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Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

Barbara Palmer
Portrait by Henri Gascar
Born Barbara Villiers
27 November 1640 (17 November Old Style)
Parish of St. Margaret's, Westminster, London, England
Died 9 October 1709(1709-10-09) (aged 68)
Chiswick Mall, Chiswick
Nationality English
Occupation Lady of the Bedchamber
Title Duchess of Cleveland
Countess of Castlemaine
Religion Anglican; converted to Roman Catholicism
Children Anne Lennard, Countess of Sussex
Charles FitzRoy, 2nd Duke of Cleveland
Henry FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Grafton
Charlotte Lee, Countess of Lichfield
George FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Northumberland
Barbara FitzRoy
Parent(s) William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison
Mary Bayning

Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland, Countess of Castlemaine, also known as Lady Castlemaine (27 November [O.S. 17 November] 1640[1] – 9 October 1709) was an English courtesan from the Villiers family and perhaps the most notorious of the many mistresses of King Charles II of England, by whom she had five children, all of whom were acknowledged and subsequently ennobled. Her influence was so great that she has been referred to as "The Uncrowned Queen."[2] Her immediate contemporary was Madame de Montespan, mistress of King Louis XIV of France.

Barbara was the subject of many portraits, in particular by court painter Sir Peter Lely. Her extravagance, foul temper and promiscuity provoked diarist John Evelyn into describing her as the "curse of the nation", whereas Samuel Pepys often noted seeing her, admiringly.

Barbara's 1st cousin Elizabeth Villiers (later 1st Countess of Orkney 1657–1733) was the only acknowledged mistress of King William III.

She converted to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism in 1663.


  • Early life 1
  • Royal mistress 2
  • Lady of the Bedchamber 3
  • Character 4
  • Downfall 5
  • Descendants 6
  • Cultural depictions 7
    • Theatre 7.1
    • Novels 7.2
    • Film 7.3
    • Television 7.4
  • Ancestry 8
    • Notes 8.1
    • References 8.2
  • External links 9

Early life

Born into the 1st Duke of Buckingham), and his wife, Mary Bayning, heiress of Paul Bayning, 1st Viscount Bayning. On 20 September 1643, her father died in the English Civil War from a wound sustained at the Battle of Newbury while fighting for the Royalists. He had spent his considerable fortune on horses and ammunition for his Cavalier regiment; his widow and daughter were left in straitened circumstances. Shortly after Lord Grandison's death, Barbara's mother married Charles Villiers, 2nd Earl of Anglesey, a cousin of her late husband.[3]

Upon the 1649 execution of King Charles I, the impoverished Villiers clan secretly transferred their loyalty to his son, Charles. Every year on 29 May, the new King's birthday, young Barbara, along with her family, descended to the cellar of their home in total darkness and clandestinely drank to his health.[4] At that time, Charles was wandering about the Continent, exiled and penniless.

Royal mistress

Barbara Palmer's lack of fortune limited her marriage prospects, despite her beauty.

Tall, voluptuous, with masses of brunette hair, slanting, heavy-lidded violet eyes, alabaster skin, and a sensuous, sulky mouth,[5] Barbara Villiers was considered to be one of the most beautiful of the Royalist women, but her lack of fortune left her with reduced marriage prospects. Her first serious romance was with Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield, but he was searching for a rich wife; he would wed Elizabeth Butler in 1660.[6][7] On 14 April 1659 she married Roger Palmer (later 1st Earl of Castlemaine) against his family's wishes; his father predicted that she would make him one of the most miserable men in the world. Palmer was a Roman Catholic. The two separated in 1662, following the birth of her first son. They remained married for his lifetime, but it is believed that Palmer did not father any of his wife's children.[8]

Barbara became King Charles' mistress in 1660, while still married to Palmer, and whilst Charles was still in exile at The Hague. The Palmers had joined the ambitious group of supplicants who sailed for Brussels at the end of 1659.[9] As a reward for her services, the King created her husband Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine in 1661. In many contemporary accounts, including Pepys's Diary, she is referred to as "Lady Castlemaine".

Of her six children, five were acknowledged by Charles as his:

Lady of the Bedchamber

Portrait by Sir Peter Lely (c. 1666).

By 1662, Barbara, the King's mistress, had more influence at the court than his queen consort, Catherine of Braganza. In point of fact, Barbara chose to give birth to their second child at Hampton Court Palace while he and the queen were honeymooning.[10] In the summer of 1662 she was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber despite opposition from Queen Catherine and Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, chief advisor to the King and a bitter enemy of Barbara's. Behind closed doors, Barbara and the Queen feuded constantly. She combined with the future Cabal Ministry to bring about Clarendon's downfall. On his dismissal in August 1667, Barbara publicly mocked him; Clarendon gently reminded her that one day she too would be old. His dislike of her sprang from the fact that she was a cousin by marriage, and he felt personally embarrassed by her role as mistress.

