The story of Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine – Mistress of King Charles II

Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine

This week I thought I’d tell another story from the era of King Charles II and reveal some more of the scandalous behaviour which went on at court.

King Charles II was known for his insatiable appetite with women. He had many mistresses and rarely one at a time but the lady whom I am going to speak of today was one who kept his interest for several years. She was Born Barbara Villiers she was the only child of the 2nd Viscount Grandison who died during in the Civil. His death left Barbara and her mother penniless as his lands were confiscated and all his money had been invested in supporting King Charles I. Her mother remarried, taking her father’s cousin as a husband, but they still had very little money. Yet they stayed loyal to the Royals and when King Charles was executed turned their allegiance to his son who was at the time in hiding in The Hague where the Stuart’s had retreated for safety, as I mentioned in my last blog.

There is a tale told about Barbara’s family that each year on Charles II’s birthday they crept down into their dark unlit cellar and toasted his health in secret. If this is true it would seem that his image was romanticised in Barbara’s eyes from an early age.

Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine

Barbara was described by diarists of the time as tall and voluptuous, with thick auburn hair and blue/violet eyes, her beauty was said to be striking. It was no wonder then that she traded on her looks from a young age when she had no dowry to commend her. The first man she is known to be romantically linked to is Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield but he wanted a wealthy wife and would not marry her. Barbara married Roger Palmer on 14th April 1659, before Philip Stanhope wed, and one rumour which abounds about her is that her first child was Chesterfield’s but this child was born during her affair with Charles II and Charles did acknowledge the child as his. It was only a year after her marriage that she became mistress to Charles II in 1660. He was still in exile in The Hague at the time. Barbara had sailed there with her husband who was a Catholic, to join the out-placed court of supplicants who still sought Royal favour.

It sounded as though Roger Palmer’s father had the measure of Barbara because he’d told Roger not to marry her and claimed she would make him one of the most miserable men in the world. They were living separately by 1662, despite Charles II favouring Roger for his wife’s generosity with two titles, Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine.

Barbara bore Charles five children which he acknowledged.

  • Lady Anne Palmer (who was later renamed Fitzroy) born 1661
  • Charles Palmer (who was later renamed Fitzroy) born 1662
  • Henry Fitzroy born 1663
  • Charlotte Fitzroy born 1664
  • George Fitzroy born 1665
  • Barbara Fitzroy, the sixth child, was born in 1672 but Charles’s never actually acknowledged her

(The surname Fitzroy comes from the meaning son of the King)

Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, with her son Charles Fitzroy

Her period of greatest favour with the King was in 1662 when she gave birth to his son at Hampton Court, showing no desire to hide her child’s parentage, while the King was on his honeymoon. On his return he appointed her Lady of the Bedchamber to his wife, Catherine of Braganza. For obvious reasons his wife complained about it. She had fallen in love with Charles on honeymoon and was destroyed when she returned to find his lover encamped at Hampton Court. Why would she wish her husband’s mistress attending to her in her bedroom? It is well recorded that Charles frequently favoured Barbara over his wife, making a fool of Catherine and even arguing with her and tricking her into acknowledging his mistress while Barbara gloated over her influence. Charles’s interest in Barbara soon slackened after 1662 although clearly their affair continued as they had more children, and diarists of the time record the on off affair. But Charles’s favourite of 1663 was Frances Stuart, whom Barbara had on one occasion mockingly married for a joke. In this year Barbara converted to Catholicism. We can only guess at her reasons, but perhaps it was to try and regain the king’s favour.

In 1670, with Barbara’s affair with Charles drawing to a final close, as Barbara grew older and the king turned to younger lovers, Charles made her Baroness Nonsuch as she was the owner of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace, he also named her Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland, unusually declaring her Dukedom of Cleveland would pass to her first son, Charles Fitzroy, on her death.  All honours for favours served of course and perhaps parting gifts. This was the rumour running through the court at the time.

Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine

Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine

While King Charles II took lower status lovers, particularly thinking of the actress Nell Gwynne who is commonly romanticised as an orange seller. So did Barbara, building up a reputation for promiscuity. One of her lovers was an acrobat, Jacob Hall, and it was well known that her lovers benefited financial from her arrangements with them. Equally as Charles’s lovers got younger so did Barbara’s and she became quite the Cougar. Barbara Fitzroy, Barbara Palmers daughter, born in 1672, is believed to have been fathered by Barbara’s second cousin John Churchill who built Blenheim Palace when he was much older.

