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King Charles II of England and his mistresses
Throughout history Kings have married for political reasons, to gain security through alliances or riches through the annexation of lands. These men often entered into loveless marriages with little knowledge of their wives other than their position within their country. Kings had an abnormal upbringing, surrounded by courtiers and attendants and controlled by pomp and etiquette. Keeping a mistress gave the king a chance to have an informal relationship away from court responsibilities. These couplings were never secret, whispering on the royal pillow was heard throughout the court.
Charles II succeeded to the English throne whilst in exile following the beheading of his father in January 1649. At the age of 19 he became King and as he lived a life of exile in France, was in no position to make a suitable and advantageous marriage. His first conquest was Lucy Walter who bore him a son whom he recognised and ennobled with the title "Duke of Monmouth". Lucy Walter continued to court other lovers and died a few years after Monmouth's birth of a sexually related disease. Charles acknowledged the child and took care of him eventually providing lands and an income for him.
During his years of exile Charles moved around Europe with his threadbare court and with little funds. During his exile her was reputed to have had seventeen mistresses and to have fathered one child who was later elevated to be the Earl of Plymouth.
Barbara Palmer was 19 years old when she met the King, who was ten years her senior. She came from English country gentry and had been married, aged 28 to a royalist, Roger Palmer. Barabara was sent with a delegation from English royalists to meet the King and his court when it was at Breda. She became an instant hit because of ther beauty and sensuality. Breda was also of political importance to Charles as it marked the culmination of Royalist attempts to return the King to England. In May 1660 Charles returned to England, accompanied by Barbara Palmer. In the new year, their daughter, the Countess Sussex was born. In order to pacify Barbara's husband Palmer was elevated tot he Earl of Castlemaine and he continued to front up as Lady Castlemaine's husband until the birth of her second child the Duke of Southampton. At this, Castlemaine left his wife but refused to give her the divorce she requested.
Catherine of Braganza
Charles agreed to marry the portuguese infanta, Catherine of Braganza. He set his mistress up as a Lady of the bedchamber and found her an apartment in the Palace of Whitehall. Catherine had been "hyped up" by her supporters. In reality she was described as a woman - short of stature, of sallow complexion with protruding teeth. In the early years of his marriage Charles might spend the day with his mistress but would return to his wife's bed at night. Catherine had a least two miscarriages and failed to produce an heir to the throne. She moved to live at Somerset House giving the King more freedom in his relations.
THE COST OF LOVE
Lady Castlemaine had expensive tastes and was greedy. Court observers remarked that her jewellery outshone that of the queen. Charles bought her expensive presents and occasionally settled her debts. Charles gave her money from his purse, rents from land that he had given her and the rights to collect excise on wine and beer. A large percentage of the King's income went to support his mistress and the 13 children he acknowledged as his.
Her ladyship used her position to exhort bribes in return for political favours. Foreign ambassadors would pay a high price for a positive introduction from Lady Castlemaine. Money just slid through her fingers as apart from her great skill at spending she was also developing a gambling habit. She was known to lose as much as £20,000 in an evening of gaming which did not go down well with the Royalists who had suffered to survive under the puritans.
At the time it was thought that Lady Castlemaine had significant control over the King. The diarist,Samuel Pepys wrote, "the King minds nothing but pleasures, and hates the very sight or thought of business, that my Lady Castlemaine rules him". Owing to his attention to pleasure the King was regarded as being incapable of application and although able often missed a number of his council meetings being otherwise occupied.
The King's behaviour was in stark contrast to the previous puritan government. He took no steps to disguise his relationship nor hide his illegitimate children. He was seen in public in the company of his mistresses and their children. He did not take any steps to legitimise these children as he knew full well that this would endanger the throne. His sons were given titles with official positions and emoluments and good marriages were arranged. His daughters were married to wealthy titled men who would support them through life, Parents, anxious to raise their family esteem with the King were happy to marry into his illegitimate line, especially as it became clear that there would not be a legitimate line.
There was public unrest against Lady Castlemaine. During the London Apprentices riot a number of brothels were pulled down and it was made clear that the biggest brothel was at Whitehall Palace. A mocking petition was published "Petition of the Poor whores tot he most splendid, Illustrious , serene and Eminent Lady Castlemaine" The supposed petitioners mockingly asked for her ladyships help with a trade in which she had so much experience.. Someone even published a supposed reply. How could the court keep aloof from such events?
Lady Castlemaine was not singular in her attentions to the King. Despite being showered with money and jewellery and bearing his children she had relationships with other men. In some circumstances she even used the King's money to support them. She had regular affairs with any man who caught her fancy, regardless of their social position. Charles did not accept that her child born in 1667 was his and her last child born in 1672 was said to be fathered by Churchill who had little money but was very shrewd and it is by this that he became the Duke Of Marlborough, living on an annuity purchased with money given to him by Lady Castlemaine.
The King and the Theatre
King Charles developed a taste for theatre restoring the legality of theatre which had been banned by the Puritans and playing a part in setting up two London playhouses. Charles also developed a taste for Playhouse actresses. The first mistress, Moll Davis did not remain in the royal eye for long but enough to be given a home and income and to bear the King a daughter, Lady Mary Tudor who was married aged 14 to the Earl of Derwentwater.
