Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, Mistress of Charles II

Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, Mistress of Charles II
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Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland (November 27 [O.S. November 17] 1640[1] – October 9, 1709) was an English courtesan and perhaps the most notorious of the many mistresses of Charles II of England.

Born Barbara Villiers at the parish of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, she was the only child of the 2nd Viscount Grandison, William Villiers (a half-nephew of the 1st Duke of Buckingham), and his wife, Mary Bayning, heiress of the 1st Viscount Bayning. On September 20, 1643, her father died in the English Civil War from a wound sustained at the Battle of Newbury while fighting for the Royalists. He had spent his considerable fortune on horses and ammunition for his Cavalier regiment; his widow and daughter were left in straitened circumstances. Shortly after Lord Grandison’s death, Barbara’s mother the Lady Mary remarried to Charles Villiers, Earl of Anglesea, a cousin of her late husband.[2]

Upon the 1649 execution of King Charles I, the impoverished Villiers clan secretly transferred their loyalty to his son, Charles. Every year on May 29, the new King’s birthday, young Barbara, along with her family, descended to the cellar of their home in total darkness and clandestinely drank to his health.[3] At that time, King Charles was wandering about the Continent, exiled and penniless.

Tall, voluptuous, with masses of auburn hair, slanting, heavy-lidded blue-violet eyes, alabaster skin, and a sensuous, sulky mouth,[4] Barbara Villiers was considered to be one of the most beautiful Royalist women, but her lack of fortune left her with reduced marriage prospects. Her first serious romance was with Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield, but he was searching for a rich wife; he would wed Elizabeth Butler in 1660.[5] On 14 April 1659 she married Roger Palmer (later 1st Earl of Castlemaine) against his family’s wishes; his father predicted that she would make him one of the most miserable men in the world. Palmer was a Roman Catholic. The two separated in 1662, following the birth of her first son. They remained married for his lifetime, but it is believed that Palmer did not father any of his wife’s children. [1]

She became King Charles’s mistress in 1660, while still married to Palmer, and whilst Charles was still in exile at The Hague. The Palmers had joined the ambitious group of supplicants who sailed for Brussels at the end of 1659.[6] As a reward for her services, the King created her husband Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine in 1661. Of her six children, five were acknowledged by Charles as his:

1. Lady Anne Palmer, later FitzRoy (1661-1722), probably daughter of Charles II, although some people believed she bore a resemblance to the Earl of Chesterfield. She later became the Countess of Sussex.
2. Charles Palmer, later FitzRoy (1662-1730), styled Lord Limerick and later Earl of Southampton, created Duke of Southampton (1675), later 2nd Duke of Cleveland (1709)
3. Henry FitzRoy (1663-1690), created Earl of Euston (1672) and Duke of Grafton (1675)
4. Charlotte FitzRoy (1664-1718), later Countess of Lichfield. She gave birth to twenty children.
5. George FitzRoy (1665-1716), created Earl of Northumberland (1674) and Duke of Northumberland (1683)
6. Barbara (Benedicta) FitzRoy (1672-1737) – Cleveland claimed that she was Charles’ daughter, but she was probably the child of her mother’s second cousin and lover, John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough

By 1662, Barbara, the King’s mistress, had more influence at the court than his Queen, Catherine of Braganza. In point of fact, Barbara chose to give birth to their second child at Hampton Court Palace while he and the Queen were honeymooning.[7] In the summer of 1662 she was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber despite opposition from Queen Catherine and Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, one advisor to the King and a bitter enemy of Barbara’s. Behind closed doors, Barbara and the Queen feuded constantly.

Barbara’s influence over the King waxed and waned. Her victory, of her appointment as Lady of the Bedchamber, was followed by rumours of an estrangement between her and the King, being the result of his infatuation with Frances Stuart. In December 1663, Barbara announced her conversion to Catholicism; historians disagree as to why she did so. Some believe it was an attempt to consolidate her position with the King, and some believe it was a way of strengthening her ties with her Catholic husband.

In June 1670 Charles created her Baroness Nonsuch (being the owner of Nonsuch Palace). She was also, briefly, granted the ownership of Phoenix Park in Dublin as a present from the King. She was made Countess of Southampton and Duchess of Cleveland in her own right; however, no one at court was sure if this was an indication that she was being jettisoned by Charles, or whether this was a sign that she was even higher in his favours. The Dukedom was made with a special remainder which allowed it to be passed to her eldest son, Charles FitzRoy, despite him being illegitimate.

Barbara was known for her dual nature. Diarist John Evelyn called her "the curse of the nation";[8] yet, others described her as great fun, keeping a good table and with a heart to match her famous temper. Lady Barbara took advantage of her influence over the King, using it to her own benefit. She would help herself to money from the Privy Purse and take bribes from the Spanish and the French. She was famously extravagant and promiscuous. She also meddled in politics, supporting the Second Dutch War (declared in February 1665), along with most of the court and Parliament.[9] But there are accounts of exceptional kindness from Barbara; once, after a scaffold had fallen onto a crowd of people at the theatre, she rushed to assist an injured child, and was the only court lady to have done so.

While the King had taken other mistresses, the most notable being the actress Nell Gwynne, Barbara took other lovers too, including the acrobat Jacob Hall and her second cousin John Churchill. Her lovers benefited financially from the arrangement; Churchill purchased an annuity with £5,000 Barbara gave him. As the result of the 1673 Test Act, which essentially banned Catholics from holding office, Barbara lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber, and the King cast her aside completely from her position as mistress, taking Louise de Kéroualle as his newest "favourite."

In 1676 she travelled to Paris with her four youngest children, but returned to England four years later. In 1705 Roger Palmer died, and she married Major-General Robert "Beau" Fielding, an unscrupulous fortune-hunter whom she later had prosecuted for bigamy. She died aged 68 on 9 October 1709 at Chiswick Mall after suffering from an oedema, known at the time as dropsy.

Barbara had many notable descendants, including Diana, Princess of Wales and Sir Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister from 1955-1957.

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