Frances Stewart – The unrequited love of King Charles II

frances stewart
(public domain)

King Charles II ruled over England, Scotland and Ireland from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 until his death in 1685. Before Charles’ reign, there had been the English Civil War, followed by a period called The Interregnum, an 11-year period of rule by a largely Puritan government without a monarch. Due to this long period of struggle and often oppressive rule, when King Charles II took his place on the throne, he did so with all the pomp and excess that could be afforded to a king. Courtiers and subjects quickly became used to his extravagant ways and his long line of royal mistresses. Many women even fought to be introduced to the King, hoping to become his mistress as the role provided great wealth and influence.

Over his lifetime, it is believed that Charles had 13 long-term mistresses and many flings despite, of course, being married to Queen Catherine of Braganza. This behaviour was common for kings at the time, and the role of the royal mistress became an openly acknowledged and coveted role. Charles’ mistresses ranged from actresses to Duchesses, and many of these spent years by the King’s side and had many of his children.

However, there was one woman who was loved and pursued by the King for years but who did not accept his advances. This woman’s name was Frances Stewart; Frances grew up as a royalist due to her father’s role as a doctor in Queen Henrietta Maria’s court (Charles’ mother). As the surname suggests, Frances’ family were also distant relations of the royal family. Due to the English Civil War, Frances was born in exile in July 1647, where she had to remain until the monarchy was restored.

charles ii
(public domain)

Frances finally moved to England in 1663 to take up the role of Maid of Honour for Charles’ new wife, Catherine, who had recently arrived from Portugal. Frances was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women of the age; Charles’ sister Henriette Anne, Duchess of Orléans, said of her she was “the prettiest girl in the world, and the best fitted to adorn any court.” Though we also hear that she was silly, shallow and childish and lacked any obvious wit or great intelligence.

The King could choose any woman he liked as his mistress and probably thought that Frances would accept his attention willingly as the many other women did. As women in this era had very little means of providing an income for themselves, for women at court (even married women), a dalliance with the King or a high-up courtier could provide them with lodgings, jewels and vast sums of money, and this was difficult to refuse. Not only this, but entire political factions often popped up around French and British royal mistresses; they wielded significant political power and could fill the court and council with their friends and relatives. Over time the mistress would often be elevated in rank and title herself, and any children born between her and the King were given titles and high-up positions for life, as we can see in this quote from a satirical poem from the time: “Have you not heard how our Soveraigne of late, did first make a Whore then a Dutches create”. It is not clear why Frances threw off Charles’s advances so persistently. It could have been as simple as a lack of attraction, or maybe she had seen the numerous plays, poems and pamphlets which had been circulating for years mocking Charles’ mistresses and often using sexually explicit insults. Maybe for Frances, the titles and the wealth were not worth the shame.

Charles became enamoured of Frances Stewart soon after her arrival from France, and it is said that his attempt wooing of her went on for around four years. Everyone knew about it, and Charles often made an embarrassment of himself following Frances around. He even suggested divorcing his wife and marrying her at one stage. Despite his obsession with Frances, Charles did have other mistresses during this time, including his long-term lover Barbara Villiers. Barbara often took pleasure in trying to ruin the King’s relationships with other women, and it is said that once the King was invited to her chamber where he found her in bed with Frances, who was naked, supposedly acting out some mock sex scene. The King, of course, was furious as Frances boasted over and over about her chastity and her wish to save herself for marriage (keep in mind that she was only around 15 at this time). On another occasion, the King was told Frances was unwell but went into her rooms anyway, where he found the Duke of Richmond with Frances in what seemed a romantic meeting. Frances and the King had a huge argument where she threatened to leave for a convent where she may be afforded more freedom until Charles grovelled for her forgiveness. It seems he wanted Frances around even if she was clearly in love with Charles, Duke of Richmond.

CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

In February 1667, Frances was chosen by the King to be the model for Britannia on a medal which was created to commemorate the Peace of Breda and mark an end to the Anglo-Dutch war. The playwrights and satirists lapped this up, of course. One poem by Andrew Marvell is particularly shocking. In this work, Frances, in her role as Britannia, is used as an allegory for England itself. In the lengthy poem, “Last Instructions to a Painter”, Marvell is guiding a supposed painter in constructing a work of art, and one section is about Frances. She is described as a virgin, naked and seemingly blindfolded. We hear how “her heart throbs and with very shame would break”, but the king “pitied then he loved” This implies the King forcing himself on an upset and ashamed Frances. Later the King backs away, and he says, “twas England or the Peace”. The poet here is saying Charles was defiling his own country with his actions, and he could either have England or Frances but not both.

After the release of this poem and other such works, Frances seems to have finally had enough. In March that year, John Evelyn wrote in his diary that she “could not continue at court without prostituting herself to the king, whom she had long kept off.” Clearly, Frances thought she would have to give in to the King’s constant harassment and looked for a way out. Frances and the Duke of Richmond asked for the King’s consent to marry, it is not clear exactly what the King said, but it seems that Frances and the Duke fled the court and eloped anyway. Charles was heartbroken and furious, and Frances was not permitted to return to court for a while.

After contracting smallpox, however, the King and Frances reconciled, and she was allowed to return. After this, the pair stayed on friendly terms, and Frances had a happy marriage with her husband. However, King Charles did take revenge on the couple in his own way by sending the Duke to Copenhagen as Ambassador while Frances remained at court. Sadly, the Duke died of hypothermia after falling into the water while trying to return to England. His death in 1672 left Frances in vast amounts of debt, and as the couple had no children, many of his estates and titles reverted to the crown. For years Frances was caught up in legal battles over estates with her sister-in-law and, in the end, was forced to sell most of her property. Luckily this meant that she had enough to live on comfortably at court.

The Duchess of Richmond, as she was known, was much-loved at court and continued to be an ardent royalist after King James II was deposed. She appears in records at his court in exile in France and also at the court of Queen Anne until her death in 1702. Frances left as her legacy her image as Britannia, which continued to be used on British coins until recently.1

  1. Sources
    -Restoration Politics, Religion and Culture: Britain and Ireland, 1660-1714
    by George Southcombe and Grant Tapsell
    -Restoration: Charles II and his Kingdoms by Tim Harris
    -The Diary of John Evelyn

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