The best known mistress/actress was Nell Gwynne who was the product of a rags to riches life. Raised in the gutter by a mother with a love of alcohol and men. In 1669 she gave birth to Charles's son the Duke of St. Albans. A second son died in infancy.
Nell never took on airs and graces and never presumed to be anything that she wasn't. Although she may have had some support from the common people, society looked askance at her with her poor manners and loud and lewd behaviour. She never aspired to be a lady and did not demonstrate ladylike behaviours. Compared to Lady Castlemaine, Nell's demands were small. She received enough of an income to live a comfortable life but always lived a little on the financial edge as she had a propensity to gamble and to give money to those she thought were in need.
Charles did not desert Lady Castlemaine but gradually retired her on an increased pension away from court bur elevating her title to Duchess of Cleveland. She spent the rest of her life with a series of lovers until the death of the Earl of Castlemaine enabled her to marry. Charles remained on polite terms with her.
Louise de Keroualle
The king's beloved sister Henriette visited the King from France in 1670 to assist the French in completing the Treaty of Dover. This secret treaty was to grant secret pensions to Charles and in return for this money Charles would, when the time was right, announce his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Louise de Keroualle aged 20 was a Maid of Honour to Henriette and when Henriette died some months later he invited Louise to come to England as a Maid of Honour to Queen Catherine.
On arrival Louise swept the King off his feet. He found her looks and charm appealing. She was quiet and cultivated an provided support for the King in a kindly way that previous mistresses had never done. Louise was from a good family and was hoping to make a good marriage in France. Initially she held out against the requests from the King to be her mistress but after a year her determination was waning. The couple were brought together for the Newmarket races staying at Lord Arlington's house. It is here that the relationship started that was to last the whole of the Kings life.
Louise de Keroualle was elevated to Duchess of Portsmouth and lived in fashionable remodelled apartments at Whitehall Palace. Her fashionable apartments became a quiet meeting place where the King could relax and forget about the cares of state. Lady Portsmouth had several shared tastes with Lady Castlemaine- the expensive tastes and need for possessions and the passion for gambling.
The Duchess of Portsmouth received a generous annuity from the King and also income from specific taxes such as a shilling on each cauldron of coal shipped from Newcastle. She also received income from rich noblemen keen to improve their standing with the King and retain her support at court. In a debate in the House Of Commons in 1673 it was suggested that £400,00 had been given away since the last parliamentary session by the king, mainly to the Duchess of Cleveland (Lady Castlemaine) and the Duchess of Portsmouth. Despite her influence with the King she was never able to take him completely away from Nell Gwynne.
Louis xiv was supportive of Lady Portsmouth. He hoped that she would be a permanent symbol of France within the English court. Her apartments were well attended by French envoys eager to see the King who found it comfortable to have secret meetings with them in Lady Portsmouth's comfortable rooms. As the relationship developed Senior court figures also started meeting at Lady Portsmouth's rooms, especially when the King began to fall ill. There is no evidence that Louise was "spying" for the french she simply put herself first in everything with Charles' interests running a close second and France third.
Politically, Louise shifted her opinions around. She supported French interests when she wanted to and did not when it was not in her interest. Louis xiv was angry with her because she did not support the french in recommending a french bride as the second wife of Charles heir, his brother James. Again, although a catholic by birth she was not a staunch catholic and happily agreed that her son, the Duke of Richmond be brought up in the protestant faith. Charles was never faithful to her. Apart from Nell Gwynne there was the arrival of Hortense Mazarin whom had once been considered as the Kings spouse, She was beautiful and witty and ensnared the King who could not see enough of her. However she too could not be faithful and left Charles for someone else. Louise still reigned supreme as his main mistress.
Charles's dependency on Louise was tested when her eyes strayed towards a French visitor Phillipe de Vendome. Charles coming upon them unannounced realised what he stood to lose and dispatched Phillipe home, thereafter becoming more publicly affectionate with Louise. By the time Charles was 50 he was beginning to feel old. His physical needs had lessened but he relied as ever on female company, dividing his time between Lady Portsmouth and Nell Gwynne.
THE DEATH OF THE KING
Charles II collapsed and died in a relatively short time. He eventually died on 6th February 1685. Initially he was taken unwell whilst he slept in the Duchess of Portsmouth's apartments taking some six days to die. During this time all his children except the Duke of Monmouth whom he had sent abroad, were with him but he did not see his mistresses. Queen Catherine took position around his deathbed direction attendance to anything that he required. In his last days he begged his heir , the Duke of York to look after Lady Portsmouth and "that Nellie might not starve". He asked the queen to forgive him, which was a considerable task as she was surrounded by his errors in the form of his numerous children. Of Lady Portsmouth he said "I have always loved her, and I die loving her".
Lady Portsmouth outlived her lover by fifty years, initially living on a pension from James and then from Louis Xiv who gave her a pension "in consideration of the great services she has rendered to France".
On the Kings death the creditors descended on Nell Gwynne. James settled her debts and gave her a small pension.. Despite being so much younger than the King, Nell survived him by only two years . She was recorded as saying " he was my friend and allowed me to tell him all my griefs, and like a friend advise me and told me who was my friend and who was not".
So ended the life of one of England's more colourful monarchs who loved life and women and sired so many illegitimate children but passed the succession to his brother through the lack of a legitimate heir.