English royal mistress
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An English royal mistress is the unofficial title used to refer to a person who was the lover, but not wife, of the king of England either before or after his accession to the throne. Female lovers were, by convention, the most easily acknowledged, and often became influential individuals. However, there appear to have also been male love interests to monarchs, both male and female, who also wielded considerable influence. However, as this was not an official position of any kind, the influence of all Royal lovers was precarious, linked inextricably with their ability to hold the monarch's interest.
- 1 Reasons a royal mistress was taken
- 2 A brief overview of English royal mistresses
- 2.1 Mistresses during the Norman and Plantagenet era (1066-1485)
- 2.2 Mistresses during the Tudor era (1485-1603)
- 2.3 Mistresses during the Stuart era (1603-1714)
- 2.4 Mistresses during the Hanoverian era and the Victorian era (1714-1901)
- 2.5 Mistresses during the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha era (1901-1917)
- 2.6 Mistresses during the Windsor era (1917-present)
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 External links
Reasons a royal mistress was taken
The primary reason a king would take a mistress seems to be the fact that royal marriages were rarely, if ever, based on love alone. Most often, English monarchs made a dynastic match, first for the production of heirs of royal blood and second for the treaties and huge dowry that often accompanied such brides. Compatibility was rarely considered in the contracting of these marriages.
Often, these brides were stringently instilled with a sense of chastity that often developed into sexual frigidity. To a king whose sexual appetites were often nurtured by friends and father-figures from a young age, this was a difficult barrier to surmount. This, added to the fact that often there was no physical attraction between the two royal partners, creates a situation which, to the sensibilities of the time, necessitated the establishment of a royal mistress.
Relationship between the mistress and the king
Beyond the physical relationship, the royal mistress had one other duty to maintain her position. This duty was, simply, to be unfailingly amusing. A mistress had to be witty, charming, and talkative but had to remember to listen to the king when he wished. She had to be constantly available to the king should he want food, conversation, or sex. The stress of having to be constantly perfect sometimes led to a mistress’s early death.
Relationship between the mistress and the queen
Relationships between a king’s queen and his mistress varied between amiable acceptance and jealous hatred. Some wives were contented and even relieved to be supplanted in the marriage bed. Docile wives like Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II, often won their husband’s respect and affection. The opposite situation as with Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, could lead to a husband's hate and ridicule of his queen. (Tales of Eleanor's disdain for Rosamund Clifford, her husband’s much younger mistress, emerged four hundred years later in Tudor fiction alleging that Eleanor murdered her.) Often, English royal mistresses even served as lady-in-waiting to the queen; until modern times, this often led to a surprisingly fond relationship between the two. However, this relationship could often be strained when a mistress gave birth to a son that the king often loved more than his own legitimate offspring.
These stresses also occurred in the case of Edward II due to his alleged same-sex relationships with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, alienating Isabella of France his queen, who subsequently took Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March as her lover and launched an invasion and coup d'état leading to Edward's deposition and murder.
A brief overview of English royal mistresses
Mistresses during the Norman and Plantagenet era (1066-1485)
Before the 15th century, there is very little surviving record about English royal mistresses; there is the proof of the fruit of these affairs, but very seldom are the mothers of this offspring mentioned.
For example, we know that Richard III, who reigned from 20 June 1483 to 22 August 1485, had two children by the same mother. The children were John of Gloucester and Katherine, second wife of William Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Their mother has been identified as Katherine Haute but next to nothing is actually known about this woman.
This neglect in the records of England’s early royal mistresses is partly because the Roman Catholic Church cast a jaded eye on adultery as long as mistresses were kept in the background. Knowledge of the specifics of royal mistresses grows exponentially during the English Renaissance, with the increased prevalence of letter-writing and the English Reformation under Henry VIII.
