The Sport of Kings -
Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II

Charles II, one of our most popular kings, was a fascinating but deeply flawed and unreliable ruler, heading what was seen in his own lifetime as a dissolute and immoral court. Charming as Charles undoubtedly was, the enduring sobriquet coined for him by Lord Rochester, 'the Merry Monarch', was hardly accurate, although elsewhere in his A Satyr on Charles II he stated more precisely that 'Restless he rolls from whore to whore'. The women Rochester was referring to, along with a non-mistress and a queen, are the seven subjects of Linda Porter's Mistresses.

While two of Charles Il's mistresses, Barbara Villiers and Louise de Kéroulle, were of aristocratic background and successively occupied the powerful, semi-official position of maîtresse-en-titre for the entirety of his reign, others were actresses or from the gentry Porter's three chapters on the combative and largely forgotten Lucy Walter, who became Charles's mistress during his exile when they were both eighteen, gives an unbiased portrayal of what she describes as a 'brittle and sad life'. But it was Barbara and Louise, created duchesses of Cleveland and Portsmouth respectively, who were the most important of the king's mistresses. Their functions at court went far beyond merely satisfying the sexual demands of the monarch. Porter explains in lively detail their political activities and their roles in offering access to the king, as well as their patronage and their accumulation of personal wealth.

Barbara was already the king's mistress at the time of the Restoration in 1660. Porter describes how she understood the importance of being visible at court to maintain her role, something that didn't cease when the king married Catherine of Braganza two years later. Porter captures the avaricious and cruel elements of both the king's and Barbara's personalities as she describes their treatment of the Portuguese-born queen, with Charles installing his mistress as one of  his wife's ladies of the bedchamber and having her constantly in the queen's presence. Porter questions the idea that Catherine became friendly with Barbara to appease her husband, suggesting that she instead put up with her under sufferance. Barbara would humiliate the queen in other ways too. In one of the many portraits of Barbara produced by Peter Lely, the king's principal painter, she appears as the Madonna, holding up one of her bastard sons by the king as the infant Christ, while apparently pregnant with Charles's next child. Porter notes the `hint of triumphalism' in the picture.

Porter provides a realistic depiction of Catherine, Charles's misunderstood consort, which goes beyond reducing her to the gendered stereotype of the long-suffering wife. While Charles refused to divorce her, not just in response to the upswell of anti-Catholic feeling during the Popish Plot but also because he wanted to secure a legitimate heir, she held a superior position to the king's mistresses, who occupied servile roles. In Porter's view, Catherine created her own distinctive identity with `considerable aplomb', decorating her apartments with Indian calicoes and employing fashionable Italian musicians and Catholic artists. She also hints at the queen's involvement in Charles's deathbed conversion to Catholicism.

Porter presents an interesting depiction of Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond, the woman who refused to be bedded by the king, despite his obsession with her, reflecting on her astute business mind and instinct for survival. The 'baby-faced Bretonne', Louise de Kéroualle, held the role of king's mistress for the longest time, from 1670 until Charles's death in 1685. Louise's French nationality, her Catholicism, the suspicion that she was spying for Louis )(IV and the vast amount of money she obtained from the king (Porter calculates she was latterly receiving the equivalent today of ‘59 million annually) made her Charles's most unpopular mistress.

Louise's antithesis, the best-known of Charles mistresses, was the actress Nell Gwyn. Although she was highly visible at court and her two sons by the king were ennobled, Nell played up her lowliness (she was raised in a brothel and may have been a child prostitute) and seemed to enjoy cultivating a patriotic persona. She famously settled a mob that had begun attacking her carriage thinking Louise was inside by shouting, 'Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore!' Porter says that Nell's 'cheerful vulgarity' added to her popularity (she once laced the food of fellow actress-mistress Moll Davis with laxatives before an arranged evening with the king). She also correctly states, in contradiction of two well-known lines on her relationship with Charles (`She hath got a trick to handle his prick/But never lays hands on his sceptre'), that the claim Nell wasn't interested in politics is untrue and discusses, for example, her open support of the Protestant Duke of Monmouth during the Exclusion Crisis.

The last of Charles's mistresses was Hortense Mancini, Duchesse de Mazarin (a love from his period of exile, to whom he had proposed in 1659), who came to England in 1675 as part of a plot to replace Louise. Porter highlights Hortense's eccentricities, such as her nocturnal fencing in St James's Park, dressed in a nightdress, with the king's eldest daughter (with whom she may have had a sexual relationship). Although a mistress for only around a year, Hortense remained at court; less than a fortnight before the king's death, the diarist John Evelyn was appalled to see, alongside a group of courtiers gambling and a 'French boy singing love songs', the king 'toying with his concubines, Portsmouth, Cleveland and Mazarin'.

While we might not necessarily learn anything new here about the lives of these women, Porter's engaging and well-researched book convincingly presents them as adding to both the glory of the king's reign and its failings. Evelyn thought Charles would have been 'an excellent prince ... had he been less addicted to women’. One of the book's strengths is Porter's uncompromisingly impartial treatment of the king while discussing the lives of the key women in his life.

By Linda Porter ( Picador 286pp £20 )

David A H B Taylor
Literary Review May 2020

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