Writing for History Extra, Catherine Curzon examines 10 famous relationships between actors and royals…
Margaret ‘Peg’ Hughes (c1630–1719)
Better known as Peg, Margaret Hughes holds the distinction of being one of the first recorded actresses to grace the London stage, appearing as Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello on 8 December 1660 at the Vere Street Theatre. Up until this point, women had been forbidden to act on stage at all, and it wasn’t until King Charles II issued a royal warrant declaring that female roles must be played by women in 1662 that actresses became a common sight, as opposed to young men dressed up to look like them. Peg was no young man though, and she not only bewitched her audience, but managed to steal the heart of Rupert of the Rhine, cousin to Charles II.
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After Rupert’s death in 1682, Peg gambled away much of his bequest to her and sold off many valuables, including a necklace which was bought by the infamous Nell Gwynne. Peg died in 1719, having never regained the lifestyle she once enjoyed.
Nell Gwynne (1650–1687)
Perhaps the most famous of all England’s royal mistresses, Nell Gwynne began her career selling oranges to the patrons of a theatre on London’s Brydges Street, Charles II’s royal playhouse. By the time she was 14 years old, Nell was treading the boards as an actress and she found her niche as a leading light of Restoration comedy, soon becoming one of London’s most celebrated comediennes.
George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, was unofficially appointed to arrange suitably impressive lovers for Nell. Seeing a chance to increase his own influence as well as her caché, he attempted to install her as the king’s mistress. Though Charles was married to Catherine of Braganza, the queen had long since learned to put up with his many mistresses, recognising them as a fact of royal life.
Nell was amenable to duke’s scheme, but informed him that she expected a retainer of £500 a year for the privilege. However, the role of king’s mistress was a privileged one, filled with luxury and opulence, and Charles had plenty of willing candidates to choose from – even without paying them £500. When he heard the figure Nell was demanding, Charles rejected the idea, but when he met her in 1668, he was smitten.
Despite plenty of rivals and other mistresses snapping at her heels, Nell bore two children by the king. The actress and the monarch were a couple until his death in 1685, often sharing Nell’s silver bed, upon which the couple’s images were engraved. On his deathbed, the king begged “let not poor Nelly starve”, and she certainly didn’t. Awarded a fat payment, she lived on for two more years before she succumbed to a stroke, possibly the result of syphilis.
Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson (1757-1800)
Mary Robinson knew all about reinvention. When her father abandoned his family in 1764, Mary’s privileged childhood ended with a bump. Married in her teens, she survived a spell in debtor’s prison thanks to her dissolute husband and took to the stage in a need for cash. Mary became known for her so-called ‘breeches roles’, in which she played men and flashed her famed legs, a part of the female anatomy that weren’t often on display in the Georgian era. It was as Perdita in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale that she caught the eye of the young and capricious George, Prince of Wales, the future King George IV.
The prince offered Mary a huge payment if she gave up the stage to become his official mistress and she accepted. However, the money was not forthcoming and soon he had moved on to new lovers, leaving Mary high and dry. With her reputation in tatters, Mary took up her pen and began a new career as a poet and novelist, earning herself the nickname ‘the English Sappho’.
Partially paralysed by a later illness, Mary died in 1800 aged just 43.
Dorothea Jordan (1761-1816)
While Prince George was romancing Mary, his younger brother William made a play for Dora Jordan, a celebrated Anglo-Irish comedienne with a long list of lovers in her past. William and Dora lived together as man and wife for 20 years and had ten children.
However, the couple never married and – with Princess Charlotte of Wales likely to remain the only child of his elder brother and his bitterly estranged wife – William found himself closer to the throne than he had ever expected to be. Perhaps more importantly, William was desperately in need of money to settle his debts and knew that an official marriage might do wonders for his allowance.
He dropped Dora with a bump and promised her an annuity and custody of their daughters on the understanding that she wouldn’t go back to the stage. Unfortunately, when her financial situation led Dora to return to the theatre, William kept his word. He took the girls from her care and slashed her allowance accordingly.
Dora died in poverty in 1816 and left a heartbroken William to rue his decision. Ironically, even when he later made an official marriage, he and his wife, Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, failed to produce any surviving heirs.
Marguerite Bellanger (1838-1886)
Marguerite Bellanger was born into abject poverty but thanks to a modicum of acting talent and a whole lot of charm, she wouldn’t stay there. She started her performance career as an acrobat and equestrienne and soon progressed onto acting, while establishing herself as one of the most popular courtesans in Paris.
