Barbara Palmer, nee Villiers, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

Barbara Palmer, nee Villiers, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

She was an English royal mistress of the Villiers family and perhaps the most notorious of the many mistresses of King Charles II of England, by whom she had five children, all of them acknowledged and subsequently ennobled. Her influence was so great that she has been referred to as “The Uncrowned Queen”

Barbara Palmer
1st Duchess of Cleveland

Born
27 November 1640
(17 November Old Style)
Parish of St. Margaret’s,
City and Liberty of Westminster

Died
9 October 1709 (aged 68)
Chiswick Mall,
Chiswick

First Husband
Roger Palmer
1st Earl of Castlemaine

Second Husband
Robert Fielding
This was a bigamist marriage so in the eyes of the law was null and void.

Children
1 Anne Lennard
25 February 1661 – 16 May 1721

2 Charles FitzRoy
18 June 1662 – 9 September 1730

3 Henry FitzRoy
28 September 1663 – 9 October 1690

4 Charlotte Lee
5 September 1664 – 17 February 1718

5 George FitzRoy
28 December 1665 – 28 June 1716

6 Barbara (Benedicta) FitzRoy
16 July 1672 – 6 May 1737

Parents
William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison
Mary Bayning (no image available)

Born into the Villiers family as Barbara Villiers, in the parish of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, Middlesex, she was the only child of William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison, and his wife Mary Bayning. On 29 September 1643 her father died in the First English Civil War from a wound sustained on 26 July at the storming of Bristol. Shortly after Barbara’s mother married Charles Villiers, 2nd Earl of Anglesey, a cousin of her late husband. Upon the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the impoverished Villiers family secretly transferred its loyalty to his son, Charles, Prince of Wales. Every year on 29 May, 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. 

Tall, voluptuous, with masses of long hair, slanting, heavy-lidded violet eyes, alabaster skin, and a sensuous, sulky mouth, Barbara Villiers was considered to be one of the most beautiful of the 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. 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. Roger Palmer was a Roman Catholic. The two separated in 1662, following the birth of her first son. They remained married until the death of Castlemaine, who predeceased Villiers, but it has been claimed that he did not father any of his wife’s children.

Barbara Villiers became King Charles’s mistress in 1660, while still married to Palmer, and while 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. 

 As a reward for her services, the King created her husband Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine in 1661. In many contemporary accounts, including Pepys’s Diary, she is referred to as “Lady Castlemaine”.

In the summer of 1662 she was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber despite opposition from Queen Catherine and Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, chief advisor to the King and a bitter enemy of Barbara.

In the summer of 1662 she was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber despite opposition from Queen Catherine and Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, chief advisor to the King and a bitter enemy of Barbara.

Behind closed doors, Barbara and the Queen feuded constantly. She combined with the future Cabal Ministry to bring about Clarendon’s downfall. On his dismissal in August 1667, Barbara publicly mocked him; Clarendon gently reminded her that if she lived, one day she too would be old. His dislike of her probably sprang from the fact that she was his cousin by marriage, and he felt personally embarrassed by her role as royal mistress. Barbara’s influence over the King waned. Her victory in being appointed as Lady of the Bedchamber was followed by rumours of an estrangement between her and the King, the result of his infatuation with Frances Stuart. In December 1663, she announced her conversion to Roman Catholicism. 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. The King treated the matter lightly, saying that he was interested in ladies’ bodies, but not their souls. The Court was equally flippant, the general view being that the Church of Rome had gained nothing by her conversion, and the Church of England had lost nothing.

In June 1670 Charles created her Baroness Nonsuch (as she was 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 Castlemaine 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 his illegitimacy. She was known for her dual nature. Diarist John Evelyn called her “the curse of the nation”; yet, others described her as great fun, keeping a good table and with a heart to match her famous temper. She 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. 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. In 1670 Charles II gave her the famed Nonsuch Palace. She had it pulled down around 1682 and sold off the building materials to pay gambling debts.

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, Henry Jermyn, 1st Baron Dover and her cousin John Churchill. Her lovers benefited financially from the arrangement; Churchill purchased an annuity with £5,000 she gave him.

The King, who was no longer troubled by Barbara’s infidelity, was much amused when he heard about the annuity, saying that after all a young man must have something to live on. As the result of the 1673 Test Act, which essentially banned Catholics from holding office, she lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber, and the King cast her aside completely from her position as a mistress, taking Louise de Kérouaille as his newest “favourite” royal mistress. The King advised his former mistress to live quietly and cause no scandal, in which case he “cared not whom she loved”.

In 1676 the Duchess travelled to Paris with her four youngest children, but returned to England four years later. She was reconciled with the King, who was seen enjoying an evening in her company a week before he died in February 1685.

After the Kings death, the 45-year-old Duchess began an affair with Cardonell Goodman, an actor of terrible reputation, and in March 1686 she gave birth to his child, a son. In 1705 Roger Palmer died, and she married Major-General Robert Fielding, an unscrupulous fortune-hunter whom she later had prosecuted for bigamy, after she discovered that he had married Mary Wadsworth, in the mistaken belief that she was an heiress, just two weeks before he married Barbara. 

She had complained of his “barbarous ill-treatment” of her after she stopped his allowance, and was eventually forced to summon the magistrates for protection.

Barbara died at the age of 68 on 9 October 1709 at Chiswick Mall after suffering from oedema, known at the time as dropsy. Today, this would be described as oedema of the legs, with congestive heart failure.

Barbara Villiers figures prominently in Bernard Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Days (1939) and Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn (2015)

She is the protagonist in Royal Mistress (1977) by Patricia Campbell Horton and Royal Harlot (2007) by Susan Holloway Scott. She also features heavily in Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber (1944), Jean Plaidy’s A Health Unto His Majesty (1956) and Doris Leslie’s The sceptre and the rose (1967), as well as being a recurring character in Susanna Gregory’s Thomas Chaloner series of mystery novels.

Barbara is played:
.In the 1911 film Sweet Nell of Old Drury by Agnes Keogh
.In the 1922 film The Glorious Adventure by Elizabeth Beerbohm
.In the 1926 film Nell Gwyn by Juliette Compton

.In the 1995 film England, My England by Letitia Dean
.In the 1947 film Forever Amber by Natalie Draper
.In the 1989 film The Lady and the Highwayman by Emma Samms

.In the 1969 mini-series The First Churchills by Moira Redmond
.In the 2003 mini-series Charles II: The Power & The Passion by Helen McCrory
.In the 2014 mini-series The Great Fire by Susannah Fielding

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