Charles II, one of our most popular kings, was a fascinating but deeply flawed and unreliable ruler, heading what was seen in his own lifetime as a dissolute and immoral court. Charming as Charles undoubtedly was, the enduring sobriquet coined for him by Lord Rochester, ‘the Merry Monarch’, was hardly accurate, although elsewhere in his A Satyr on Charles II he stated more precisely that ‘Restless he rolls from whore to whore’. The women Rochester was referring to, along with a non-mistress and a queen, are the seven subjects of Linda Porter’s Mistresses.
While two of Charles II’s mistresses, Barbara Villiers and Louise de Kéroualle, were of aristocratic background and successively occupied the powerful, semi-official position of maîtresse-en-titre for the entirety of his reign, others were actresses or from the gentry. Porter’s three chapters on the combative and largely forgotten Lucy Walter, who became Charles’s mistress during his exile when they were both eighteen, gives an unbiased portrayal of what she describes as a ‘brittle and sad life’. But it was Barbara and Louise, created duchesses of Cleveland and Portsmouth respectively, who were the most important of the king’s mistresses. Their functions at court went far beyond merely satisfying the sexual demands of the monarch. Porter explains in lively detail their political activities and their roles in offering access to the king, as well as their patronage and their accumulation of personal wealth.