Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II by Linda Porter review — in the king’s bed

These portraits of some of the many women who shared Charles II’s affections give a new perspective on the complicated politics of the Restoration

Review by Tracy Borman     Sunday March 29 2020      The Sunday Times

The gallery at Hampton Court that leads from Henry VIII’s state apartments to the baroque splendour of William and Mary’s palace is lined with a series of portraits by the celebrated 17th-century painter Sir Peter Lely. Known collectively as the Windsor Beauties, after the palace in which they were originally displayed, each one depicts a lady from the court of Charles II, a number of whom were among his many mistresses.

Charles II has gone down in history as the “Merrie Monarch” or, to his courtiers, “Old Rowley” after one of his favourite stallions. This charismatic, pleasure-loving king seemed just what the country needed after almost 20 years of bloody civil war and puritanical rule. To the untrained eye, life at the newly restored royal court was one long party at which the women were beautiful and pampered adornments.

However, as Linda Porter’s engaging new book about the king and his mistresses shows, the underlying politics were extraordinarily complicated. The fact that the king’s mistresses spent so much time alone with him gave them great influence — real or perceived it hardly mattered, since they were able to take full advantage. And Charles’s generosity towards them contributed to his spats with parliament over financial support and taxation.

In telling the story of Charles’s mistresses, Porter skilfully interweaves the politics with the passion. Her book focuses on seven women who dominated his life, from his adolescence in exile to his 25 years on the throne.

Charles’s love of women began early. What better way to while away the hours of his exile during the Interregnum than in the company of ladies such as Lucy Walter, his first recorded mistress and the mother of his son James (later the rebellious Duke of Monmouth). He saw no reason to change his womanising habits after being restored to the throne in 1660. By then he had already begun an affair with the most notorious of all his mistresses: “the exquisite whore”, Barbara Villiers. Their long and tempestuous relationship would be played out against a backdrop of plague, fire, political upheaval and war.

With her statuesque figure, luxurious brown hair and heavy-lidded violet eyes, Barbara was considered one of the most beautiful women of the day. The only thing she lacked was a fortune, but thanks to her affair with the king she soon put that to rights. She would regularly help herself to money from the privy purse and profited from taking bribes from those who sought her royal lover’s favour. She also promoted the interests of the five children she had by Charles, notably her eldest son, Charles FitzRoy, who inherited the Duchy of Cleveland that the king had bestowed on her.

Barbara’s influence grew so great that she has been referred to as the “uncrowned queen”. Her disregard for the real queen, Catherine of Braganza, was such that she let it be known she would give birth to her second child at Hampton Court Palace while Charles and his wife were honeymooning there. Poor Catherine, who was so shocked on being introduced to Barbara that she fainted, was even obliged to accept her husband’s mistress as lady of the bedchamber.

However, even Barbara’s power was not limitless, and by 1668 she had a serious rival for the king’s affections in the form of the woman she witheringly referred to as “that pitiful strolling actress”. Nell Gwyn allegedly caught Charles’s eye when they both attended a play at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The king was said to have spent most of the performance casting lustful glances at her.

The daughter of a brothel-keeper, Nell may have been a child prostitute before beginning a career on the stage. She was much more popular than any of Charles’s other mistresses thanks to her generosity and good humour — Samuel Pepys called her “pretty, witty Nell”.

“She hath got a trick to handle his prick / But never lays hands on his sceptre.” This bawdy rhyme implies that Nell lacked any political influence, but her association with the royal favourite the Duke of Buckingham and her eagerness to further the interests of her children by the king prove that she was a shrewd operator.

Nell was undoubtedly fond of her royal lover, but the woman who loved him most was the long-suffering Catherine. Tragically she was also the only one who did not bear him a child (Charles had 14 by his mistresses), because of a gynaecological condition that resulted in frequent, heavy periods and a tendency towards miscarriage. Although Charles was the most unfaithful of husbands, he did develop a genuine affection for his wife and withstood pressure to end the marriage on the basis of her childlessness.

The story of Charles II’s sexual exploits is one of the most salacious in British history. It kept his courtiers in gossip for the entire reign and provided ample fodder for diarists. But this gossip is something Porter chooses not to focus on, despite a subtitle promising “sex and scandal”.

Instead she provides a set of impeccably researched pen portraits of the women who dominated the king’s life. Providing a seamless narrative is a challenge for composite biographies, and Porter’s chronology is occasionally problematic, with overlaps and repeated events — perhaps not surprising, given that the mistresses overlapped. But allowing the women, not their “Merrie Monarch”, to take centre stage makes for an enlightening read.

The epilogue charts their varying fortunes after the death of their royal lover. One of the last of them, Louise de Kéroualle, was dismissed as “just a dead king’s mistress”, but the same could be said of all the mistresses, who mostly slipped into obscurity.

The woman who fared best was Catherine. Having finally secured permission to return to her native Portugal in 1692, she became regent for her nephew 13 years later at the age of 67.

No longer overshadowed by her late husband’s infidelities, her talents shone through and she proved a popular and able ruler, described as “one of the greatest and most illustrious princesses in the world”.

Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II by Linda Porter
Picador £20, ebook £16.99 pp304

 Return to Mistresses web page.