Books interview: Linda Porter on the women in Charles II’s life

Linda Porter talks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new book, which looks at the women who shared the bed of King Charles II and what these relationships tell us about Restoration England

Linda Porter. (Photography by Nick Dawe)

Ellie Cawthorne: First of all, why did it matter who Charles II was sleeping with?

Linda Porter: Charles’s love life was a reflection of the luxury and glamour – but also the corruption – of the royal court at the time. The extramarital relationships that he enjoyed so unashamedly are important because they show that the king cared very little for public opinion. He avoided the general public like the plague, and really wasn’t embarrassed at all about what people might think of these women or their role in his life. Charles’s reign was a time of wars and disasters – plague, the Great Fire of London, a mini Ice Age – and through it all, his continued consorting with women was both a distraction and a way of bluntly saying: “I don’t care what you think.” He even seems to have used the fact that he produced so many illegitimate children to show the world that, while he didn’t have any legitimate heirs, he was still a very virile monarch.

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But this behaviour did threaten to compromise his position – Charles was not nearly so popular as a lot of people think he was. The fact that he was throwing huge amounts of money at his mistresses went down very badly, as you can imagine. And for some people, particularly in the cultured, political and literary classes, the entire tenor and outlook of behaviour at his court was deemed repulsive and reprehensible. One aspect of monarchy is having a certain mystique, and Charles’s behaviour blew that mystique apart.

Charles has passed into English folk memory as the ‘merry monarch’, a man who had this great air of bonhomie about him. He’s seen as a bit of a naughty boy (there’s a lot of ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge’ discussion that surrounds him) but a likeable one. But, like almost everyone who’s written about him, I grew to dislike him quite intensely during the course of writing my book.


Listen to Linda Porter talk about Charles II’s mistresses on our podcast:


EC: Your book profiles seven women who shaped Charles’s life. Who do you write about first?

LP: I start the book with the story of a Welsh good-time girl, Lucy Walter – the first of Charles’s mistresses that we know anything about. They met as teenagers, when Charles was in exile as Prince of Wales, and appear to have shared a passionate summer fling. There was a rumour that Charles and Lucy had contracted some form of marriage, but he persistently denied this. He even tried to publish papers to prove to the contrary, and no such marriage contract has ever been found. However, the liaison left Lucy pregnant with what would be Charles’s first of 13 illegitimate children. That son would go on to become James, Duke of Monmouth, and cause his father trouble throughout his lifetime.

Charles had obviously made a decision quite early on that the relationship wasn’t going anywhere and he attempted to try to fob Lucy Walter off. But she made a considerable nuisance of herself for many years. She had very poor judgment, and appears to have been a fairly highly strung woman. She was alert to the fact that her son was her meal ticket, and basically used him as a bargaining chip. Eventually, having been given some money in the hope that she would shut up, she spiralled downwards financially and ended up in Paris, where she became very ill. Charles’s brother, James II, rather unkindly said that she’d died of syphilis, but there’s no proof of what killed her.

EC: One of the most significant women in the early years of Charles’s reign was Barbara Palmer. What can you tell us about her?

LP: Barbara was a clever, difficult woman – a notorious beauty with a very passionate nature. After a rather colourful lifestyle during the Protectorate, she was married by the time she met Charles. Her husband, Roger Palmer, was genuinely very much in love with her; his marriage to Barbara was perhaps the most disastrous mistake of his life.

Barbara became Charles’s chief mistress throughout the 1660s. She was a voracious woman sexually and financially, who clearly had both a zest for life and an inordinate greed. She had numerous other lovers during their affair, including acrobats and actors, and the king endowed her with titles, jewels and money. Barbara made sure that each of the five children she bore him – the biggest tally of any of his mistresses – had titles and were well looked-after. While she doesn’t actually appear to have had a huge amount of political influence, she was implicated in the downfall of the Earl of Clarendon, who had been Charles’s most loyal and faithful adviser during the long period of exile.

Barbara Palmer with her son by Charles II. ((Photo by Alamy)
Barbara Palmer with her son by Charles II, painted by Peter Lely as the Madonna and child. ((Photo by Alamy)

There was clearly a tremendous physical attraction between them, but by the end of the 1660s their relationship was on the rocks, punctuated by fierce fights. And Charles was never a man who was entirely interested in any one woman at a time.