Interestingly enough, the first monarch about whose mistresses we know a relatively large amount of information actually lived fairly early. Henry II, who reigned 25 October 1154 to 6 July 1189, was notorious for his infidelities. In this case, however, we have only the bare bones of knowledge about these mistresses: names, approximate birth and death dates, and vague physical descriptions. Although they are an improvement, they are barely an exception to the general rule of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Virtually the only Plantagenet king of whose mistresses we have a relatively detailed account is Edward IV (reigned 3 March 1461 - 31 October 1470, 11 April 1471 - 9 April 1483). Usually, as in the case of Edward’s brother, Richard III, we know that a mistress was kept but very little else; in Edward’s case, we have names and a comparatively thorough account of their actions; this is mainly because it was later claimed that Edward promised and even went through marriage to get some of his mistresses to sleep with him. This was apparently claimed of both Elizabeth Lucy and Lady Eleanor Talbot, but there was no evidence to prove that these marriages actually took place. The king himself said he had three "concubines", "who in three diverse properties diversely excelled: one the merriest, another the wiliest, the third the holiest harlot in the realm, as one whom no man could get out of the church lightly but it were to his bed." Jane Shore was the "merriest", but the others cannot be identified with certainty. Elizabeth Woodville proved a marriage had taken place. According to Alison Weir, she was the thus first English royal mistress to become the English queen. After Edward's death, Richard III used the confusion created by Edward's multiple partners to seize the throne. He forced Jane Shore to undergo a walk of penance in 1483 for her extramarital relationship with the king. He then declared the marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid, claiming that Eleanor Talbot was Edward's legal wife.
Mistresses during the Tudor era (1485-1603)
The first Tudor king, Henry VII (reigned 22 August 1485 - 21 April 1509), actually took no mistresses despite having married Elizabeth of York for dynastic reasons. However, this may have been as much because of libidinal deficiency as much as morality. Others have suggested that Henry VII was even in love with and faithful to his wife. In any case, there is no record or reason to suggest that he had kept mistresses as king. The only illegitimate child attributed to Henry VII was Sir Roland de Velville or Veleville, born in 1474, which was twelve years before the marriage of Henry and Elizabeth on 18 January 1486.
In sharp contrast to Henry VII is his son and successor, Henry VIII (reigned 21 April 1509 - 28 January 1547), whose libidinal surfeit is still fabled – and, perhaps, exaggerated — to this day. His first mistress, in 1514, was a Frenchwoman named Jane Popincourt, a tutor in languages to Henry’s sisters Margaret and Mary. Though very little is known of her, her promiscuity was so prominent that even the French king wouldn't allow her back to his court, known for its promiscuity.
Henry VIII’s next mistress was Elizabeth Blount, who was seventeen or eighteen when she reached the height of her power in 1518. He was much less discreet in this affair – at the Christmas revels in 1514, Henry danced with her so much that even docile, accepting Catherine of Aragon was so jealous that she persuaded Henry to exclude her from the Twelfth Night festivities. However, in 1517 the king was reputed to be “in the chains of love with her,” and in the spring of 1519, Elizabeth gave birth to a boy, a child she named Henry Fitzroy –Henry, son of the king. Elizabeth Blount, having fulfilled her main purpose, was married off to Gilbert Tailboys, 1st Baron Tailboys of Kyme, one of his courtiers whose family was said to have a history of insanity, and was remembered fondly by Henry with the occasional New Years gift.
The King’s next mistress was another Englishwoman, Mary Boleyn, who had been living in France. At the French court she was, like Jane Popincourt, known for her promiscuity: the rakish Francis I of France, reputed to have been “clothed in women,” boasted that he, like most of his friends, had slept with Mary Boleyn, describing her as “a great prostitute, infamous above all.” Although she was married to Sir William Carey when her affair with Henry began in the early 1520s, Carey is thought to have been compliant. Both her children by her first marriage, Catherine Carey and Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, were reputed to be illegitimates of Henry. Mary was afterwards sent to live in the country with her husband.
Henry’s next mistress was Anne Boleyn, sister to Mary Boleyn and the mistress who would become his queen. Although there has been some historical dispute over which sister was the elder, it was most certainly Mary, making Anne the younger sister of one of Henry’s previous mistresses. At the time that Henry first noticed Anne, he was also beginning proceedings for his divorce from barren Catherine of Aragon, and as Anne refused to sleep with him unless she was his wife, it seemed logical that he should make her his wife. She became his mistress in the truest sense of the word in 1532 (six years after he had first noticed her), and on 25 January 1533, she and Henry were married. Henry went on to marry Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. But from the beginning of his third marriage to his death, Henry did not take another mistress that record exists of today. His other reputed illegitimate children, Thomas Stukley, John Perrot and Etheldreda Malte, were all born in the 1520s.
Henry also took mistresses while Anne Boleyn was pregnant, two, in fact, and one was Mary Shelton, although not much is known about this. The other was Jane Seymour, who like Anne became his wife.
