The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned at Hampton Court Palace

Picture taken by me, and it’s pretty good for a mobile phone pic don’t you think?

Today, at quarter past eight in the morning, the other half and I toddled off to the train station and began to make our way towards Hampton Court. The reason for this was that there was a rather fantastic exhibition on by the name of “The Wild, The Beautiful & The Damned” which I had heard about on tumblr and started going a little crazy about on twitter. The exhibition, concentrating on sex, beauty and the beautifully decadent portraits of the later Stuart era has been on my radar for a very long time. I have loved the work of Sir Peter Lely for the longest time, particularly the portraits he worked on of Charles II’s mistresses (and you all know how much I adore Nell Gwynne!) so it was an absolute honour to be able to see some of these very famous portraits in the flesh. And after a train journey full of delays, as we walked through the majestic gatehouse and up the beautiful staircase, I couldn’t help but feel slightly giddy about seeing these portraits which I have wanted to see for such a long time.

I was slightly disappointed when we first entered the exhibition to find out that photography wasn’t allowed. But then realised that yes, it was probably a good idea because with flashes and stuff…on portraits that have been lent to Historic Royal Palaces by good hearted people who have private collections…the damage could be huge. It is at this point that I would like to thank the lovely Melanie Clegg over at MadameGuillotine for allowing me to use the photographs that she took of the portraits at the recent press day when the exhibition first opened.

The exhibit concentrates not only on the famous mistresses of Charles II (Nell Gwynne, Barbara Villiers, Louise De Kerouelle etc) but also the famous beauties of his court as well as how men were portrayed in portraiture of the time also. I found it exceptionally eye opening, learning how the women of the court used their portraiture to convey innocence, yet there was some pretty scandalous things going on – and despite how many of these women tried to convey innocence through their portraits, they were still called whores. Yet with the men (ala Rochester, who we will come onto later) they were applauded for sleeping around. It really made no sense to me. It was also interesting to read, on the little info boards spotted around the galleries, how at the Restoration court, beauty was everything to these women – they spent hours in front of their mirrors making themselves beautiful, even going so far as to try and dye their hair darker with acid!!

Charles II by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine

Charles II and the Restoration Court made up the majority of the exhibition, as of course it would considering as how he had rather a lot of mistresses, brought back the theatre and just generally having fun. And as you wander through the Stuart Rooms, sadly visited far less than the more well known Tudor areas of the Palace, you are taken on a story – a story that begins with the colourful reign of King Charles II and that of his sometimes brilliant, sometimes frightening mistresses; and ends in the reign of his niece Queen Anne – the final Stuart monarch, and one who I myself know very little about because well…it just seems far less exciting. As well as this each and every portrait tells a story, and there were a couple that really struck me. In the very first room you enter was a large portrait of two men, one of which was a war hero by the name of Holles who had lost him arm in battle. In the portrait by Lely, you cannot see that the man on the left has only one arm. Instead he proudly holds a sword and is dressed in exceptionally fine clothing. Other stories include that of poisoned young wives, and wives whose young husbands died horrifically in battle. Some of the stories were particularly heart wrenching.

Holles & Holmes by Sir Peter Lely 

Barbara Villiers by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine
Nell Gwynne by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine

The portraits of Barbara and Nell were the ones I was particularly excited about seeing, particularly having been so interested in these women for so long. With Barbara in particular, you can see how the Lely portraits of her affected each and every portrait he painted after that – she set the scene, and indeed with every other portrait of a beautiful young woman you can see the same heavy lidded eyes, the same pouty lips an the same seductive blush. And with Nell, she was the first mistress that Charles had painted completely naked – according to the placards she would lie there as Lely painted her and Charles would come along and watch (just for kicks? who knows!) – still, there is something incredible about the portrait of Nell, this woman who started out as a common orange seller, moving onto one of the finest comedienne’s of her time and eventually a mistress of the King whose Son would end up with a great title that would follow his family down through the centuries.