Barbara's influence over the King waxed and waned. Her victory in being appointed as Lady of the Bedchamber was followed by rumours of an estrangement between her and the King, the result of his infatuation with Frances Stuart. In December 1663, Barbara announced her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Historians disagree as to why she did so. Some believe it was an attempt to consolidate her position with the King, and some believe it was a way of strengthening her ties with her Catholic husband. The King treated the matter lightly, saying that he was interested in ladies' bodies, but not their souls. The Court was equally flippant, the general view being that the Church of Rome gained nothing and the Church of England lost nothing

In June 1670 Charles created her Baroness Nonsuch (as she was the owner of Nonsuch Palace). She was also, briefly, granted the ownership of Phoenix Park in Dublin as a present from the King. She was made Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland in her own right. However, no one at court was sure if this was an indication that she was being jettisoned by Charles, or whether this was a sign that she was even higher in his favours. The dukedom was made with a special remainder which allowed it to be passed to her eldest son, Charles FitzRoy, despite his illegitimacy.


Barbara was known for her dual nature. Diarist John Evelyn called her "the curse of the nation";[11] yet, others described her as great fun, keeping a good table and with a heart to match her famous temper. Lady Barbara took advantage of her influence over the King, using it to her own benefit. She would help herself to money from the Privy Purse and take bribes from the Spanish and the French. She was famously extravagant and promiscuous. She also meddled in politics, supporting the Second Dutch War (declared in February 1665), along with most of the court and Parliament.[12] But there are accounts of exceptional kindness from Barbara; once, after a scaffold had fallen onto a crowd of people at the theatre, she rushed to assist an injured child, and was the only court lady to have done so.[13]


Barbara Palmer circa 1705

While the King had taken other mistresses, the most notable being the actress Nell Gwynne, Barbara took other lovers too, including the acrobat Jacob Hall, Henry Jermyn, 1st Baron Dover and her second cousin John Churchill. Her lovers benefited financially from the arrangement; Churchill purchased an annuity with £5,000 Barbara gave him. The King, who was no longer troubled by Barbara's infidelity, was much amused when he heard about the annuity, saying that after all a young man must have something to live on. As the result of the 1673 Test Act, which essentially banned Catholics from holding office, Barbara lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber, and the King cast her aside completely from her position as a mistress, taking Louise de Kéroualle as his newest "favourite" royal mistress. The King advised Barbara to live quietly and cause no scandal, in which case he "cared not whom she loved".

In 1676 she travelled to Paris with her four youngest children, but returned to England four years later. She was reconciled with the King, who was seen enjoying an evening in her company a week before he died in February 1685. After his death, Barbara, aged forty-five, began an affair with Cardonell Goodman, an actor of terrible reputation, and in March 1686 she gave birth to his child.[14] In 1705 Roger Palmer died, and she married Major-General Robert "Beau" Fielding, an unscrupulous fortune-hunter whom she later had prosecuted for bigamy. She died at the age of 68 on 9 October 1709 at Chiswick Mall after suffering from oedema, known at the time as dropsy. Today, this would be described as oedema of the legs, with congestive heart failure.


Barbara had many notable descendants, including Diana, Princess of Wales, Sarah, Duchess of York, the Mitford sisters, philosopher Bertrand Russell, Sir Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister from 1955 to 1957, and Serena Armstrong-Jones, Viscountess Linley.

Cultural depictions

Barbara Palmer is often featured as a character in literature.


Barbara Villiers figures prominently in Bernard Shaw's In Good King Charles's Golden Days (1939) and Jessica Swale's Nell Gwynn (2015), played in the premiere productions by Daphne Heard and Sasha Waddell respectively.


Barbara is the protagonist in Royal Mistress (1977) by Patricia Campbell Horton and Royal Harlot (2007) by Susan Holloway Scott. She also features heavily in Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber (1944), Jean Plaidy's A Health Unto His Majesty (1956) and Doris Leslie's The sceptre and the rose (1967), as well as being a recurring character in Susanna Gregory's Thomas Chaloner series of mystery novels.


Barbara is played:


Barbara is played:



  1. ^ The Complete Peerage
  2. ^ William de Redman Greenman Romances of the Peerage, p.1 Reprinted online "". 
  3. ^ Margaret Gilmour The Great Lady, pp.9–10
  4. ^ Gilmour, p.10
  5. ^ Antonia Fraser "King Charles II" p.209
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Archived January 8, 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Gilmour, p.15
  10. ^ Gilmour, p.75
  11. ^ Antonia Fraser King Charles II, p.208
  12. ^ Fraser, pp.230–231.
  13. ^ Fraser, p.209
  14. ^ (retrieved 18 June 2011). The gender and fate of the child is unknown.


  • Fraser, Antonia (2002). King Charles II. Phoenix Paperbacks.  
  • Gilmour, Margaret (1941). The great lady, a biography of Barbara Villiers, mistress of Charles II. Knopf. 

External links

  • Portrait of Barbara Villiers at the Wayback Machine (archived March 8, 2006)
  • Portrait of Barbara Villiers and Charles Fitzroy
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Peerage of England
New creation Duchess of Cleveland
1st creation
Succeeded by
Charles Fitzroy
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