Betty Felton – lewd and pocky

Elizabeth Felton was a chip off the proverbial Villiers’s block. The only daughter of James 3rd Earl of Suffolk and his second wife Barbara Villiers, Elizabeth numbered two Royal mistresses among her first cousins alone, which by anyone’s reckoning is quite a tally.

Aged just 15 years old the headstrong Lady Betty eloped with Thomas Felton, a Groom of the Bedchamber, much to the chagrin of her father.  Although the earl banished her from his home there’s a hint that the blooming Lady Betty might have been just the tiniest bit spoilt.  Despite his fury at her impulsive marriage her father continued to cough up a substantial allowance enabling her to live in the manner she had been accustomed all her young life.

And Betty’s arrival on the court scene soon made an impression.  ‘Madam Betty had a beauty and youth that were almost dazzling, and won her the love of all who saw her,’ Marie Catherine Baronne D’Aulnoy writes in her memoirs of the Court of England in 1675. ‘And being of a very gay disposition she seldom frightened her lovers away by her looks.’

Just how many lovers Lady Betty actually had remains unknown, but at least three of them were court headliners.

In 1678/9 Betty was the subject of a painting by Benedetto Gennari the younger for the Duke of Monmouth, the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II.  Apparently Betty found him amiable  while ‘his rank agreeably flattered her vanity.’ Their liaison was a bit of an on and off affair, whether due to their other amorous commitments or because of the famous Villiers temper Betty seems to have inherited.

Betty poses as Cleopatra, about to dissolve a priceless pearl in a glass of wine to impress Mark Anthony with her indifference to wealth.

Another of her lovers was William 4th Earl and 1st Duke of Cavendish.  Along with rebuilding parts of Chatsworth House, William is best remembered as one of the Immortal Seven nobleman who invited William of Orange and his wife Mary to reign in place of James II.  William receives a mention in some bawdy poetry of the day – sadly far too rude for repetition by this Good Gentlewoman.

The Ladies March written in 1681 records a procession of 23 Court ladies parading their wares and Lady Betty appears with another of her lovers, Francis Newport, second son of Francis Viscount Newport and his wife Diana Russell.

The next that followed in the rank

Was Betty Felton led by Frank,

Betty Felton lewd and pocky,

Lord have mercy on her jockey.

Betty also tried her hand at writing Ovidian poetry but apparently she wasn’t very good at it, according to another of her lovers, libertine poet John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Betty along with John Wilmot and Barbara Countess of Castlemaine were cousins, great grandchildren of Sir John St John and his wife Lucy Hungerford.

The lovely Betty died at the tragically young age of 25 ‘in a jealous apoplectic fit.’ Her grieving father had her body interred in the Howard vault at St Mary’s, Saffron Walden, where he joined her seven years later.

Another Barbara Villiers

Two first cousins named Barbara Villiers – born thirteen years apart and named after their grandmother Barbara St John. Their fathers, brothers William and Edward Villiers both fought for the Royalist cause and were injured at the Battle of Newbury in 1643, William fatally so. And both Barbara’s were to become Royal favourites – one the mistress of Charles II the other close confidante of Queen Anne.

Barbara and Sarah

Barbara Villiers and Sarah Churchill were the Queen’s two oldest associates –  Barbara and her sisters had grown up with the Princesses Mary and Anne at Richmond where their mother Frances was employed as the Royal daughters governess while the young Sarah Jennings had come to court in 1673 as one of the Duchess of York’s – Anne’s stepmother – maids of honour. A friendship forged in girlhood would become a roller coaster ride for all three women.

Eventually the three friends would spectacularly fall out and bad mouth each other, but not before Sarah had wielded considerable political influence and Barbara had acted as a household spy for the new King and Queen.

Barbara Villiers married John Berkeley whose Royal career had begun as a Page of Honour to Charles II in 1668.  He served alongside Barbara’s father in Sir Edward’s regiment and in 1688 deserted James in favour of William of Orange alongside Anne’s husband Prince George and Sarah’s husband John Churchill.  Master of Horse in Anne’s household, he later became Teller of Exchequer and Treasurer of Chamber, positions he held until his death in 1712.

