Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The King's Whore: Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

Restoration England is one of my favorite periods of English history, so many fascinating personalities, among them the Merry Monarch himself, Samuel Pepys, the Earl of Rochester, Aphra Behn, and one of the most intriguing of all, Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland. One of the most famous royal mistresses in history, she was considered one of the most audacious and shocking. In her day, she was a household name, written about in numerous diary entries, painted by some of the most celebrated painters of her era.

She was described by Bishop Burnet as "a woman of great beauty, but more enormously vicious and ravenous, foolish but imperious." Charles himself claimed that "she hath all the tricks of Ariten that are to be practised to give pleasure." She also had her detractors, among them John Evelyn who called her "a vulgar mannered, arrogant slut." And Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon (a title that was eventually given to a member of the Villiers family who still hold it to this day), spent considerable energy trying to get rid of her. Even the diarist Samuel Pepys, who admired her, wrote, "I know well enough she is a whore."

She was a beauty with a less than beautiful disposition. Barbara was born November 17 ,1640 to William, Viscount Grandison and his wife, the Honorable Mary Bayning. Barbara was a member of the notorious Villiers family, her father's cousin George was the 1st Duke of Buckingham, James I's favorite, immortalized by Dumas in The Three Muskateers as an admirer of Anne of Austria. The Villiers family had been in England since the days of William the Conqueror, but they were only minor nobility until George made his mark at the court. After his assassination in 1628, his son, also named George, was raised by the royal family along with Charles and his brothers. Another cousin, Elizabeth, would become the mistress of William III (the actor Christopher Villiers who starred in Top Secret with Val Kilmer is a distant relative).

Her father died of wounds sustained at the battle of Bristol when Barbara was a child. Her mother subsequently remarried her husband's cousin, Charles Villiers, the Earl of Anglesey. Barbara was farmed out as a child to the country where she lived with relatives and servants until her mother brought her to London when she was 15, with the idea of her making a brilliant match to restore the family's fortunes.

By this time, Barbara had grown up into a beautiful young woman. She was tall and voluptuous with chestnut hair and eyes so deep a blue that they appeared almost black. Even a bout with small pox did not dim her beauty, unlike so many others. She was also vivacious and lusty. It didn't take long before she caught the eye of the libertine Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, who became her first lover.

England at this time had been ruled by Cromwell for about 11 years, after the execution of Charles I. Playhouses were banned, as well as music of any sort, although private performances went on behind closed doors. The lands and homes of many royalist sympathizers had been seized by Cromwell and given to his generals. Barbara and her family were closet royalists, who mingled in London society with those families who worked and planned for the day that Charles II would be restored to the throne of England. The mood of the times was similar to that of the 1920's after the Great War. A number of young men had been lost either to the war or had left the country to seek their fortunes in the New World or in exile with the King. The people were tired of the deprivation and tired of Cromwell and his Puritans. Those who stayed behind amused themselves plotting Charle's return, and indulging in pursuits of the flesh.


Barbara was already married to Roger Palmer when she met Charles 1659 in Holland at the age of 19 on a diplomatic mission. She had been entrusted to bring letters and money to the King. As a woman, she would have aroused fewer suspicions. Charles at this time had spent the past 19 years on the continent, living hand to mouth, relying on royalist sympathizers for support, planning for the day when he would hopefully be restored to his rightful place on the throne of England. They immediately became lovers and when Charles returned to England in triumph, he spent his first night in London with Barbara. Barbara and the King had much in common. They had both lost father's, both were unabashed hedonists with a quick wit. More importantly, the King appreciated Barbara not only for her beauty but also her intelligence. She gave birth to her first child in early 1661, uncertain just whose child she was. Named Anne, she was claimed by both Roger Palmer and the King.

At first Barbara and the King were relatively discreet about their affair. They took care to always be in the company of his brother's the Duke of York and the Duke of Gloucester. But tongues still wagged about the King's visits to her home which was conveniently located close by the palace of Whitehall. Their relationship became more public after the birth of their first two children, particularly Charles. After his birth, Roger Palmer swept up the baby and had him baptized a Catholic. When Barbara found out she had him rebaptized Anglican in the presence of the King and her Aunt, the King publicly proclaiming the child as his own.

