I pass all my hours in a shady old grove,
But I live not the day when I see not my love;
I survey every walk now my Phyllis is gone,
And sigh when I think we were there all alone,
Oh, then ’tis I think there’s no Hell
Like loving too well.
But each shade and each conscious bower when I find
Where I once have been happy and she has been kind;
When I see the print left of her shape on the green,
And imagine the pleasure may yet come again;
Oh, then ’tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.
You would think his reign would be a goldmine for the BBC, HBO, Netflix or some other media heavy of that ilk to take on – much in the same way that old Henry VIII has been done to death. In recent years alone there’s been ‘The Tudors’ and ‘Wolf Hall’. Yet, despite having arguably the most hedonistic court in the history of the English monarchy – a time of scuttlebutt and scandal, of perfumed dandies and plunging necklines – it has only been bought to screens, large and small, around the fringes. The Restoration saw Charles II throw out the puritan drabness of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and bring back colour and social (read sexual) freedom to his domain. His court was full of Machiavellian intrigue, usually associated with the royal bedchamber and the parade of wantonly women who made their way to it. Hollywood, etc, has only skimmed the surface of this fecund period – it’s time a more detailed light was shone on it, methinks.
With the possible exception of Wallis Simpson, perhaps the most famous of all mistresses popped her head up to be savoured by the royal personage, to seduce or be seduced, at this time. Most with a modicum of knowledge of the Brit narrative will know of this apple of the King’s eye who emerged from a dank, festering East End, as an orange seller, to become the top banana in his boudoir. She was probably the only woman in his life to have truly loved him and she was Nell Gwynne.
But the delicious Nell was only one in a long list of promiscuous misses to court the favour of randy Charlie. For twenty-five glorious years this ruler gave his subjects plenty to gossip about after he threw off the grey stays of the religious zealotry that preceded him at the top. He lived the life of a rake to the full, fitting his duties of state around dalliances with a long list of mistresses, some serving up their wares to him concurrently. He regarded his long-suffering queen as just another duty he had to endure before he could indulge throwing the royal seed about. He didn’t care about their station in life, these gold-diggers. Just as long as a woman was comely and not pock-marked too badly by the pox, she was fair game.
We know of fifteen official mistresses – but as to the unknowns, it’s anybody’s guess. This is the case, as well, for the number of bastards his endless bedding of the fairer gender produced – there are fourteen recorded as part of the royal lineage.
Let us take a closer gander at some of his conquests. His first, to the best of our knowledge, was Lucy Walter, his constant companion in exile from the age of eighteen until he received the call to return from The Hague to the throne. Once he had his ascendancy sorted he went back to Holland to fetch her, only to find her in the arms of a soldierly rival. He dumped her on the spot. She ended up a prostitute ravaged by venereal disease.
Charles found Nell Davis on the London stage, a bountiful source for spirited wenches. Samuel Pepys’ wife termed her ‘…the most impertinent slut in the world’. She came undone when the other Nell, who followed her onto the scene, stuffed her full of laxative which caused her to disgrace herself whilst the royal person was in the saddle. The King was mortified.
Then there was Squintabella, a nickname Nell G gave the haughty Louise-Renée de Kéroualle, whose baby face and Frenchiness intrigued the monarch, despite her lazy eye. He was in her thrall until she got above herself and started demanding that he came out of the closet as far as his preference for the Catholic religion was concerned. The second Charles had better sense than to put his head on the block in such a manner, so soon dispensed of her services. But she stayed around long enough, fighting off all pretenders to usurp her prominence in the King’s bedchamber, to have him declare her the ‘maitresse en titre’ (the official one) – for a time.
Barbara Villiers was heavily pregnant to Charles when Catherine de Braganza arrived from Portugal, in 1662, to take up her arranged station as queen of the realm. Barbara was a married woman and a very feisty customer who had such a hold over her lover that after a spat, and they were very frequent, he could be found down on his knees grovelling for forgiveness. But she was forever giving her favours to lesser mortals and eventually he wearied of his high maintenance courtesan.
There was Hortense Mancini. She dressed as a man and was ‘wedded’ to another royal conquest, Barbara Palmer, whilst the latter was with child – his of course. There was nothing Charles liked better than to sit by their shared bed and watch these two beauties sleeping in each other’s arms.
If all that’s not enough to build a compelling bodice ripper around, I’ll eat my hat. But now let’s turn our attention to another Restoration beauty who was of a completely different disposition and was perhaps the only one of the women in his life that he, in turn, truly adored with all his heart. Her name may not be recognisable to us, but we all know of her in another way. This unique individual was Frances Stuart – in court she was awarded the appellation ‘La Belle Stuart’. Mrs Pepys’ husband described her as ‘The finest sight to me…that I did ever see in my life.’ So how did this undoubted stunner of flashing blue eyes and golden brown tresses fit in amongst all the other goings on in the royal household. What was her story?
