Sex, scandals and betrayals: Charles II and his court

It is said to have been one of the most hedonistic courts in English history – a sexual merry-go-round of flirtation, seductions and infidelities. RE Pritchard explores the sexual liaisons of Charles II and the men and women at his court...

Evening Party - Time of Charles II, 1850. A satirical illustration of King Charles II (1630?1685). King Charles II (163-?1685) was know as the 'Merry Monarch'. He had a great fondness for women and had many mistresses. From The Comic History of England by Gilbert Abbott A. Beckett, illustrated by John Leech [Bradbury, Agnew & Co., London, 1850.] (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Drawing on a wealth of evidence by contemporary observers, such as diaries, memoirs, letters, gossip and satire, Scandalous Liaisons: Charles II and His Court recounts the king’s many mistresses, including Barbara Villiers and Nell Gwyn. Here, writing for History Extra, Pritchard introduces you to the pleasure-seeking world of Charles II’s court…

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Most people think of Charles II as the ‘merry monarch’, with his perky Cockney mistress, Nell Gwyn (perhaps the Barbara Windsor of her day), at the centre of a court remarkable for its gaiety, extravagance, and amorous entanglements. The poet John Dryden, always agreeable to the ruling classes, described it as a “laughing, quaffing and unthinking time”, but it is clear that there was widespread disapproval of this ‘brave new world’, as is suggested by the title of poet Samuel Butler’s Satire upon the Licentious Age of Charles the Second. Samuel Pepys recorded the king dancing to a popular tune of the time, ‘Cuckolds All A-Row’, which well suggests the cheery, heartless, amoral world of the royal court.

Restoration comedies provoked uneasy laughter about adultery and cuckoldry [an act of adultery committed by a married woman against her husband]. Performances such as these reflected a preoccupation of the upper classes, where young people were married off at unsuitably early ages, in pursuit of money and estates. A wealthy young heiress was considered valuable property, to be secured by any means. On several occasions, men carried off young ladies in coaches, either to marry them or extort money from their relatives.

In Charles’s day, steely-eyed mothers and prospective mothers-in-law were constantly on the hunt for a bride. While Charles was a young man in France, his own mother, Queen Henrietta Maria, worked hard to find him a suitable wife: aristocratic – preferably royal – with money to support him and his indigent entourage, and to finance Charles’s soldiers in England.

Various German princesses were wheeled out for examination – in person or through portraiture – dismissed with Charles’s favourite oath, “Ods’s fish! They are all dull and foggy”. Just before Charles’s restoration to the throne in 1660, Cardinal Mazarin’s niece, Hortense Mancini, seemed a strong contender for the role of Charles’s wife, but the Cardinal ultimately decided Charles was not a good investment (though some years later Hortense became one of Charles’s mistresses).
 
While this business was going on, a series of courtiers’ young wives loyally laid themselves down for their (prospective) king, with a view to present or future rewards; Charles was always generous to those who did him service, even when he could not really afford it. These young women, like most of the women in Charles’s life, would have been generally dismissed as ‘buttered buns’ – that is, as women who had been recently possessed by other men, and not to be taken seriously.

One such woman was the young Lucy Walter, previously mistress to Algernon Sidney in London, then to Robert Sidney in Holland, probably at the court of Mary, Princess of Orange (sister of Charles). This relationship caused great anxiety to Charles’s advisers, especially Edward Hyde (later Earl of Clarendon) and his mother, who feared Charles might marry a commoner with a bad reputation.

Lucy bore Charles a son, later the Duke of Monmouth. Lucy also bore another child, not by Charles, and the affair fizzled out before her early death in November 1658. Lucy was replaced, very promptly, by Mrs Barbara Palmer, better known as Barbara Villiers, later Countess Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland – titles earned by her own efforts in the bedroom.

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King Charles II’s mistress Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, Countess of Castlemaine, c1660s. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Charles had many mistresses in both France and England. One of his servants, Thomas Chiffinch, used to bring them up to him via the back stairs to his room. Charles also had liaisons with many actresses: Mistress Knight, Mistress Weaver; and one, Moll Davis, was given a house; a pension of £1,000 a year; and an expensive ring. Moll’s rival, Nell Gwyn, once put a powerful laxative in her competitor’s food when she was due to be in bed with Charles.