While Sarah and Anne had pet names for each other and exchanged gossipy letters, Sarah and Barbara were also best buddies.  These were the days of the romantic same sex friendship and despite their married status, there has been continued speculation as to the sexual nature of their friendship.

Following Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark in 1683 the three married couples all lived at the Cockpit, a suite of rooms at Whitehall. Anne installed Barbara in the nursery following the birth of her first child Mary in 1685 and then proceeded to criticise every decision she made – to Sarah.  But Barbara retained her position in the royal nursery throughout Anne’s 17+ pregnancies of which just five resulted in a live birth.  Four of the royal babies died before the age of two.

Anne and her son William, Duke of Gloucester

On July 24, 1689 Anne gave birth to a son, William.  Described as a sickly boy, Anne Somerset suggests in her biography Queen Anne – The Politics of Passion, that William had suffered from either meningitis or a middle ear infection as an infant, leading to hydrocephalus.

Barbara was appointed the boy’s governess until Marlborough took over in 1697.  In 1703, three years after the death of the young Prince, Barbara was awarded a yearly pension of £600.

Barbara wasn’t the only member of the extended St John family at the Court of Queen Anne.  Henry St John, her second cousin once removed, was Secretary at War and instrumental in securing the Treaty of Utrecht for which he was made Viscount Bolingbroke – a huge disappointment as he was expecting the earldom.

Tricky Barbara Villiers was once described “as witty and pleasant a lady as any in England” but is probably better remembered as being deviously deceptive and like all the Villiers women  ambitious.  Her last years have proved difficult to navigate.  She died on September 19, 1708 but where she is buried is proving elusive.  John outlived her by four years and died of the palsy in Windsor on December 19, 1712.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey on December 26.  The couple had two surviving daughters, Barbara and Mary.

Barbara Villiers – Countess of Suffolk

This is the tale of yet another ambitious Villiers girl, and another Barbara to boot.  This Barbara was the eldest daughter of Sir Edward Villiers and Barbara St John, making her aunt to two Royal mistresses and a Royal favourite.

Barbara Villiers Countess of Suffolk

Baptised in Westminister Abbey on June 1, 1622, Barbara was on the celebrity A list from birth, thanks to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, her father’s half brother and favourite of King James I.

A prized pawn in the matrimony market, Barbara was married off at a young age, although there appears to be some confusion over the identity of Barbara’s first husband.  The Westminster Abbey archives describe him as Thomas Wenman, son and heir of Philip third Viscount Wenman while other sources have him as Richard Wenman son of Thomas 2nd Viscount Wenman.  The marriage was most probably of short duration as Thomas/Richard died in 1646, aged 24 and leaving no issue.  By the age of 28 Barbara had seen off husband number two, Sir Richard Wentworth.

On February 13, 1650 Barbara married James Howard, 3rd Earl of Suffolk, her third marriage and his second. Then, with the King recently beheaded and the population collectively holding its breath waiting to see how this whole new Commonwealth thing was going to pan out, Barbara repaired to possibly one of the most palatial properties in the country, Audley End.

Built in 1140, this former Benedictine Priory close to the market town of Saffron Walden in Essex, was acquired by Lord Chancellor Walden, Sir Thomas Audley following the dissolution of the monasteries.  But it was his grandson, Thomas Howard Earl of Suffolk who set about transforming the old ancestral home in 1603.

Thomas went a bit overboard with his plans and the building work came in at a reputed £200,000.  He was later accused of embezzling the King and spent a spell in the Tower.  The house was to prove a huge financial burden and was sold to Charles II in 1666 as a stop over for the racing at Newmarket, however even the Royals couldn’t keep up the maintenance and it was eventually returned to the Howard family in 1701 when it was partly demolished and remodelled.

