11 May 2019

Ancestress of the Aristocracy

By Peter Lely via Wikimedia Commons
The wife of Roger Palmer had six children, but Roger had none.

When you've got it, you've got it. And, Barbara Villiers definitely had it. Although she was born among the lower rungs of the English aristocracy, she rose to the very top by using the assets that had been granted her: stunning good looks and an even more stunning sensuality.

Soon after the teenage Barbara married the future Member of Parliament Roger Palmer, she met a man with an even brighter future: the exiled King Charles II. Charles has been living on the Continent since the English Civil War had ended the monarchy and executed his father, but he was preparing to return one day. Fortunately for Barbara, his libido was as big as his ambition. The two became lovers less than a year after her marriage. Despite this, Roger and Barbara remained together even when she bore a daughter, whom Charles later recognized as his own. Roger believed the little girl was his own and showed her favor throughout his life, even making her his heir. However, when another child arrived a year later, Roger apparently started to to figure out what was happening. He and Barbara separated but still remained married.

Always one with an eye for the ladies, the 32-year-old King already had three other children by two other women when Barbara gave birth to their second child together. He also had a brand new royal bride, the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. However, Charles was completely besotted with Barbara. When the already well-informed Catherine struck Barbara's name off a list of women intended to serve her, Barbara complained to the King, who publicly brought her to the Queen's presence. The convent-raised Catherine developed a bloody nose and fainted. This dramatic encounter clearly showed all and sundry that it was Barbara, not the new Queen, whom the King most wished to please. In fact, the King even dismissed all of Catherine's Portuguese ladies in a display of disgust at her behavior.

The two women remained bitter rivals, but neither managed to hold the King's undivided attention. In fact it's said that Barbara prayed fervently for Catherine's recovery from a deathly illness because she worried that a new Queen might not only replace her in the King's affections but might actually deliver an heir. You see, while Barbara continued to pop out royal bastards for Charles, Catherine never carried any of her few pregnancies to term. Barbara's fecundity was awarded by Charles after the very first child, when Charles gave her husband the title Earl of Castlemaine, thereby making her a Countess. Nine years later, he gave her her own titles as Duchess of Cleveland, Countess of Southampton and Baroness Nonsuch. This he did despite the fact that she was never sexually loyal to him. In fact, it was strongly believed that her last child didn't belong to the King. When Charles refused to acknowledge the expected baby, Barbara threatened to kill it. Always more ready for a party than a fight, Charles gave this new child the same royal surname as Barbara's other children, Fitzroy, which means "child of the King."

By Peter Lely via Wikimedia Commons
Known as the "Merry Monarch", Charles preferred to laugh at Barbara's sexual foibles. When he happened upon one of her poor, young lovers sneaking out the window, he hollered after him, "I forgive you, for I know you only do it for your bread." Of course, the "bread" that Barbara so generously gave to her lovers came largely from the King, who greatly enriched her. This combined with Barbara's strong political influence over Charles -- and it was well-known that her influence could be purchased by favor-seekers for the right price.

Many men found her incredibly alluring. Portrait artist Peter Lely, who once painted her as the Virgin Mary, said that her personal beauty was "beyond the power of art" to capture. Bishop Burnet, who found her "enormously vicious and ravenous, foolish but imperious", thought her a "woman of great beauty." Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about how inspiring it was just to see her underclothes drying on the line. Nevertheless, she was widely considered "the curse of the nation" as diarist John Evelyn wrote, as famous for her greed, temper and promiscuity as she was for her beauty and figure.

As she grew older, the King's attraction to her began to wane. (He had many other ladies to sate his desires, any way.) In 1673, Barbara even lost her place in court, not because the Queen had finally triumphed, but because the Test Act prevented Catholics (as she was) from holding office, including as Lady of the Bedchamber. (Of course, Charles said he was interested in women's bodies not their souls.) By the time Charles added the luscious Frenchwoman Louise de Kerouaille to his collection of mistresses, Barbara's ongoing angry fits drove him to send her away.

She moved to Paris for a few years but was briefly reconciled with Charles after her return. They were even seen together shortly before his death in 1685. His death did not slow her as she continued her rowdy lifestyle. After her husband, the unfortunate Roger, finally died, the 65-year-old Barbara briefly married a fortune hunter, until she found out that he was already married. She died just a few years later in 1709.

All three of her sons by Charles became dukes during her lifetime. Her two older daughters married earls while the youngest daughter (who most likely did not belong to Charles) became a Benedictine nun. Today, much of the British aristocracy is descended from her. In fact, seven current Royal Highnesses (William, George, Charlotte, Louis, Harry, Beatrice and Eugenie) count her as an ancestor because both the late Diana Princess of Wales and Sarah Duchess of York were descended from her.

For more about Lady Castlemaine:

Barbara Palmer on English Monarchs
Barbara Palmer (Countess of Castlemaine) on The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Barbara Villiers on Historic UK
"The Curse of Nation" on Erin Lawless
The King's Whore on Scandalous Women
Lady Castlemaine on The Honest Courtesan
Like a Virgin on Pippa Rathbone's SCRATCH POST
Mistress of the Bedchamber on The Diary Review
Mistresses of King Charles II: Barbara Villiers on Stuarts Weekly
My Lady Castlemaine by Philip IV Sergeant, B.J.
The Story of Barbara Palmer on Author, Jane Lark's Stories

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