EC: What were Charles’s notable relationships after his affair with Barbara had cooled off?

LP: One woman who came to be very significant later in his life was a fascinating French lady from a very minor aristocratic family in Brittany: the wily and rather prim Louise de Kéroualle. She had also been in the service of Charles’s sister Henrietta, the Duchess of Orléans, and when Henrietta died in 1670, her brother undertook to look after her waiting women. Charles took a great shine to Louise and, even more than Barbara Palmer had been, she became the nearest equivalent to his chief mistress – what the French would have called a maîtresse-en-titre. She took on functions similar to those of a queen consort and had her own luxuriously furnished apartments in Whitehall and Hampton Court.

For many years, Louise continued to hold a very strong place in Charles’s affections and he called her ‘Fubs’ – an old English word for someone who’s a bit on the tubby side. By the time of his death, Louise was more or less unchallenged. However, with his death, her position changed instantly and she realised it wouldn’t be a very good idea to stay in England, as she wasn’t really welcome there. She took herself off to estates that had been granted her in France and lived out a long life there, until she died in 1735.

EC: One of Louise’s rivals – and perhaps the most famous of Charles’s mistresses – was Nell Gwyn. What can you tell us about her?

LP: Louise and Nell were always vying with one another for Charles’s affections. The pair despised each other so much that Nell even called Louise ‘Squintabella’.

What’s rather curious is that, although the colourful stories that have been passed down in English folklore about Nell Gwyn make her the most well-known of Charles’s mistresses, in my view she was one of the least significant.

Nell came into the king’s life in the late 1660s. He was very interested in the theatre, and he spotted Nell on the stage. She was one of England’s first female actors, and was known for her brilliant comic performances. (Her forays into tragedy seem to have been less successful.) Nell’s background is fairly murky – it’s thought she was the possibly illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic brothel keeper, and she worked as an orange seller in the theatre before she took to the stage.

But although the affair lasted several years, Nell was never really accepted at court. She came from an entirely different social class and was viewed as vulgar and inappropriate. However, I don’t think this bothered her very much – she was known for her cheerfulness and sense of humour. While the king’s other mistresses were given titles, Nell never was, probably because of her background. Nevertheless, Charles set her up in a house on Pall Mall and she had two sons by him, who did both eventually receive titles.

EC: How much choice did the women involved have? Were all of Charles’s attempts at seduction successful?

LP: No, they weren’t. Someone who Charles pursued almost obsessively was a teenager named Frances Teresa Stuart. I call her ‘the one that got away’, and her story has some eerie echoes of today’s #MeToo movement. In 1662, the 15-year-old Frances was brought to England from France at the suggestion of Charles’s sister Henrietta, on the selling point that she was supposedly the prettiest girl in the world. Which, given what Henrietta knew about her brother’s proclivities, was not terribly kind. Initially, she seemed to be just an empty-headed teenager who laughed at everything and liked building castles out of packs of cards. But either she learned quickly how to deal with the difficult situation she was in, or else she wasn’t quite as empty-headed as people assumed. As far as we know, Frances never actually slept with Charles, but she had to put up with being petted and pawed in public. After around four years of resisting the king’s advances, by the time she was approaching the age of 20, Frances Teresa realised she couldn’t fight him off anymore. And so she eloped in rather spectacular fashion with the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, whom Charles disliked intensely. As you can imagine, the king was tremendously unhappy when he heard the news. But the marriage seems to have been a love match, and Frances Teresa turned herself into a competent businesswoman to help manage her husband’s extensive estates, inheriting his lands when he died and settling down to a quiet life.

These women used their relationships with the king to secure sufficient financial provision for themselves and their children, in the form of lands, grants and gifts

EC: What benefits did being the king’s mistress afford you?

LP: The most obvious opportunities were financial. James II said of the Restoration era that there was nothing so rare as money. All of these people were trying desperately to survive. Most of these women used their relationships with the king to make sure that there was sufficient financial provision for themselves and their children to last for their lifetime. This provision could consist of lands, properties, grants, expensive gifts and access to various forms of taxation – precautions that would ensure that they weren’t left high and dry if they were suddenly thrown on the scrapheap.