During the ten years of the interregnum James hung on to his estates while keeping his head below the parapets of Audley End.  A closet Royalist he knew it would all come good in the end.  With the restoration of the monarchy came a royal wedding and the arrival of the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. The new Queen and the uncrowned one,  Countess of Castlemaine came head to head in the Lady of the Bedchamber crisis when poor Catherine was forced to accept her husband’s mistress – and the Lady’s aunt as well.

Queen Catherine of Braganza

But the Countess of Suffolk appears to have perfected the work/home life balance. When in July 1662 her niece insisted on giving her son by Charles II a Protestant christening at St Margaret’s, Westminster in addition to the Catholic one he had already received, Barbara acted as witness alongside the King himself.  However later that year when Catherine was dangerously ill and it was feared she might die, Barbara, Groom of the Stole to the Queen, was one of her closest attendants.

St Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden

Barbara died on December 13, 1681 of apoplexy – a 17th century term for what is today called a stroke. She was buried at the church of St Mary’s, Saffron Walden close to her old home at Audley End.  Her husband joined her there seven years later.

Elizabeth Villiers – another Royal mistress

William III is probably the last person one might expect to have a mistress.  In fact it has been suggested he was probably more inclined to take a male favourite than a female one, but those Villiers gals were darned determined.

King William III

The Villiers parents Sir Edward and Lady Frances had been entrusted by Charles II with the upbringing of his nieces Mary and Anne, daughters of his Catholic brother James, Duke of York.  Like his brother Charles had also wrestled with his religious beliefs but knowing full well his kingdom would not tolerate a Catholic monarch, Charles did what was necessary.  He always knew how far he could trust his luck in both his public and personal life.  James was a less compromising character – perhaps he had inherited a stronger dose of his father’s autocratic attitude and his mother’s religious fervour.

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham

From George Duke of Buckingham’s friendship with James I to Charles’s mistress Barbara Castlemaine, the Villiers family had always been on hand to support the Royal cause.  Unluckily when it came to Charles’s brother James the Villiers chose the Protestant candidate Prince William, Charles and James’s nephew.

Queen Mary II

But ahead of the grand upheaval and the Glorious Revolution Princess Mary was betrothed to her cousin William – and she wasn’t happy.  Apparently on receiving the news she cried all day and through the night.  The wedding took place in Mary’s apartments at St James’s Palace on November 4 1677; Mary was 17, her husband ten years older.  The heartbroken Princess left for her new life at The Hague on November 28 – but at least she had her Villiers playmates, sisters Elizabeth, Anne and Katherine, travelling with her.

After such an inauspicious start the marriage proved to be a happy one and when William took a mistress he was discretion itself, apart from his choice of candidate.  Unlike her cousin Barbara Castlemaine, Elizabeth was no beauty; a plain girl nicknamed Squinting Betty on account of a cast in one eye.  But like her sisters she was intelligent, witty and had a generous helping of good old fashioned Villiers ambition.

Like the average Royal mistress, Elizabeth did her fair share of political meddling, but she was a shrewd cookie, keeping her friends close and her enemies closer

It has been suggested that there was probably very little hanky panky in this most circumspect of Royal affairs but eventually news was leaked by members of the Orange household to Bevil Skelton, James’s ambassador, who was keen to upset the William and Mary marriage applecart.

Elizabeth was subsequently expelled from the royal household.  However the couple’s relationship, based on friendship and intellectual compatibility continued until Mary’s death in 1694 when pressure was brought to bear on the King to break all contact with Elizabeth.

George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney

On November 25, 1695 Elizabeth married George Hamilton, Brigadier General of the Royal Scots, who was rapidly created Earl of Orkney, Viscount Kirkwall and Lord Dechmont and appointed Governor of Virginia, a lucrative appointment where he installed a deputy to attend to business so that he never need see the place.

Their marriage was apparently a happy one producing three daughters, Anne, Frances and Henrietta.  And like her promiscuous cousin Barbara who wrote to Charles in high dudgeon when her two daughters misbehaved, Elizabeth took exception to her daughter Henrietta’s father in law Charles Boyle, 4th Earl of Orrey and his mistress – a good old fashioned case of pot calling the kettle black.

