Barbara Villiers Part 2: "The Finest Woman Of Her Age"

Charles II and Lady Castlemaine by William Powell Frith
In the last post, I wrote about Barbara Villiers early life, the early scandals that attached themselves to her, her marriage to Roger Palmer and the beginnings of her career at court. After she caught the eye of the King, she became a regular sight around the Court inspiring scandal wherever she went and it is her court years that we know much, much more about. Today’s post will concentrate on these years at court, the children she bore the King and of course the scandal that followed her wherever she went.
Barbara was certainly a very beautiful woman, not only did she have Charles fall for her, but Samuel Pepys also managed to fall head over heels in love with her. Indeed, all contemporary evidence points to how beautiful Barbara was – Reresby called her “the finest woman of her age” and Boyer wrote that she was “perhaps the finest woman in England in her time”. Indeed she was so beautiful that the celebrated artist Sir Peter Lely kept on wanting to paint her, for the sheer fact that he believed his paint brush could not do justice to his subject. In fact Barbara was one of the first to patronise Lely when he was made court painter in 1661, and he adored her saying that her beauty was “beyond the power of art”. He painted her in many guises, that of St Catherine, an Amazon and indeed in a version of the Madonna and Child; and these portraits of her would become a template for court paintings.
Barbara Villiers and her son Charles Fitzroy by Sir Peter Lely
What as it that attracted King Charles to this woman other than her beauty? They certainly had little in common apart from their sheer sense of lust for each other, which given the times honestly did not matter. During the Restoration attitudes had changed whereupon people wanted to live their lives to the full with music, dancing and of course, sex. And Charles’ nature reflected this, so much so that he became almost a slave to Barbara’s sexual nature.

Barbara would find herself the mother of a good many of Charles’ illegitimate children. The first was born on 25th February 1661, less than 9 months after Charles’ triumphal return to London. The child’s name was Anne Palmer, and Barbara’s poor naive husband was convinced the child was his; Barbara insisted the child was the King’s but it took him 13 years to admit paternity. With this child, there were at least three possible fathers but Charles eventually admitted paternity to placate Barbara and make the child’s marriage to Lord Dacre easier. This also meant that Barbara’s place at court was secure. In total Charles would have 5 more children by the King which would lead to some fireworks between the couple, including the rather famous incident when Barbara was pregnant with another child. This child was certainly not fathered by Charles but rather by Henry Jermyn and at some point towards the end of 1667 or early 1668 Barbara demanded that Charles acknowledge paternity of the unborn child. He refused on the basis that he had no memory of sleeping with her in the past six months. Barbara exploded, “God damn me! But you shall own it!” She threatened that, if the child was not christened at Whitehall, she would dash its brains out in front of him. When Charles still refused, Barbara left to stay in Covent Garden with her friend Lady Harvey. Of course, as what always happened between them Charles begged forgiveness and Barbara returned to court, with nothing else being said on the issue of the controversial pregnancy!

Barbara was universally disliked at court, due to how influential she was on the King, her arrogant nature and her imperious ways. She had a brilliant mind and knew how to get what she wanted but so many at Court disliked her, even feared her possibly down to them being jealous of her, or disapproved of her political influence with the King. Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon could not even bring himself to mention her name, calling her “that lady” is he couldn’t avoid it. These two ended up hating each other so vehemently that they each fought for the others downfall, which ultimately ended up in Clarendon losing favour at court and losing the battle with Barbara. John Evelyn, the famous seventeenth century diarist said that she was “the curse of our nation” which seemingly was a reflection of how the public felt of her. As we know however, Samuel Pepys gazed lustfully after her. Barbara was even slighted in public, and there was a particular incident in St James’ Park which perfectly illustrates this; she was set upon by three well dressed, masked men who berated her with awful language and compared her to Jane Shore, Edward IV’s mistress – they said she would end up dying in poverty just as Jane had. When Barbara returned to her apartments she collapsed in fear.

Yet in 1661 Charles showed just how indifferent he was to public opinion of his mistress by giving Roger Palmer a title so that Barbara could enjoy the privileges of higher rank and her children could also benefit. Roger was humiliated at this, knowing that the title would in fact mean nothing to him but it would all go to his wife. On 8th November the warrant was passed through, and Barbara was known as “Lady Castlemaine” and Roger as “Lord of Castlemaine”, an Irish title. Roger Palmer however never took his seat at the House of Lords and rarely used his new title due to his disgust at the manner of his ennoblement. And it was following this that Roger finally caught on, and after the birth of Barbara’s second child in the Spring of 1662 they had a huge argument. Roger was a staunch Catholic, and wanted the child baptised as a Catholic and so the child was baptised as a Catholic in St Margaret’s, Westminster. After this Barbara had the child baptised again by a Protestant Minister with the King as a witness and she promised that the child had not already been baptised. Following this, Roger and Barbara separated – she stalked out of their house on King Street with everything, leaving poor Roger with just the walls of the house. He ended up going to France, leaving Barbara to return to the house in triumph. She now felt like she could do anything, she felt as if she were the most important woman at Court and she would make sure she stayed that way. The King’s new wife was on her way from Portugal and Barbara had too much to lose, she had to keep her place as the most important woman in the King’s life.

Queen Catherine of Braganza by Sir Peter Lely

The next few years would see Barbara at loggerheads with both the new English Queen, Catherine of Braganza as well as the new mistresses in Charles’ life. She would continue to be disliked at Court and would end up in a furious battle of wits with Clarendon, before Charles would become tired of her. The next post in this series will concentrate on those years, leading up to her dismissal and ultimate death.

Further Reading

Fraser, A, 1979, King Charles II, Butler & Tanner: London
Fraser, A, 1984, The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England, Phoenix: London
Masters, B, 1979, The Mistresses of Charles II, Constable: London
Uglow, J, 2009, A Gambling Man, Faber & Faber: London

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