One woman who didn’t want to sleep with Charles was the beautiful young Frances Stuart: she held on to her virginity, despite all Charles’s pleadings, and eventually eloped with the Duke of Richmond – much to the king’s fury.

Another lady put in Charles’s way was the celebrated Italian beauty and sexual adventuress, Hortense Mancini. She was ‘imported’ by Ralph Montagu, the English ambassador to France, who was hoping to supplant Barbara Villiers [with whom the king had lost interest] and further his own career. Unfortunately for Ralph, Hortense was not interested in political manoeuvring, only in gambling and sex; her affair with Charles did not last long.

A philandering brother

While in France with Charles in May 1660, the king’s brother, James, Duke of York, enjoying the licentious atmosphere of the court there, had an affair with Anne Hyde, the daughter of the future Earl of Clarendon, the king’s chancellor. Anne went through a form of marriage with him [possibly not performed by a priest, but by verbal promises only]. By the time the couple returned to England, Anne was pregnant, and despite colourful stories accusing her of promiscuity (spread by courtiers friendly to James), James had to marry her properly [by chaplain], which wrecked his chances of marrying a wealthy foreign aristocrat or princess.

As for public opinion, most people likely tended to agree with the Earl of Sandwich, who told Pepys that, among his father’s many sayings [his father was the previous Earl of Sandwich] was one, that “He that gets a wench with child and marries her afterward, it was as if a man should shit in his hat and clap it on his head”.

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Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, who became the first wife of James, Duke of York, the future King James II. She was the mother of two later queens of England, Mary II and Anne. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Anne had a difficult time at court, sneered at for being a commoner and suspected of being a social climber, but she behaved with courage and dignity. James’s marriage did not hinder his continual, relentless philandering, however. A distressed Anne took to comfort eating, becoming increasingly larger, while James’s energetic activities in the hunting field (and bedroom) kept him thin.

One of James’s early affairs was with Lady Anne Carnegie, later Countess of Southesk, who, as Anne Hamilton, had been a teenage friend of Barbara Villiers, a lady who is remembered as being one of the most notorious of Charles’s many mistresses. Trying to be discreet, James apparently took the precaution of visiting the lady only formally, accompanied by a third person (who would wait in an outer room). On one occasion, the person playing gooseberry was Richard Talbot, a courtier and friend of both Charles and James.

While waiting, Talbot looked out of the window, and saw a man whom he recognised coming into the house. Talbot, who had been abroad, did not know that Lord Carnegie, Lady Carnegie’s husband, had been made Earl of Southesk. “Welcome, Carnegie, dear old friend! Where the devil have you been? Why are you here? Are you, too, after Lady Southesk? If so, you had better go away, for I must tell you, the Duke of York is in love with her, and is even now inside, in her chamber.”

The dumbfounded earl was hustled downstairs, out of his own house and into his carriage. Talbot went back, impatient to tell the couple the amusing story of the hopeful visitor. He was very surprised that his story gave them no pleasure at all, and was only annoyed that Carnegie had changed his title to Earl of Southesk without telling him.

The story does not end yet. As Pepys and others at court heard, when Southesk realised his wife was sleeping with the duke, he went to an infected whore in order to get the pox. Southesk then deliberately infected his wife, who in turn transferred it to the duke. Pepys thought this “the most pernicious and foul piece of revenge that ever [he] heard of”. Whether or not the story was true, the duke did contract the pox, which he in turn transferred to his other partners.
 

Royal mistresses

Many court ladies sought the prestige of becoming a royal mistress, if only for a while. One such woman was the pretty young Margaret Brooke, who indicated her willingness to James early on, but would not go further until she was safely married. At 18, she charmed 50-year-old Sir John Denham: a tall, thin, stork-like poet and gambler, who bet against the odds by marrying her. Almost immediately Margaret became James’s very public mistress. This was a situation the court wits relished, and many lampoons and vulgar verses circulated, mocking the unequal marriage and cuckolding. This was too much for Sir John, who, for a while, went mad, reportedly telling the king that he was the Holy Ghost.

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Margaret Brooke, Lady Denham, c1660s. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Soon after this, Margaret fell seriously ill; on her deathbed she accused Sir John of poisoning her with a chocolate drink. A post-mortem analysis was performed but, not surprisingly, no traces of poison were found. The story of poisoning was, nevertheless, widely believed. Some thought Sir John was responsible, while others blamed the Duchess of York [Anne Hyde, daughter of the Earl of Clarendon].

