Ambitious, cunning, vindictive, seductive, charming, temperamental, and vivacious are only a few adjectives that could be used to describe Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland, the most notorious of King Charles II’s many mistresses. She was a fascinating and complex woman who could love passionately one moment and throw a vicious tantrum the next.
Born as Barbara Villiers at the parish of St. Margaret’s, Westminster in London, her parents were William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison and Mary Bayning, heiress of the 1st Viscount Bayning. She was an only child. Barbara’s father died in the English Civil War fighting for the Royalists. Barbara’s mother actually remarried another Villiers, Charles Villiers, Earl of Anglesea, a cousin of Barbara’s father.
Barbara grew into a beautiful and sensuous woman, but her lack of family fortune made her marriage prospects look bleak. She was romanced by Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield, but he married a wealthier woman. In 1659, Barbara eventually married Roger Palmer, a Roman Catholic who had a family that did not approve of Barbara. The marriage was not a success. They separated in 1662 spending all their time apart, but still remained legally married until Roger’s death. Many believe that Roger fathered none of Barbara’s children.
In 1660, Barbara caught the eye of Charles while he was in exile at The Hague before he came to the throne and she was there with her husband. Barbara quickly became Charles’s mistress and as a result Roger was made Baron Limerick and then Earl of Castlemaine when Charles came to the throne.
Barbara had much influence at the court of King Charles even more so than his wife and queen, Catherine of Braganza. Barbara was appointed Lady of the Bedchamber which infuriated Catherine. There would constantly be tension and dislike between Barbara and Queen Catherine.
King Charles and Barbara had a passionate yet stormy relationship. Five of her six children were acknowledged by Charles to be his and Barbara really was the main mistress no matter how many women would enter Charles’s life. Yet they had many quarrels including Barbara’s converting to Catholicism, her ambition and constant want for favors, and his infatuation with the virginal Frances Stuart.
Barbara did manage to get many titles and power as mistress. She was Baroness Nonsuch, Countess of Castlemaine, and eventually Duchess of Cleveland. Her children were also granted titles even though they were illegitimate.
Barbara wasn’t all ambition, greed, and promiscuity. She was fun, passionate, and an entertaining host. She managed to have a cordial relationship with King Charles even after their relationship ended. Barbara took other lovers after her relationship with King Charles ended. They included an acrobat named Jacob Hall, the notorious John Churchill, and many young men.
Barbara went to Paris with her four youngest children in 1676, but eventually returned to England. When Roger Palmer died in 1705 she married Major-General Robert Fielding, but he was cruel, money hungry, and had committed bigamy.
Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland died on October 9, 1709 at Chiswick Mall from dropsy. One of her notable descendants is Diana, Princess of Wales.
Barbara Palmer has been written about in numerous historical fiction works. The novel “Royal Harlot” by Susan Holloway Scott is all about Barbara’s life. She also is a major character in “The Loves of Charles II” by Jean Plaidy. She also is featured in the epic novel “Forever Amber” by Kathleen Windsor. Any novel of King Charles II is bound to feature Barbara Palmer.
There have been many portrayals of Barbara Palmer in movies, film, and television, but most notable have been Natalie Draper in “Forever Amber”, the film based on the novel, Moira Redmond in the mini-series “The First Churchills”, and Helen McCroy in the mini-series “Charles II: The Power & the Passion”.
Barbara Palmer was one of the most notorious and colorful of the many mistresses of King Charles II. Full of personality, life, and opinions, Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland is a mistress in history to remember.