Elizabeth continued to remain at the centre of royal activities and entertained both George I and George II at her country seat of Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, a 160 acre estate acquired by her kinsman George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham in 1666.

King George II

In 1727 she was present at the coronation of George II.  By then aged 70 she was still the subject of derisory comments.  Mary Wortley Montague, fellow aristocrat and rapacious letter writer, described her as a ‘mixture of fat and wrinkes’ with a ‘considerable pair of bubbys a good deal withered, a great belly that preceded her.’  She writes of ‘the inimitable roll of her eyes, and her grey hair which by good fortune stood directly upright.’

Elizabeth died on April 19, 1733 at her home in Albemarle Street, London and was buried at Taplow, Buckinghamshire.

Lady Mary Bentinck – Countess of Essex

The Villiers family exploded onto the Royal scene in 1614 when George, later Duke of Buckingham, caught the roving eye of James I and it remained there for more than a hundred years.  Never straying too far from the Royal bedchamber, this post about Lady Mary Bentinck begins a short series on those members of the family descended from Sir Edward and his wife Barbara St. John.

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York commissioned the Restoration court’s favourite artist, Peter Lely, to paint a series of portraits which became known as the Windsor Beauties.  Thirty years later her daughter Queen Mary II would engage Godfrey Kneller to do the same.  Kneller’s portraits were painted specifically for Hampton Court Palace where last summer they were central to the hugely successful exhibition The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned.

Barbara Castlemaine

Peter Lely painted several portraits of the notorious Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine, Charles II’s most feisty and interfering mistress and mother of five of his illegitimate children.  In 1694 Kneller painted Barbara’s kinswoman Lady Mary Bentinck. First cousins once removed, the two women traced their ancestry back to Sir Edward Villiers and his wife Barbara St John who spent her childhood at Lydiard Park in Wiltshire.

Lady Mary Bentinck

The Villiers Royal connections were close as the family rose to prominence on the coat tails of George Villiers, favourite of King James I.

Mary’s grandfather Sir Edward Villiers fought on the Royalist side during the English Civil War and was wounded at the first Battle of Newbury in 1643.  He was implicated in a plot to assist the escape of the Duke of York, and fled aboard where he continued to work for the Royalist cause as a member of the Sealed Knot, a secret organisation to bring about the Restoration of the monarchy, operational during the Commonwealth period.

His wife Lady Frances Howard meanwhile secured places at court for four of her daughters, Anne, Elizabeth, Barbara and Katherine who were appointed as Ladies of the Bedchamber to the young Princesses Mary and Anne.  Anne, Elizabeth and Katherine Villiers accompanied Mary to The Hague following her marriage to Prince William of Orange and it was here that Anne married William’s close confidante Hans Willem Bentinck.

When William and Mary became joint monarchs following the Glorious Revolution young Lady Mary Bentinck came with them as one of the new Queen’s ladies in waiting.  It was therefore fitting that Mary should number among Kneller’s Hampton Court Beauties.

Algernon Capel, 2nd Earl of Essex

In 1698 Mary married the equally beautiful Algernon Capell, 2nd Earl of Essex pictured here as a boy. Algernon inherited the title 2nd Earl of Essex aged just 13.  His father Arthur Capel had been implicated in the Rye House Plot to assassinate Charles II and his Catholic brother James Duke of York and secure the succession of Protestant James, Duke of Monmouth, the eldest of Charles’s illegitimate sons.

Arrested at the family seat Cassiobury Park on July 9, Arthur was taken to the Tower of London where four days later he was discovered in his chamber with his throat cut.  Although it was widely believed he had been murdered, the coroner’s verdict was suicide, his motive to prevent an attainder and to preserve his estate for his family.