Frances Stuart by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine

The portrait above of Frances Stuart was my other half’s favourite portrait of the whole exhibition. He stood in front of it for a very long time before turning around to me with a look of awe upon his face and stating that she was very pretty and he understood why ole Charlie had a bit of a thing for her! During her time, her contemporaries were completely in awe of this beautiful young woman, calling her La Belle Stuart and she has even been immortalised as the famous Britannia figurine so often seen on our coins!

As you walk through the exhibition, you are also treated to other works of art including the famous Windsor Beauties by Lely, as well as stunning works of art by other artists at the time including a few by the wonderful Kneller (who painted the lovely Lady Middleton!) – there are also works of art from some prominant Italian artists at the time including Gennari and Parmigianino, who Lely used as inspiration.

Palas Athene by Parmigianino

Of course, any exhibition of lasciviousness and Sex at the Stuart court wouldn’t be complete without the appearance of the lovely John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. That man who wrote bawdy poetry, pornographic plays, had his portrait painted with a monkey and who died of Syphilis. I’m sorry, the man was a legend. I’m not sorry at all.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, by Melanie Clegg at MadameGuillotine

The costumed displays done by members of staff here were also top notch. There were two people playing Barbara Villiers and Sir Peter Lely, and I may have made a bit of a show of myself creeping around Sir Peter and asking him for a picture. Sir Peter sadly refused on the grounds that photo’s weren’t allowed in the exhibition, and instead I would have to make do with looking on his pretty face. It was pretty hilarious. Anyway, shortly after I was done creeping around him, there was a bit of a show on in a room at the end of the exhibition whereupon Barbara Villiers was getting ready to have her portrait painted. It turns out that Lely was a bit of a dude, who enjoyed dancing around a pretend maypole and making jokes about his favourite actresses and I also learnt a fair bit about restoration dress and how it was boring if a lovely lady was painted in her normal dress, and that silk was much much better.

I have to say, I loved each and every second I spent in those galleries, as did my partner. We loved it so much we ended up having another look at least 3 times before we decided it was time to go home! It was laid out fantastically, telling a story as you went in chronological order. And well, the portraits were just eye meltingly gorgeous. So gorgeous in fact, I’m going again in a couple of weeks. This has actually been planned for week but shhhhh, don’t tell anyone…

I thoroughly, THOROUGHLY recommend this exhibit to anyone interested in Stuart England because it certainly has taught me a hell of a lot and I have loved this family since well…forever. I would have loved to organise staying on for one of the salacious gossip tours but alas, time and money was an option for this one. In fact, Hampton Court has gone rather mad for salacious, sexy, restoration court stuff it seems with a special Audience With Charles II next Monday. Again, I wish I was going, but alas, time and money is again an option here. It’s made me rather tempted to buy a years membership to the HRP! Oh, and on my way out I also picked up a copy of the accompanying book to go with the exhibition by the name of “Beauty, Sex and Power” which I am very much looking forward to reading, as well as another book on Royal Sex by Roger Powell which looks interesting and ranges from the Stuarts right up to the modern day!

Of course, we did a lot more than just wander around this fantastic exhibition all day. But that is for another post!

Barbara Villiers Part 3: The Cracks Begin To Show

Helen McCrory as Barbara Villiers in “Charles II: The Power & The Passion”

In the last post, I wrote about Barbara’s early years at court, her rise to being known as “Lady Castlemaine”, the rocky relationship with her husband and the children she bore the King. Today’s post will concentrate in her years at court from the arrival of Queen Catherine of Braganza to the beginning of her decline.

Catherine of Braganza arrived in England in 1662 to a swathe of celebration and bonfires were lit in celebration in every street in London, except outside of the house of Barbara Castlemaine. During May 1662, whilst the celebrations raged, the King was inside Barbara’s house in King Street dining and playing with her until it was time for him to leave for Portsmouth to meet his new Queen. Barbara was said to be very upset and the King leaving her company, and it should be worth noting that at this point she was heavily pregnant with the King’s second child by her.

