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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 August 2008

Royal Mistresses: Defining Their Own Destinies


Actress Dorothy Jordan, mistress to the Duke of Clarence for two decades

A couple of months ago I wrote an article for a web site that focuses on women's empowerment issues. The site's creator, Barrie-Louise Switzen, was interested to know how royal mistresses' lives tied in with her theme. I maintain that in many cases royal mistresses had more options open to them than the queens whose connubial prerogatives they usurped.

One thing that struck me as I researched the lives of the royal mistresses who are profiled in my nonfiction debut ROYAL AFFAIRS was that for the most part, these women were not “victims” who were thrust into compromising relationships with men they didn’t love. On the contrary, they were clever women who, given the legal and social constraints on females during their day, had the rare opportunity to shape their own destiny—and grabbed it with both hands.


Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine; 1st Duchess of Cleveland; mistress to Charles II

Now, I can’t say that many of the mistresses I “met” during my research were “nice girls.” Many of them were greedy and grasping, with their hands in the treasury, the privy purse, and the pockets of those who sought to gain patronage from their royal lovers. King George I had two German mistresses who exemplify this type. Lady Castlemaine, one of Charles II’s favorite mistresses and the mother of several of his children was renowned for her relentless greed. But that’s not to say that these women didn’t passionately—and occasionally too passionately—adore their men. And, no matter whether you’d want to have lunch with them, these women—all of them—were significantly more empowered in their day than just about any other women of their era, including the queen-consorts, their “rivals” for the monarch’s affection. In general, a queen-consort was little more than a well-dressed womb whose job was to produce the requisite “heir and a spare” and remain otherwise chaste, maintaining a stainless reputation in order to avoid all suspicion that her children might not have been spawned by her husband, the sovereign.

"Pretty, witty Nell Gwyn"; mistress to Charles II

Some of the women profiled in ROYAL AFFAIRS had careers of their own before they met their royal lovers. Nell Gwyn, Mary Robinson, and Dorothy Jordan were the most celebrated actresses of their day; although some people probably didn't consider it much of a journey to go from actress to mistress. To be an “actress” (even if you performed the works of Shakespeare and other “serious” dramatists) was already tantamount to being a prostitute. Actresses displayed their bodies on the public stage—for money! They were notoriously considered loose-moraled, supplementing their salaries on the gifts (monetary and otherwise) that came from their various “admirers.” But my research into royal affairs led me to a great hypocrisy, which should not have surprised me, I suppose, yet as an actress myself, it made me shiver with anger.

The double-standard I discovered was that acting was considered a disgraceful profession for the reasons I cited above, yet the royals thought nothing of (even if they were married—or if the actress was married), consummating a passionate and frequently adulterous affair with them. However, if they wished to become the prince’s or king’s mistress—before such extra-connubial canoodling could take place, the actresses were requested by their royal lovers to put aside their “disgraceful” and “shameful” profession—the career that had gained these women recognition and renown (as well as an independent income—a rare thing for a woman before the 20th century).

Mary Robinson, mistress to the future George IV

My Forward to ROYAL AFFAIRS includes a paragraph about royal mistresses and how many of them they were able to parlay their unusual opportunity into a life-changing event:

And what of the mistresses? During the earlier, and more brutal, eras of British history, a woman didn’t have much (if any) choice if the king exercised his droit de seigneur and decided to take her to bed. Often, girls were little more than adolescents when their ambitious parents shoved them under the monarch’s nose. However, most of the mistresses in Royal Affairs were not innocent victims of a parent’s political agenda or a monarch’s rampaging lust. They were clever, accomplished, often ambitious women, not always in the first bloom of youth and not always baseborn, who cannily parlayed the only thing they had—their bodies—into extravagant wealth and notoriety, if not outright fame. In many cases, their royal bastards were ennobled by the king, making excellent marriages and living far better than their mothers could have otherwise provided. Eventually taking their place in the House of Lords, the mistresses’ illegitimate sons went on to become the decision makers who shaped an empire and spawned the richest and most powerful families in Britain.


Who are your favorite royal mistresses--and why?

18 Comments:

Anonymous Lee said...

I can't say I have favorite royal mistress, but I do know that it was a good living for those who remained in the king's eye. Okay, I do have a favorite mistress, it just came to to mind Mary Boleyn. I like her because, she was thrusted into the path of the king, and really never liked the fame of being his mistress. The birth of her children as royal bastards has always been a rumor. It was the Boleyn, parents that really used their young daughters to gain fame, and fortune for their family. In the end as we all know, it didn't work out so well, when the family was forced to flee for a time after Anne's excution.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've always had a fondness in my heart for Nell Gwynn, but Diane de Poitier has to be one of my favorites. She was older than Henri II, but she managed to hold him until his death, he gave her Chenonceaux, one of the most beautiful chateaus on the Loire, and she would work him up and then send him off to Catherine de Medici to make heirs to the throne, so she knew her duty to the crown.

And then, I would have to go for Lillie Langtry, who managed to snag not one, but two princes, and kept the friendship of both throughout her life.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lee, Mary Boleyn was one of my favorites, too -- mostly because after her royal affair she ended up finding True Love, even though Anne banned her from court for marrying beneath her (Stafford). But this ostracism was the best thing that could have happened to her.

Elizabeth, I think Nell was my all-time favorite, especially the more I researched her and her affair with Charles. I related to her on a level that I can only describe as "deeply visceral."