Marguerite’s most famous patron was undoubtedly Napoleon III (the nephew and heir of Napoleon I), whom she met whilst sheltering from the rain in Paris’s Parc de Saint-Cloud in 1863. From that romantic beginning, the couple were together for a decade until his death and they had a son. Though Marguerite still had other lovers, Napoleon awarded her a generous pension and even a castle in which she and his son could live.
After Napoleon’s death in 1873, Marguerite moved to England and married an army officer. The couple eventually settled in France and it was there, in 1886, that she died.
Lillie Langtry (1853-1929)
Anglo-American music hall star Lillie Langtry was a bona fide megastar of the Victorian and Edwardian era,and she had a love life that would keep any modern tabloid in material for years. As one of many mistresses to the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), Lillie was even presented to his mother Queen Victoria. During their three-year relationship, Lillie was happy to share her lover with both his wife and his other mistresses, seeming to enjoy not being tied exclusively to the prince.
Though the couple separated amicably, Edward wasn’t Lillie’s last royal fling. While still in a relationship with the Prince of Wales, she fell pregnant by Prince Louis of Battenberg(1854-1921). He was the son of Prince Alexander of Hesse and had been naturalised as a Briton, eventually changing his name to Mountbatten. Louis was a member of the Royal Navy, so when news of the pregnancy came out, the horrified Prince Alexander had his son sent to sea aboard the HMS Inconstant. The Prince of Wales, meanwhile, paid for Lillie to spend her pregnancy in Paris, where she gave birth to a daughter.
Lillie died in 1929 and to this day her name remains synonymous with the glory days of the British music hall.
Rita Hayworth (1918-1987)
In 1948 Rita Hayworth, one of Hollywood’s most popular and celebrated actresses, gave up the silver screen for life as the wife of Prince Aly Khan. The prince was the son of Sultan Mahommed Shah, Aga Khan III, the Pakistani ruler of the Nizari Ismalis, one of the largest Shia Muslim communities in the world.
Sadly for Rita, her new husband had a weakness for actresses and two years later he was back in the very club where he and his princess first met, this time romancing Hollywood star Joan Fontaine. Rita took their daughter, Yasmin, and filed for divorce, convinced that Aly Khan would abduct the little girl if she wasn’t kept under guard.
The couple’s divorce was a tabloid favourite: as lawyers argued over whether Yasmin should be raised as a Christian or a Muslim, she played in the courtroom and even settled on the judge’s lap. Ultimately the court found in Rita’s favour and she was awarded custody of her daughter.
Grace Kelly (1929-1982)
As Hollywood royalty, Grace Kelly was beloved by cinema-goers across the world. Having earned an Academy Award for her performance in The Country Girl (1954), and starred in hits from High Noon (1952) to Rear Window (1954), it seemed the perfect fairy-tale ending when she married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956.
In fact, Princess Grace’s life was anything but a fairy tale. Her marriage at the age of 26 marked the end of her Hollywood career. She was forced to turn down the title role in Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Marnie (1964) when the people of Monaco reacted with outrage to the idea of their princess playing a criminal. Further rumoured returns to the screen were similarly rejected as a result of Rainier’s wish for his wife to remain in professional retirement.
Instead, Grace dedicated herself to philanthropy and her three children. She also struck up a friendship with Diana, Princess of Wales. Sadly, Grace died at the age of 52 as a result of a car accident in 1982.
Koo Stark (1956-present)
Before he married Sarah, Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth II’s second son Prince Andrew was known to date American photographer and actress Koo Stark. The prince and the actress met in 1981 and were together for two years. Their relationship came under intense public and press scrutiny, and the pressure of this ultimately caused the couple to go their separate ways.
More recently, Prince Andrew became godfather to Koo’s daughter and the couple remain friends today.
Clotilde Courau (1969-present)
In 2003, Vittorio Emanuele, Prince of Naples, had to swallow his pride according to Italian royal gossip, when his son, Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Prince of Venice, married politically outspoken left-wing French actress Clotilde Courau, a woman who had once been described by Rome’s La Repubblicanewspaper as “a militant anarcho-Communist”. Unlike many of the other actresses in this list, Clotilde refused to give up her career but continued to act, while using her official title of Clotilde of Savoy to pursue charitable activities.
Though the couple declared that they didn’t want to be treated as royalty but hoped to lead normal lives, Clotilde’s marriage to the grandson of Italy’s last reigning king continued the long history of relationships between members of the acting profession and royal houses. It is a tradition that will continue in Windsor this spring.
Catherine Curzon is the author of Queens of Georgian Britain (Pen and Sword Books, 2017). Curzon also runs an 18th-century themed website: A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life.