Four other monarchs of the Tudor dynasty followed Henry VIII. His son Edward VI succeeded to the throne when he was nine-years old. He died on 6 July 1553, two months short of his sixteenth birthday. He was arguably too young to have had a mistress and there is no record mentioning one. Edward VI was followed by Lady Jane Grey (reigned 1553), Mary I (reigned 1553–1558), and Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603). There is no suggestion that Jane or Mary took lovers outside of their respective marriages to Lord Guilford Dudley and Philip II of Spain. Elizabeth I's status as a 'Virgin Queen' was an important part of her public image. Although Elizabeth clearly had favourites, there is no clear evidence that any of these was a lover (although they are sometimes portrayed as such in fiction).
Mistresses during the Stuart era (1603-1714)
Elizabeth I of England was succeeded by James VI of Scotland. He rose to the English throne as James I. He was widely suspected of being homosexual, and had a series of intensely emotional relationships with men, both older and younger than himself throughout his life, the last being with Robert Carr and George Villiers. Whether these were consummated physically is a controversial subject among historians, although the majority is against consummation.
Robert Carr, who was Scottish like the king, caught James’ attention when he fell off a horse and broke his leg during a joust. The king nursed him through his injury and supervised his nurses, doctors, and diet, and even tried to teach Robert some Latin. After he had recovered, Carr was truly James’ favourite, quickly being made both a knight and then the Viscount Rochester, given a seat on the Privy Council, and created the Earl of Somerset in rapid succession. James did not care whether his favourites married or remained single; when Robert Carr expressed love for Frances Howard, a woman already married to Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, James had the earlier marriage annulled on 25 September 1613 so that Somerset could lawfully marry Frances on 26 December 1613.
However, Robert’s time in the king’s affections was cut short. On 15 September 1613, ten days prior to the annulment, Thomas Overbury had died of poison while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Overbury was a friend of Robert but fervently against the marriage to Frances. In April, the supporters of the union had tried to remove him by convincing James I to assign him as his ambassador to the court of Michael of Russia. Overbury was by then too much involved in the case and declined the royal assignment so James had him imprisoned. Overbury had been poisoned with sulphuric acid in the form of copper salts. Edward Coke and Francis Bacon worked together in the trial of the poisoners which began in 1615. By the time it was over in early 1616, Frances had been found guilty of having hired the poisoners and orchestrated the murder. Robert claimed ignorance but was sentenced to death with his wife as an accomplice. James commuted the sentences to imprisonment. The couple were eventually released but never regained their positions at court.
George Villiers followed after the deposition of Robert Carr, and his rise in royal favour was so quick that contemporaries described it as a flight rather than a growth. Many assumed that his fall from favour would be just as rapid; in preparation, the ambitious Howard family arranged for a boy named William Monson to become known to James. William was the second son of William Monson but would gain greater fame as one of the Regicides of Charles I of England.
However, Villiers proved himself to be far more long-lasting, and James’s relationship had a paternal element. James even described George as “my sweet child and wife” while signing himself “your old dad and husband.” James, besotted with George, married his lover to Katherine Manners, the richest heiress in England and the next-in-line for the title and associated property of the barony of Ros which she would inherit in 1632. James also showered the Villiers family with titles and money, making them amongst the most powerful in the kingdom.
James I was followed by his son Charles I, who was also extremely attached to Villiers, until the latter was murdered by John Felton on 23 August 1628. Charles is not known to have had a physical relationship with anybody but his wife and queen Henrietta Maria of France (Wilson, 27).
In contrast to his father’s pious fidelity, however is Charles II, the most notorious womanizer of the English kings sometimes labelled the Merry Monarch. (Isaac Newton it is reckoned / Lived in the reign of Charles the Second / Charles's forte was depravity / But Isaac came out strong for gravity—E. C. Bentley) Among his list of mistresses are included: Lucy Walter, Barbara Villiers, Louise de Kérouaille, Hortense Mancini, Nell Gwyn, Mary Davis, Winifred Wells, Jane Roberts, Mrs. Knight, Mary Bagot (widow of Charles Berkeley, 1st Earl of Falmouth) and Elizabeth, Countess of Kildare. Among these women are both the noble and the common: Charles is the first monarch whose mistresses from the lower classes are recorded. These women provided him with fourteen acknowledged bastards.
