Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Notorious Lady Castlemaine

Lady Castlemaine
Samuel Pepys was enthralled by her beauty - others were appalled by her flagrant scheming and violent temper. The King adored her. Love her, or hate her, you could never simply ignore her. She was the infamous Barbara Palmer. History's notorious Lady Castlemaine.

 Described as tall, voluptuous and possessed of a gleaming mass of auburn hair, her eyes were violet and she had skin the colour of alabaster. Her mouth was as sensuous as she was amoral, and her temperament mercurial. The daughter of William Villiers (2nd Viscount Grandison), Barbara was born in 1641 and married Roger Palmer in 1659, two years before the King bestowed on him the title of lst Earl Castlemaine. 
1st earl Castlemaine

Theirs proved to be a faithless union as, soon after her marriage, her Royal affair with King Charles II began. In his famous diary, Samuel Pepys records in an entry made in 1660, that it is the King's intention "“to make her husband a cuckold”. The naughty diarist also recounts how  he "saw the finest smocks and linnen petticoats of my Lady Castlemaine’s, laced with rich lace at the bottom, that ever I saw; and did me good to look upon them”. 

Samuel Pepys

However, by the time of her separation from her husband, Pepys noted,  “I know well enough she is a whore”. 

King Charles II
Not that Lady Castlemaine was any more faithful to the King than she was to her husband. Her many lovers included Philip Stanhope,2nd Earl of Chesterfield, who may have fathered her first child, although her paternity was acknowledged by King Charles. Her royal lover was to acknowledge four more of her offspring over the years.

In 1662, while the King and his new Queen (Catherine of Braganza) were honeymooning, Barbara went into labour and gave birth to her second child at Hampton Court Palace. At court, she was awarded the position of the Queen's Lady of the Bedchamber although Catherine was only too well aware of Barbara's role in her husband's life and protested to the King about her appointment. He ignored her concerns. It didn't take the Queen long to realise who really wielded the power behind the throne.
Catherine of Braganza
As soon as she was firmly embedded at court, Lady Castlemaine began intriguing, showing especial hatred for Edward Hyde (Earl of Clarendon) who detested her with equal fervour and forbade his wife from visiting her. When Clarendon fell from power in 1667 (probably in no small way due to her influence), Pepys reported that she exhibited wild paroxysms of delight. It would appear that finding yourself out of favour with Lady Castlemaine, at the height of her power and influence, was not recommended. 

Frances Stuart
She had her rivals for the King's affection though - among them Nell Gwyn and Frances Stuart, the beautiful Duchess of Richmond and Lennox. Over the years, Barbara's influence over the King waxed and waned, but she was rewarded handsomely for her services rendered to the royal personage. In August 1670, she was created Countess of Southampton and Duchess of Cleveland and the King also settled an annual income of £4700 per year on her - a considerable sum in those days. He lavished houses and palaces on her - including the sumptuous Nonsuch mansion house - but she had a fatal weakness for gambling and lost her London residence (Cleveland House, St James's) and the contents of Nonsuch.

From around 1670, her influence over the King began to wane, so she consoled herself with less exalted lovers, including her second cousin (and likely father of her sixth child), John Churchill. He later became 1st Duke of Marlborough and was a direct ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill.

Louise de Kerouaille
Tired of her rages and weary of her constant demands, Charles slipped away from her, falling instead for the considerable charms of Louise de Keroualle, the beautiful, and seemingly more demure, Duchess of Portsmouth. For Charles though, the expression, "out of the frying pan and into the fire" could well have been coined, as a description of his transition from one scheming minx to another.

Barbara, when Duchess of Cleveland
Barbara moved to Paris, where she continued to indulge her love of political intrigues and take lovers. 

Shortly before King Charles died though, she returned to England and was reconciled with him. The two enjoyed one final evening together, a week before his death in February 1685. 

Soon after this, at the age of forty-five, she took up with the actor, Cardonnell Goodman, who may even have tried to poison two of her children. He later became known as a Jacobite conspirator, involved in a plot to kill King William III.
Beau Feilding
 In July 1705, her long estranged husband, Roger Palmer, 1st Earl of Castlemaine died and, in the same year, Barbara - now known as Duchess of Cleveland, married the infamous rake, Robert (Beau) Feilding. The marriage was annulled soon after, as he already had a wife!

On 9th October, 1709, she died at Chiswick at the age of sixty-eight, after suffering an oedema (known then as dropsy).

Barbara's descendents include: the late Princess Diana, Sarah, Duchess of York, Sir Anthony Eden and Serena, Viscountess Linley, daughter in law of the late Princess Margaret (the present Queen's sister). Lord and Lady Linley have two children - their daughter, Margarita having been a bridesmaid at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Their son, Charles, is the Queen's Page of Honour.

She can now be proud of her lasting legacy, but, with such a scandalous life, does Barbara rest in peace?

Maybe not. Her spirit is said to haunt her final home, Walpole House on Chiswick Mall, where she walks, with a heavy tread, to this very day...


  1. Antonia, what a great post. This is a fav period of history for me. Babs was something else really, Sure I have an old ciggie card of her somewhere as a famous beauty. May have posted another comment in the wrong place....was kind of pnuemoniac at the time so pressing any buttons, re your pic of Josh Holloway. Hmmmm. It made my day

  2. Thanks, Shehanne! We've obviously both been suffering. Hope you're much better soon