When Charles first laid eyes on Catherine, he was rather taken aback. The difference between her and Barbara was astounding. Catherine had lead such a retired existence in Portugal that she wore fashions that had not been seen in England since the late Tudor era, and would have looked rather odd to the eyes of the English. She had also been advised by her parents that to surrender to the English way of dressing would prove detrimental to the dignity of Portugal. Yet despite this initial stubbornness Charles found her demeanour to be incredibly pleasing, and he told Clarendon that he thought himself “very happy” at having her for a wife. Yet after their marriage, the two did not consummate their marriage – Charles complained that he was too sleepy. He claimed this was due to the journey but it may have also had something to do with the fact that he had come to meet Catherine straight from the bed of Babara Castlemaine!

Queen Catherine of Braganza by or after Dirk Stoop

Charles II and Catherine were married in a private ceremony the day after her arrival in Portsmouth and from there the royal couple went to Hampton Court for their honeymoon. Almost immediately Barbara began causing a stir, as she proposed that at the same time as the royal couple were there, she should be at Hampton Court for the birth of her son. The idea was rejected outright by Charles! But as Barbara fought to maintain her place as the most important woman in Charles’ life, it was the Queen’s own ladies in waiting who helped to cement her place there. These women were old, proud and fiercely overprotective of Queen Catherine, they refused to learn English and kept wearing the Portuguese fashions whereas at least Catherine began to dress in more of an English manner, and they also made it startlingly clear that they would not sleep in any bed that had previously been slept in by a man! Charles of course would not put up with this behaviour for long, and began to put together a list of English women to be her new ladies in waiting. And the name at the top of that list was Barbara Castlemaine. At finding this out Catherine fainted in shock, it was obvious that she knew enough about the infamous Lady Castlemaine. How was it then that the King’s mistress managed to receive this post? Quite simply Barbara had pleaded with the King to give her the post as a demonstration of his loyalty to her and of course, Charles weakly agreed to her demands. What Charles did not know was that Catherine had heard of Barbara, even all the way in Portugal, and Catherine’s mother had told her not to allow Barbara’s name to mentioned in her presence and for a long time Catherine made no allusion to Barbara’s presence. Now though, she had the royal Mistresses presence slapped right in front of her and would be forced to deal with Charles’ sexual betrayal every single day. In utter fury she struck Barbara’s name from the list and demanded that the King allow her this privilege or she would go back to Portugal. Charles, of course, would have been taken aback and not prepared that his wife would have a will of her own. He tried to calm her down to start with, insisting that his affair with Barbara belonged to his past, he didn’t need the mistress now that Catherine was in his life. Charles, as we know from hindsight, never kept this promise. Did he even intend to keep it?

A few days later, Charles managed to introduce his mistress to his wife. Catherine had of course never come face to face with Barbara and so, although had heard about her, would never recognise her if they came face to face. Queen Catherine received her gratefully, allowing her to kiss the royal hand but when one of Catherine’s Portuguese ladies whispered in her ear who it was, Catherine became agitated and her eyes filled with tears but she tried to control herself, until blood began pouring from her nose and she had to be carried from the room. All Charles could see at this point was that his wife had denied him, it was if at this stage he hadn’t quite realised just how deep his wife’s feelings went for him. Clarendon was summoned, who of course took Catherine’s side but Charles argued that if he allowed the Queen to get her way he would be seen as weak. Moreover, Charles used the argument that now Lord Castlemaine had left his wife, it was his own duty to secure her a position of honour in the Queen’s household, and that if Catherine stopped making a fuss he would never push another appointment on her again. He also threatened that if she continued in this way, he would get himself even more mistresses. Clarendon was sent to her as the bearer of bad news and he, although siding with her, said that if she would only allow Barbara as first lady of the bedchamber then all would be well. Catherine of course flew into a rage, saying that the King must hate her and that she would pack her bags up and leave for Portugal. Clarendon tried to calm her down, advising her to accede to the Kings wishes and he also advised the King to let the matter lie for a few days for things to calm down. But a consequent meeting between husband and wife ended up in a full scale shouting match, he accused her of stubbornness and she called him a tyrant. He then told her he would send all her Portuguese ladies right back where they came from. The argument was so loud that the next day everyone at Court knew what had happened, and also noticed that they barely looked at each other! But now the King found himself in a quandary, he was growing ever more fond of his wife but couldn’t let Barbara down. However Catherine spent the next few days crying alone in her rooms, and in public feigning indifference although still ignoring him. After this, Barbara formally took up her position as lady of the bedchamber at Whitehall Palace and there, poor Catherine had to see her husbands mistress¬† as more popular than she was. For months she took everything in silence, noticing as her own servants showed more respect to Barbara knowing full well she had more influence with the King than Catherine did. But this silence gained her many admirers, and one day bored with loneliness she began to chat happily with Barbara, showing outwardly all signs of friendliness, and Barbara was even seen to be waiting on the Queen at Mass. Catherine, although only outwardly showing her acceptance did so as she did not want to displease her husband due to the simple fact that she was so in love with him that she would put up with his lover.

