Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland (1670-1709)
Born 1641 Died 1709
Barbara Villiers was the only daughter of William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison and Mary Bayning. Of her early life little is known, but at the age of fifteen she became the mistress of Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield. On the 14th April 1659 she married a Roger Palmer, although this marriage does not appear to have prevented her from continuing her relationship with the Earl of Chesterfield nor indeed of seeking out new partners. Her most famous conquest being of course, king Charles II, a relationship which began sometime in the spring of the year 1660, when it has been said that she "fell upon the sweet-good natured king as a praying mantis pounces on and gobbles up its victim".
In the February of the following year Barbara gave birth to a daughter named Anne. Roger Palmer2 claimed it was his, as did both the Earl of Chesterfield and Charles II. Then in early June 1662 she gave birth to a son named Charles. Although Roger Palmer insisted on treating the boy as his and ensured that he was christened as a Roman Catholic, Barbara snatched away the young boy and arranged for him to be re-christened in the Church of England1. At this point Roger abandoned his wife for good and left for the continent in a huff.
With the departure of her husband Barbara consolidated her position as 'mistresse en titre,' and in the following her exaggerated sense of self importance resulted in the infamous 'Bedchamber Incident' when Barbara forced Charles to appoint her as a Lady of the Bedchamber to his queen, Catherine of Braganza, over-riding Catherine's strenuous objections at being forced into such close proximity with her husband's mistress. This illustrates, if nothing else, that Barbara exerted a considerable hold over the king which again manifested itself with the later dismissal of the Earl of Clarendon, as he was known to have sided with queen Catherine over the 'Bedchamber Incident'.
Barbara's influence of the king is partly explained by straightforward physical attraction; Samuel Pepys was struck by her beauty and charm and wrote of how he "filled his eyes with her, which much pleased me". Similarly George Reresby described her as "the finest Woman of her age". However those, such as John Evelyn, that focussed more on the content rather than the form, condemned her as the "curse of our nation" and she has been described as "a vulgar mannered, arrogant whore when at her best". But perhaps more to the point, she was an accomplished sexual athlete and king Charles himself is recorded as having claimed that she "knew more positions than Aretino"3.
From Barabra's point of view this was all about the acquisition of money and her avarice became legendary. Charles showered her with a number of gifts of trinkets and jewellery, in addition to which she is known to have received a lump sum of £30,000, an annual pension of £4,700 payable from the Post Office and the Nonesuch Palace at Epsom. The palace was however stripped bare and plundered of its contents to feed her voracious gambling habit, which is where most of the rest of her money went.
Eventually Barabara received perhaps the greatest gift of all when she was created the Duchess of Cleveland on the 3rd August 1670. However by this time Charles had become bored with her and his attention had been diverted elsewhere to the likes of Moll Davis and Nell Gwynn. Barbara neverthless remained the mistresse en titre until 1671 when she was finally supplanted by the even more grasping Louise de Kéroualle.
Her post-royal career is understandably less well documented. She is
known to have taken up with a man by the name of Cardonell Goodman known as 'Scum Goodman' who was later jailed for trying to poison her sons and appears to have spent a certain time abroad in Paris. On the 28th July 1705 her husband Roger Palmer died. Thus free to remarry at the age of sixty-four she took as her second husband one Richard Feilding, commonly known as 'Beau Feilding' thanks to his success with the ladies. Unfortunately Mr Feilding already had a wife named Mary Wadsworth, whom he had married only two weeks before, but his ardour had cooled once he discovered that she had no money. Fielding was prosecuted for bigamy and burned on the hand at the marriage declared void. By this time her heath was deteriorating as she suffered from dropsy which made her bloated and fat and which eventually killed her on the 9th October 1709.
The Children of Barbara Villiers
Barbara Villiers was to bear a total of six children; king Charles II is traditionally shown as being the father of the first five of these children, although Charles was to acknowledge all six as being his. The sixth, a daughter named Barbara, was born on the 16th July 1672, after her relationship with the king had ended and is thus generally regarded as being fathered by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Malborough.
However it is worth remembering that just as Barbara Villiers was clearly not faithful to her husband, she wasn't faithful to the king either, and had numerous other sexual liasons. In addition to the future Duke of Malborough, her conquests included the playwright William Wycherley, Ralph Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu, Henry Jermyn, Charles Berkeley, James Hamilton, and a rope-dancer named Jacob Hall. According to the Lord Colerane she also once peformed an act of fellatio on a recently consecrated bishop and bit off his penis. Although whether from over-enthusiasm or malice is not related.
As noted above, three different men claimed paternity of her first born daughter, and she was to be found more frequently in the bed of Henry Jermyn prior to the birth of her second son Henry, who is therefore far more likely to have been the father. It is therefore largely a matter of conjecture as to which of her lovers was the father of any specific child. It was however in Barbara's own interests to claim that the king rather than any other man was the father of her children. As Samuel Pepys was to record of Barbara "It seems she is with child, and the King says he did not get it; with that she made a slighting 'puh' with her mouth and went out of the house." As it happens "a slighting puh" was the least of the weapons in Barbara's armory, who would scream, shout and throw the most dreadful tantrums to get what she wanted. Faced with the reluctance of the king to acknowledge her second son Henry as his, she apparently stamped her foot and shouted "God damn me, but you shall own it!" and threatened to kill the child if he did not relent.
And, Charles who generally preferred the quiet life, did relent and duly recognised Henry as his, as he did with other children borne by Barbara Villiers. But although Charles informally recognised five of her children as his, but this does not mean to say that they actually were his. The modern science of DNA analyis would no doubt be able to share more light on the subject, but to date no such investigation has been carried out.
The six children of Barbara Villiers were;
1 Somewhat ironically, Barabara herself became a Roman Catholic in the following year.
2 Robert Palmer received his own peerage title, largely as a result of his wife's activities, when he was created the Baron of Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine on the 11th December 1661.
3 Pietro Aretino enumerated sixteen postures in his infamous Sonnetti Lussuriosi.
- The entry for Villiers, Barbara in
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-05.
- A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain at www.thepeerage.com
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- William Donaldson Brewer's Rogues, Villains and Eccentrics (Phoenix, 2004)
- Palmer, Barbara at
- Brian Masters The Dukes: The Origins, Ennoblement and History of 26 Families (Blond and Briggs, 1975)