She grew up in exile too – in France this time – her family chose the wrong side in the Civil War. As her name would suggest, she was also a distant relative of his majesty. When Charles was setting up his court in 1660, with due emphasis on gaiety and frivolity, he put the word about that he was on the lookout for pretty women, of worthy parentage, to populate it. His sister recommended Frances after watching her bloom across the Channel, so she was summoned. At fourteen she was bought to England and became a maid of honour to Charles’ new queen. The very instant the monarch laid eyes on her he was smitten – her beauty, the way she dressed, her gentility and her conversation enthralled. She excelled at dancing, wasn’t a meddler and flirted outrageously with him. Her decorous kisses were akin to sweetmeats on his lips Why, she even laughed with pleasure at his lame jokes. Even at so youthful an age, she was the complete package and he desired her almost beyond reason. Even though, verbally and in action, she gave every indication that she shared his affection for the other – there was a line she would not transverse. At a time when one’s virginity was used as a tool to make it to the top of the heap, Miss Stuart was determined that she would sacrifice hers for nothing short of true romantic love. Charles used every trick, every ounce of praise, every cajolery too at his behest to entice her into his chamber – but she was immovable. To his credit – he always took her ‘no’ as the final word – that is, until the next time he asked. Now, with all the temptation he had at hand, you would think he would soon lose interest. There’s no doubt his sexual needs were being fully catered to by more compliant minxes – but it seems his ardour for her continued to climb to boiling point the longer she withheld the ultimate prize. But every step of the way she managed to waylay him, yet did enough to convince him that one day she would be his for the taking. She remained his constant companion at many a courtly function and when the Queen appeared to be on her deathbed in 1663, it was assumed the throne besides his was hers. Unfortunately for Frances, Catherine rallied and so the game of cat and mouse continued. When the plague struck the capital and functions of state were transferred to Hampden Court Palace, the king was becoming decidedly more insistent in his wooing. Something had to give. The beautiful one started to realise that, as patient as his majesty had been to this point, there was a veiled threat now involved. She would either have to gift him her virginity or find someone to marry. That latter option would work to put her legally, if not entirely realistically, beyond his reach. What to do? What to do?
As luck would have it, into the court in exile strode her knight in shining armour. Coincidently, his name was Charles Stuart, a distant relative to both herself and the royal house. He was also loaded up with titles as the Duke of Richmond and Lennox and she was soon completely smitten with him. He seemingly reciprocated and they were quickly wed, but in secret – neither wanted to face the royal displeasure, before they had to, by making it open. Frances was no fool and soon realised her husband was very flawed – he was a philanderer, a drinker and a compulsive gambler – but he did extricate her from her fix so she settled in for the long haul with him. Of course, when he discovered her deceit our lusty monarch was livid and vowed never to set eyes on the pair again. They departed the scene and he kept his word. But in 1669 the King displayed his ongoing affection when he rushed to her beside on hearing she had caught the dreaded smallpox. He lavished her with all the care he could muster and as Nelly G was now foremost in his thoughts, there was no ulterior motive on his part for his compassionate actions on her behalf. Frances duly recovered and soon found the King had transformed himself into something of far more value to her than a frustrated suitor – he became her friend for life. She returned to court as Lady of the Queen’s Bedchamber and to counter her feckless spouse, became an astute business woman. On the death of her wastrel hubby the King awarded her a substantial pension. In the end she used it to return to Scotland, the land of her birth, living there in comfort till her own demise in 1702.
So how come the vast majority of us are familiar with her – despite no inkling of her tale? Well, in 1664 the British defeated the Dutch at sea and Charles decided to have a medal struck in celebration. He envisaged a figure of Britannia, contemplating her victories, as the motif. With Frances at that stage, in his opinion, being the most beautiful damsel in the land, it was by decree that she was to model in the role for the casting. When he later decided to then have new coinage struck, her pose for the medal had a fresh use – gracing one face of the new design. Her portrait has thus appeared on British pennies right up till the introduction of decimal currency in 1971. So Frances Stuart is our notion of Britannia.
There has never been another Charles on the throne since Frances’ would-be lover. Is this because of the licentiousness of his life style? It will be interesting to see if our present Charles, if he ever gets to ascend to kingship, retains the name. After all, his story has not entirely been free of shenanigans behind a wife’s back either.
But, in closing, let us return to the soppy versification the earlier King Charles scribed when he was lovelorn, pining for the fair Frances, a woman not afraid to say no to a king:-
While alone to myself I repeat all her charms,
She I love may be locked in another man’s arms,
She may laugh at my cares, and so false she may be,
To say all the kind things she before said to me!
Oh then ’tis, oh then, that I think there’s no Hell
Like loving too well.
But when I consider the truth of her heart,
Such an innocent passion, so kind without art,
I fear I have wronged her, and hope she may be
So full of true love to be jealous of me.
Oh then ’tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.