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Portrait of Nell Gwyn

The many (many) mistresses of Charles II

Charles II's relationships with his mistresses, many of whom enjoyed pensions and countless perks from the Merry Monarch, created an extensive alternative royal family of illegitimate children.

Image: Nell Gwyn | Public Domain

Royal Kill List is a story about espionage, revenge, power, loyalty, and the moment that changed the landscape of British politics and society forever. The three-part drama-documentary follows King Charles II’s hunt for his father’s killers – the Regicides - as a window into a remarkable and often overlooked historical period. The show airs Tuesdays at 9pm on Sky HISTORY. The full series is now available on demand to Sky and Virgin customers.

Charles II wasn’t awarded the moniker ‘The Merry Monarch’ simply because of his passion for wine, song and music. His merry-making also related to his womanising and having more mistresses than any British monarch in history. Although he was married to Catherine of Braganza, the shy Queen turned a blind eye to her husband’s philandering. The marriage produced no children but Charles had over 11 illegitimate offspring by 14 mistresses and brief affairs.

Lucy Walter

Lucy Walter (nee Barlow) was one of Charles II’s first mistresses and provided him with one of the most prominent of his illegitimate children, James Scott. The boy became 1st Duke of Monmouth and at 36 was beheaded for treason against his father’s uncle, James II.

Charles met Lucy at The Hague in the Dutch Republic when she joined the exiled court of Charles while he was seeking refuge during the civil war in England. The relationship between the couple began in 1648 when they were both only 18 and continued until Charles left The Hague in 1650.

Painter Peter Lely’s portrait of Lucy Walter depicts her as a voluptuous beauty and the diarist John Evelyn described her as ‘a brown, beautiful, bold, but insipid creature’. Despite the short time Lucy and Charles enjoyed as lovers in the Netherlands, they did meet again on several occasions when Charles re-visited the Dutch Republic. They also met again in France after he had become king following the Restoration of the British monarchy.

Unable to accept the end of their relationship, Lucy became involved in scandals and numerous affairs. She was even suspected of being a spy in England and imprisoned in the Tower in 1656 with her lover, Lord Thomas. Deported back to the Dutch Republic after her release, Lucy became increasingly desperate for money and tried to blackmail the king by threatening to release private letters. Charles wanted custody of his 8-year-old son so had him kidnapped and sent to Paris. Walter herself moved to Paris where, in relative poverty, she died in 1658 from syphilis.

Barbara Villiers

After a series of youthful liaisons, in 1660 Charles fell for fiery Barbara Palmer (nee Villiers), who in due course became the Duchess of Cleveland and the king’s pre-eminent mistress. Noted for her voluptuous looks, luxurious hair and heavy-lidded eyes, Barbara’s influence over the king was so great she was able to secure positions on the Privy Council for her friends and family.

Her extravagant nature and volatile temper attracted many enemies, mainly the Earl of Clarendon, the chief advisor to Charles II. Her promiscuity, gambling and avaricious behaviour also made her unpopular with the pious Queen Catherine. But Barbara’s formidable influence over the king earned her the moniker the ‘Uncrowned Queen’ and she was awarded permanent grants worth more than £45,000 a year.

Having tired of Barbara’s excesses, Charles cast her aside for a fresh conquest, the Duchess of Portsmouth. Barbara infamously tore down the spectacular Nonsuch Palace in Surrey (built by Henry VIII in 1538) to pay off her huge gambling debts after Charles had given her the magnificent building as a present.

An actor portraying Barbara Villiers in Royal Kill List
Image: Barbara Villiers | Royal Kill List

Moll Davis

It is not known precisely where Charles first met the actress Moll Davis (also spelt Davies), whether it was at a coffeehouse or a theatre, but the relationship began in 1667. Moll was illegitimate and earned her keep as an actress employed by the Duke’s Theatre Company during a period when theatres began to flourish.

