Remember the song “Jolene”? Well, Barbara Villiers was Jolene in the English Royal court during the 17th century. Tall, voluptuous, with masses of brunette hair, slanting, heavy-lidded violet eyes, alabaster skin, and a sensuous, sulky mouth, she was considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the Royal court and abroad. She didn’t leave anyone indifferent.
Barbara has been described as “the curse of the nation” by the writer John Evelyn and as “a woman of great beauty, enormously vivacious and ravenous; foolish but imperious” by the Bishop of Salisbury. What is certain is that after the Restoration of King Charles II, he spent his first night in London with Barbara.
Barbara was born in 1640 in Westminster, London, as the only child of the 2nd Viscount Grandison, William Villiers. After the death of her father, the family was left impoverished, and Barbara had to make her way among the Royalists. She was only 15 and already had a few affairs with young Royalists. Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield, was her first serious romance, but he left her to marry a much richer wife – Elizabeth Butler.
In 1659, Barbara married Roger Palmer, the quiet and religious son of a prosperous Royalist. Palmer’s family was against the marriage, but Barbara was less irresistible. Although she got bored of the marriage very quickly, the couple remained married until Roger Palmer’s death in 1705. However, they didn’t live together since 1662 after the birth of her first son who was the illegitimate child of King Charles II.
Barbara met King Charles II when she traveled to the Hague with her husband to pledge their allegiance to the future king. It was a matter of days and following the King’s Restoration they became lovers with Barbara living in the Court as Charles’ favorite mistress. Beautiful as described, Barbara was vivacious, spirited, mercurial, and quick to anger. In the Court, she was feared, envied, and even hated.
However, she remained living there and gave birth to six children of whom King Charles acknowledged five. Barbara claimed that her youngest daughter – Barbara (Benedicta) FitzRoy, born in 1672 was also King Charles’ daughter, but she was probably a child of John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough. In the meantime, Barbara’s legitimate husband, Roger Palmer, has been made into Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine in 1661 even though the reward was for Barbara’s “services.”
Barbara was King Charles’ favorite mistress, and there wasn’t anyone who didn’t know that. Even his future wife Catherine of Braganza, daughter of the King of Portugal was aware of the fact. Barbara was the Queen’s ladies-of-the-bedchamber, spent the evenings with the King, wore £30,000 jewels, gambled, and the King was covering her debts. The King also paid for the extravagant weddings of their children.
King Charles II died in 1685, leaving Barbara in huge gambling debts. She was forced to sell her property in order to repay her debts.
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Outliving her husband and lover, Barbara died in 1709 of edema. She was certainly the most influential mistress and a powerful female in an age dominated by men.