Helen McCrory as Barbara Villiers in "Charles II: The Power & The Passion"
In the last post, I wrote about Barbara's early years at court, her rise to being known as "Lady Castlemaine", the rocky relationship with her husband and the children she bore the King. Today's post will concentrate in her years at court from the arrival of Queen Catherine of Braganza to the beginning of her decline.
Catherine of Braganza arrived in England in 1662 to a swathe of celebration and bonfires were lit in celebration in every street in London, except outside of the house of Barbara Castlemaine. During May 1662, whilst the celebrations raged, the King was inside Barbara's house in King Street dining and playing with her until it was time for him to leave for Portsmouth to meet his new Queen. Barbara was said to be very upset and the King leaving her company, and it should be worth noting that at this point she was heavily pregnant with the King's second child by her.
When Charles first laid eyes on Catherine, he was rather taken aback. The difference between her and Barbara was astounding. Catherine had lead such a retired existence in Portugal that she wore fashions that had not been seen in England since the late Tudor era, and would have looked rather odd to the eyes of the English. She had also been advised by her parents that to surrender to the English way of dressing would prove detrimental to the dignity of Portugal. Yet despite this initial stubbornness Charles found her demeanour to be incredibly pleasing, and he told Clarendon that he thought himself "very happy" at having her for a wife. Yet after their marriage, the two did not consummate their marriage - Charles complained that he was too sleepy. He claimed this was due to the journey but it may have also had something to do with the fact that he had come to meet Catherine straight from the bed of Babara Castlemaine!
Queen Catherine of Braganza by or after Dirk Stoop
Charles II and Catherine were married in a private ceremony the day after her arrival in Portsmouth and from there the royal couple went to Hampton Court for their honeymoon. Almost immediately Barbara began causing a stir, as she proposed that at the same time as the royal couple were there, she should be at Hampton Court for the birth of her son. The idea was rejected outright by Charles! But as Barbara fought to maintain her place as the most important woman in Charles' life, it was the Queen's own ladies in waiting who helped to cement her place there. These women were old, proud and fiercely overprotective of Queen Catherine, they refused to learn English and kept wearing the Portuguese fashions whereas at least Catherine began to dress in more of an English manner, and they also made it startlingly clear that they would not sleep in any bed that had previously been slept in by a man! Charles of course would not put up with this behaviour for long, and began to put together a list of English women to be her new ladies in waiting. And the name at the top of that list was Barbara Castlemaine. At finding this out Catherine fainted in shock, it was obvious that she knew enough about the infamous Lady Castlemaine. How was it then that the King's mistress managed to receive this post? Quite simply Barbara had pleaded with the King to give her the post as a demonstration of his loyalty to her and of course, Charles weakly agreed to her demands. What Charles did not know was that Catherine had heard of Barbara, even all the way in Portugal, and Catherine's mother had told her not to allow Barbara's name to mentioned in her presence and for a long time Catherine made no allusion to Barbara's presence. Now though, she had the royal Mistresses presence slapped right in front of her and would be forced to deal with Charles' sexual betrayal every single day. In utter fury she struck Barbara's name from the list and demanded that the King allow her this privilege or she would go back to Portugal. Charles, of course, would have been taken aback and not prepared that his wife would have a will of her own. He tried to calm her down to start with, insisting that his affair with Barbara belonged to his past, he didn't need the mistress now that Catherine was in his life. Charles, as we know from hindsight, never kept this promise. Did he even intend to keep it?
