Second spot in our journey through the top ten real-life characters in Mercia’s adventures goes to her scheming patron in Traitor, Lady Castlemaine, the King’s principal mistress in the early years of his reign, and a remarkable power behind his throne whose fall was long and tragic.
2: Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine (1640 – 1709)
‘Devious? You have no idea. Surviving in the palace. . . ‘tis every bit as hard a battle as on the soldiers’ fields.’”Lady Castlemaine, Traitor, Chapter Two
Vivacious, ravenous, and imperious, thought the Bishop of Salisbury. The curse of the nation, lamented John Dryden. Smitten Samuel Pepys salivated over seeing her underwear hanging out to dry. Everyone had an opinion on the most famous woman of her time; no one could deny her influence or doubt her brilliance. In a world run by men, she seized every opportunity she had to rise to the very top of achievement, using her position as the King’s principal mistress to shape politics and life at Court – or to interfere with them, depending on who you asked.
Born in 1640 in Westminster into the influential Villiers family, Barbara was the only child of William, 2nd Viscount Grandison, and Mary, daughter of the 1st Viscount Bayning. Her father was killed in the civil war when she was twelve, but despite his aristocratic status he had little to leave his family, having spent much of his money financing the war. Her mother remarried, to William’s cousin Charles, while Barbara’s own prospects seemed to diminish in the face of her scant inheritance, but she had three significant attributes to counter this perceived flaw: a fierce intelligence, her famed beauty and above all her determination. She was also one to hold a grudge, but this only served to spur her on against those who would slight her, and she resolved to set her sights upon the pinnacle of society regardless.
In 1659, after a series of casual affairs, Barbara agreed to marry a man named Roger Palmer, but on the bride’s side at least the marriage was one of convenience. The couple were utterly mismatched, Barbara being hot-headed and glamorous, Palmer serious and dour. But her new husband was the means to a loftier end, for the Palmer family were supporters of the exiled Prince Charles, son of the deposed King Charles I. Hoping for preferment, the family sailed to the continent to be with Charles as he waited to be recalled to his throne, but what Roger did not expect was to find his wife earning preferment of her own, dazzling her way into Charles’s bed within a matter of days. With his notorious penchant for beautiful younger women, it had not taken long for Barbara to make sure she caught the Prince’s eye.
In May 1660, Charles returned to Britain in triumph as King Charles II. Now firmly ensconced at his side, no sooner did Charles become King than Barbara moved into Whitehall Palace as his mistress, and not just any mistress, ruthlessly swatting aside any woman who would stand in her way, as well as any man who disapproved of her growing influence, beginning a long-standing feud with the King’s Chief Minister, the Earl of Clarendon. Then in 1661, the King made Roger Palmer 1st Earl of Castlemaine, thereby promoting Barbara to become Lady Castlemaine, a more fitting title for her status at Court.
Power and Fame
The following year, Roger separated from Barbara, finally realising how much he had been used as a tool for her meteoric advancement. It was also that year when Charles agreed to marry the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, a suitable royal match that brought a generous dowry, but the unfortunate new queen soon learnt which woman was the real power at Whitehall. Barbara immediately set herself in opposition to Catherine, conspicuously refusing to light a bonfire in celebration of the Queen’s arrival when everyone else around her did so, and making herself, whether through her own machinations or through Charles’s pleasure, Lady of the Bedchamber to the Queen, a concerted insult to Catherine who is said to have flung herself to the floor in tears on learning of the slight; when she demanded Charles revoke the appointment, the King flat out refused to comply.
From then on the pair continually battled; one can imagine how Barbara would have delighted in this game, while the more demure Catherine would have detested her ostentatious rival. Matters were not helped when the Queen proved unable to fulfil her expected duty and provide the nation with an heir; conversely, Barbara was almost continually pregnant, giving birth annually between 1661 and 1665 to a child whose surname was Fitzroy, or son of the King. Charles showered Barbara with gifts and a large allowance, although Barbara was more than happy to help herself to whatever money she needed, spending extravagantly to the consternation of much of the Court. But the King refused to sanction his mistress, covering her significant debts. And the public were fascinated, lapping up every detail of her glamorous life from the salacious reports in the news pamphlets that regularly told of her scandalous exploits, a reputation she cultivated with her opulent dresses and eye-wateringly expensive jewellery, just as her numerous portraits spread around the country, making Lady Castlemaine the most talked-about woman in the nation.