In 1661, her husband was created 1st Earl Castlemaine, an Irish peerage, probably to help him turn a blind eye to his wife's infidelity with the King. By this time, Roger had figured out what was going on. Although he accepted the peerage, he never took his seat in the Irish parliament and spent most of his life abroad after seperating from Barbara finally in 1662. They had been a mismatch from the start. While Barbara was vivacious with a quick wit, and an even quicker temper, Roger was a quiet, studious and bookish man, and a devoted Catholic. More than likely she married him because Chesterfield, her first lover, married another. Roger had studied law but never practiced. He had married her against his parents' wishes. His father had predicted at the time of the wedding taht she would make him one of the most miserable men on earth. They never divorced probably due to Palmer's Catholicism. He remained affectionate towards Barbara's first born, Lady Anne, to the point of appointing her one of the trustees of his will, and making her his heir.


When Charles' future queen, Catherine of Braganza arrived from Portugal in 1662, Barbara was heavily pregnant by him with her second child. She gave birth to a son on 18 June, five weeks after Catherine's arrival. Barbara desired to be appointed a Lady of the Bedchamber, which would give her an income and rooms at the Palace. However, the Queen had been warned about Barbara. When she saw her name on the list of appointees, she immediately struck it off. Barbara was naturally displeased, and the King was caught between a rock and a hard place. However, he was not a man to be thwarted by his wife. Instead he brought Barbara to be presented to the Queen at court. When Catherine discovered who she was, she fainted, blood streaming from her nose. The King was incensed by what he considered to be her stubborness. Determined to bring her around, he dismissed her Portuguese ladies, allowing the Queen to retain only a few priests and one elderly, blind attendant.

The poor Queen was left friendless and alone. The few friends that she had made at court turned from her, rather than face the King's wrath. Clarendon was forced to plead the case of the woman that he loathed to the Queen. The Queen eventually gave in, and accepted the Countess as of one of her ladies.

These were the glory years for Barbara. She was painted several times by the King's official court painter Sir Peter Lely. The images were engraved and sold like hot cakes, making Barbara one of the most well-known women in England, acknowledged as the most beautiful woman in Britain. Barbara also had a taste for politics, her house became a rendezvous point for those at court who despised the Earl of Clarendon as much as she did. She received an annual income of 4,700 pounds a year from the Post Office, and also other sums from customs and excise. She also did a brisk business taking money from those seeking to advance at court and in offices. Even the French and Italian ambassadors sought out her influence with the King.


Barbara was also extravagant. After a childhood of deprivation, she was making up for it big time. It wasn't uncommon for her to wear 30,000 pounds worth of jewelry to the theater and then to lose the same amount at the gaming tables later that night. The King deeded over the Tudor palace of Nonesuch to Barbara which she proceeded to have dismantled, the contents sold. Eventually she was unable to keep up her London residence, and was forced to sell the contents of her home at Cheam.

Still, Barbara faced rivals to her status as maitresse en titre. The first was Lady Frances Stuart. La Belle Stuart, whose visage as Britannia on the coinage of Britain lasted for centuries, was around 14 or 15 when she came to court. Charles pursued her ardently and whether through guile or just plain obliviousness, she refused to succumb, which of course, only made the King want her more. Barbara cultivated her friendship, using that old adage, 'keep your friends close and your enemies closer.' She even went so far as to have a mock wedding ceremony with Frances. Eventually, Frances realized that she would have to succumb to the King. Rumors at court suggested that she had already done so. Convinced that she was in love, she eloped with the young widowed Duke of Richmond. The King was incensed, and banned them from court. After the Duke's death, and a bout of small pox which did end up marring her beauty, Frances returned to court. By this time, the King had moved on to other mistresses, the actresses Nell Gwynn, Moll Davis and one of his sister's maids of honor, Louise de Keroualle.

She also faced enemies from within the court besides Clarendon. Her own cousin, George, 2nd Duke of Buckingham plotted against her. He was part of a faction at court that, during the Queen's serious illness, hoped to replace her with Frances Stuart if she had died. Barbara prayed like she never had before in her life for the Queen's recovery! Still there were those at court who feared and loathed her influence over the King, who famous declared that any enemy of Barbara's was an enemy of his.

