Mary Davis, better known as Moll, was supposedly born in the year 1648 in London. Her background and even the identities of her parents are a bit of a mystery, but it seems she was an illegitimate child of Thomas Howard, 3rd Earl of Berkshire and an unknown woman.
Moll rose to fame as an actress in the Dukes Theatre Company. At the time this was a new career for women; as female actors had only just been allowed to perform on stage after King Charles II signed a royal warrant in 1662. Moll stood out in the company as she was known to be an incredible dancer and comedian as well as actress; these skills, combined with her beauty, made her very attractive.
King Charles II was very fond of visiting the theatre and loved to surround himself with musicians and actresses, probably as a way to escape the pressure of courtly life. King Charles enjoyed the relaxed company of the actresses and often engaged in flings or one night stands with such women. However, the philandering King preferred to keep noblewomen as his long-term mistresses.
In the mid-1660s, King Charles’ main mistress was Barbara Palmer; she was a Lady of the Bedchamber for the Queen, the mother of five of King Charles’ children and was pulling many strings politically in the King’s court. If anybody wanted the favour of the King or a good position at court, then they had to go through Barbara. It was this situation that caused the King to be introduced to the idea of taking an actress as a mistress instead. This idea was said to have been concocted by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham who was Barbara’s’s cousin, he was supposedly unhappy that his cousin was not promoting him enough at court and so planned to drive the King’s attention elsewhere. Barbara Palmer and other noble mistresses were a significant drain on the country’s finances, they controlled political factions, and they were awarded titles and estates- an actress, however, was funny, beautiful, amusing and great company and being low-born and often relatively poor they would not ask for much in the way of compensation.
In around 1667, three actresses were introduced to the King; one of these was Nell Gwyn who later became a long-term mistress of the King, but at this stage, the relationship did not take off as Nell was seeking too high a payment. Another of the actresses was Moll, the King fell for her charms after watching her perform a beautiful ballad, and Moll only asked for half of the funds that Nell had requested! The agreement was made, Moll agreed to become the King’s mistress and would receive a stunning house on the fashionable Suffolk street, as well as £200 a year. For a woman who was previously lodging with the theatre manager, this was a great opportunity which Moll intended to make the most of.
Much of our knowledge on Moll Davis comes from The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Pepys was obsessed with the royal mistresses and loved to gossip and write about their comings and goings. From the start of her relationship with the King, Moll is said to have flaunted her wealth which she received from the King, and she began to gain a reputation for being vulgar, Samuel Pepys’ wife went as far as calling Moll “the most impertinent slut in the world”. This was after Mrs Pepys witnessed the King and Moll together at the theatre along with Barbara Palmer, his chief mistress. The King is said to have gazed at Moll the entire night while Barbara was “melancholy and out of humour, all the play, not smiling once”.
Perhaps Moll was aware that with the way she conducted herself in public, she wouldn’t last long as a royal mistress or maybe she was just young and naïve either way, she continued to show off about her relationship with the King. From Pepys diary we also hear of how she showed everyone a ring that the King gave to her which was worth 700l (a significant amount), we hear of her beautiful home and also her ”mighty pretty fine coach”. It seems that during this time, Moll was living life to the full and that the King loved to spend his time with her and his money on her.
Over the next year, Moll and the King’s relationship began to fall apart. This may have been a natural dwindling of affections, but it seems that in part it was due to the interference of other mistresses. One example of meddling is that Nell Gwyn, Charles’ more recent actress mistress wanted to be rid of Moll; she is said to have invited Moll for tea when she knew Moll and the King were due to see each other later, here Nell fed laxative laced foods to Moll which obviously ruined her evening with the King!
After a few intensely passionate years together, Moll and the King began to see less and less of each other. Moll returned to the stage and became a very famous actress, continuing to perform at court where she would spend occasional nights with the King. It is clear that these encounters continued many years after the pair stopped being an official couple as in 1673 Moll gave birth to a daughter fathered by the King. This daughter was named Lady Mary Tudor due to her royal links. The King recognised the child, and in later years she was awarded a yearly pension and given precedence to equal that of the child of a Duke (this protected her rank in royal settings). Moll continued to visit court even after her daughter was born and Lady Mary even performed on stage with her mother at a young age. After the birth of her daughter, Moll was given an even more impressive home.
It seems that Moll always loved King Charles or at least felt somehow bound to him because it was not until three years after the King’s death that she was finally married. Moll was married to a musician called James Paisible whom she had worked with in the past. After King James II was removed from the throne of England and fled to France, Moll and her husband joined the court in exile. It was not until 1693 that Moll and James Paisible returned to England after successfully winning a legal battle to gain access to Moll’s’s pension from Charles. After their return to England, James Paisible became a composer at Queen Anne’s’s court, and the couple is said to have lived a quiet life.
Moll Davis died in her birthplace of London in 1708 after a life filled with adventure, her daughter Lady Mary Tudor continued her mother’s legacy as she became a famous actress in her own right. Moll may be one of Charles II’s’s lesser-known mistresses, but her story is no less interesting, and she left her mark at Charles” court and on the history of theatre.
*The Diary of Samuel Pepys
* Charles Carlton- Royal Mistresses
* George Southcombe and Grant Tapsell- Restoration Politics, Religion and Culture
* Tim Harris- Restoration: Charles II and His Kingdoms 1660-1685