“God bless our good and gracious king, whose promise none relies on; Who never said a foolish thing, nor ever did a wise one.”
Barbara‘s cousin, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester penned this unflattering ditty about Charles. But Charles’ most endearing quality was that he never forgot those who had supported him during the wilderness years when he was King in exile. Possibly the reason he put up with Barbara’s rapacious behaviour for as long as he did.
Today Barbara Villiers, is best remembered for her promiscuity and her long reign as royal mistress during which she bore six illegitimate children. Five of these were acknowledged by the King, although there was some speculation that her first child Anne was Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield’s daughter. Despite her protestations, her sixth, a daughter named Barbara Fitzroy, was never recognised by the King – gossip had it that she was the child of Barbara’s cousin, John Churchill afterwards 1st Duke of Marlborough.
Barbara was born in the parish of St Margaret, Westminster in November 1640, the only child of William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison and his young wife Mary Bayning. William named his daughter after his mother Barbara Villiers, daughter of Sir John St John and Lucy Hungerford, who appear en famille in the magnificent St John Polyptych at St Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze.
William, like his three cousins, the sons of Barbara’s brother, Sir John St John, fought for the Royalists during the English Civil Wars. In July 1643 William commanded a regiment of foot at the Siege of Bristol where he was fatally wounded. He was taken to the court of Charles I at Oxford, but died on September 30 and was later buried in Christ Church Cathedral.
His widow Mary, barely out of her teens, had sole responsibility for her young daughter Barbara, not yet three years old. Perhaps the years of war and insecurity during her early childhood were answerable for planting the seed of avarice that increased Barbara’s notoriety. In 1648 Mary married Charles Villiers, a cousin of her late husband, who also rallied behind the Royal cause, and was among the exiled Charles’ supporters who joined him on the Continent.
Barbara was a survivor who used her best assets to full advantage, manipulating the men she met on the way to the most sought after bed, that of the newly restored King Charles II. Her first step was to marry Catholic Roger Palmer in 1659, created Earl of Castlemaine in 1661 presumably in recognition of his wife’s services to the King.
Barbara accompanied Charles on his triumphant return to England and it is believed that the King spent his first night in Whitehall with her. If there was a doubt to the paternity of the child born nine months later, the father of Barbara’s second child could safely be assumed to be the King.
Barbara reigned as uncrowned Queen and she wasn’t going to let the arrival of the official candidate, Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza, cramp her style.
Writers are divided as to where Barbara’s second child, a boy named Charles was born. Thomas Seccombe, assistant editor of the 1885-1900 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography claims the child was born at Barbara’s home in King Street, Westminster. However, today it is more widely believed that Barbara spent her confinement at Hampton Court Palace where the King and his wife were honeymooning at the time. Just the kind of trick she was likely to play.
Titles, property and allowances arrived in quick succession as did the babies and Barbara was known to have helped herself to money from the Privy Purse and to have accepted bribes from both the Spanish and the French.
In 1668-9 Barbara received an annual £4,700 grant out of the revenue of the Post Office and even as late as 1708 she was still on the pension roll, receiving £100 a week.
The 17th century diarist John Evelyn called her ‘the curse of the Nation.’ But not everyone had such a low opinion of her. Lecherous Samuel Pepys referred to her as ‘lovely Lady Castlemaine’ and if you thought Peter Lely’s portraits of the Restoration ladies had a certain sameness about them, it was because his sitters requested he include a likeness to the Royal favourite.
The rise in favour of new Royal mistress, Louise de Keroualle, saw Barbara also widened her scope. There were frequent affairs including liaisons with playwright William Wycherley and acrobat Jacob Hall.
By 1668 Barbara’s days as Royal favourite were numbered. Her constant demands and bad behaviour saw the King cast his net for a more amenable bedfellow. With the arrival on the scene of Nell Gwyn, Barbara was asked to vacate her apartments in Whitehall.
“Madam, all that I ask of you for your own sake is, live so for the future as to make the least noise you can, and I care not who you love,” Charles wrote.
Barbara has suffered a pretty bad press for more than 300 years, unlike Nell Gwyn, the original tart with a heart. It is worth noting that the loveable Nellie was also capable of pulling a stunt or two to get her own way. Her habit of calling her son ‘you little bastard’ in front of the King secured his title.
Charles died in 1685, his children and mistresses left well provided for, his Kingdom rather less so.
But there was no stopping the indomitable Barbara and her affair with actor Cardonell Goodman after the King’s death, when she was in her mid forties, resulted in the birth of yet another child, a son ‘which the town has christained Goodman Cleveland’ Peregrine Bertie wrote to the Countess of Rutland.
Roger Palmer, Earl of Castlemaine, Barbara’s long estranged husband, died on July 21, 1705 and just four months later she married Major General Robert ‘Beau’ Fielding. Unfortunately Major Fielding appeared to have forgotten about an existing wife and Barbara prosecuted him for bigamy.
In 1700 Barbara moved into a property on Chiswick Mall, known today as Walpole House after the 18th century politician Thomas Walpole who later lived there. It was here that she lived out her days, caring for Charles Hamilton, the illegitimate son of her daughter Barbara. She died on Sunday October 9, 1709 from the effects of dropsy, a condition that had seen her swell to a great size and destroyed her looks. She was buried four days later in the churchyard at St. Nicholas, Chiswick, her coffin carried by four peers and two dukes.
A spectral Barbara Castlemaine is said to revisit her Chiswick home on stormy nights, when she acts threateningly if approached. Well she would, wouldn’t she!