Men's names are splattered across famous buildings, monuments and parks across the world. They've marked it as theirs. Ever wonder why none of the more secret acquaintances throughout history don't have their own memorial places? Like for instance historical royal mistresses?
Britain's kings and queens have given their names to huge areas of London – we're talking about Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian buildings. Stroll by the Albert Memorial and you hear that the Tower of London dates back to William the Conqueror. But there are people with close ties to the royal family whose names are less well-known, despite the fact that they played quite a large role in the nation's history.
I'm talking, of course, about historical royal mistresses. While people having affairs is hardly unusual, the status and influence wielded by a king's mistress could be very high. Some of these women were powerful politicians in their own right. After all, consider that few monarchs were actually in love with their spouses (although there were some – Queen Victoria is the obvious one, but George III seemed genuinely devoted to Queen Charlotte). Instead, they married for political reasons, often to people they didn't know terribly well. That's hardly a recipe for a happy love and sex life. When you combine that with the kind of vast wealth, power and social standing that leads to women throwing themselves at you, you get affairs.
Lots of affairs. Charles II, possibly the hardest-partying of the hard-partying Stuart dynasty, had at least 14 children with at least 13 mistresses. This included a well-known actress and – oh dear – a French spy. One of the most famous was Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, who received Nonsuch Palace as a gift from the king in 1670 (she also had an affair with her cousin John Churchill, whose sister Arabella was also banging the king's brother, the future James II. The Restoration was a hell of a time).
Sadly, the beautiful Renaissance palace is now gone. The Countess tore it down and sold the materials to pay her gambling debts! Its site forms Nonsuch Park on the outer edge of Sutton in southwest London. I like to think I'm pretty good in bed, but no one has ever given me a vast Renaissance palace. I need to step up my game.
Less fortunate in her association with the Stuarts was Lucy Walter. She took up with the future Charles II in 1648, when they were both only teenagers. Lucy was with him during the early stage of his exile, but by 1651 they were splitting. The breakup was so drama-laden that the impoverished king's allies bribed Lucy to go back to England with her children (one by Charles and one by another lover) to stop making them all look foolish. Lucy accepted, but on return to England, she promptly incurred the wrath of Oliver Cromwell. He naturally enough suspected her of being a Stuart spy. He slung her in the Tower of London in 1656 before shipping her back to Europe.
That's not the only connection between Lucy Walter and the Tower of London, either. The son she had with Charles, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, grew up to be one of Charles' most important military officers. When Charles' brother James II became king in 1685, Monmouth rebelled. He claimed that Charles had secretly married Lucy and that he was, therefore, the rightful king. Although Monmouth hoped that popular support for a Protestant king would help his cause, they crushed his tiny force at the Battle of Sedgemoor, and his execution was at – you guessed it – Tower Hill.
All this faffing about with affairs and illegitimate children seems very Game of Thrones, but it has no place in the modern world, right? Well … not so much. Ask a Londoner what they think of vacant properties in the capital, and you'll hear some choice words. These buildings are fantastically valuable, but often not lived in or used, merely held as assets by corporations. One such building was 16 Grosvenor Street. It made the news when a group of squatters occupied it in May 2015.
But it wasn't the first time 16 Grosvenor Street had come to public attention. It was the former home of Alice Keppel, one of the most influential women in Edwardian society. A famous society beauty who carried on affairs with wealthy and powerful men. Keppel became Edward VII's mistress in 1898 when he was still Prince of Wales. Of all Edward's mistresses – including actress Lillie Langtry and socialite Daisy Greville as well as several others – Keppel had the most political power (diplomats and government ministers courted her, who knew she could persuade the king). She also appeared to be genuinely fond of the king. When he died in 1910, she had to be physically removed from his bedside, wailing with grief.
Not every powerful historical royal mistress has left her mark on London in this way. For instance, few traces remain of Maria Fitzherbert, one of the most scandalous and influential members of the sorority. Although her home in later life is now a YWCA hostel in Brighton. But if you know where to look, you can see the evidence of the strange parallel economy created when society agrees that a sufficiently powerful man can screw whoever he chooses but doesn't get to choose who he marries.
(As for the “favourites” of English queens … that's an interesting story too, but one for another time.)
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