Barbara Villiers Palmer 1st Duchess of Cleveland
- Born: Nov 1640
- Marriage: King Charles II Stuart of Scotland
- Died: 9 Oct 1709 at age 68
Barbara Villiers Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland was a royal courtesan and one of the most notorious of King Charles II's mistresses.
She was born Barbara Villiers, the only child of William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison (making her a cousin of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham), and the heiress Mary Bayning, daughter of the 1st Viscounts Bayning. In autumn 1643 Lord Grandison died from a wound sustained in battle, leaving his widow and daughter in straitened circumstances.
Life as a courtesan to royalty
Villiers was considered at the time to be one of the most beautiful Royalist women, but her lack of fortune left her with reduced marriage prospects. Her first serious romance was with Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield, but he was on the lookout for a rich wife. On 14 April 1659 she married Roger Palmer against his family's wishes; his father predicted that she would make him one of the most miserable men in the world. The two separated, but did not divorce, in 1662, following the birth of her first son. The two remained married for his lifetime, but it is believed that Palmer did not father any of his wife's children.
She became King Charles's mistress in 1660, while still married to Palmer, and whilst Charles was still in exile. As a reward for her services, the King created her husband Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine in 1661. Of her six children, five were acknowledged by Charles as his:
1. Lady Anne Palmer, later FitzRoy (1661-1722), probably daughter of Charles II, although some people believed she bore a resemblance to the Earl of Chesterfield. She later became the Countess of Sussex
2. Charles Palmer, later FitzRoy (1662-1730), styled Lord Limerick and later Earl of Southampton, created Duke of Southampton (1675), later 2nd Duke of Cleveland (1709)
3. Henry FitzRoy (1663-1690), created Earl of Euston (1672) and Duke of Grafton (1675)
4. Charlotte FitzRoy (1664-1718), later Countess of Lichfield
5. George FitzRoy (1665-1716), created Earl of Northumberland (1674) and Duke of Northumberland (1683)
6. Barbara (Benedicta) FitzRoy (1672-1737) - Cleveland claimed that she was Charles' daughter, but was probably the child of her mothers second cousin and lover, John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough
She had a bitter enemy in Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon. Clarendon, one of the most powerful of the King's advisors, opposed her appointment as a Lady of the Bedchamber (as did, quite understandably, Catherine of Braganza, Charles's wife and Queen). By 1662 she had more influence in the court than did the Queen, and there were bitter feuds behind the scenes between the two women. This was followed by rumours of an estrangement between Barbara and Charles, as the result of his infatuation with Frances Stuart. In December 1663 Barbara announced her conversion to Catholicism; historians disagree as to the reasons why. Some believe it might have been an attempt to consolidate her position with the King, and some believe it was a way of strengthening her ties with her Catholic husband, in case Charles decided to abandon her.
Barbara was famously extravagant. She was notorious for helping herself to money from the Privy Purse, as well as taking bribes from the Spanish and French. She was promiscuous, and well known for using her influence on the king to her own benefit. Eventually this would lead to her downfall. Her influence over the King waxed and waned. In June 1670 Charles created her Baroness Nonsuch, Countess of Southampton and Duchess of Cleveland in her own right. However, no-one in the court was sure whether this was an indication that she was being jettisoned by Charles, or whether this was a sign that she was even higher in his favours. The Dukedom was made with a special remainder which allowed it to be passed to her eldest son, Charles FitzRoy, even though he was illegitimate.
While the King had taken other mistresses, Barbara also took other lovers, including the acrobat Jacob Hall and her second cousin John Churchill. Her lovers certainly benefited financially from the arrangement; Churchill purchased an annuity with £5,000 Barbara had given him. As the result of the 1673 Test Act, which essentially banned all Catholics from holding office, Barbara lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber, and the king cast her aside completely from her position as mistress, taking Louise de Kéroualle as his newest "favorite."
In 1676 she travelled to Paris with her four youngest children. In 1705 Roger Palmer died, and she married Major-General Robert Feilding whom she later had prosecuted for bigamy. She died in 1709 after suffering from an edema (American English, oedema or dema - British English), known at the time as dropsy.
Barbara married King Charles II Stuart of Scotland, son of King Charles I Stuart of Scotland and Henrietta Maria. (King Charles II Stuart of Scotland was born on 29 May 1630 in St. James Palace, London, England, died on 6 Feb 1685 in Whitehall Palace, England and was buried in Westminster Abbey, Westminster, Middlesex, England.)