Diane Haeger has written a novel of Diane de Poitiers, titled "Courtesan." Diane was a real grownup, which I liked about her. I've loved Lillie Langtry ever since the Masterpiece Theatre miniseries about her that starred Francesca Annis. Do you know if that's on DVD now -- rentable from Netflix?

7:48 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Yes, it's on DVD and rentable from Netflix since they seem to have everything. I remember that Denis Lil had obviously done some research on Edward VII because he had that Germanic rolling of the R that Edward supposedly had.

I read Diane Haeger's book years ago when it first came out. It was my second introduction to Diane after Jean Plaidy's miniseries (is there anyone Jean Plaidy didn't write about?). I haven't read Princess Michael of Kent's book because she annoys me, although I did read her book Cupid & The King (she also has a chapter on Nell Gwynn) when I did research on Lola Montez, and Marie Walewska for Scandalous Women.

8:20 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

No favorite mistress here -- must actually read your book (not just own it) and choose one.

Your train of thought was insightful though as I was just trying to decide why my current heroine would actually choose to marry her lover when she values her independence and has enough wealth to stay that way.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Ooh, Mary, I'm keen to hear how you end up resolving your heroine's dilemma!

I read Princess Michael of Kent's book ("Cupid and the King") as part of my ROYAL AFFAIRS research, but she annoys me, too, Elizabeth. I don't think her politics are very ... shall we say, evolved.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Mary, you could take a leaf out of what happened to Florence Bravo (who I just wrote about). Her affair with her lover was discovered, and she had to marry to regain respectability,which she had lost despite her wealth.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I never heard of Florence Bravo; I'll have to check out your blog.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

The subtitle to your entry could be "Good Girls Finish Last". For the royal mistresses at least, being bad got them a whole lot more than being good did the queens.

I think the mistresses are an interesting counterpoint to the romances we all read and love. In romances, good triumphs, which means the good girls. Alas, real life is not always so kind to the good girls.

Am I going to stop reading romances? No. But I think a lot of heroines could be a little less than angelically good.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Linda, you make a very interesting point, because "bad" can be defined in several different ways. Greedy? Adulteress? Enjoying sex? Certainly Lady Castlemaine behaved "badly," as did the 2 mistresses of George I, Sophia Charlotte von Kielmansegg (who was probably also his half-sister) and Ehrengarde Melusine von der Schulenberg, raping the royal treasury and becoming actively involved in corrupt financial schemes.

But was a single woman, or a woman in a loveless arranged marriage a bad girl for saying yes to a king? For choosing a comparatively luxurious existence instead of a daily struggle to survive (I'm thinking now of some of the baseborn mistresses). In some cases these women had opportunities they never would have had, if they had not become a royal mistress. Nell Gwyn would certainly not have been entertaining foreign dignitaries, even if she'd remained a star of Drury Lane.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

You bring up an interesting point. James II's mistress Catherine Sedley chose to be a royal mistress, even though she was an heiress because it gave her a freedom that marriage didn't provide. Even though she later married, it was after James II had been exiled, and she was older. Certainly Lillie Langtry benefited from her association with Edward VII, her career as an actress probably would have been less successful if she had had to rely just on talent.

7:28 AM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

**begin snip **
But was a single woman, or a woman in a loveless arranged marriage a bad girl for saying yes to a king? For choosing a comparatively luxurious existence instead of a daily struggle to survive...
**end snip

I would say no, in these cases.

But the usual definition of "bad" in romance novels, and still in much of the world, is NOT following society's defined role for women, i.e., being a wife and mother.

I would class greedy and maliciously hurting people as bad.

But too often, women are defined by their sexuality--she's not married to this man and she's going to bed with him. Forget that she married a man who beats her--she's married and should make the best of it.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Lillie Langtry didn't become an actress until after her royal affair ended (they both started seeing additional lovers). She remained friends with Edward afterwards and he was one of her biggest fans when she became an actress and attended as many of her opening nights as he was able to.

But certainly it's true that she likely would not have become a huge star (she did take acting lessons and started slowly, unlike some celebs of our own era who suddenly think they can play Broadway) if she didn't already have the national cachet as Edward's [former] mistress. As you imply, Elizabeth, her acting talent in itself was not enormous.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great topic! I think royal mistresses are fascinating, perhaps because they tend to be rule-breakers. I've always liked Nell Gwyn (who as I mentioned in a prior comment I wrote a paper about in eighth grade) and Lillie Langtry (because of "Lillie" with Francesca Annis). Not coincidentally, both were actresses.

Linda raises some interesting points. I'd love to read about fictional heroines who were or had been royal mistresses (lots of potential for conflict :-).

10:36 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm with you, Tracy! Hoydens and their guests and visitors seem to prefer to read and write about women who push the envelope, have pasts, etc.

Real-life royal mistresses have of course been brought to life in historical fiction by (among others) Susan Holloway Scott, Philippa Gregory, and yours truly.

But has anyone within recent memory written a straight romance novel where a royal mistress was the heroine, whether a real-life mistress, or an entirely fictional creation?

7:47 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The only book that I know of was written way back in the day when Tom Huff aka Jennifer Wilde fictionalized Lola Montez's life in Dare to Love. I remember reading it and then reading about Lola and realizing how close he stuck to the real life version except for the happy ending.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Elizabeth, is it Lola Montez who is buried in Brooklyn (or is it Queens)?

1:41 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Yes, Lola is buried in Green-Wood cemetary in Brooklyn. I'm dying to go out there to do a little video blog for Scandalous Women.

5:16 AM  

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