Review: The Mistresses of Charles II by Brian Masters

I found this book after doing a search on Amazon for Nell Gwynne, who as you all know is my favourite mistress of Charles II. And when I saw this gem for such a bargain I couldn’t resist, as not only do I adore Nell but have a bit of a fascination with the other mistresses too particularly Lucy Walter and Barbara Villiers. And so it was with a sense of sheer excitement that I picked up this book and began to read.

The first thing I will say is that this is quite an old book, having first been published in 1979 and I noticed as I read that Masters said that certain events definitely happened, when in fact they are apocryphal. This may be because he based a lot of his research on some very old sources, including works written in the early 1900’s. For instance during Barbara Villiers’ chapter he mentions an incident whereupon Barbara bit off the penis of a perfectly preserved priest – despite her many faults I honestly don’t think that she would have done this and I have never read a credible source that says she did this. Also with a few of his statements he does not state WHERE he got the information from and indeed this book is not cited very well at all – there are no footnotes as you go through the chapters rather a list of sources at the end of each chapter. Had the work been cited properly then I think I would trust it a little more than I do. Saying that however, I did enjoy this book but I had to go into it with my eyes open.

Masters concentrates on the main four mistresses that Charles II kept throughout his reign, although he is said to have had many, many more; Lucy Walter, Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwynne and Louise De Kerouelle. Each chapter gives and overview of each woman’s life, from their birth until their death and describes in detail their careers at the court of Charles II. Masters starts with the first well known mistress that Charles had whilst he was in exile, Lucy Walter. I found this chapter to be very interesting and I know very little of Lucy bar the fact that she gave birth to the ill fated James, Duke of Monmouth. She was the first woman that Charles ever loved and it seems that he was so head over heels in love with her that his advisors at the time believed him to have gone mad! Later in his reign there would be rumours that Charles had actually married Lucy, but these started much earlier and during their actual relationship. Yet according to Masters, she would turn on him once their relationship had ended and Charles resorted to kidnap attempts to get his young son away from her. I won’t go too much into it as it’s a whole other post, but young James was eventually taken back by Charles and grew up under the care of William Crofts. His mother did not survive to see the Restoration of the monarchy as she died in 1656 and so did not have the chance to see her sons fall from grace in 1685. Barbara Villiers is perhaps the best known of Charles’ mistress after Nell Gwynne and from the get go we get a sense of Barbara’s lust for power, her greed. She wanted Charles all to herself and often conspired against others at court, including the Queen and Clarendon. She always tried to outshine the Queen and Charles’ other mistresses, showing up to events in much much more jewellery than them. As I read through this chapter I must say I felt so, so sorry for Queen Catherine of Braganza – she showed up at Charles’ court completely naive in the ways of the world, only to have his mistress shoved in her face from the get go. Is it any wonder she at first refused to have Barbara join her bedchamber? And any wonder she spent so much time on her own? If I am brutally honest, whilst I find Barbara Villiers utterly fascinating, I can’t help but dislike her an awful lot. This is a woman who was so, so greedy that she ended up pulling down Nonsuch Palace to pay off her gambling debts. She may have had Charles wrapped around her little finger for much of her life but she ended her own life almost penniless, having married a man who squandered most of her fortune. We then come onto Nell Gwynne, my favourite mistress. I have covered Nell and her life in great detail in previous posts so won’t go too much into detail here but I couldn’t help but notice that Masters spends very little time in discussing the arguments of the place of Nell’s birth (It must be London because she’s known as a cockney in the public eye…) and totally discarding the other arguments. There is also no mention of the year of her birth either and the debate surrounding it. But never mind. Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed reading her chapter and found myself giggling at some of her exploits, how she always tried to pull one over on Louise De Kerouelle. Nell was the mistress who made Charles laugh and who asked for very little in return. Last but not least were the chapters on Louise De Kerouelle, a young woman first brought into Charles’ notice during a visit from his sister Minette. Charles wanted Louise to stay in England but Minette said no. However after Minette’s death, Louise came back to England and became Charles II’s mistress. She was also the go between between England and France, a spy if you will. By this point in the book, I found my interest waning somewhat. I have never been overly fond of Louise due to the fact that she thought so highly of herself, came across as a bit of a snob and was able to turn her tears on and off at will. And like Barbara she had a lust for power and position, and was somewhat greedy. She had no much given to her from Charles because she believed it was her right and for all intents and purposes lived like a Queen. But like Barbara, she ended her own life in heaps of debt and had to keep running from her creditors (she relied on Louis XIV to keep them at bay) yet she died at the exceptional age of 85 years old.

This book did flow nicely, and the style of writing was very easy to follow. It was an easy read, although I would have liked to know more about Lucy and Barbara in particular it would be very difficult to write more about these women without heading into speculation (somewhat like Beauclerk’s “biography” of Nell Gwynne!) which never comes across well in a history book. I would certainly recommend this to anyone interest in the mistresses of Charles II as it is a good starting point, but I would also recommend reading more on these women also as since this was published there has been a lot more work done on these women. Still, a good read and recommended.

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