery (NPG 2563)

A Succession of Mistresses

I can’t promise to cover all of Charles’ mistresses in depth (maybe this calls for more posts and more research!) but there are a few key ones. During Charles’ reign, Barbara, Lady Castlemaine (the lady-in-waiting Catherine had tried to banish from her service) was his main mistress for the first decade, followed by Louise de Kéroualle, the French Catholic Duchess of Portsmouth, from 1671 until his death.

The first mistress of note, however, was Lucy Walter. Her name isn’t particularly well known, but she was actually the mother of Charles’ illegitimate and notorious son, James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth. Their dalliance took place in the late 1640s – James was born in 1649 – and many rumours were circulated that suggested the Duke of Monmouth was not actually illegitimate and his parents had in fact secretly married. This did not impair in any way to Charles’ marriage to Catherine – Lucy passed away before Charles was restored to the throne – but was key in that it would have changed the line of succession. The Duke of Monmouth was later put forward as an oppositional candidate to Charles’ brother, the future James II, for succession upon the death of his father in 1685 but was ultimately defeated. There is very little evidence suggesting that Charles and Lucy did exchange marriage vows. Also, Charles showered his son James with affection, looked after him incredibly well and had him married off to a wealthy Scottish heiress in April 1663, besides being given residences, pensions, allowances and patents that would afford him a more than comfortable lifestyle. If the Duke of Monmouth really was his legitimate son, why wouldn’t he have named him so if he treated him so well anyway? There is a really interesting chapter on Charles and Lucy Walter in John Ashdown-Hill’s book Royal Marriage Secrets: Consorts & Concubines, Bigamists & Bastards – it is definitely one to ask “what if?” to.

There is of course as well the famous Nell Gwyn – suggested by the Duke of Buckingham as a potential royal mistress in the winter of 1667, she became pregnant with her first child by the king in 1669. Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St Albans, was born the following May. Her time as a royal mistress coincided with Charles’ relationship with Louise de Kéroualle, who was moved into apartments at the end of the matted gallery in the palace of Whitehall in 1672. Nell had moved to the fashionable end of Pall Mall in 1671, which backed onto St James’ Park. There was clearly a lot of rivalry between the two of them: when I was researching my dissertation I came across two satirical letters which pretended to be a correspondence between the two dated 1682. Louise’s supposed letter to Nell discusses her ambitions for her own illegitimate son by Charles, named Charles Lennox, and elevates her position as royal mistress above Nell. Then the letter gets vicious. She advises Nell that she is past her best and doesn’t want her to fall on hard times when Charles inevitably gives her up:

“It may be your Fate, since Wrinckles, Age and Ugliness, the Tyrants of Loves Empire, have already Usurpt the Throne of Beauty, and have a care you fall not a Fee to the Grooms of the Stable, when you are no longer fit for the Royal Game.”

Nell’s reply is as vulgar and entertaining as her character has been made out to be through history. In response, she makes it clear she doesn’t mind sharing the king and is content with the role of royal mistress. My favourite line in her letter is the bawdy:

“I am not so old but I can Skip to Newmarket as nimbly as the youngest lass in Town and whilst any Royal sport is stirring hope to come in for a snack.”

It’s not surprising demure, polite and cultured Catherine felt like she was losing a grip on a husband who was managing to produce illegitimate children left, right and centre with all these vivacious, bold and calculating women. Without a doubt, the Restoration Court was the complete opposite to the virtuous Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell.

NPG 1313; King Charles II by Unknown artist
King Charles II by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, C.1665, (c) National Portrait Gallery (NPG 1313)

READ:

  • I’d definitely recommend reading both Jordan and Walsh’s The King’s Bed and Ashdown-Hill’s Royal Marriage Secrets. Both are so entertaining and reveal much about historical royal scandal (which I basically chose to write my undergraduate dissertation on).
  • Anna Keay’s book The Last Royal Rebel: The Life and Death of James, Duke of Monmouth was published this year to rave reviews and it’s next on my list to read as Monmouth was such an interesting character!

All my primary source material is from Early English Books Online.

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