Villiers, Barbara (c. 1641–1709)

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Villiers, Barbara (c. 1641–1709)

Countess of Castlemaine and duchess of Cleveland who was the powerful and influential mistress of Charles II of England for over ten years . Name variations: Barbara Palmer; Lady Castlemaine; Countess of Southampton; Baroness Nonsuch. Born autumn 1641 (some sources cite 1640 or 1642) at Westminster, England; died at Chiswick on October 9, 1709; only daughter of William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison, and Mary (Bayning) Villiers; educated in impoverished circumstances; married Roger Palmer, in 1659; became mistress of King Charles II, in 1660; had affair with John Churchill, duke of Marlborough; married Robert (Beau) Feilding or Fielding (d. 1712), on November 25, 1705, a union which was declared void on May 24, 1707, as Feilding had a wife, Mary Wadsworth, still living; children: (with Charles II) Anne Palmer (b. 1661); Charles, duke of Southampton (1662–1730); Henry, 1st duke of Grafton (1663–1690); Charlotte Fitzroy (1664–1717); George, duke of Northumberland (1665–1716); (with John Churchill) Barbara Palmer (b. 1672).

Moved to London in early teens; married Roger Palmer (1659); became mistress of Charles II (1660); created countess of Castlemaine (1662) and appointed lady-in-waiting to queen; converted to Catholicism (1663); given large pension and created duchess of Cleveland (1669); had affair with John Churchill (1672); removed from queen's household due to Test Act (1672); moved to Paris (1677); remained at court during reign of William and Mary; married Robert Feilding (November 1705) after death of first husband; bigamy trial of Feilding (1706); marriage declared null (1707); fell ill (July 1709) and died from dropsy (October 1709).

Barbara Villiers was born into a family that was known for its loyalty to the crown. The Villiers family rose to power, wealth, and prominence during the reign of James I, whose favorite, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, secured influential places at court for his brothers and sisters. During the ill-fated reign of Charles I, Barbara's father William Villiers, 2nd viscount Grandison, fought on the royalist side while his daughter, in turn, became the powerful and prominent mistress of Charles II. The grandeur of her life, however, was not foreshadowed at the outset.

In 1641, the year of Barbara's birth, England was on the brink of civil war. The nobility in Scotland had already challenged the king's authority, and the English Parliament was engaged in a battle of wills with Charles I over his arbitrary use of the royal prerogative. One year later, Britain was at war. Throughout most of the civil war, Barbara was sheltered from much of the ongoing political turmoil and lived with her mother

Mary Bayning in the countryside. Her father, however, immediately took up the king's standard and raised an army. A year later, in July 1643, he died from a gunshot wound sustained in battle. Barbara and her mother were left to fend for themselves.

Little is known about the early years of Villiers' life. She was forced to live in reduced circumstances and was brought up by relatives in the countryside until her early teens. From an early age, however, observers noted her beauty and charm. Later portraits confirm that she had auburn hair, a voluptuous figure, and dark blue eyes. In 1656, 15-year-old Barbara joined her mother in London, who had been living there for some years with her second husband. Here, Barbara caught the eye of several young gentlemen including Philip Stanhope, 2nd earl of Chesterfield, whose reputation as a "rake" and seducer of young women was well known. Consequently, Villiers' family soon became worried that her friendship with him would lead to something more serious. Although some historians argue that she had an affair with Chesterfield, there is little reliable evidence to support their claims. Nevertheless, her reputation as one of the most beautiful and enchanting women in London was growing, and her fortunes were about to be altered forever when the political situation changed.

In 1659 and after ten years of republican rule under Oliver Cromwell, the political tide turned back towards monarchical government. One year later, Charles II returned to govern the kingdom he had been forced to leave a decade ago. Those men who had remained loyal to the Royalist cause were eager to regain the power and prestige they had lost during the Cromwellian regime. One of these Royalists was 24-year-old Roger Palmer who had recently been captivated by, and won the hand of, Barbara Villiers. They were married on April 14, 1659. One year later, in the spring of 1660, Palmer and his 19-year-old wife were sent to Brussels to assist with preparations for Charles II's return. Here, their lives were changed forever. Although no one knows exactly what happened when the king and Barbara Palmer met, that encounter signaled the beginning of an intense, passionate, and long-lasting relationship.

Tall, dark, athletic and intelligent, Charles II was instantly captivated by the vivacious and very beautiful Mrs. Palmer, and they became lovers sometime in May 1660. The king's obvious infatuation with her was confirmed when, upon his return to England, he spent his first night with Barbara at the palace of Whitehall. From this point on, Villiers was seen with the king at formal and public events and was quickly acknowledged as his mistress. After the birth of a daughter Anne Palmer , Villiers' first child with the king, Roger Palmer was created baron of Limerick and earl of Castlemaine in December 1661 as consolation. Although he acknowledged this child as his own, Palmer knew that his marriage was one in name only, and he retreated from court to concentrate on his career as a member of Parliament.

