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Charles II vs. Frances Stuart: The One That Got Away

Frances Stuart by Sir Peter Lely.

Frances Stuart by Sir Peter Lely.

Charles II: Frances Stuart's Lust-Filled Cousin

Charles II was married to Infanta Catarina Henriquetta de Bragança, or Catherine of Braganza, in May 1662, but before and during this political union which grew into friendship, there was never a hint of fidelity on his side.

Catherine, a devout Catholic, at first railed against her husband's dalliances and apparently suffered a nosebleed when she was tricked into an audience with his chief mistress Barbara Palmer, nee Villiers. The latter was created Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine by Charles.

Her husband uncompromisingly told Catherine to stop complaining and tolerate Barbara's presence when the latter was made a lady of the bedchamber at his instigation. The two women circled one another warily, and Barbara delighted in being more popular and influential than Catherine. The royal wife learned to hide her true feelings about his mistresses, and she probably resigned herself to his habits. She built good relationships with several of his illegitimate offspring.

Whilst Barbara was Charles' undisputed chief mistress for many years, he showed no more faithfulness to her than he did to his wife. His cousin Frances was hugely attractive and occasionally witty. The temptation was too much to resist, and Charles set about wooing her when she arrived at court in 1663.

Scheming Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine was Charles II's long term chief mistress.

Scheming Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine was Charles II's long term chief mistress.

Frances Stuart at the French and English Courts

Frances Teresa Stuart was born on the 8th July 1647 in France, the daughter of Sophia and Walter Stuart. He was the physician to Henrietta Maria, King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland's widow (and Charles II's mother). The deposed queen was in exile in her birthland. Charles left France and relocated to The Hague to attempt to restore the monarchy. Walter and his family remained with Henrietta Maria, and Frances' earliest memories would have been of Henrietta Maria's court at St. Gemain-en-Laye just outside Paris.

In 1663 Frances was appointed as a maid of honour to Catherine of Braganza, probably at Henrietta Maria's suggestion. The teenager returned to England, and she soon became a popular figure, admired for her beauty and proclaimed "La Belle Stuart." When Charles II saw her, she was swiftly promoted to the position of a lady of the bedchamber in Catherine's household.

Frances Stuart's image was used for medals and coins depicting Britannia from the 1660s until the 1970s.

Frances Stuart's image was used for medals and coins depicting Britannia from the 1660s until the 1970s.

Charles II, Hopeful Suitor and Poet

Samuel Pepys recorded in his diaries that Frances was the most beautiful woman he ever saw. A compliment indeed, as Pepys was infatuated with Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland, and her dubious charms, which often left him at risk of embarrassing himself.

Frances' beauty, commented other contemporaries, was equal only to her silliness. Charles II happily fell under her spell and was determined that she would be his mistress, even writing Frances poetry to seduce her. "The Pleasures of Love" leaves the reader in no doubt about his feelings towards her. Click here to read it: Invitation to a Funeral

However, she refused to become his mistress, and any physical contact between them was "safe," according to Pepys. What this did to the king's ego can only be imagined; he was not used to being rebuffed. Surely women were supposed to fall into his arms and take his interest as a compliment?

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

The king's lust for Frances was championed by some of his closest advisors, including Barbara's cousin George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, a hugely ambitious man. Buckingham had courted Frances for a while and saw her as the perfect replacement for the unpopular Catholic wife that Charles II had inflicted on them. He promoted the protestant, pretty and amenable Frances as a mistress and queen in waiting. He simply had to persuade the king to rid himself of Catherine.

He could barely believe his luck when Catherine of Braganza fell seriously ill and almost died in 1663. It's easy to imagine Buckingham pacing up and down in an antechamber or corridor, willing her to die so that he could place Frances in his king's arms. Catherine recovered, and Buckingham was told firmly by Charles that he had no desire to divorce or banish Catherine, so the scheming would always come to nothing.

Frances' husband Charles Stuart, 3rd Duke of Richmond and 6th Duke of Lennox.

Frances' husband Charles Stuart, 3rd Duke of Richmond and 6th Duke of Lennox.

Elopement With Charles Stuart

Charles relentlessly pursued her for almost four years, although she did not fully submit to his wishes. Desperate, he even toyed with the idea of divorcing Catherine, which he'd claimed he would never do. In 1667 she was also being pursued by another of her cousins, Charles Stuart, 3rd Duke of Richmond and 6th Duke of Lennox (also Charles II's cousin.)

Barbara, chief mistress and troublemaker at court, ensured that Frances fell out of favour and that she regained superiority. She "helpfully" led Charles II to Frances' rooms at Whitehall Palace at around midnight one night so that he could visit her. What the king didn't know (but Barbara did) was that the Duke of Richmond and Lennox was in Frances' company. Charles II was livid and banished his rival from court. This move proved utterly pointless: days later, an undeterred Frances eloped with her duke.

A Long Distance Marriage and Widowhood

A disgraced Frances contracted smallpox in 1668, which left her disfigured. Once considered the greatest beauty in the land, the model for Britannia, King Charles was sympathetic to her suffering. He chose to forgive her for her marriage, and she was accepted back at court.

The king seemed less generous to the duke who he dispatched on overseas appointments. However, this may not have been as cruel as it appeared. The duke was an alcoholic and a gambler, and Frances, although she loved her duke, was happy to be in the safety of the royal court.

The Duke of Richmond and Lennox drowned whilst ambassador in Denmark during December 1672. His burial did not take place until autumn 1673. King Charles promised to look after Frances in her widowhood and gave her an annuity of £1000. He remained a good friend to her until his own death in February 1685. Frances did not marry again, nor did she ever become Charles' mistress.

Whitehall Palace, London circa 1675.

Whitehall Palace, London circa 1675.

Later Life

In 1688 Frances Stuart was present at the birth of James II's son James Francis Edward and swore that he was royal in the face of allegations made during the Bedchamber Plot that the baby was a changeling and not the rightful heir to the throne. James II was deposed later that year.

Frances survived until 1702 and was buried in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey, London. She bequeathed her wealth to her Scottish nephew Alexander Stuart, 5th Earl Blantyre. Dignified to the end, Catherine of Braganza died on New Years' Eve 1705, Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland, passed away on the 9th October 1709 after a tempestuous second marriage and scandals.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle