Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Post by Linda Porter on writing Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the court of Charles Il

20 June 2020

Special Guest Post by Linda Porter on writing Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the court of Charles Il

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US 

Mistresses is the story of the women who shared Charles’s bed, each of whom wielded influence on both the politics and cultural life of the country. From the young king-in-exile’s first mistress and mother to his first child, Lucy Walter, to the promiscuous and ill-tempered courtier, Barbara Villiers. From Frances Teresa Stuart, ‘the prettiest girl in the world’ to history’s most famous orange-seller, ‘pretty, witty’ Nell Gwynn and to her fellow-actress, Moll Davis, who bore the last of the king’s fifteen illegitimate children. From Louise de Kéroualle, the French aristocrat – and spy for Louis XIV – to the sexually ambiguous Hortense Mancini. Here, too, is the forlorn and humiliated Queen Catherine, the Portuguese princess who was Charles’s childless queen.

Blooming Beauties

Barbara Villiers, later Mrs Roger Palmer and eventually countess of Castlemaine and duchess of Cleveland, was described in her teens as ‘that blooming beauty’. There were other, far less complimentary, judgements of her during the 1660s, when her highly public affair with Charles II was the talk of the Restoration court. Barbara is one of seven ladies featured in my book on Charles II’s mistresses and his long-suffering queen, published in April, 2020. Writing it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, as well as a revelatory one. For, like most historians and biographers who have written about the ‘Merrie Monarch’, I found that he did not improve on acquaintance.

Quite why this indulgent view of Charles II has held on for so long is hard to say. The Stuarts have never captured the public imagination in the same way as the Tudors, despite the 17th century being every bit as colourful as the 16th. Charles II and his licentious court may be the most familiar aspects of British 17th century history, with the Civil Wars which shaped politics for centuries afterwards largely forgotten, featured only as an option on some ‘A’ Level history courses. We prefer the certainties of endlessly re-visiting Henry VIII’s six wives to exploring the richness of 17th century political thought and literature, not to mention religious turmoil. Roundheads and Cavaliers have gone out of fashion.

Yet Charles II, the epitome of the tall, dark and handsome prince, is still remembered fondly. The heaving bosoms of his mistresses and the elaborate dress of his courtiers speak to our natural inclination to find such carefree hedonism attractive. The success of the series ‘Versailles’, a fictional account of the court of Charles II’s cousin, Louis XIV, illustrates that there is a tangible level of interest in the 17th century, though it doesn’t yet threaten the stranglehold of the Tudors. The goings-on at the Restoration court can certainly match Versailles for salaciousness but, despite the fact that Charles II had more mistresses than Henry VIII had wives, and they were much better-looking than Henry’s rather odd assortment of ladies, the only one most people will have heard of is history’s most famous orange-seller, the actress Nell Gwyn.

Nell and her rivals are featured in my book. I came to write it, as is so often the case, somewhat by chance. In 2016 I left the 16th century behind and published ‘Royal Renegades: the children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars.’ Unlike my previous three titles, on Mary I, Katherine Parr and Mary Queen of Scots, to my dismay it attracted very little attention, despite some readers being kind enough to say that only after reading it had they finally understood the Civil Wars. Reviewers, however, largely ignored it, perhaps because it came out in October, a month when publishers unleash their pre-Christmas offerings in great numbers. And, of course, I was generally known as a Tudor specialist, something which I had become of necessity because it was an easier route to being published. I had planned to follow ‘Royal Renegades’ with a book on the family and friends of Oliver Cromwell, which would have involved a daunting amount of research.

I worked hard on the proposal but it was deemed to be insufficiently commercial and so, having occasionally entertained thoughts of writing about Charles II’s mistresses, I decided to put that forward as an alternative topic. This was accepted and I set about the research. If I am honest, I wasn’t overly engaged with it at the outset. I believed I could do a professional job and then began to find the research enjoyable. The fruits of all of this finally saw the light of day on 16 April, 2020 and I’ve been surprised and gratified by the response. As a writer, you never really know how your work is going to be received. I was also very lucky that my book was, indeed, published on the expected date, as so many others have been postponed, sometimes into next year. It also seems to have been the kind of entertaining, slightly escapist, reading that has struck a chord during lockdown and the exceptional times in which we now live.

Charles II’s mistresses were a varied and often very clever group of ladies. Aside from their looks, they can be distinguished from Henry VIII’s wives by their ability (with one exception) to ensure their survival and protect their own interests. The Civil Wars increased the confidence of many women, even if not much had changed in terms of their legal submission to their husbands. But Charles’s mistresses were not a submissive lot. Even the hapless Lucy Walter, Charles’s mistress in his early years of exile at The Hague, tried to assert herself through her determination to use the future duke of Monmouth, Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, as a bargaining chip. She failed because of her tempestuous nature and poor judgement. Her successors in Charles’s bed before the Restoration were quieter ladies who managed their relationships with him better.