Barbara Villiers, his longest-standing mistress (ten years), was a woman well known for her sexual promiscuity and she had affairs with at least five other men during her tenure as mistress (and one of these was with Charles’s own bastards by Lucy Walter). Barbara also wielded considerable political power, obtaining for her friends and family places on the Privy Council and undermining peace efforts between the Kingdom of England and the Dutch Republic. Another of his mistresses, Louise de Kérouaille, was a known French spy, and the one who followed her, Hortense Mancini, reportedly the wildest and most beautiful of Charles’s mistresses, was known to be lesbian. (She was also known to be a lover of Anne Palmer, an illegitimate daughter of Charles II and Barbara Villiers.) The most famous of Charles's mistresses, Nell Gwyn, was a stage actress and had been a prostitute before the king became interested in her.(His dying thoughts are reported to have been a concern that provision should be made for her.)
Charles II, for all his proficiency at begetting bastards, was unable to father a legitimate heir with his wife Catherine of Braganza. However, one of his illegitimate sons, James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, launched a bid to succeed him. Monmouth claimed that Charles had actually secretly married his mother, Lucy Walter, whilst in exile on the continent (if true this event would make Monmouth the legitimate heir to the throne). Monmouth's rebellion failed, at least in part because he could not produce evidence to support his legitimacy, and Lucy is usually considered by historians to be a royal mistress rather than a secret wife.
Charles was actually succeeded by his younger brother James II, who had at least eleven mistresses. He did not follow the accepted standard of beauty of the time: while his contemporaries sought out heavy-set, voluptuous women on the Baroque model, James was attracted to skinny, boyish young girls in their teens. He was a Catholic, and his brother Charles II joked that his mistresses were so ugly that they must have been provided as penance by his confessors. He may have experienced guilt after his sexual encounters with his mistresses, and when one of them, Anne Hyde, became pregnant with his child in 1660, he married her despite her unattractiveness. Actually James was previously married to Anne Hyde during the Commonwealth era while he was in exile and well before she became pregnant although he tried to deny it. His brother Charles II sent lawyers to Breda when Anne Hyde insisted they had been secretly married where the legal marriage was registered in the public records as having taken place there on November 24, 1659. Further confirmation was the confession of James II's sister who on her deathbed confessed that she had set up the untrue slander against Anne.  His longest-lasting mistress, Arabella Churchill, was described as nothing but skin and bone. He noticed her while out for a ride; she fell from her horse, exposing her legs. She would bear him four illegitimate children. However, she was only one in a list of eleven mistresses, the rest of whom were short-lived affairs that resulted from meetings at court.
Neither Mary II nor Anne had any physical relationships outside of marriage, although Anne had intense emotional attachments to first Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and then her cousin Abigail Masham, Baroness Masham, both of whom became politically important. On the other hand William III, husband and co-ruler of Mary II had one acknowledged mistress, Elizabeth Villiers. Some sources also argue that William was bisexual and had a same-sex relationship with William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland, such as Elizabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine, Duchess of Orleans and sister-in-law to Louis XIV.
Mistresses during the Hanoverian era and the Victorian era (1714-1901)
George I, the English king who could only speak German, brought with him to the Kingdom of Great Britain his long-established mistress: Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg, who was so tall and scrawny that she was nicknamed “the maypole”. Sophia von Kielmansegg, sometimes referred to as a mistress of George I, was actually his morganatic half-sister; they were both children of Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover. She was known to compete for influence with Melusine and assumed, or pretended, to be a mistress by the British courtiers.
George II had only one principal mistress, Henrietta Howard, who maintained this station for well over a decade. It is probable that George II considered having a mistress necessary, for he was very much in love with his wife Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach. He made a point of visiting Henrietta for several hours each night, locking the door, but most agreed that they spent their time playing cards. However, when she became deaf in her early forties, he quickly became bored with her, and they parted amiably. George II did not take another mistress after his wife’s death of umbilical rupture on 20 November 1737, until Amalie von Wallmoden, Countess of Yarmouth.
George III followed the more chaste examples of his father Frederick, Prince of Wales and grandfather George II. He took no serious mistress during his reign. This comparative virtue was favored by the increasingly chaste moral standards of the time. However he was later rumoured to have secretly married Hannah Lightfoot prior to his public wedding to Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.
His son George IV, first Prince Regent during George III’s periods of insanity and then king following his death, carried on an affair of twenty years with a widow, Maria Fitzherbert, with whom he lived and considered his true wife. He was reported to have even married her, even though he became increasingly unfaithful and accepted the paternity of several bastard children throughout this time period. Afterwards, he rejected any possible marriage he might have made with Mrs. Fitzherbert. His other notable mistresses included Mary Robinson, Frances Twysden, Grace Elliott, Isabella Seymour-Conway, Marchioness of Hertford and Elizabeth Conyngham, Marchioness Conyngham.
