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Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland

Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland (27 November [O.S. 17 November] 1640[1] – 9 October 1709), more often known by her maiden name Barbara Villiers or her title of Countess of Castlemaine, was an English royal mistress of 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 them acknowledged and subsequently ennobled. Her influence was so great that she has been referred to as "The Uncrowned Queen".[2] Barbara was the subject of many portraits, in particular by court painter Sir Peter Lely. Her extravagance, bad temper, adultery with the king, and influence at court provoked the diarist John Evelyn to describe her as the "curse of the nation", whereas Samuel Pepys often wrote admiringly of seeing her. In the Gilded Age, it was stylish to adorn an estate with her likeness.

Barbara Villiers
Portrait by Henri Gascar
Barbara Villiers

27 November 1640 (17 November Old Style)
Died9 October 1709(1709-10-09) (aged 68)
Chiswick Mall, Chiswick
OccupationLady of the Bedchamber
TitleDuchess of Cleveland
Countess of Castlemaine
Spouse(s)Roger Palmer, 1st Earl of Castlemaine
ChildrenAnne 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's first cousin Elizabeth Villiers (later 1st Countess of Orkney 1657–1733) was the presumed mistress of King William III.

She converted to Roman Catholicism from Anglicanism in 1663.

Early lifeEdit

Born into the Villiers family as Barbara Villiers, in the parish of St. Margaret's, Westminster, Middlesex, she was the only child of William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison, a half-nephew of the 1st Duke of Buckingham, and of his wife Mary Bayning, co-heiress of Paul Bayning, 1st Viscount Bayning. On 29 September 1643 her father died in the First English Civil War from a wound sustained on 26 July at the storming of Bristol, while leading a brigade of Cavaliers. He had spent his considerable fortune on horses and ammunition for a regiment he raised himself; his widow and daughter were left in straitened circumstances. Shortly after Grandison's death, Barbara's mother married secondly Charles Villiers, 2nd Earl of Anglesey, a cousin of her late husband.[3]

Upon the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the impoverished Villiers family secretly transferred its loyalty to his son, Charles, Prince of Wales. 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 living at The Hague, supported at first by his brother-in-law, Prince William II of Orange, and later by his nephew, William III of Orange.

Royal mistressEdit

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 until the death of Castlemaine, who predeceased Villiers, but it has been claimed that he did not father any of his wife's children.[8]

Barbara Villiers became King Charles's mistress in 1660, while still married to Palmer, and while 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 BedchamberEdit

Portrait by Sir Peter Lely (c. 1666).

By 1662, Lady Castlemaine had more influence at the court than his wife, Catherine of Braganza. In point of fact, she 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 Lady Castlemaine. 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, Lady Castlemaine publicly mocked him; Clarendon gently reminded her that if she lived, one day she too would be old. His dislike of her probably sprang from the fact that she was his cousin by marriage, and he felt personally embarrassed by her role as royal mistress.

Lady Castlemaine'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, Lady Castlemaine 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 had gained nothing by her conversion, and the Church of England had 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.


Lady Castlemaine 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. She 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 Lady Castlemaine; 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]

Destruction of the Nonsuch PalaceEdit

In 1670 Charles II gave her the famed Nonsuch Palace. She had it pulled down around 1682–3 and sold off the building materials to pay gambling debts.


Barbara Palmer circa 1705

While the King had taken other mistresses, the most notable being the actress Nell Gwynne, the Duchess of Cleveland 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 she gave him. The King, who was no longer troubled by the Duchess'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, she lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber, and the King cast her aside completely from her position as a mistress, taking Louise de Kérouaille as his newest "favourite" royal mistress. The King advised his former mistress to live quietly and cause no scandal, in which case he "cared not whom she loved".

In 1676 the Duchess 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, the 45-year-old Duchess began an affair with Cardonell Goodman, an actor of terrible reputation, and in March 1686 she gave birth to his child, a son.[14] In 1705 Roger Palmer died, and she married Major-General Robert Fielding, an unscrupulous fortune-hunter whom she later had prosecuted for bigamy, after she discovered that he had married Mary Wadsworth, in the mistaken belief that she was an heiress, just two weeks before he married Barbara. She had complained of his "barbarous ill-treatment" of her after she stopped his allowance, and was eventually forced to summon the magistrates for protection.

Barbara 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.

Cultural depictionsEdit

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.


Villiers 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. ^ Gilmour 1941, pp. 9–10.
  4. ^ Gilmour 1941, p. 10.
  5. ^ Fraser 2002, p. 209
  6. ^ "Main Page".
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland". Archived from the original on 8 January 2007. Retrieved 16 March 2010.
  9. ^ Gilmour 1941, p. 15.
  10. ^ Gilmour 1941, p. 75.
  11. ^ Fraser 2002, p. 208.
  12. ^ Fraser 2002, pp. 230–231.
  13. ^ Fraser 2002, p. 209.
  14. ^ (retrieved 18 June 2011). The fate of the child is unknown.


External linksEdit

Peerage of England
New creation Duchess of Cleveland
1st creation
Succeeded by
Charles Fitzroy