Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II by Linda Porter review — lovers of the sex-mad monarch

The lives of seven women who shared Charles II’s bed make a colourful story of courtly lust, says Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor                  Thursday March 26 2020, 5.00pm, The Times

One evening in 1663 the voluptuous Lady Castlemaine, Charles II’s principal mistress, arranged a sexually charged mock marriage between herself and teenage Frances Stuart, a maid of honour to Catherine, the king’s wife. In his diary Samuel Pepys recorded that after the ceremony the couple ended up in bed together, but at the last moment the king replaced Lady Castlemaine under the covers.

Charles was roughly twice the age of Stuart and besotted with her. Her image is still familiar to many of us — she served as the model for Britannia on the nation’s coinage until decimalisation. In the end the only way she could escape his pestering was by eloping with a conveniently infatuated duke.

Stuart was unusual among Charles’s women in that she successfully resisted his advances, then and later. Not everyone was so lucky. In the same diary entry Pepys reported that at a recent ball at Whitehall, “a child was dropped by one of the ladies in dancing; but nobody knew who, it being taken up by somebody in their handkercher”. The next day, however, a maid of honour fell ill and was removed from court. It was rumoured that the king had been the father of her miscarried child.

His courtiers followed the royal example and were as sexually incontinent as their master. In this they were out of step with most of the population, which meant that the king’s vigorously varied sex life became a political issue that endured throughout his 25-year reign. His mistresses were an expensive luxury, and he and his government were always chronically short of money. The personal morality of the king (God’s Anointed and the head of the Church of England) sapped royal authority. It was also feared, probably wrongly, that he allowed his mistresses to dictate policy to him.

In this lively account of Charles II’s women Linda Porter concentrates on the interlinked stories of seven individuals: five mistresses, one almost-mistress and one wife. At the centre of these stories is the enigmatic figure of the king.

Lucy Barlow, the feckless mistress of the king’s years in exile and the mother of his first known child, later the ill-fated Duke of Monmouth, became an expensive embarrassment before her convenient death in 1658.

When the king was restored to his throne he was already entangled with the glamorous Barbara Villiers, later Lady Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland. She presented Charles with a number of children, most of whom were probably his, and milked her royal lover for all she could. She persuaded Peter Lely to paint her as the Madonna, with her first royal bastard in the role of the infant Jesus. Pepys, always susceptible to female beauty, found her wildly attractive. On one occasion he was driven to distraction by the sight of her underwear drying in the privy garden (“laced with rich lace at the bottom . . . [it] did me good to look upon them”).

It’s impossible not to feel sorry for Catherine, transplanted from the staid, old-fashioned court of Portugal to the raffish, sophisticated and sexually adventurous world of Whitehall. To her horror her husband insisted that Lady Castlemaine be appointed as one of the ladies of her bedchamber. Catherine brought a substantial dowry, but she was not a great beauty; she was a Roman Catholic, which did her no good at all in the aggressively Protestant country where she now lived; and, worst of all, she failed to present the king with an heir, while he sired a string of bastards.

Her childlessness was not only a personal tragedy for Catherine; it coloured political developments for the rest of the reign and beyond. Despite being under intense pressure to divorce her the king refused. His behaviour towards his wife was always a strange mixture of the callous, the affectionate and the protective.

The king had a taste for the theatre. One of his first acts after the Restoration in 1660 was to encourage the reopening of the theatres, closed under the Commonwealth. He also allowed women to act on the public stage. Unsurprisingly, at least two of them became his lovers. The best known — then as now — was Nell Gwyn. There was no love lost between her and Moll Davis, another actress who shared the king’s bed. It was said that Gwyn ruined a tryst between Davis and the king by sending her rival a well-timed selection of sweetmeats laced with a laxative.

Gwyn, alleged to have grown up in a bawdy house, knew how to make a splash. This was the age of bling before the word was invented. For her house in Pall Mall she commissioned an ornate silver bedstead decorated with heads — some of mythical figures, others all too real — including that of Gwyn’s main rival for the king’s affections, Louise de Kérouaille, who had succeeded Castlemaine as the king’s official mistress. Gwyn called her Squintabella.

The baby-faced Louise, soon to be made a duchess, was widely disliked for being French, Roman Catholic and unusually greedy. Like Castlemaine, she dabbled in politics. The king showered her with gifts, one of which was less than welcome: a sexually transmitted disease, possibly syphilis. Charles, who was interested in scientific matters, dosed himself enthusiastically with mercury and achieved at least a short-term cure; Louise was not so lucky: her health was permanently damaged. Although the sexual side of their relationship diminished, his affection for her did not. As the years passed, she grew fat; he called her “Fubs”, an affectionate term for a plump person, and named a yacht the Fubbs in her honour.  Squintabella retained her commanding position until the king’s death, but he did find time for a year-long affair with the scandalous Hortense Mancini, the highly intelligent niece of Cardinal Mazarin who was careering around Europe trying to avoid her abusive French husband. Even Charles drew the line, however, when Mancini embarked on a passionate lesbian affair with his illegitimate daughter, the married Countess of Sussex. They were less than discreet about it. One night in St James’s Park the two ladies, clad only in their nightdresses, practised their fencing.

But the king did not bear Mancini a grudge. Just before Charles died in 1685, John Evelyn, the diarist, was profoundly disgusted to find him at Whitehall spending a cosy evening gambling with her, Louise de Kérouaille and Lady Castlemaine.

The lives of these seven women make a terrific story and Porter tells it well. There’s nothing radically new about most of her conclusions, although she does make a good case for reassessing Stuart, the one that got away, who was clearly more intelligent and more resolute than it is often claimed.

At the heart of the book is the abiding mystery of the king, whose motives have divided historians and biographers since his death. Porter is stern with him, perhaps rightly. He is not a hero for the Me Too generation. Still, Charles II makes the private lives of our royal family seem tame by comparison, and the tabloids would have loved him.

Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II by Linda Porter, Picador, 304pp; £20

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