Barbara Villiers by Sir Peter Lely
The name Barbara Villiers conjures up images of a greedy, power hungry woman who had King Charles II wrapped around her little finger. This woman is exceptionally fascinating, how did she retain such favour and stay an almost constant presence in the court of Charles II? But who was she?
Barbara was part of the Villiers family, a very old English family who could trace their beginnings back to at least the Norman Conquest when they were granted estates in Nottingham, Leicestershire and Lancashire. The family rose to prominence thanks to Barbara’s great-great grandfather, Sir George Villiers, a man who was sheriff of Leicestershire in 1591 and father to George Villiers, the first duke of Buckingham and favourite of James I. The 2nd Duke of Buckingham, another George Villiers was the very same man who introduced Charles II to such a deplorable lifestyle in Paris, introducing the young Charles to the delights of young women. And it was this very same George who was the cousin of Barbara Villiers herself.
George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham by Sir Peter Lely
Barbara Villiers herself was born in around 1641 in Westminster. Her father was William Villiers, a man who had fought for the Royalists at Edgehill and died from wounds received at the siege of Bristol. Her mother was Mary Bayning who, after William died, married another Villiers by the name of Charles, Earl of Anglesey. Charles was a relatively poor man, and according to Masters in his book “The Mistresses of Charles II”, Barbara would have been brought up in relative poverty but with the name of Villiers, and a relative of the first Duke of Buckingham who had been a favourite at the time of James I and Charles I, as soon as the monarchy was restored, the poverty would not last for long. The family would doubtless be back in favour.
Barbara’s life of depravity no doubt started when she was relatively young. By the age of 15, she was involved in an affair with Lord Chesterfield. This man would sleep with any woman if she were not old or ugly, and of course Barbara was neither. The two of them met often in secret and it seems that Barbara’s feelings were so much for this man that she could be incredibly jealous of him and got rather upset when he would seek another woman’s arms. Yet she would still send him letters which were nothing more than invitations to bed and would always make herself available if he wanted her.
In 1659, she married Roger Palmer and this poor man would soon become cuckolded by her, though he often had no idea what was going on under his very nose. They married on 14th April 1659 when Barbara was 18 years old, and by this time she already had a very black reputation, so much so that when Palmer decided on marrying her his own father warned him off saying, “If you persist in marrying that woman…you will live to be the most miserable man in the world”. Roger of course completely ignored those very wise words. After they married, Palmer took his new wife to live in the country where she could be kept away from temptation. Yet the young Barbara snuck away whenever she could, taking herself back to Lord Chesterfield. Palmer remained ignorant of this, even failing to notice when Barbara wrote letters to Chesterfield stating that she would go anywhere in the world with him. But by 1660 her affair with Chesterfield was over when she contracted smallpox – it put Chesterfield off her completely so much so that he fled to the Continent following a duel in which he killed another member of the nobility, received a pardon from the future King Charles II and returned to England in triumph with the Restoration of the Monarchy.
It was in 1660 when Barbara and Charles met for the first time, likely in Holland when Barbara and Roger went to offer their support. We do not know whether Barbara returned with her husband in the April or stayed behind and become involved with the King but she certainly was not present when the King returned to London on 29th May. It is said however that she was in his bed at the end of the day, so had the affair already begun before his return? The first concrete evidence of Barbara’s presence at court was when Samuel Pepys noted seeing her in his famous diaries – he was disturbed one evening as he was writing letters by a rather loud party coming from next door, which was the house of Roger and Barbara and he noted that both the King and Duke were there with “Madam Palmer” who both men had taken a bit of a fancy to! By October, she had firmly found her place in Court Circles and she knew what she wanted. Her name begins to crop up more and more, particularly in the diaries of Pepys (who was somewhat in love with her!) and even at this early stage she was well on her way to becoming Maitresse-en-titre and having such a hold over the King that many within the circles at Court would end up disliking her. Clarendon was one of the main court men to detest her presence, and refused to accept her as the King’s mistress, even going as far as to forbid his own wife from receiving her!
Barbara Villiers would end up having a long career and court, full of sexual scandal. She would be universally disliked and fall in and out of favour with the King. She would bear him countless children, argue with him about their paternity and demand titles for them. She would also prove herself to have a shrewd head for politics and to be exceptionally clever, she knew how to keep her men exactly where she wanted them and she knew how to make people tick. Barbara was such a complex woman and her scandalous life still manages to capture people’s imagination.