Let us now return to Barbara Villiers, who was recognised as the pre-eminent court beauty. Passionate, demanding, insatiable (sexually and financially), and violent-tempered, she dominated Charles and court life – poor Catherine of Braganza, brought from Portugal to be Charles’s queen, stood no chance against the glamour queen of the court, (not least because Barbara was notably fecund and Catherine proved barren), screwing vast sums of money from the king, while being openly unfaithful.

Barbara’s many lovers included actors such as Charles Hart (Nell Gwyn’s first lover); Jacob Hall, a muscular gymnast and acrobat; the court ladies’ ‘cock of the walk’, Harry Jermyn; and the youthful John Churchill (later Duke of Marlborough). Barbara was generous in rewarding her lovers (with Charles’s money), though the swaggering boasts of one, John Ellis, were cut short when she had him castrated. Not surprisingly, Barbara was widely hated. One ballad included the verse,
                                         Next comes Castlemaine,
                                         That prerogative quean;
                                         If I had such a bitch I would spay her;
                                         She swives like a stoat,
                                         Goes to’t leg and foot,
                                         Level coil with a prince and a player.

‘Prerogative’ suggests Barbara’s arrogance, while the Oxford English Dictionary derives ‘level coil’ from the French lever le cul, or ‘hitch-buttock’.

Barbara’s overbearing behaviour, her dreadful public reputation, and the sheer expense of paying her costs and gambling debts, meant that her power and influence over the king eventually declined, and as she spent less time at court, other mistresses superseded her.

Some of these mistresses were deliberately put in the king’s way by court politicians hoping for indirect influence, usually in vain. One such woman was Nell Gwyn, who rose from very humble beginnings to theatre stardom. She became a long-term favourite of Charles, enjoyed not only for her sexuality but her wit, entertainment value, and good nature.

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c1670, English stage actress Nell Gwyn, mistress of King Charles II. She bore the king at least one illegitimate son. Original Artwork: Engraving by Walter L Colls, from an engraving by Valck after a painting by Sir Peter Lely. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

More important, emotionally, to Charles was Nell’s great rival, from the opposite end of the social spectrum, Louise de Kéroualle. Louise was brought from the French court, and openly took part in English court politics, hoping to promote French interests. Nell constantly mocked and abused her: ‘Squintabella’ was one nickname, for the slight cast she had in one eye, as well as ‘the weeping willow’, for her tendency to weep when thwarted or upset. Once, when Louise had been appointed Duchess of Portsmouth (as a reward for her sexual favours) she said condescendingly to Nell, who was looking particularly fine, “Nelly, you are grown rich, I believe, by your dress; why woman you are fine enough to be a queen”. Nelly riposted, “You are entirely right, madam, and I am whore enough to be a duchess.”

As it was, at the end, as Charles lay on his deathbed, his thoughts were likely with both women. Louise, he said, he loved and always had, and added, according to legend, “Let not poor Nelly starve”.

The fact was that in Charles’s later years (only in middle age, as we would understand it), his sexual appetite – and, it was widely rumoured, sexual capability – declined, so that more of his leisure time was spent sailing and fishing, while his women settled for a quieter time at court (while picking up other lovers along the way).

By the end of Charles’s reign, there was an increasing sense of weariness and disgust at what was seen as a degenerate court. In 1683, even one of the previously most debauched libertine courtiers, Charles Sackville, wrote a lengthy satire, or diatribe – beginning:
                                Go on, my muse, and with bold voice proclaim
                                The vicious lives and long detested fame
                                Of scoundrel lords, and their lewd wives’ amours,
                                Pimp statesmen, canting priests, Court bawds and whores…

The picture Sackville sketched was harsh, but not without truth. Certainly the court had devoted itself to pleasure and selfishness, superficial gaiety covering corruption. A good time was had, but it was not really a good time. The intrigues and liaisons were often regarded even then as scandalous; but perhaps, at a distance of more than 300 years, they retain some value as entertainment.  

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R E Pritchard is the author of Scandalous Liaisons: Charles II and His Court (Amberley Publishing, 2015). To find out more, click here.