Should history measure a life, Barbara Villiers Palmer, labeled the Great Harlot of Charles II, is surely the bad girl of Charles’s Restoration court. Proudly claiming her successes at the king’s side, her rise in rank and power certainly to the benefit of her children, Barbara never comports herself as anything but what she is, politically astute and unimpeded by those who would keep her from her goals, public outrage be damned.
From modest beginnings and an unwelcoming home in Ludgate Hill, London, in 1656 Barbara Villiers is nothing but a burden to her mother, albeit a beautiful one to be married off to the best possible suitor. Intuiting her mother’s intentions, Barbara pursues her own agenda as the wanton paramour of Lord Phillip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield.
Stanhope is a roué and proud of it, Barbara none the worse and perhaps far more knowledgeable in the ways of the world and the appetites of men. Marrying the politically active Roger Palmer, Barbara throws herself into her husband’s royalist cause: the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, the country reeling from the intimidating and cruel rule of Oliver Cromwell.
A beautiful woman, Barbara Palmer is the perfect candidate to deliver secret letters and much-needed gold to Charles, living in penury in Brussels. Once the two have met, their fate is clear, Barbara setting her cap for the handsome king-to-be: “I was a Villiers, beautiful and fashioned for royal pleasure, to his charming, irresponsible Stuart.” The attraction is mutual; later, when Charles is seated on the throne, his consort is by his side, although much maligned by the Lord Chancellor.
Charles moves graciously among his people, a successful monarch inspiring his long-suffering subjects. Charles’s dalliance with Barbara is tolerated in his bachelorhood, but there is much gossip about the growing extravagance of the court and the king’s shameless indulgence of his paramour. The people clamor for a return to dignity.
Long an advocate of political expediency, Barbara is judicious in all but her physical exploits with the king, slave to her passion to the last. Aware that beauty and power are fleeting, the Countess of Castlemaine bears the king’s children, suffers his disastrous marriage with his bitter queen, ignores his many compulsive indiscretions and supports him through the changing face of politics, the plague and the Great Fire of London of 1666. Neither is Charles unappreciative of his consort’s many sacrifices in his name.
Ultimately, Barbara concedes to her younger competition, having accomplished more than she ever imagined on the arm of Charles II. His first love and constant friend, Barbara fades from the court, content with her grand affair with the king. Inappropriate, selfish and hedonistic, Barbara, Countess of Castlemaine is many things, but never a hypocrite, a remarkably successful woman in a man’s world.