Britannia: The Mistresses of Charles II
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The Mistresses of Charles II
by Brenda Ralph Lewis

Monarchs and mistresses were an expected combination when royal wives were chosen for dynastic or political rather than for personal reasons. However, even by the permissive standards this implied, King Charles II (1630-1685) was an extraordinarily active monarch, who ran more than one mistress in harness at a time and made no secret of his fourteen illegitimate children. Charles started young, at eighteen, when he was in exile in France following Parliament's victory in the Civil War against his father, Charles I. There, in his idleness, Charles had little to do but womanise. The first pretty girl to catch his eye and the first of at least fifteen mistresses, was a Welshwoman, Lucy Walter whom he met in The Hague in the summer of 1648. Lucy took up with Charles shortly after his arrival , and in 1649 gave birth to his first child, James, later Duke of Monmouth. Lucy was her lover's constant companion, but he made the mistake of leaving her behind when he left The Hague in 1650. He returned to find she had been intriguing with a certain Colonel Henry Bennet. Charles ended the affaire there and then, leaving Lucy to a life of prostitution. She died, probably of venereal disease, in 1658.

Charles, meanwhile, moved on to other mistresses and enjoyed at least four more before his exile ended and he was recalled to England to become king in 1660. The list of illicit royal affaires burgeoned after that, and came to typify the unbuttoned society which grew up around the restored monarch. Joyless puritans did not berate Charles as 'that great enemy of chastity and marriage' for nothing, One of the spectacles at his court was Charles ' toying with his mistresses,' and surrounded by his favourite spaniels. For a scene of decadence, that took some beating.

Charles was not fussy about the status of his women. A pretty face and a comely figure were enough for a mistress to be taken on the strength, and he was particularly prone to actresses. . The stage provided a handy hunting- ground for the regular royal theatregoer, and it was here that Charles encountered Moll Davis in about 1667. Moll was a popular singer-dancer- comedienne, but she had her dark side. Mrs. Pepys, wife of Samuel Pepys the diarist, called her 'the most impertinent slut in the world' and she was grasping and vulgar with it. Moll flaunted her success as a royal mistress, showing off her 'mighty pretty fine coach' and a ring worth the then vast sum of 600.

Moll , who gave up the stage in 1668, had a daughter by Charles the following year but soon fell foul of Nell Gwynne, one of the King's concurrent mistresses, who had a wicked sense of humour. Hearing that Moll was due to sleep with the king on a night early in 1668, Nell invited her to eat some sweetmeats she had prepared. Unknown to Moll, her rival had mixed in a hefty dose of the laxative jalap. After that, the night in the royal bed did not exactly go as planned. Charles, too, had a sharp sense of humour, but this time, he was not amused and Moll was summarily dismissed. Being a generous man, though, Charles sent Moll packing with a pension of 1,000 a year.

However, Nell herself was the target of some opposition from another of the royal mistresses, the high and mighty Louise de Keroualle who berated Charles for taking up with this coarse, common 'orange wench'. Nell's name for Louise who had a slight cast in on eye, was Squintabella. Another name Nell gave her was 'weeping willow', since Louise would use tears to prise some gift or favour from the King. Both nicknames infuriated Louise, but amused Charles.

Yet the fact remained that Louise was socially more exalted than Nell, who had emerged from the squalor of London's east end as first, a whore in a bawdy house, next a theatre orange-seller, then an actress before becoming a royal mistress. The daughter of a Breton family of ancient and distinguished lineage, Louise was maid of honour to the Duchess of Orleans, Charles' sister,who took her her to England in 1670. The King fell for Louise's baby- faced beauty on sight and she became maitresse en titre - official mistress - in 1671.The following year she gave birth to her first child, Charles Lennox, later Duke of Richmond. Louise herself was created Duchess of Portsmouth.

Louise, however, had an agenda of her own.She attempted to persuade Charles to become an Catholic, a suicidal move in strongly Protestant England. Charles was canny enough to resist, despite his own Catholic leanings. But Louise had fingers in other pies. She reportedly engineered the disgrace of the prominent courtier, the Duke of Buckingham and in 1677, another of Charles' mistresses, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland. She fought off several rivals, including the Duchess of Mazarin, a further mistress, and the young Duke of Monmouth. She ingratiated herself, sometimes through sexual favours, with powerful men, including the influential statesman the Earl of Danby.

. Meanwhile, Louise was building a substantial nest-egg. She enjoyed a splendid apartment at Whitehall Palace, which was redesigned three times to satisfy her expensive tastes. In addition, she was allowed 40,000 a year from the royal coffers. In total, the rapacious Louise accumulated over 136,668 from her royal connection.

Barbara Villiers, later Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland was another beauty with a less than beautiful disposition. Barbara, a Viscount's daughter, was already married when she met Charles soon after his return to England in 1660. When Charles' future queen, Catherine of Braganza arrived from Portugal in 1662, Barbara appears to have been heavily pregnant by him. She gave birth to a son on 18 June, five weeks after Catherine's arrival. That same day, the Queen visited Barbara in her apartment at Hampton Court, and was so shocked to see the newborn child that she threw a fit and had to be carried out.

Charles had a dichotomous attitude towards Barbara. Although , like Louise, she was never faithful to her royal lover, the King used to visit Barbara four nights a week at her apartments in Whitehall. When her second son was born in 1663, Charles denied paternity but nevertheless gave Barbara lavish Christmas presents the same year. Yet the couple had ferocious arguments and she was not above threatening Charles. When she was expecting another child in 1667, Barbara swore that if he denied paternity again, she would dash the infant's brains out. Barbara's power over Charles was such that he went down on his knees to be 'pardoned' for his very well-founded suspicions.

Ultimately, Barbara's demands were so great, her temper so fierce and her infidelities so brazen that Charles tired of her. Louise de Keroualle was on to a surefire thing when she conspired to get her rival removed from court. Barbara left for Paris in the spring of 1677, to embark on more liaisons which produced yet more children until her tally totalled seven, fathered by at least six different men. Her husband was not one of them.

No mistress could have been more different from these haughty grasping beauties than the kindhearted, faithful, diverting Nell Gwynne. She first met Charles at the Duke's House theatre in 1668 .He was enchanted by the unaffected girl Pepys later called 'pretty, witty Nell' and before long, they became lovers. Nell was totally committed to the King, so much so that she punched the Duke of Buckingham over the ear when he tried to kiss her. Buckingham was not the only would-be seducer at court, but like him, all of them found Nell was completely uninterested.

Charles never tired of Nell, who gave him two more sons, and understandably so. Although he lavished two fine homes on her, one of them in London's Pall Mall, she never treated them like prizes or personal gains to be flaunted, but as places where he could relax and enjoy what his other mistresses never gave him - a real home and an interesting social life.

When Nell used her influence with Charles, it was often in the cause of others. She persuaded him, for instance, to free the disgraced Duke of Buckingham from prison and campaigned for the foundation of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea after coming across an old soldier begging in the street. Her great worry, though - and his - was their twenty year age gap. On his deathbed in 1685, the King begged his brother and successor, James 'Do not let poor Nelly starve.' James generously paid Nell's debts and gave her an allowance, but it was not for long. Nell survived her king by only two years. She died of 'the pox' in 1687, aged 37. Afterwards, Nell became something of a legend, as a goodnatured charmer, and an ordinary girl from the slums who was probably the only mistress of King Charles who truly loved him.      Copyright ©1999, LLC