Sunday, 24 October 2010
Quick: name one of the mistresses of Charles II, our onetime pretty, witty and randy king? If you’ve any knowledge of the period at all, any knowledge of the life of Charles, I’m guessing that your answer is Nell Gwynn, certainly the one lodged most firmly in the popular imagination, the orange seller, the actress; pretty, witty Nell.
If your knowledge is slightly deeper you may have gone for Lucy Walter, with whom the king had an affair in exile, the mother of James, duke of Monmouth, the best known of the royal bastards. But there were others (lots of others!) including my personal favourite – Barbara Palmer nee Villiers, arguably the greatest courtesan in English history.
There are two things important in understanding Charles: he liked women and he liked a quiet life. Unfortunately these two things were not always in harmony, otherwise he would never alighted on Barbara. Woman she was; mouse she was not! She was a great beauty, the superstar of her day, but she was also highly intelligent, clearly intelligent enough to realise that beauty was a transient thing; that, while it lasted, it had to be converted into wealth and power, political power above all. And, my goodness, nobody did it better than her.
To begin with she was just another impecunious royalist, one whose family had been ruined by the Civil Wars, hanging on the margins of an exiled and impecunious court. But no sooner had the king returned from his travels than Barbara, with whom he had formed an attachment, began her ascent. She was married to Roger Palmer, created earl of Castlemaine in 1661, doubtless as a cuckold’s compensation. Because of this she was generally known as Lady Castlemaine. In some ways she was a new Anne Boleyn, with the same kind of quarrelsome temperament, but Charles was most assuredly not a new Henry VIII! Castlemaine made use of the king’s infatuation, and his weakness, to get her own way, either by exercise of her charm or her temper, which was notorious.
The Restoration monarchy is quite unique in the singular dominance of bedchamber politics. By 1662 Castlemaine was the most important figure at court, one whose hold over Charles was so strong that she was widely known as ‘the Enchantress.’ Even the queen, poor, ineffectual Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wallflower whom the king had married in 1661, was overborne by the mistress. She was able to make and break men politically, even the greatest.
In so many ways it was Castlemaine who set the tone of the Restoration monarchy, which began on a note of universal goodwill, subsequently lost in a reputation for excess and sexual licence. She knew her man, one who had lost all moral compass at an early age, separated, as he was, from the influence his loving but austere father at the outset of the Civil Wars. I would not go so far as to say that Charles was led by the balls but it comes close, my, it comes close!
Anyone who has trawled through the archives will have a flavour of how Charles quickly descended in the popular imagination from the bright young prince to the lascivious old king. There are lots of scurrilous verses which make reference to his priapic obsessions, including one in which he rides through London calling urgently for a midwife. The best known of these was published anonymously in 1667, a time when England was at war with Holland, offering comment on the successful Dutch raid on the Chatham dockyards on the Thames;
As Nero once, with harp and hand surveyed
His flaming Rome, and, as that burned, he
So our great prince, when the Dutch fleet
Saw his ships burned and, as they burned, he
So kind he was in our extremist need,
He would those flames extinguish with his seed.
And this, believe me, is one of the mildest!
For at least ten years after the Restoration Castlemaine was unchallenged in influence and power, though that did not imply that she was faithful to the king, or he to her. Still, she was able to put down any potentially dangerous rival with consummate ease. Quarrels between her and Charles most often ended with him on his knees begging forgiveness, with Castlemaine being allowed to treat the Privy Purse effectively as her own purse. Samuel Pepys records in his diary;
“…the king doth mind nothing but pleasures and hates the very sight or thought of business…my Lady Castlemaine rules him…She hath all the tricks of Aretino that are to be practiced to give pleasure – in which he is too able, having a large [penis]; but that which is the unhappiness is that as the Italian proverb says, Cazzo dritto non vuol consiglio [an erect member does not need advice].”
Castlemaine’s greatest political triumph came in 1667, not long after the Chatham fiasco. It was she who was responsible in large measure for the downfall of the censorious Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, the king’s long term mentor and chief counsellor. But as he left court for the last time, watched from a window by Castlemaine, he called out the words of her particular doom – “Remember, Madam, that you will grow old.”
In 1673, now Duchess of Cleveland, she was forced to stand down as Lady of the Bedchamber, her principal office at court, because, as a Catholic, she was unable to take the oath prescribed by the Test Act, recently passed by Parliament. But that mattered less than Charles’ loss of affection. She was growing older, though still only in her early thirties, and the king had moved decisively in favour of Louise de Keroualle, ten years her junior. But no mistress was ever again to exercise the power of the great Enchantress, angrily dismissed by the mob as the ‘King’s Whore.’ It was owing to her that the Restoration was to be both the best of times and the worst of times in English history.