Algernon joined Mary at Court where he held the office of Gentleman of the Bedchamber to William. He served as Colonel and Lieutenant General in the 4th Dragoons, was Constable of the Tower of London and Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire and in 1708 a Privy Councillor.  He also entered into the spirit of the age and was described as ‘the lewdest young man in town,’ no mean feat considering the competition.  He was a member of the Kit-Cat Club, a gentleman’s club patronised by the movers and shakers of the 18th century with a Whig allegiance.  Famous for the members appreciation of beautiful women, Lady Mary had her very own Kit-Cat toast.

To Essex fill the Sprightly Wine

The healths immortal and Divine

Let purest Odours Scent the Air

And Wreaths of Roses bind her hair

On her Chaste lips these blushing lie

And those her gentle sighs supply

Algernon died in 1710 and in 1714 Mary married the Rt Hon Sir Conyers Darcy.  Mary died in 1726 aged 47 years old.  She led a full and busy life and her memory lives on – in the words of the Kit-Cat toast and in the evocative Kneller portrait.


Lady Dorothy Carey

Today it seems incredible that the distinctive work of ‘Curtain Master’ William Larkin remained neglected and in question until 1952 when architectural historian James Lees-Milne rediscovered him.  Larkin lived and worked in the City of London, his relatively short career spanned the years 1609 until his death ten years later.

Famed for his attention to jewellery, embroidery and lace details, Larkin’s signature curtain and carpets frame his full length portraits of early 17th century courtiers, their wives and children.

With her name painted above her head, this magnificent Larkin portrait is identifiable as that of Lady Dorothy Cary.  Or is it?

Dorothy St John was the daughter of Oliver St John, 1st Earl Bolingbroke and his wife Elizabeth Paulet.  The couple married in 1602 and had at least eight children.  Dorothy was one of their elder daughters and although some records suggest she was born in 1612 her birth date was more likely 1605.

Dorothy St John married John Carey, Viscount Rochford and later 2nd Earl Dover on May 9, 1628.  Like so many husbands of St John women John Carey came from an illustrious and possibly illegitimate line.  John had wealth and status and a family tree that stretched back to Henry Carey, the son of that ‘Other Boleyn Girl’ Mary and it was suggested the offspring of Henry VIII.

Sadly Dorthy and John’s marriage was of a lamentably short duration.  Dorothy died on June 28, just 50 days after her wedding, at the Carey family seat in Hunsdon, Hertfordshire; a palatial property rebuilt by Henry VIII in about 1525 and given to Henry Carey by Queen Elizabeth in 1559.   

Richard Sackville Earl of Dorset

The portrait of Lady Dorothy Cary forms part of the Suffolk collection of 41 paintings given to the nation in 1974 according to the wishes of the 11th Countess of Suffolk and hangs in Kenwood House, Hampstead.  Other portraits include those of Richard Sackville 3rd Earl of Dorset, Anne Cecil, Countess of Stamford and Diana Cecil, Countess of Oxford.

Anne Cecil, Countess of Stamford

Sir Roy Strong, who describes Larkin as a superb technician and a portrait painter of considerable power, writes about the Suffolk collection ‘only one of the sitters defies any kind of placing within a family context, that of Dorothy Cary,’ William Larkin: Icons of Splendour – which might be the first question mark over the identity of this particular lady.

The date of the portrait is estimated to be c1614-1618, some ten years before Dorothy and John’s marriage –  but this does not present a problem.  Dorothy’s married name could easily have been added to an earlier portrait following her death.

But it’s when an examination of these dates is made that some interesting questions arise.  Let’s take 1612 – the latest proposed birthdate for Dorothy.  This would mean she was 16 at the time of her marriage to John – perfectly plausible.  But if the portrait was painted c1614-1618 she would have been just 2 – 6 years old!  If we take the earlier birthdate of c1605 Dorothy’s age comes in at 9 – 13 years old.  Is this the portrait of a 13 year old?

Good Gentlewoman invites your comments and considerations on the portrait of Lady Dorothy Cary – and hopes she has got her maths right!