Yet Barbara was soon to learn that fame, and the King’s fidelity, were fickle. Come 1665, the year Traitor is set, the King was beginning to find his attention drawn elsewhere. Aware of her teetering star, Barbara continually sought means of retaining her standing, and it is in this spirit that she employs Mercia Blakewood to unmask the spy at Court, keen to outdo her rival the Earl of Clarendon and to take the credit from Mercia’s success for herself. But there was little she could do to keep the King from his lustful nature, and when 17-year old Frances Stewart appeared on the scene, the King’s passions were aroused elsewhere.
Barbara was rattled. But she would not give up without a fight, and she attempted to manipulate the poor teenager into a strange ménage a trois, inviting the King to witness the two of them in bed in a form of calculated power play meant to show which of the women was still the dominant. Ultimately, however, Frances rejected the King’s advances, and with Barbara returned to the ascendant, still Lady of the Bedchamber with unrivalled influence, she finally succeeded in seeing her arch rival Clarendon deposed from power. Barbara gloated in his downfall, publicly mocking Clarendon as he left the Court, at which the old man sagaciously observed that she had better watch out for herself, as she too would age one day. And so it would eventually prove.
As the 1660s progressed, more and more courtiers came to loathe the ambitious woman: when she converted for unknown reasons to Catholicism, it was said that the Church of Rome had gained nothing, while the Church of England had lost nothing. The King revealed his true nature when he said her conversion was untroubling as he was only interested in women’s bodies, not their souls. But after Clarendon’s fall he began to tire of his mistress and her temper, and in true Charles II style began a very prolonged process of dispensing with her, allowing her to take other lovers just as he did, all while granting her numerous titles and extravagant gifts to soften the blow: she became the Duchess of Cleveland and Baroness Nonsuch, taking ownership of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace.
In 1673, after a glorious thirteen year reign and still only 32, Barbara finally lost her grip on power, sacked as Lady of the Bedchamber when that year’s Test Act conveniently prohibited Catholics from holding any office, and discarded at last by the King, now eager to replace her with the 23-year old Louise de Kerouaille. Sending her away, the King advised her to live quietly and stay out of trouble: for all his merrymaking reputation, behind the mask lurked a surly streak that shied from difficult subjects.
Bereft of the King’s protection and with so many enemies at Court, Barbara never regained her former influence. In time she moved to France, living for four years in Paris before returning to England where she resumed her profligate spending, amassing huge gambling debts which she paid for by taking the incredulous step of demolishing the whole of Nonsuch Palace to sell off its materials for funds. Although in time she saw the King again, Charles re-finding a soft spot for his former mistress, it was not on the same level as before, although some stories say he retook her as a lover on the sly, never having truly gotten over her magnificence.
After the King’s untimely death in 1685, Barbara’s star continued to wane. Desperately re-seeking her former fame, like a seventeenth century Norma Desmond she embarked on an ill-fated affair with the actor and general rake, Cardell ‘Scum’ Goodman. The man was a total reprobate, having been thrown out of university, sacked for negligence from the King’s service, and condemned for highway robbery before being pardoned by James II in an affair that must have sent his fame rocketing. Enamoured with his notoriety, Barbara took the younger man as her lover, and while initially the two were close, even having a son together, it was not long before Goodman abused her trust and became implicated in a plot to poison two of her previous children. Needless to say, the relationship ended: later, Goodman was party to a scheme to murder King William III, but he escaped to France and died before the century was out.
All this time, Barbara had remained married to her luckless husband Roger Palmer, and it was not until 1705 that their marriage was finally ended by his death. Immediately she remarried, but this new relationship with Major General Robert Fielding was as disastrous as that with ‘Scum’ Goodman. Discovering he had married another woman just two weeks before their own wedding, as well as sleeping with her own granddaugher, Barbara indicted him for bigamy and cut off his allowance, at which Fielding turned nasty, and she had to call on the law for protection.
Lady Castlemaine’s story is truly a tale of three parts: the unruly girl who defied her scant prospects; the glorious woman whose enemies cowered in her greatness; and the sad, long demise into old age as she vainly sought to regain her former status. But at last, in October 1709, nearly a quarter of a century after the King she adored and manipulated in equal measure, Barbara died at the age of 68 in Chiswick, not far from where she was born. The cause was given as dropsy and heart failure, and after all she had suffered in the second half of her life, perhaps her once-soaring heart had reason enough to break.
Next: John Winthrop, Jr, Governor, pioneer, astronomer, alchemist, miner, and all-round polymath
Photograph by David Hingley
All portraits are licensed from the National Portrait Gallery under the Creative Commons licence scheme