George IV and his legitimate wife Caroline of Brunswick were never fond of their arranged marriage and lived separately from 1796 to her death on 7 August 1821. Their only daughter Princess Charlotte of Wales was born very early in the marriage. That both George and Caroline took other lovers was not therefore unexpected. George survived his only legitimate daughter. He was succeeded by his younger brother William IV on 26 June 1830. William had cohabited with his mistress Dorothy Jordan from the late 1780s to 1811. He only married his wife Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen on 11 July 1818. They were reputed to have a happy marriage until his death on 20 June 1837 and evidence of any other mistress is absent.
Queen Victoria married her husband Albert whilst very young, and enjoyed a devoted marriage until his death in 1861. In grief-stricken widowhood she largely closed herself away from the world. However, in the latter part of her reign, there was contemporary gossip around her manservant and friend John Brown. Some more far-fetched accounts even suggested a secret marriage. In reality, there is no evidence that the relationship was anything other than platonic.
Mistresses during the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha era (1901-1917)
Victoria's son Edward VII, who ascended on 22 January 1901, was notorious for his many infidelities—however, each of these affairs was carried out in a kind and discreet manner, which did much to endear him to his subjects. His notable mistresses included a French actress, Hortense Schneider, Giulia Barucci, who boasted that she was the “greatest whore in the world,” Susan Pelham-Clinton, who had already eloped twice, Lillie Langtry, an actress who had also been courted by Edward’s brother and an Austrian prince, Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, and Alice Keppel, who of all his mistresses had the most political power and sat at his deathbed in 1910. He fathered surprisingly few royal bastards considering their number and the fecundity he enjoyed with his wife Alexandra of Denmark.
Mistresses during the Windsor era (1917-present)
Of the currently reigning House of Windsor, only Edward VIII and The Prince of Wales have carried on public affairs- although one might also include Prince George, Duke of Kent, the current Queen's uncle, who died during the Second World War. Edward VIII's affair with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson by far outshines his earlier peccadilloes. Although he had already met her in San Diego, California in 1920, he was charmed by her openness, which he associated with Americans, when he met her again in Leicester in 1931. By 1934, they were lovers. However, by 1936, he had ascended the throne and she had divorced her husband Ernest; nevertheless, Edward was determined to make Wallis his wife. However, the teaching of the contemporary Church of England, of which Edward was Supreme Governor, was that divorcees could not re-marry within the lifetime of former spouses. Commonwealth Prime Ministers were not unanimous on whether the marriage would be unconstitutional, but there was considerable opposition, led by the British Government and the Archbishops. Public sympathy was similarly divided, and the issue threatened to become a constitutional crisis: morganatic marriages had not been known in Britain. On 11 December 1936, Edward abdicated and left the United Kingdom so that he could marry his mistress and live in exile until his death.
Similarly, there is the current Prince of Wales, Prince Charles. The great love of his life was not his first wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, but his eventual second (and current) wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (a great-granddaughter of Edward VII's mistress, Alice Keppel). His ongoing relationship with her, which lasted from 1970 when she was his girlfriend and later resumed during his marriage to Diana, was exploited by the mass media (tabloids and others) during his divorce from his vastly popular first wife. This created a generally bad public image for Prince Charles while the public came to vilify Camilla, sentiments which supposedly prevented them from marrying immediately after his divorce and Diana’s later death in 1997. However, public anger subsided, and after receiving the Queen's consent in 2005, they were finally married in a civil ceremony on 9 April 2005.
- Herman, Eleanor. Sex With Kings. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004.
- Weir, Alison. The Wars of the Roses. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
- Keith Dockray (ed), Edward IV: a sourcebook, Sutton, 1999, p.15.
- Carlton, Charles. Royal Mistresses. New York: Routledge, 1990.
- Friedman, Dennis. Ladies of the Bedchamber: The Role of the Royal Mistress. New York: Peter Owens Publishers, 2005.
- About Henry VII TUDOR (King of England)
- Lindsey, Karen. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Da Capo, 1996.
- Gairdner , James. "Mary and Anne Boleyn". The English Historical Review Jan., 1893: 53-60.
- Hall, Unity . The Private Lives of Britain's Royal Women. New York: Contemporary Books, 1990.
- Lord George Scott, "Lucy Walter: Wife or Mistress", p. 162 from Lord Craven's letter to the Winter Queen.
- Waller, Maureen. Ungrateful Daughters. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
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