Television Review: Harlots, Housewives & Heroines – A 17th Century History for Girls (Act 1: At Court)

BBC Website
My Review: Act 2 – At Home
My Review: Act 3 – At Work and Play

This is Act 1 (At Court) of a three-parter narrated by the splendid Dr Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces. I have a thing for Lucy Worsley – she is petite, posh, sexy, and a bit sly. There’s something indefinably exciting about that red coat and the way she always wears gloves. I could happily watch her reading from a telephone book.

Too much information? OK, moving right along. At Court looks at the royal mistresses who flourished during the reign of Charles II (1660 – 1685). Her central question is whether this represented female empowerment or another form of oppression. While exiled in France during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Charles imbibed the ethos of a courtly life in which women were powerful both politically as mistresses and intellectually as the patronesses of salons. A bit of a lad, Charles already had seven mistresses before he left France, and would acquire another six in England, as well as thirteen acknowledged illegitimate children. Who he apparently adored and would tuck up in bed at night. This in addition to his dynastic marriage to the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. The most famous of his mistresses was Nell Gwyn, a talented actress and the only commoner – the rest were all of aristocratic birth. Charles’ dying words were said to be, “Let not poor Nell starve.”

Many of them coexisted at the same time in the Palace of Whitehall, or in houses close by. In this conflation of the sexual, personal, and political, anyone seeking favours from the King had first to approach his mistresses. There existed a dual system of government. Those making a formal approach would negotiate a series of rooms, starting in a large chamber where the hoi polloi could assemble, then be winnowed down into smaller and smaller rooms, only the most powerful being granted access to the study where Charles did the actual work of government. But those who had the ear of his mistresses could take advantage of an architectural feature, the back stairs, that led from Charles’ study to their apartments.

It was a luxurious, sexually liberated world, one that attracted much prurience and censure, with satirical pamphlets and gossip being circulated in the London coffee houses. Charles, mindful of the fate of his father, was fairly tolerant and preferred spin to censorship. The gossip writers had a wonderful time. The great diarist, Samuel Pepys could sometimes barely contain himself. He records on one occasion seeing the Queen with Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland, when Barbara was in her night clothes. Pepys came in his breeches, in public, through the power of his imagination.

In answer to Lucy Worsley’s original question, it does seem the mistresses were genuinely empowered. They had the political influence to ensure their own interests, no-one was thrown out of court when the King’s fancy moved on to another woman, and they all survived him. Barbara became keeper of Hampton Court Palace. And “poor Nell” did not starve – her pension from the Treasury continued until she died two years after Charles in 1687.

This is an excellent series, full of solid scholarship, odd insights and revelations, and enlivened by a thoroughly engaging narrator. Next week, Lucy Worsley looks at housewives.

For the thumbnail sketch of Charles II, here’s a song from Horrible Histories.

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