The second way that the women used these relationships to their own advantage was using the prestige that came from being the king’s mistress, even if that prestige was seen as somewhat tarnished. Barbara is a good example of this. She was a great celebrity. Her fans, if you want to use a modern term, even included Samuel Pepys, who seems to have had a rather creepy interest in gazing at her underwear hanging on washing lines. People wanted to know everything that was happening to these women: what they were wearing, where they were going, how they were updating their properties. Like a lot of the other women in Charles’s life, Barbara patronised leading artists, because she understood that having her portrait painted was an important way of maintaining the image she wished to project. There are some wonderful paintings of Barbara as Mary Magdalene and as the Madonna, which appear almost blasphemous.

EC: Which of Charles’s mistresses had the most political influence?

LP: I would argue that Louise was the most involved in politics of any of the mistresses – at any rate, she certainly tried to be and believed that she had the right to be. Like Barbara Palmer and Frances Teresa Stuart before her, Louise was assiduously courted by politicians, who believed – rightly or wrongly – that she was a gateway to the king. Even the French king Louis XIV hoped that Louise might be helpful in passing on snippets of information. To describe her as a spy is perhaps a little over the top, but she did receive a small stipend.

The French aristocrat Louise de Kerouaille. (Photo by Alamy)
The French aristocrat Louise de Kérouaille. (Photo by Alamy)

In reality, Louise dabbled in politics without showing a great deal of understanding of what was happening in the country at the time. And it’s hard to gauge how much political sway she actually held over the king. Charles clearly held her in a great deal of affection, but the question of whether he actually paid much attention to what she said is quite another matter.

EC: How did all of these extramarital affairs affect Charles’s relationship with his wife?

LP: The Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, Charles’s queen consort, is often represented as a weepy dope who was totally innocent and had no idea about anything that was going on in England. But on closer inspection, this appears not to have been the case.

Of all the women who knew Charles, I think his wife was probably the only one who really genuinely loved him, apart from his sister Henrietta. But by the late 1660s, Catherine had had three miscarriages. When it became clear that she wasn’t going to be able to carry a child to full term, Charles was put under quite a lot of pressure to divorce her. Of course, he didn’t do so and she remained in England for his lifetime. Throughout that time, Catherine was faced with an insuperable obstacle: her husband’s proclivity for other women. Charles made it brutally clear, both to her and others, that he was not going to be moved on this issue. His insistence that Barbara be appointed one of the ladies of the queen’s bedchamber, for example, bordered on calculated cruelty.

Catherine’s life is an interesting one, because while obviously there was much humiliation and sadness, it isn’t as negative as people often think. She wasn’t just a pitiful nobody, but a substantial woman who seems to have forged for herself a rather interesting and satisfying independent existence, considering the circumstances.

When it became clear that she wouldn’t be able to deliver an heir, she and Charles essentially led separate lives, with Catherine only turning up for the races at Newmarket and other state occasions when she might be needed. She also had a considerable amount of cultural influence. She patronised Flemish and Italian artists (but ignored anyone French in a deliberate riposte to Louise de Kéroualle) and was a trend-setting ‘influencer’ of sorts: we actually have Catherine to thank for the popularity of tea drinking in England. Considering she was compelled to stay in an unwelcoming country that pretty much viewed her as an irrelevance for many years, the fact that she succeeded at all in making a life for herself is quite admirable.

EC: How should we view the power dynamics in these relationships?

LP: Restoration England was of course a very patriarchal society, so inevitably the power dynamics were never equal. Many of these women were targeted by some incredibly misogynist criticism. Barbara Palmer, in particular, was the butt of many a shockingly obscene joke in various scurrilous publications shared around inns and taverns. Although a large proportion of these attacks were anonymous, it was possible to hazard a good guess as to where many of them came from.

But what most of the women – certainly Barbara Palmer and Louise de Kéroualle – did was to make sure that they could work these unequal relationships to their own benefit. At a time when it was incredibly difficult to do so, these women managed to forge an existence for themselves in which they could, to a very large degree, manage their own affairs. You may not like them, you may not admire them, but you’ve got to be impressed by how skilfully they played the system.

Linda Porter is the author of Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II (Picador, 304 pages, £20)

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This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine