Charles II
( 1630-1685) was just 19 when his father, Charles I, was executed by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. However, he was not formally restored to the English throne until 1660 when the Protectorate under Cromwell finally collapsed.

Charles was 30 then and in need of a royal bride. He married Catherine of Braganza (1638 -1705) a Portuguese princess who brought a rich dowry worthy of a king - Tangier and Bombay - and a peculiar Iberian hairstyle consisting of enormous side corkscrews and thick sausages of hair cascading down her shoulders. Charles remarked after meeting her for the first time, " At first sight, I thought they had brought me a bat instead of a woman." Although Catherine was no beauty, she wasn't as plain as he had been told. Charles was delighted with his luck and Catherine fell for her tall, dark and handsome husband. He had that effect on women.

The only trouble was Charles adored women and couldn't keep to just one. His libido was as big as his wig. His many mistresses formed a large, sometimes squawking hen-house of a harem. An affectionate, generous lover, Charles was really a pushover as far as they were concerned. One quavering lip, a few tears and he was mush. The French King, Louis XIV, knew how much Charles was influenced by his mistresses so he instructed his ambassadors to England to send him detailed reports on the English Court, "..particularly in the privy part"! Some of these scintillating accounts have survived.

The most notorious of all his mistresses was the highly promiscuous Barbara Palmers nee Villiers (1640-1709), Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland (top right). She was his favourite and official mistress for 12 years although neither was faithful to each other during this time. Beautiful and witty, she was also self-centred, greedy, lewd, ambitious, unscrupulous and a liar - she told Charles he was the only man she loved. He knew better.

During her tenure ruling the roost, she extracted from Charles, money, titles, and jewels including the necklace of huge pearls she wore in some of her portraits. Her greed was so well known that the Lord Chancellor begged Charles not to let her get her hands on the furs and jewels from the Russian Czar. So Barbara got Charles to give her all the jewels from the courtiers instead which were really meant for the Queen. She was also popular with London jewelers because they knew who paid their bills.

1666 was a memorable year - Charles repaid her huge debts totalling 30,000 pounds AND bought her more jewelry even as British sailors were paid with useless paper vouchers. She was so greedy, she helped herself to the Jewel House in the Tower of London, signing off items as loans but managed to keep them as gifts. The English diarist, Samuel Pepys dryly noted, " the great ball, she was much richer in jewels than the Queen and (other) Duchesses put together."

Charles's loyal and able Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Clarendon, loathed her and did all he could to block her requests for more booty. But he finally got sacked when he hinted during acrimonious council meetings over political issues that Barbara was meddling with state affairs which was true. Charles did not like it thought he was so easily influenced by the fair sex, which was also true.

Whilst she wasn't an exemplary mother, Barabra did ensure five of her six children were acknowledged by Charles as his so they could receive titles and thus better futures. With her third, Charles at first refused to accept the baby as his as they hadn't been together for some time. She threw a massive hissy fit until he folded. But he actually stood his ground with her sixth child (reputedly fathered by John Churchill, the future 1st Duke of Malborough, Winston Churchill's ancestor) even as she shrieked at him, with floods of tears and threats to do her own child harm. She didn't get what she wanted for her last child but she still had him on his knees begging her for forgiveness a few days later.

Charles knew his virility was never in question as he sired at least 13 illegitimate children. But to their everlasting sadness, poor Queen Catherine remained barren after suffering several miscarriages and stillbirths. And yet, to Charles' credit, he always demanded respect for her and refused to divorce her although he was under considerable pressure to do so. Charles, with his affectionate nature, grew to like Catherine, and even love her in a way. He did not care, unlike Henry VIII, whether he fathered an heir or not. When he died, Catherine deeply mourned him. His brother inherited the throne as James II.

As for his former harlot, Barbara spiralled out of control as she grew older, carelessly giving large sums of money to her younger lovers, many of whom took advantage of her. Part of John Churchill's future vast fortune was based on money he received from her during their decade-long love affair. Depraved, immoral and indiscriminate, she was known to have also bedded Charles' illegitimate teenage son by an earlier mistress, her own servants, a highwayman, coach runner, rope-dancer (tight rope walker) and even the 300-year-old mummified body of an ecclesiastic! She died lonely and penniless before she was 70, hideously bloated with dropsy.

Her modern day descendants, through two of her illegitimate sons include Diana, the Princess of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, both wives of Prince Charles.

If you enjoy good historical dramas, I recommend Charles II : The Power and and the Passion, an excellent 2003 nominated and award winning BBC mini-series. Rufus Sewell is great as Charles II - he even looks like the monarch. Scottish actress Shirley Henderson plays Queen Catherine Braganza on a bad hair day. I still associate this actress as Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movie series. Acclaimed actress Helen McCrory (she plays Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter) as the shrewish Barbara rounds up the talented British cast.

Picture sources :
Wikipedia : Charles II
Wikipedia : Barbara Villiers
BBC Press release : Charles II : The Power and the Passion

Wordwenches' Hello, Harlot'
Eleanor Herman (2005). Sex with Kings: Five Hundred Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge. Harper Perennial.
Leigh Eduardo (2005). Mistresses : True Stories of Seduction, Power and Ambition. Michael O'Mara Ltd.
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