During this time, Barbara used her influence at court and there seemed no end to it. After Lady Gerard, another lady of the Queen’s bedchamber made remarks that Barbara took offence to, she had her dismissed. She began persuading Charles to dismiss elderly statesmen, and having them replaced with younger men who were more in touch with the modern world, and there was no point in Charles protesting this despite the alarm felt by others at court. And it was during 1662-63 that Barbara began to use her influence to bring about the downfall of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. He had much to fear from her, knowing how much she hated him, and it was Barbara who influenced the decline in his influence.

This was when Barbara was at her height, the King would dine with her four or five times a week, often not returning to Catherine’s bed until the next morning, and he made n effort to hide it from her. He would openly walk from Barbara’s apartments to the palace and for a period of about three months did not dine with the Queen once, preferring to spend his time with Barbara. By April 1663, Barbara had apartments in Whitehall near the King and no matter how fond of Catherine Charles was, she could not compete with Barbara’s dazzling wit and her sexual prowess.

Barbara was certainly not loyal to Charles, and she had a string of other lovers including Sir Charles Berkeley, James Hamilton a groom of the King’s bedchamber, Lord Sandwich and Henry Jermyn.

Yet Barbara’s power would soon start to crack when rival’s for the King’s affection began to make their mark. The earliest example is when Frances Stuart, a young girl of fifteen from Paris, joined the court as a maid of honour. This girl was apparently incredibly beautiful and immediately captivated the King, and she was the polar opposite of Barbara Castlemaine and was incredibly virtuous. So virtuous in fact that she just kept on refusing the King.

Frances Stuart, La Belle Stuart by Sir Peter Lely

Of course Barbara quickly took the young, naive Frances under her wing, inviting the young thing to all nights out and making sure that she was always present at occasions where the King was, and indulged Frances’ love of childish games. One famous story (which can be seen in Charles II The Power & The Passion with Rufus Sewell) involved a play where Barbara and Frances would pretend to be man and wife, going through a pretend marriage and going to bed in the traditional manner. When the King arrived, Barbara ceded the place of the husband to him but still Frances would now allow anything to go beyond a game which must have been very frustrating for Charles! However during Charles’ seeming obsession with young Frances, Barbara began to go about the Court with a sour look on face and it was clear that she was beginning to lose favour. She was seen less and less in the Kings company, and in public people began to pay less attention to her.

One of the main events that saw Barbara’s fall from favour in 1663 was the fact that Catherine became seriously ill in the October. It was sudden and mysterious and it was feared that she would not recover. The raging fever made her believe that she had given birth to a son, and she apologised to Charles that he was so ugly. The King, who had spent many hours by her bedside, told her that their son was a pretty boy. By this time, it had been established that the Queen must be barren, and thoughts that she may be dying gave way to talk of a new Queen for Charles, and the name of Frances Stuart was thrown around. The Queen however recovered only to be faced with the reality of her childlessness and the King’s continued dalliance with his mistresses.

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