Barbara Palmer, née Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, is one of the most famous and enduring royal mistresses of all time. Barbara was born into a rather lowly family, but overcame those social limitations by growing up into an absolute stunner. Tall and voluptuous, Barbara positively oozed sexuality and swiftly made a very opportune marriage indeed. Unfortunately for her husband, Roger Palmer, his father had had the right of it when he protested the marriage, predicting that Barbara Villiers would make his son one of the most miserable men in the world. The teenaged Barbara struck up a relationship with the then exiled Stuart King, Charles II, and remained a notorious and influential figure in the monarch’s life for the rest of his reign.
Almost universally hated and awed in equal measure, Barbara was a hot topic for her contemporaries and the famous diarists of the age. She was described as “a vulgar mannered, arrogant slut”; “A woman of great beauty, but more enormously vicious and ravenous, foolish but imperious”; “The finest woman of her age”; the artist Sir Peter Lely, who painted her many times, claimed that her beauty was “beyond the power of art”. Charles II himself is credited with having said that Barbara “hath all the tricks of Ariten [a 17th century sex manual] that are to be practised to give pleasure”, and so maybe there’s the nub of her appeal (no pun intended)!
Barbara lauded over the Restoration court, her power over the King undeniable, even when he made his dynastic marriage to the little Portuguese Princess, Catherine of Braganza. Charles’ relationship with Barbara Palmer was so notorious that the Portuguese court had taken special pains to ensure that their young Princess was shielded from the knowledge. They needn’t have wasted the effort, as Charles himself was spectacularly unsubtle about his glorious mistress. He even bedded Barbara in-between his marriage vows with Catherine and coming that evening to the marital bed; it seems that Barbara had worn her king out completely, as even the famously randy Charles was ‘too tired’ to consummate his royal marriage that first night…
Charles and Catherine honeymooned at Hampton Court Palace. A petulant Barbara, perhaps concerned her influence over Charles was waning, immediately demanded that she and her substantial baby bump were taken to spend her confinement at Hampton Court alongside the newlyweds. After delivering Charles a fine healthy son, Barbara immediately insisted that she be instated as a Lady of the Bedchamber, which would give her a fine income, prestige and lodgings at all the royal palaces. To be fair, Barbara had been ‘abandoned’ by her husband (who had finally wised up to the very obvious fact he was being cuckolded) and was certainly in need of a salary and a little public sanitising. Charles duly put her name on the list of appointees.
Unsurprisingly, Catherine of Braganza had been forewarned about her husband’s calculating mistress. When she saw Barbara’s name on the list of her intended gentlewomen, she clung to her poise and dignity and merely struck the name off the list. Barbara went mad, berating Charles to control his wife. Charles agreed, wanting to nip this independence in the bud before it fostered out of control. He brought Barbara to court to be presented to the Queen. Not knowing Barbara by sight, Catherine smiled sweetly as this finely dressed woman curtsied in front of her and came to kiss her hand. One of her ladies came forward and whispered the identity of the grand lady. Catherine began to have a panic attack of sorts, and tried so hard to keep her horror at bay that she promptly started to have a nosebleed and fainted, having to be carried from the chamber. Still she refused to allow the King’s mistress to be one of her ladies. Charles – incensed by her stubbornness and harried by Barbara – turned nasty. He dismissed all of Catherine’s Portuguese ladies, leaving her alone and friendless until she gave in and accepted Barbara.
With this very public and obvious confirmation that Barbara’s wishes were in precedence to those of the Queen, Barbara was nigh untouchable. Charles – a generous man – lavished her with titles and salaries and land, which she spent in abandon! Charles leased the Tudor palace of Nonesuch over to her, which she promptly dismantled and sold off piece by piece to pay off her gambling debts. She took bribes in payment of her agreement to to press the King about certain matters, and was always playing both ends off against the middle, with no true political scruples of her own. In time she even came to terms with Queen Catherine, in a manner of speaking; once, when Catherine was ill – likely to die – Barbara found herself praying fervently for her rival’s recovery, realising that if she died that Charles would remarry, and most probably to a more robust woman, who would prove more of a challenge to her authority. Eventually Catherine rallied, and the strange royal mengage-a-trois continued.
I say ‘trois’ but of course Charles had many, many mistresses other than Barbara. As the pair got older and their relationship less intense, Barbara began to take her own lovers, becoming quite the ‘cougar’. Her extra-marital (and extra-extra-marital!) dalliances were quite common knowledge, even to Charles. When Barbara was pregnant in 1667, the King denied paternity – quite reasonably, as he couldn’t recall having sex with her around the time of conception – which sent Barbara into a towering rage. She swore that if he denied paternity of the baby she would throw the child to the floor as soon as it was birthed, dashing its brains out. Such was Barbara’s aggression and power over Charles that he went down on his knees to beg pardon for his ‘suspicions’ and duly acknowledged the child as one of his own ‘Fitzroy’ bastards.
On one occasion, Barbara was in bed with her young lover, John Churchill, when the King came to visit her. A panicked Churchill leapt from the bed and into the cupboard (or out of the window, if you prefer that version of the tale) but Charles discovered him. Churchill fell to his knees to beg his king’s forgiveness. “You are a rascal,” said Charles, “but I forgive you because you do it to get your bread.” And indeed, Barbara was very generous financially with her lovers, as Charles had always been with her. The ‘royal whore’ was now spreading the wealth, obtaining her own ‘whores’! Although, of course, Barbara strongly refuted any suggestion that she was anything less than a grand and pious lady. In 1668, a group of brothel owners and prostitutes affected by the recent Bawdy House Riots drew up ‘The Whores’ Petition’, a satirical letter that was addressed to ‘Lady Castlemaine’, the ‘great whore’, asking that she intervene with the King and come to the aid of her “sisters” and pay for the rebuilding of the damaged brothels. As you can imagine, Barbara was apocalyptic with rage at this slight!
One of the most enduring stories about Barbara is told in the diary of Samuel Pepys, in his entry for the 21st May 1662. Pepys was a massive fan of his ‘lovely Lady Castlemaine’, raving all the time about her beauty, whilst still remaining wary of the needless expense that she and her family of bastards represented and the power that she continued to hold over Charles. In the entry, Pepys recounts how, whilst on a walk, he caught sight of Barbara’s underwear left out to dry outside, a sight that he very much enjoyed!
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.
After their relationship had thoroughly cooled, and Charles had installed a new mistress-en-tete, Barbara gathered up her four youngest children and went off to live vicariously in Paris for a few years. Rather touchingly, when Barbara returned from France and spent a night with her old lover the king, itturned out to be their last; within the week, Charles had died.
Barbara didn’t grow old gracefully. After the death of her long-suffering husband Roger Palmer she re-married to somebody dreadfully unsuitable, only to find that said second husband was actually already married, and ended up having to sue him for bigamy. She also had liaisons with men who tried to poison her children, got her grand-daughter pregnant, and basically tried to extort money out of her by any way possible.
Eventually, Barbara died at the grand age of 68, of what was then known as ‘dropsy’ – oedema of the legs, which made her body swell up to a monstrous size. A rather sad end for a woman so famously beautiful that all other ladies at court requested that they be painted with a resemblance to her. Barbara is said to haunt Walpole House in Chiswick where she died. Visitors have claimed to have heard the tapping of high heels when there is nobody walking, the swish of silken skirts, and on occasion, seen the visage of an aggressive, arrogant beauty whose presence makes the viewer feel ‘threatened’; it seems that Lady Castlemaine is still throwing her tantrums.