Life at the Restoration court was a welcome change from previous years of puritanical restraint. Vibrant, colorful and gay, the new court was both intellectually and sensually stimulating. Although Charles left many of the political matters in the hands of his capable chancellor, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, he did not abandon his kingly duties. A primary concern, of course, was to find the king a suitable wife. Royal marriages were based on political rather than emotional concerns, and by 1662 it had been decided that the king would marry the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza . A new wife did not mean that Charles would give up Lady Castlemaine, however, and when Catherine arrived in England on May 13, 1662, the king did not go out to greet her but spent the evening with Villiers instead.

Palmer, Anne (1661–1722)

Countess of Sussex . Name variations: Lady Dacre; Anne Lennard. Born in February 1661; died in 1722; daughter of Barbara Villiers (c. 1641–1709) and probably Charles II, king of England; married Thomas Lennard, Lord Dacre, in 1674, who was created earl of Sussex in 1684 (died 1715).

King Charles II was probably the father of Barbara Villiers ' first child, Anne, though, at the time, the paternity was also attributed to one of Barbara's earliest reputed lovers, Philip Stanhope, 2nd earl of Chesterfield (1633–1713).

Charles, Barbara's second child with the king, was born in June 1662. Once again, however, Roger Palmer acknowledged the child as his own and, having recently converted to Catholicism, had him baptized according to Roman Catholic rites. This action gave Villiers the pretext she needed to leave her husband officially, and, from this point on, they rarely saw one another. Charles II, on the other hand, was endeavoring to keep Barbara even closer to him by arranging her appointment as lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine. Although homesick and isolated, Catherine of Braganza had fallen in love with her husband and refused his request to have the royal mistress in her presence. Charles retaliated by sending the majority of Catherine's Portuguese servants back home. The king's resolve in this matter, and his loyalty to Villiers, was unshakable. When he learned that Chancellor Clarendon was in favor of blocking Barbara's appointment, he is recorded as having said: "I am resolved to go through with this matter, let what will come on it. Whosoever I find to be my Lady Castlemaine's enemy in this matter, I do promise, upon my word, to be his enemy as long as I live." By August, two distinct factions had formed, one which supported the queen, the other Lady Castlemaine. Nevertheless, the opposition underestimated both Villiers' intelligence and her influence with the king. Two months after the issue arose, Barbara was given official lodgings at Whitehall and a position in the queen's household. Her rooms soon became the center of opposition against Clarendon.

By 1663, rumors were circulating that not only was Lady Castlemaine supplanted in the king's affections by a new mistress but that she had taken a new lover herself. It is difficult to prove whether or not these rumors were true, and Barbara's birth of a third child (Henry) with the king in September and the lavish gifts he presented to her at Christmas suggests that they were false. Her conversion to Catholicism in December 1663 may have been an attempt to consolidate her position in the king's circle because many of his closest friends were secret Catholics. Regardless of her motivations, she maintained both her faith and her status as the official mistress of the king and, with him, gave birth to another child, Charlotte Fitzroy (1664–1717).

In 1665, when the plague was raging in London, Villiers traveled with the royal court to Salisbury and Oxford. Despite public criticism, her position at court remained strong. Her influence was recognized by the French king, Louis XIV, who ordered his ambassador to coax as many state secrets from Lady Castlemaine as possible. Unfortunately, the ambassador's attempts in this regard were never rewarded.

In December 1665, Barbara gave birth to George, her fifth and last child with the king. Charles II was preoccupied with foreign affairs, most notably a naval war with the Dutch. The Anglo-Dutch war continued for two years and signaled the end of Villiers' chief political rival, the earl of Clarendon, who took the blame for this unpopular war. While it is difficult to determine whether or not she played an active role in securing the chancellor's downfall, she was, nevertheless, pleased when he was finally removed from office in 1667. Charles II, however, was in no hurry to appoint a successor and remained without a chief minister for several years after Clarendon's fall.

Villiers' position remained secure even when she learned that the king's attentions had now turned to actresses. Realizing that she would have to share her royal lover with other women, Lady Castlemaine continued to hold a powerful sway over the king. Public criticism against her position, however, continued. In April 1668, an anonymous pamphlet entitled "The Poor Whores' Petition" circulated throughout London. Addressed to Lady Castlemaine, it asked for her protection since she was "one of us." A few days later, an anonymous "answer" to the petition was written. As a means of publicly acknowledging his regard for her, and in an obvious, if futile, attempt to sway public opinion, Charles gave Villiers an annual pension of £4,700 as well as a large house across from St. James's Palace. She lived there for two years with her three youngest children during which time the king visited her every day.

Her achievement had been impressive, for at a time when women had few opportunities for advancement she had succeeded in winning herself a fortune, a title, and independence by the age of thirty.