A few days later, Charles managed to introduce his mistress to his wife. Catherine had of course never come face to face with Barbara and so, although had heard about her, would never recognise her if they came face to face. Queen Catherine received her gratefully, allowing her to kiss the royal hand but when one of Catherine's Portuguese ladies whispered in her ear who it was, Catherine became agitated and her eyes filled with tears but she tried to control herself, until blood began pouring from her nose and she had to be carried from the room. All Charles could see at this point was that his wife had denied him, it was if at this stage he hadn't quite realised just how deep his wife's feelings went for him. Clarendon was summoned, who of course took Catherine's side but Charles argued that if he allowed the Queen to get her way he would be seen as weak. Moreover, Charles used the argument that now Lord Castlemaine had left his wife, it was his own duty to secure her a position of honour in the Queen's household, and that if Catherine stopped making a fuss he would never push another appointment on her again. He also threatened that if she continued in this way, he would get himself even more mistresses. Clarendon was sent to her as the bearer of bad news and he, although siding with her, said that if she would only allow Barbara as first lady of the bedchamber then all would be well. Catherine of course flew into a rage, saying that the King must hate her and that she would pack her bags up and leave for Portugal. Clarendon tried to calm her down, advising her to accede to the Kings wishes and he also advised the King to let the matter lie for a few days for things to calm down. But a consequent meeting between husband and wife ended up in a full scale shouting match, he accused her of stubbornness and she called him a tyrant. He then told her he would send all her Portuguese ladies right back where they came from. The argument was so loud that the next day everyone at Court knew what had happened, and also noticed that they barely looked at each other! But now the King found himself in a quandary, he was growing ever more fond of his wife but couldn't let Barbara down. However Catherine spent the next few days crying alone in her rooms, and in public feigning indifference although still ignoring him. After this, Barbara formally took up her position as lady of the bedchamber at Whitehall Palace and there, poor Catherine had to see her husbands mistress as more popular than she was. For months she took everything in silence, noticing as her own servants showed more respect to Barbara knowing full well she had more influence with the King than Catherine did. But this silence gained her many admirers, and one day bored with loneliness she began to chat happily with Barbara, showing outwardly all signs of friendliness, and Barbara was even seen to be waiting on the Queen at Mass. Catherine, although only outwardly showing her acceptance did so as she did not want to displease her husband due to the simple fact that she was so in love with him that she would put up with his lover.
During this time, Barbara used her influence at court and there seemed no end to it. After Lady Gerard, another lady of the Queen's bedchamber made remarks that Barbara took offence to, she had her dismissed. She began persuading Charles to dismiss elderly statesmen, and having them replaced with younger men who were more in touch with the modern world, and there was no point in Charles protesting this despite the alarm felt by others at court. And it was during 1662-63 that Barbara began to use her influence to bring about the downfall of Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. He had much to fear from her, knowing how much she hated him, and it was Barbara who influenced the decline in his influence.
This was when Barbara was at her height, the King would dine with her four or five times a week, often not returning to Catherine's bed until the next morning, and he made n effort to hide it from her. He would openly walk from Barbara's apartments to the palace and for a period of about three months did not dine with the Queen once, preferring to spend his time with Barbara. By April 1663, Barbara had apartments in Whitehall near the King and no matter how fond of Catherine Charles was, she could not compete with Barbara's dazzling wit and her sexual prowess.
Barbara was certainly not loyal to Charles, and she had a string of other lovers including Sir Charles Berkeley, James Hamilton a groom of the King's bedchamber, Lord Sandwich and Henry Jermyn.
Yet Barbara's power would soon start to crack when rival's for the King's affection began to make their mark. The earliest example is when Frances Stuart, a young girl of fifteen from Paris, joined the court as a maid of honour. This girl was apparently incredibly beautiful and immediately captivated the King, and she was the polar opposite of Barbara Castlemaine and was incredibly virtuous. So virtuous in fact that she just kept on refusing the King.
Frances Stuart, La Belle Stuart by Sir Peter Lely
Of course Barbara quickly took the young, naive Frances under her wing, inviting the young thing to all nights out and making sure that she was always present at occasions where the King was, and indulged Frances' love of childish games. One famous story (which can be seen in Charles II The Power & The Passion with Rufus Sewell) involved a play where Barbara and Frances would pretend to be man and wife, going through a pretend marriage and going to bed in the traditional manner. When the King arrived, Barbara ceded the place of the husband to him but still Frances would now allow anything to go beyond a game which must have been very frustrating for Charles! However during Charles' seeming obsession with young Frances, Barbara began to go about the Court with a sour look on face and it was clear that she was beginning to lose favour. She was seen less and less in the Kings company, and in public people began to pay less attention to her.
One of the main events that saw Barbara's fall from favour in 1663 was the fact that Catherine became seriously ill in the October. It was sudden and mysterious and it was feared that she would not recover. The raging fever made her believe that she had given birth to a son, and she apologised to Charles that he was so ugly. The King, who had spent many hours by her bedside, told her that their son was a pretty boy. By this time, it had been established that the Queen must be barren, and thoughts that she may be dying gave way to talk of a new Queen for Charles, and the name of Frances Stuart was thrown around. The Queen however recovered only to be faced with the reality of her childlessness and the King's continued dalliance with his mistresses.
Fraser, A, 1979, King Charles II, Butler & Tanner: London
Fraser, A, 1984, The Weaker Vessel: Women's Lot in Seventeenth Century England, Phoenix: London
Masters, B, 1979, The Mistresses of Charles II, Constable: London
Uglow, J, 2009, A Gambling Man, Faber & Faber: London