Friday, October 9, 2009

Mistress of the bedchamber

‘[I] filled my eyes with her,’ wrote Samuel Pepys about Barbara Palmer - who died exactly 300 years ago today - when she was 20, only a few months, in fact, after she'd given birth to her first child. What a woman! She was the most notorious of Charles II’s mistresses. She charmed and schemed her way into court as the Queen’s Lady of the Bedchamber and became more influential in court than the Queen herself; moreover, she had five of the King’s illegitimate children. I imagine she was too busy with this charming and scheming to keep a diary, but Samuel Pepys mentions her (and her beauty) often enough in his.

[This article was first published last April but gave the wrong day for Palmer’s death - according to Wikipedia it was 9 October 1709, not 9 April 1709!]

Barbara was born in 1641 at Westminster, London, the only child of the 2nd Viscount Grandison (William Villiers), and Mary Bayning. Grandison died two or so years later while fighting for the Royalists; subsequently, Mary married again, to one of his cousins, Charles Villiers, Earl of Anglesea, but Barbara was brought up without a fortune or prospects.

Nevertheless, in 1659 she managed to marry Roger Palmer, although this was against his family’s wishes. Barely a year later she became a mistress of King Charles, then still in exile. Her first child, Anne, was born in 1661, probably fathered by the King. Barbara and Charles (who had been elevated to Earl of Castlemaine) separated in 1662 but remained married until his death, though it’s thought he didn’t father any of Barbara’s children.

For that decade, the 1660s, Barbara Villiers, or Lady Castlemaine as Pepys calls her, was an important player in the King Charles court, sometimes more in favour, sometimes less. But her star was definitely in the ascendant when the king appointed her Lady of the Bedchamber in 1662 - very much against the wishes of the Queen, Catherine of Braganza. Indeed, behind the scenes there was a constant feud between Barbara and the Queen, but it was Barbara that tended to carry more influence.

In 1663, Barbara converted to Catholicism, possibly to consolidate her position with the King. Wikipedia gives more details of the ups and downs of the relationship, but, by the early 1670s, Barbara was on the way out, supplanted by new favourites, the actress Nell Gwynne and then Louise de K√©roualle. Of Barbara’s six children, though, five are thought to have been fathered by King Charles. Both the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and Sir Anthony Eden are her descendants.

After leaving court, she moved to France with several of her younger children, and then returned to England. Her husband, Palmer, died in 1705, and she married Robert ‘Beau’ Fielding, a rake and fortune-hunter whom she later had prosecuted for bigamy. She died on 9 October 1709, exactly 300 years ago today.

According to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Charles II, Barbara Villiers was tall and voluptuous; she had masses of auburn hair, slanting, heavy-lidded blue-violet eyes, alabaster skin, and a sensuous, sulky mouth. I feel sure she must have been too busy flirting and scheming to keep a diary, but Samual Pepys managed to work, scheme, flirt, plus a whole lot more, and keep a diary. And he wrote often of Barbara - she was easy on the eyes, and good copy, as they say.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys website - a marvellous resource - provides a short commentary on the diary entries made by Pepys about Barbara Villiers, and a separate essay on the so-called bedchamber incident. But here are some titbits from Pepys’s diary that show his admiration for her beauty and his own willingness to be influenced by it.

Friday 13 July 1660
‘. . . Late writing letters; and great doings of music at the next house, which was Whally’s; the King and Dukes there with Madame Palmer, a pretty woman that they have a fancy to, to make her husband a cuckold. . .’

Tuesday 23 July 1661
‘. . . in the afternoon, finding myself unfit for business, I went to the Theatre, and saw Brenoralt, I never saw before. It seemed a good play, but ill acted; only I sat before Mrs. Palmer, the King’s mistress, and filled my eyes with her, which much pleased me. . .’

Saturday 7 September 1661
‘. . . my wife and I took them to the Theatre, where we seated ourselves close by the King, and Duke of York, and Madame Palmer, which was great content; and, indeed, I can never enough admire her beauty. . .’

Wednesday 21 May 1662
‘. . . And in the Privy-garden saw the finest smocks and linnen petticoats of my Lady Castlemaine’s, laced with rich lace at the bottom, that ever I saw; and did me good to look upon them. . .’

Wednesday 16 July 1662
‘. . .This day I was told that my Lady Castlemaine (being quite fallen out with her husband) did yesterday go away from him, with all her plate, jewels, and other best things; and is gone to Richmond to a brother of her’s; which, I am apt to think, was a design to get out of town, that the King might come at her the better. But strange it is how for her beauty I am willing to construe all this to the best and to pity her wherein it is to her hurt, though I know well enough she is a whore.’

Saturday 26 July 1662
‘. . .Since that she left her Lord, carrying away every thing in the house; so much as every dish, and cloth, and servant but the porter. He is gone discontented into France, they say, to enter a monastery; and now she is coming back again to her house in Kingstreet. But I hear that the Queen did prick her out of the list presented her by the King; desiring that she might have that favour done her, or that he would send her from whence she come: and that the King was angry and the Queen discontented a whole day and night upon it; but that the King hath promised to have nothing to do with her hereafter. But I cannot believe that the King can fling her off so, he loving her too well . . .’

Sunday 8 February 1662/63
‘. . . Another story was how my Lady Castlemaine, a few days since, had Mrs. Stuart to an entertainment, and at night began a frolique that they two must be married, and married they were, with ring and all other ceremonies of church service, and ribbands and a sack posset in bed, and flinging the stocking; but in the close, it is said that my Lady Castlemaine, who was the bridegroom, rose, and the King came and took her place with pretty Mrs. Stuart. This is said to be very true. . .’

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