—Ronald Hutton

In 1670, Barbara was created Baroness Non-such, countess of Southampton, and duchess of Cleveland. She continued to receive various pensions, jewels and properties from the king. In addition to these royal gifts, Villiers, who was an astute businesswoman, accepted bribes from foreign diplomats as well as English courtiers. She continued to rely on her own beauty, charms, and influence to secure both money and property for her children. In this regard, she was wise to collect what revenues she could, as the situation for Catholics in England was becoming increasingly tense. Much of this was due to the king's foreign policy.

Fitzroy, Charlotte (1664–1717)

Countess of Lichfield . Name variations: Charlotte Lee. Born in 1664; died in 1717 (some sources cite 1718); illegitimate daughter of Charles II, king of England, and Barbara Villiers (c. 1641–1709); married Edward Henry Lee, earl of Lichfield, in 1677 (died 1716).

In 1670, Charles signed the Treaty of Dover with France. Under the terms of this agreement, France and England united to make war against the Dutch. While this clause of the treaty was publicized, some other, more serious and secret promises were also made. In return for a promise to convert to Catholicism, Charles was to receive £166,000 as well as additional financial subsidies from Louis XIV over the next eight years. Shortly before war was declared on Holland two years later, Charles issued a Declaration of Indulgence which suspended penal laws against Catholics and non-conformists. The English House of Commons, which was anti-Catholic and anti-French, was outraged by the king's action and refused to grant money for the Dutch war until the king withdrew the Declaration. Parliament then passed the Test Act which prohibited anyone who was not a member of the Church of England from holding public office. Consequently, all Catholic officials, including the king's brother, James, duke of York (later James II), were driven from office. Barbara, duchess of Cleveland, also lost her position in the queen's household as a result of this legislation.

Although he continued to lavish gifts and pensions upon her, it was becoming increasingly clear that Barbara's influence over the king was dwindling, particularly as a succession of women had supplanted her as royal mistress. (Charles had a legion of mistresses throughout his reign, including Lady Elizabeth Byron, Marguerite Carteret , Elizabeth Killigrew , Nell Gwynn , Moll Davies , Hortense Mancini , Catherine Pegge , Louise de Kéroüalle, Frances Stuart , and Lucy Walter .) The duchess, however, was never one to lie low. She, in her turn, had a series of liaisons with several men, including John Churchill (afterwards duke of Marlborough) with whom she had a daughter Barbara Palmer in 1672. She also made concerted and successful efforts to secure wealthy and influential marriages for all of her children.

When many of these family matters had been settled, Villiers moved to Paris in 1677. Her motivations for doing so are unclear. Some historians suggest that she left England to escape from her creditors while others argue that she preferred to have her daughter brought up in a Catholic convent. Whatever the reasons, the duchess remained in Paris for several years, during which time she had an affair with the English ambassador, Ralph Montague. She returned to England for several short visits, primarily to collect the rents from her various properties. She was present in England, however, just shortly before the death of Charles II in February 1685. It is not known how she reacted to the news of his death, but she must have grieved for the man who had changed her life so substantially.

Although she had little influence at court after the death of Charles II, Villiers continued to fare well under the successive reigns of James II and William III. She was allowed to remain at court, although the income she was to receive from her various pensions was not always paid regularly. In addition, she began to gamble heavily and by the mid-1690s she was £10,000 in debt. Fortunately, William III finally came to her aid and in 1699 not only paid off her debts but granted her a regular, if small, pension, for the rest of her life.

Palmer, Barbara (1672–1737)

Daughter of Barbara Villiers . Born in 1672; died in 1737; daughter of Barbara Villiers (c. 1641–1709) and possibly John Churchill, duke of Marlborough; children: (with James Douglas) Charles Hamilton.

The reputed daughter of John Churchill, duke of Marlborough, and Barbara Villiers , Barbara Palmer entered a nunnery in France. Later, with James Douglas (1658–1712), afterwards 4th duke of Hamilton, she had an illegitimate son, Charles Hamilton (d. 1754).

By the turn of the century, however, her personal life had taken a turn for the worse. In July 1705, she became a widow when her husband Roger Palmer died. Four months later, she married Robert Feilding. Unfortunately, Villiers' choice of a second husband was unwise. One year after their marriage, Feilding was arrested for threatening and maltreating his wife and, more seriously, it was soon discovered that he had married another woman just two weeks before his marriage to Villiers. Feilding went on trial for bigamy, and on May 23, 1707, sentence was passed declaring her second marriage null and void. From this point on, Villiers' health deteriorated, and in July 1709 she fell ill with dropsy. Three months later, she died on October 9, 1709, at the age of 68.


Andrews, Allen. The Royal Whore: Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton, 1970.

Gilmour, Margaret. The Great Lady: A Biography of Barbara Villiers, Mistress of Charles II. NY: Alfred Knopf, 1941.

Hamilton, Elizabeth. The Illustrious Lady: A Biography of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980.

suggested reading:

Hutton, Ronald. Charles the Second: King of England, Scotland and Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Margaret McIntyre , Instructor in Women's History, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

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Villiers, Barbara (c. 1641–1709)

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