Stuart, Frances (1647–1702)
Stuart, Frances (1647–1702)
Duchess of Richmond and Lennox. Name variations: Frances Blantyre; Frances Stewart; known as La Belle Stuart. Born Frances Teresa Stuart in 1647 (some sources cite 1648) in Scotland; died on October 15, 1702, in London; daughter of Walter Stuart (or Stewart)and Sophia Stuart ; married Charles Stuart, duke of Richmond and Lennox, in 1667; no children.
Related to the Stuart royal family of England, Frances Stuart was for many years the center of life at the royal court. She was born in 1647 in Scotland but raised in France at the exiled court of the former English queen Henrietta Maria . Her parents were royalists who fled England in 1649, when Frances was two years old, during the final years of the Civil War. They did not return until 1662, following the restoration of the Stuart monarchy under King Charles II. Frances, as an unmarried young woman of high rank and a relative of the king, was appointed a lady-in-waiting to the queen, Catherine of Braganza .
Frances' beauty and kind, playful disposition quickly made her one of the most popular of the court women. She became a good friend of both the queen and the queen's rival, Charles II's mistress Barbara Villiers , but she soon found herself the object of the king's attentions. Despite their age difference, Charles and Frances shared a preoccupation with frivolous pursuits, delighting in games, dancing, and fashion. Frances encouraged his attachment and those of her other admirers at court; soon she usurped Barbara Villiers' place, becoming the most important woman at court after the queen. But despite her youth and inexperience, Frances refused the king's attempts to make her his mistress, apparently recognizing the danger and instability of such a position. Charles believed he was in love with her and tried for months to seduce "La Belle Stuart," as she was called, even promising that he would marry her if Queen Catherine died. She clearly enjoyed his company, however, and by 1666 the two were spending so much time together that it was widely believed they were in fact lovers. This put Frances in a difficult situation; although she wanted to preserve her honor against court gossip, she was not going to marry the king, but as long as he loved her, he would not allow her to marry another.
This situation continued until 1667, when Charles Stuart, the twice-widowed young duke of Richmond and Lennox, fell in love with Frances. After the king discovered their plans to marry, he attempted to prevent the wedding, forcing Frances to elope with the duke. King Charles was furious, even dismissing the chancellor whom he thought had arranged the marriage. For a year he refused to receive the duke and duchess, and they lived far away at their
estate in Kent. Frances was sorely missed at court; as the king's favorite, she had been a leader of its social life. Although Frances' letters to her husband are affectionate, Charles Stuart was an alcoholic and a gambler who was deeply in debt, and soon Frances wanted to return to her friends and the excitement of court life.
In 1668, she and her husband were staying briefly at their home in London when Frances contracted smallpox. This news frightened King Charles into reconciling with the Richmonds, even staying in their home while Frances recovered. After this reconciliation, Queen Catherine appointed Frances as a Lady of the Bed-Chamber, and the Richmonds returned at last to their lodgings in the royal palace of Whitehall. There the duke and duchess whiled away most of their time in dances, masquerades, suppers, and attending the theater. Frances' friendship with the king, who still retained an affection for her, rekindled rumors of an affair.
Frances' marriage ended in December 1672, when the duke, serving as ambassador for King Charles, died unexpectedly in Denmark. Frances' letters show that she mourned him, but her loss was only the beginning of her troubles. Since she had no children, all the duke's many titles and properties reverted to King Charles, except for Cobham Hall in Kent which she inherited. Charles Stuart had never been wealthy and, since they had spent lavishly on fashion, furnishings, and other luxuries, he left Frances deeply in debt. Facing this financial crisis she turned to the king, who, fortunately, treated her generously. He agreed to provide her with a substantial pension, allowing her to remain at the royal court where she once again lived at the center of court life. Even after her old friend the king died in 1685, Frances remained a fixture of London society until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought down the Stuart monarchy.
King William and Queen Mary II would end Frances' pension, but by 1688 she was no longer dependent on it. Revealing a sense for business, as a widow Frances had, through careful planning and management of her small estates, expanded her properties considerably and created a personal fortune. With this wealth, she retired from court life in 1689, at age 41, and moved permanently to her home in London. Her retirement corresponds to the onset of chronic illness, which eventually made her an invalid. In her last few years the duchess left home only rarely. Her final public appearance was at the coronation of Queen Anne in April 1702. Frances died a few months later at age 55 on October 15.
At her request, she was buried near her husband in the Richmond family vault in Westminster Abbey. The bulk of her fortune went to her Scottish nephew. For her legacy, Frances stipulated that her heir buy land and establish a new estate in Scotland to be called Lennoxlove. Many of Frances Stuart's personal possessions are still kept at Lennoxlove Manor, in East Lothian, Scotland.
Fraser, Antonia. King Charles II. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1979.
Hartmann, Cyril H. La Belle Stuart: Memoirs of court and society in the times of Frances Teresa Stuart, duchess of Richmond and Lennox. NY: Dutton, 1924.
Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California