Barbara Palmer was even more passionate than Lucy and much more successful. Detested by almost everyone who knew her, Barbara was viewed by contemporaries as sexually voracious and incurably greedy. Some of the things that were said about her might shock even today’s Twitter trolls. It was all water off a duck’s back. Shame had no place in Barbara’s arsenal. Instead, she made sure that she enhanced her own status and finances, while being careful to further the interests of her five illegitimate children with Charles II, though whether her maternal tenderness went much beyond such practical considerations is open to question. In an age in which many women died in childbirth, Barbara recovered effortlessly from its perils, her striking beauty scarcely changed. Even when the king had finally tired of her tantrums, she continued to attract lovers, including John Churchill, later duke of Marlborough, the father of her youngest daughter.

I found it particularly interesting to write about one of the ladies who is less well-known, Frances Teresa Stuart. I labelled her ‘the one who got away’ because she managed to avoid actually sleeping with Charles II. For five years, during which she was viewed as an airhead by everyone at court, this pretty teenage daughter of an obscure royalist exile in France evaded the king’s clutches while having to endure almost daily sexual harassment from him. Realising that this could not go on for much longer, she took the desperate step of eloping with the king’s cousin, the duke of Richmond and Lennox and marrying him secretly at his home in Kent. Charles II was furious and Frances only returned to some degree of favour when she caught smallpox and the king took pity on her predicament.

For this perhaps reveals one of Charles II’s better points. He could be tender-hearted on occasion, though not towards the men who had signed his father’s death warrant and other convinced republicans. He had no great loyalty to his ministers but did not actually execute any of them, as Henry VIII had done. He was outraged by attacks on his wife by the charlatan Titus Oates during the furore over the imagined Popish Plot in 1678 and never considered divorcing her, despite the fact that by the end of the 1660s it was evident she could not bring a pregnancy to term. Still, I have to take issue with the person on Facebook who described him as being ‘nice to his wife.’ He generally treated her with absolutely no care for her feelings and was adamant that she had to accept Barbara Palmer as one of the ladies of her household. But at least Catherine of Braganza wasn’t sent to the block, as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard had been.

And the apparent glamour of his court was really a sordid charade. Charles was so chronically short of money that he sold his kingdoms to Louis XIV for a handy pension, which he spent on himself. The Secret Treaty of Dover is one of the most shameful pieces of underhand diplomacy ever undertaken by a British monarch. True, he took the money but did not honour the agreement, but honour was not something Charles valued much, which gives him a lot in common with most politicians today. Charles ruled a deeply divided kingdom, or, more accurately, three deeply divided kingdoms, though during his reign he never set foot outside England. His foreign policy was a humiliation best forgotten and at home he could not treat either Catholics or Protestant dissenters fairly.

Still, for all my reservations about this best-known king of the Stuart dynasty, it’s pleasing that the 17th century as a whole is beginning to come to the attention again of a wider public. For this, we should be very grateful to three excellent writers of historical fiction. I urge everyone to read the wonderful novels of SG MacLean, whose Damian Seeker series is set in Cromwellian England, and also of Andrew Taylor, whose crime novels featuring James Marwood and Cat Lovett, give a lot of background on the political shenanigans of the Restoration period. Finally, there is newcomer Miranda Malins, whose novel ‘The Puritan Princess’ about Frances Cromwell, the Protector’s youngest daughter, is set in the little-known Cromwellian court. Each of these authors will broaden your horizons and, hopefully, inspire you also to read more non-fiction, like my own.

Linda Porter
In telling the story of Charles's mistresses, Porter skillfully interweaves the politics with the passion . . . an enlightening read. -- Tracy Borman, The Sunday Time  
The lives of these seven women make a terrific story and Porter tells it well. -- Andrew Taylor, The Times
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About the Author

Linda Porter has a B.A. and a D.Phil from the University of York. She spent nearly ten years lecturing in New York, at Fordham and City Universities among others, before returning with her American husband and daughter to England, where she embarked on a complete change of career. For more than twenty years she worked as a senior public relations practitioner in BT, introducing a ground-breaking international public relations programme during the years of BT’s international expansion. The attractions of early retirement were too good to miss and she has gone back to historical writing as well as reviewing for the BBC History Magazine, The Literary Review and History Today.. Find out more at Linda’s website and follow Linda on Twitter @DrLindaPorter1

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