John Churchill’s, Blenheim Palace

There is a mock-up of the court intrigues scenario in the upstairs rooms of Blenheim Palace if you visit there, with Barbara in the bed, the sheets covering her naked body, while John Churchill is hidden in the wardrobe as the King knocks on the bedroom door coming to his mistress. It is a true scenario although I think by this time the King probably cared very little what Barbara did and merely used her bed when he wished to. Barbara was also a lot older at the time than she is portrayed in this scene. The story at Blenheim indicates John seduced her and my guess would be it was the other way about. She may well have even deliberately timed the liaison to try and make the king Jealous. I think that would have been pointless too when Charles had his pick of beautiful woman at court and beyond. My assumption that Barbara seduced John is supported by the fact he benefited handsomely from the liaison, by the sum of £5,000 no less, which was a fortune at that time.

Blenheim Palace, called a palace as the land it’s built on was donated by the crown and is still owned by the Queen

What I find quite amusing though is that John must have favoured Barbara’s style of personality, it is said she was bad-tempered and dominant, but equally in her own brash way, the life of the party. John later married a woman of a very similar temper who most men could not get on with but he seemed to adore her. Again if you visit Blenheim they have a display about John’s wife and the sharp way with which she managed the architect and builders of Blenheim Palace while he made his name fighting wars abroad communicating regularly with her and they wrote to each other in very honest appraisal.

Certainly Barbara’s affair with the King was long over by 1676 when she went to Paris and lived there for four years with four of her children.

Like many women of history who spend their younger days living on their beauty through promiscuity the story of Barbara’s latter years grow much sadder as her looks fade.

Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine

After Charles’s death in 1685 Barbara had an affair with an actor who had a notorious reputation for using women. Barbara even bore him a child in 1686. In 1705 Barbara’s husband Roger Palmer died and then Barbara fell pray to a fortune hunter. By records of her later divorce this relationship was extremely tawdry and Barbara had tumbled to the lowest point of her life. The stories recorded at the time describe Barbara as lustful with a strong sexual appetite, and so when this young man paid her court she was very willing to take up with him and then marry him, believing him devoted. The only thing he was devoted to was her money. The man she married was Major General Robert “Beau” Fielding. He was known as “Beau” in recognition of his good looks and he was unscrupulous.

While Beau was married to Barbara he had two actresses as mistresses and not only them, when one of Barbara’s granddaughters fled to her dissipated grandmother for protection after her marriage failed due to an affair, Beau set up a relationship with the Barbara’s granddaughter too, in Barbara’s own home. Once this granddaughter left the house the affair continued for a few more months unknown to Barbara and the granddaughter bore Beau a child, although the affair had already ended by the time it was born.

This all came out in the end and was recorded in divorce records of the time and detailed in scandal columns as finally it came to light that not only did Beau have mistresses but he also already had a wife. He had bigamously married Barbara only to obtain access to her wealth. Barbara died at the age of 68 on 9th October 1709. What a sad bitter ending to her life when she had known so much earlier acclaim as King Charles II’s mistress. Barbara’s portrait still hangs in Hampton Court among the group of Ladies in Waiting King Charles II had painted by Sir Peter Lely. The pictures were known for being particularly risqué with a strong sexual indication and the image of Barbara has her bodice slack, so you might almost see her nipple, while her eyes are heavy-lidded in a come hither look and her left hand grips a sword.

To learn more of Barbara you can read Pepys diaries on the intranet. This link leads to the tale of the war between Barbara and Charles II’s wife recording how Barbara manipulates Charles into not only disgracing his wife but treating her with appalling cruelty.

The Marlow Intrigues

Discover hours of period drama (2)

 

The Lost Love of Soldier ~ The Prequel

The Illicit Love of a Courtesan  

The Passionate Love of a Rake

The Scandalous Love of a Duke

The Dangerous Love of a Rogue 

The Secret Love of a Gentleman  

The Reckless Love of an Heir 

The Tainted Love of a Captain 

Jane’s books can be ordered from booksellers in ebook or paperback

Ashdown House and the love story of William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven and Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, the Winter Queen

William Craven and Elizabeth Stuart

William Craven and Elizabeth Stuart

There is no evidence which links William and Elizabeth bar circumstantial facts but the circumstantial evidence, as you’ll hear in this story, is very strong.

William Craven came from a poor merchant ancestry but his father built his business up and made a fortune which set William up to be able to change his life entirely. Like Jane Austen’s relative which I blogged about the other week, William was another Dick Whittington style character who became Lord Mayor of London in 1610, but that was no where near his greatest acclaim.