Although regarded as a beauty, Moll also had a reputation for ‘vulgarity’ and flaunted the wealth given to her by the king. She was described as the ‘most impertinent slut’ by the wife of diarist Samuel Pepys. Like many of Charles’ mistresses, she gave birth to a child by him, a daughter named Mary. Shortly afterwards, Charles dismissed Moll, possibly because he had spotted another actress, Nell Gwyn. Both women were said to be rivals for the king’s attention and one story is that Nell put a laxative in a piece of cake that Moll ate before seeing the monarch.

Her relationship with Charles allowed Moll to retire from the stage on a generous pension and with her fortune, she bought a fine house in St James’s Square.

Nell Gwyn

Nell Gwyn met King Charles at the Duke House Theatre in 1668 where she was employed in various acting roles. Charles was enchanted by Nell’s beauty, unaffected manner and vivacious spirit. As devoted to the king as he was to her, Nell gave him two sons, Charles and James Beauclerk.

Nell is believed to be responsible for the inception of the Chelsea Pensioners in 1682, when she campaigned for a hospital for war veterans after she came across an old soldier begging in the street. Charles favourably granted Nell £8,000 in gifts and she was able to buy the lease of her Pall Mall house ‘in ready money’.

Louise de Kerouaille

Louise de Kerouaille was nicknamed ‘Fubbs’ by Charles due to her chubbiness, which at the time was fashionable. Descending from nobility in Brittany, Louise was said to have a childlike beauty. Unlike some of her predecessors, Louise showed the Queen respect and had an amicable relationship. Unfortunately, Louise was less admired by the public in England due to her Catholicism, French background and close relationship with Louis XIV.

Although the sexual relationship between Charles and Louise fizzled out by 1676, the grip of the now Duchess of Portsmouth over her former royal lover remained firm. The king awarded her an annual pension of £12,000 and her private coach, often driven in Hyde Park, was pulled by eight horses, two more than his.

On the king’s deathbed, Louise arranged for him to be received by the Catholic faith. She was one of only three women (Queen Catherine and Nell Gwyn) in his life that he spoke of with affection as he approached his death in 1685.

Hortense Mancini, Duchess de Mazarin

Noted for her beauty and known for her bisexuality, Hortense Mancini, Duchess de Mazarin was born in Rome and later sent to Paris with her four sisters in the hope that the influence of her brother, Cardinal Mazarin, would attract rich suitors. Charles proposed to Hortense in 1659 but was rejected by the Cardinal due to his exiled status. When Charles became King of England, the Cardinal unsurprisingly changed his mind and offered a dowry of five million French livres. The marriage did not materialise, and Hortense instead married one of the richest men in Europe, Armand Charles de La Porte, who, despite his wealth and access to Hortense’s vast inheritance, was a pathological penny pincher and paranoid about his wife’s relationships with other men.

After several years of a hellish marriage, Hortense escaped to France and was granted protection by King Louis XIV with a generous annual pension. She was one of the first women in France to write her memoirs, partly as a defence document against abusive husbands. In 1675, Hortense wanted to replace King Charles’s mistress Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth and travelled to London disguised as a man. She succeeded in her quest and became mistress to Charles by 1676.

The king set her up in apartments in St James’s Palace and granted her an annual pension of £3,000. Hortense’s fall from grace was due to her promiscuity and continued affairs, which also included a passionate relationship with one of Charles’s illegitimate daughters, Anne Lennard. She later took to heavy drinking and may have died through excess.

Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond

A prominent member of the Court of Restoration, Frances Stuart, who was born in Paris, is alleged to have refused King Charles as a lover and even fled the court to avoid having to prostitute herself to him. Famed for her great beauty, Frances was nicknamed ‘La Belle Stuart’ and famously became the model for Britannia, who was depicted on British coinage for three centuries until decimalisation in 1971.

Charles remained infatuated with Frances, possibly due to her inaccessibility and in 1667 she married Charles Stewart, 3rd Duke of Richmond. The marriage was childless and Frances remained a popular figure at court even after she had been disfigured by smallpox in 1669.