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Alice Keppel

Romancing the throne: 5 royal mistresses and paramours

Complete with open marriages, illegitimate children, and dominant/submissive role-playing, hold onto your bedposts, here are five paramours doing their best for King, but not always country.

Image: Alice Keppel | Public Domain

Extramarital shenanigans are nothing new to the monarchy. But while queens were expected to remain outwardly loyal and chaste, kings were free to sow their wild oats. So much so that ‘maîtresse-en-titre' or chief royal mistress was once a semi-official position that came with its own apartment and other juicy perks.

Queens were definitely still at it, but our knowledge of such encounters is mostly based on rumour as all proof was often destroyed. Even kings had to keep some affairs with other men quiet due to widespread homophobia meaning the nature of some relationships is still heavily debated.

Complete with open marriages, illegitimate children, and dominant/submissive role-playing, hold onto your bedposts, here are five paramours doing their best for King, but not always country.

1. Alice Keppel & Edward VII

It turns out Queen Consort Camilla’s great-grandmother also had a taste for Princes of Wales. Born an aristocrat, Alice Edmonstone was a prominent society hostess. Meeting Prince Edward in 1898, she remained his mistress until his death and was one of only a few people who could soothe his violent moods.

Alice didn’t marry her prince as her affairs with wealthier men began soon after she wed George Keppel in 1891. She excelled as a Court Advisor settling disagreements between the King and his ministers; even the Queen was fond of her. After Edward’s death, Alice spent years travelling Asia before returning to run a hospital alongside Lady Sarah Wilson during World War I.

George said of Alice's affairs, ‘I don’t mind what she does as long as she comes back to me.’ That sentiment worked both ways as George was also indulging in extramarital afternoon delights. Their open marriage was described as one ‘of companionship, of love, and of laughter’ and lasted over 56 years with George dying just two months after Alice.

2. Eleanor (Nell) Gwynne & Charles II

Praised as ‘Pretty, witty Nell’ by Samuel Pepys, Nell Gwynne started out selling oranges in the King’s Theatre. Nell’s natural wit caught the attention of actor Charles Hart and she became the first actress to tread the English stage, performing up to 50 different plays a season.

To the rest of the country, he was Charles II, but to Nell, who’d already had affairs with Charles Hart, and Charles Sackville, he was always Charles III. She also viewed Charles' other lovers, of which there were approximately 13, with humour. Famously shouting ‘Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore’ when her carriage was mistaken for the Catholic Louise de Keroualle’s.

Nell’s initiative is credited for the Royal Chelsea Hospital, and upon her death at 37, she ensured a portion of her wealth was distributed to the poor and to release debtors from prison at Christmas.

3. George Villiers & James VI & I

Described as the ‘handsomest-bodied man in all of England’ by the Bishop of Gloucester it’s no surprise Villiers caught the already-married, eye of King James during a hunt. James’ existing inamorato Robert Carr had fallen foul of nobles and so they successfully rallied to displace him with Villiers.

When appointed Royal Cup Bearer, Villiers also began to exhibit his physique as a dancer. He rose quickly to Gentleman of the Bedchamber, becoming Earl within two years and 1st Duke of Buckingham by 1923, where he consistently abused his power under the King’s patronage.

Coming from minor gentry, Villiers was the only Duke not of Royal blood and was often reminded by James referring to him as his ‘finest creation’. Add to this Villiers' signature of ‘Your most humble slave and dog’ and it’s clear who was in control. These letters also reminisce fondly about a time ‘where the bed’s head could not be found between the Master and his dog’.

4. Anne Boleyn & Henry VIII

Now, keep your eye on the metaphorical ball, during King Henry VIII’s rule they shuffled beds faster than a thimblerig game. Anne Boleyn replaced both Catherine of Aragon, and her own sister Mary, as Henry VIII’s horizontal jousting partner.

However, Anne refused to follow in her sister's footsteps as Henry’s side chick. A quick reformation of the church later and Queen Catherine was divorced, long live Queen Anne.

Already pregnant with Elizabeth I at her coronation, Anne endured the trauma of child loss repeatedly. She then had to watch her husband seduce her maid, Jane Seymour, before putting Anne on trial for, amongst other things, adultery. With her once betrothed Henry Percy on the jury that unanimously sentenced her to death, it’s little wonder she was described as happy and ‘ready to be done with life’ on the day of her execution.

5. Piers Gaveston & Edward II

Anne wasn’t the only one who had romantic relations with a king to land themselves with a beheading. However, it was arguably Gaveston’s control of the King’s patronage, rather than the bedchamber, that got him the chop.

Gaveston was exiled from Edward I’s household when the young Prince Edward II developed an ‘undue’ obsession with him. Sending him away with a few subtle tokens of affection including horses, clothing, swans, and herons, Edward II’s first charter as King, saw Gaveston return home and made the 1st Earl of Cornwall.

Edward’s reliance on Gaveston led England into military defeats, civil war, and political crises. His position and intimacy with the King provided an exclusivity that provoked the other nobility. The northern Earls took matters into their own hands, executing Gaveston for treachery in 1312 leaving Edward grief-stricken. That was until he met the equally problematic Hugh Despenser and the cycle began again.