William, 1st Earl of Craven

William, 1st Earl of Craven

William’s family fortune raised him up in the world at a time the Royals needed money. He made his name as a soldier not fighting in England but fighting on the continent for Frederick V, Elector of Palantine, King of Bohemia. Frederick’s fight to keep Bohemia was unsuccessful and so he fled to Holland and the safety of the Hague with his wife and family. It was at some point in this early association with Frederick, William Craven met King Frederick V’s wife, Elizabeth Stuart, sister to King Charles I of England, a renowned beauty of her time and I assume he fell in love. Certainly the first fact we know to prove this, is that he stayed abroad and supported Elizabeth financially when Frederick died in 1632. But William equally invested his fortune in Elizabeth’s brother King Charles I making donations from his vast fortune to aid the Royalists through the Civil War in England. So perhaps he is just a Royalist you may think. William did have his lands in England confiscated when the Royalists lost and King Charles was beheaded.

Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia

Perhaps he was just generous and kind, after all someone must help the Queen of Bohemia and sister of the King of England to survive when she is living in a foreign land in exile with no financial support – and we know William did support her because there are letters in existence of Elizabeth writing to him and pleading poverty, declaring a lack of candles and meat to feed her children. It could be kindness.

Well perhaps what happens when Elizabeth returns to England might convince you a little more than kindness was involved? William Craven returned at the time of the restoration with King Charles II. William is now a close friend and confident of the whole Stuart family, though I am sure his fortune played a part in their return devotion. Feeling vulnerable in his recently restored status King Charles II refused to fund the return and keep of his Aunt Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, afraid of draining the Royal purse with the extravagances of hangers on and getting his head chopped off. So who pays for her return? William Craven of course – that in itself may not be any implication, but what is, is that when Elizabeth returned to England she moved into his home in London and resided there with him.

Some historians believe they married in secret but there is no proof they did. Yet it was exceptional for a woman to live in a man’s house, while he was also living there, unmarried.

The final evidence I have of William’s and Elizabeth’s bond is Ashdown House which still stands on a hill in Wiltshire, high up on the chalk downs near the ancient Ridgeway.

Ashdown House

Ashdown House

Ashdown House is one of two houses William built for Elizabeth, this being the lesser of the two, a hunting lodge for them to ride away to for long weekends, ‘a nest for the lovers perhaps.’ The other house he built for her was a lavish mansion to rival the continental palaces, at Hamstead Marshall, so she might feel like the Queen she was again. Both properties were built in white stone, and designed to catch the female eye with beauty and satisfy Elizabeth’s every whim. Wether there was a love affair or not, William Craven was certainly devoted to Elizabeth. Sadly Elizabeth died before Ashdown was finished and Hamstead Marshall even begun, she never saw either property but she left William her own portrait and the portraits of her children in her will. These now hang at Ashdown House which is open to the public.

Ashdown House

Ashdown House

Now you might still be sceptical over whether or not there was a physical relationship between them and as I said at the beginning there is no actual evidence they were lovers in a physical sense, but then let’s throw the design of Ashdown into the mix. The whole place is a phallic symbol, and there are many hidden sexual references and innuendo in its design and decoration. Lord Craven was a life loving man. He lived hard and he played hard. He held many formal offices during King Charles II’s reign and we know he played hard with Charles II, who was a frequent visitor at Ashdown once it was built (the wine cellar, which is larger than the footings of the house is testament to the parties they held at Ashdown). Records of the time note William’s bawdy language but also note he remained in London to help manage the burials of plague victims when others deserted the city in fear, and he helped plan how to stop the fire of London in 1666.

Ashdown House Gardens

Ashdown House Gardens

Now tell me this man, who builds a whole house in the shape of a phallic symbol for a woman he has been devoted to for years, is going to bring her there for long weekends of hunting and not take her to his bed, or get in to hers. Let us also remember the court at the time under King Charles II’s reign. I wrote a blog a little while ago after visiting Hampton Court Palace on the portraits of the Ladies in Waiting there –

https://janelark.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/hampton-court-and-windsor-beauties-ladies-in-waiting-portraits/

It seems to me that in the culture of the time it would be extremely more unlikely Elizabeth and William’s relationship was chaste than it was a full blown affair of the heart and the bedroom. It is just such a shame that Elizabeth was never able to stand on the roof and watch the hunt and see what a perfect little hideaway William had created for them.

I’ll leave you to work out the phallic impressions in Ashdown House yourselves.

Another story next week

The Marlow Intrigues

Discover hours of period drama (2)

 

The Lost Love of Soldier ~ The Prequel

The Illicit Love of a Courtesan  

The Passionate Love of a Rake

The Scandalous Love of a Duke

The Dangerous Love of a Rogue 

The Secret Love of a Gentleman  

The Reckless Love of an Heir 

The Tainted Love of a Captain 

Jane’s books can be ordered from booksellers in ebook or paperback