Finally, she managed to bring her arch enemy Clarendon down. Despite the fact that he had been the King's trusted advisor during his year's of exile, and his daughter Anne, had married the King's brother the Duke of York, the King had finally had enough of Clarendon's puritanical attitude towards the licentious court. Push came to shove, when Clarendon was unwise as to speak out against Barbara and her meddling in politics. The King was furious and told him to turn his seal of office. Barbara had finally won. Like Nixon's enemies list, Barbara never forgot any one who had slighted her and when she had the opportunity, she took her revenge. Clarendon's mistake was that he underestimated her and the King's attachment to her, thinking her nothing but a whore, but a dangerous one. The story goes that Barbara was standing on the balcony in her nightclothes jeering at his misfortunes. Clarendon's banishment convinced Barbara that she was untouchable, and that she could do anything with the King. Once she even forced him to grovel at her feet for forgiveness in front of the entire court!

Barbara was never faithful to her royal lover. She had affairs with Henry Jermyn, the acrobat Jacob Hall and the young John Churchill (who later became Duke of Marlborough during the reign of Queen Anne). She was generous with her lovers, John Churchill was able to purchase an annuity because of her financial help. Still, the King used to visit Barbara four nights a week at her apartments in Whitehall. When her second son was born in 1663, Charles denied paternity but nevertheless gave Barbara lavish Christmas presents the same year. The couple had ferocious arguments and she was not above threatening Charles. When she was expecting another child in 1667, Barbara swore that if he denied paternity again, she would dash the infant's brains out. Barbara's power over Charles was such that he went down on his knees to be 'pardoned' for his very well-founded suspicions.


By 1674, after almost fourteen years as his mistress, Barbara found herself supplanted by Nell Gwynn and Louise de Keroualle. Ultimately, Barbara's demands were so great, her temper so fierce and her infidelities so brazen that Charles tired of her. He wanted peace, and so did the kingdom. She lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber as a result of the 1673 Test Act, which banned all Catholics from holding office (Barbara had converted in 1663). But not before she was created Duchess of Cleveland, Baroness of Nonesuch and Countess Southampton in her own right in 1670, and before she had secured the futures of her children by Charles. He paid for lavish weddings for their daughters, Anne and Charlotte in 1674, but the people protested this latest extravagance of "The King's Whore."

Barbara left for Paris in the spring of 1677, where she formed an intrigue with the British ambassador Ralph Montagu. She also embarked on more liaisons which produced yet more children until her tally totalled seven, five of whom were claimed by the King. Her husband was not one of them.

Her children were given the surname FitzRoy, and the current Duke of Grafton, a descendant of Barbara and Charles II, still carries that surname to this day. Of her six children, Lady Anne became the Countess of Sussex, Charles FitzRoy became the Duke of Southampton and Cleveland, Henry FitzRoy, the Earl of Euston and Duke of Grafton, Charlotte married the Earl of Lichfield, George was created the Duke of Northumberland and Barbara, who may have been John Churchill's daughter, became a nun after giving birth to an illegitmate son by Charles Hamilton, the Earl of Arran.


She returned to England shortly before the King's death in 1685. After her husband's death in 1705, Barbara remarried an opportunist by the name of Major-General Charles Fielding known as Beau. The marriage was voided when it turned out that Mr. Fielding already had a wife still living. She died in 1709 after suffering from dropsy at the age of 69. But her spirit, always restless and disastisfied in life, is said not to rest and that she haunts the Mall to this day.


Further reading:


Sex with Kings - Eleanor Herman

Charles II - Antonia Fraser

Royal Harlot - Susan Holloway Scott


The Royal Whore - Allen Andrews

2 comments:

Troy said...

Hi there,

Wonderful article, well researched. Though I wonder if I should take offence to the title? Calling my great, great, great, great (you get the picture) Grandmother a Whore...

I'm a Descendent of General William Palmer (Barbara's Grandson).

Greeting's from Australia!

Troy

ayas fallon-khan said...

Hi Troy

I'm too a descendant of Gen William Palmer.

How is he the grandson of Barbara Villiers, do you know?

Best Wishes to you
Ayas Fallon-Khan