Royal mistresses

Royal mistresses

A portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus (c Private Collection)


This exhibition is now closed

Celebrity status

Charles II’s reign (1660-85) is the only occasion in English history when a monarch has explicitly flouted convention and paraded his mistresses in public. A royal mistress was a Court celebrity, eulogised for her beauty. You could attend the best parties, but you held no official position, and you were utterly dependent on the King.

Charles himself was charismatic, charming and swarthily attractive. He was surrounded by temptation and took no great effort to resist it. His brother James was similarly voracious, and the royal brothers were the biggest catch of all for ambitious courtesans. Both married, their extra-marital libido and generosity were highly prized. James’s wife, Anne, had begun her own career as a Maid of Honour before catching the royal eye and climbing into the royal bed.

 Estates, riches and influence

Barbara Villiers (c.1640-1709) was part of a fast-living set of ambitious aristocrats. Her proximity to the King meant she was a useful ally for courtiers keen on acquiring a Court position. Louise de Kéroualle (1649-1734) was a French import, a gift from King Louis XIV. She was promoted by her friends, and portrayed by her enemies, as a ‘creature of France’, a tool with which to influence English foreign policy.

Both transformed their fortunes by their relationships with the King. They amassed great wealth and all the fashionable accessories of pampered courtesans in their opulently furnished royal apartments. Both were also made duchesses, and their illegitimate children by the King were all given titles of their own, with all of the estates, riches and influence that went with them.

The mistress of pranks

Popular history has fixed Charles’s reputation as the ‘merry monarch’ with the common touch, who liked to mix with his people, particularly young actresses.

Nell Gwyn (c.1651-87) and Moll Davis (c.1648-1708) were two of the women that the King plucked from the stage to entertain him privately: Nell was the better actress, Moll the better dancer. But Nell’s longevity as a royal mistress was also down to a fabled sense of humour and her independence from the political cliques and familial interests that surrounded more aristocratic mistresses.

Moll was Nell Gwyn’s friendly rival, on the stage and in the royal bed. Nell apparently once laced Moll’s food with a purgative drug so that she would not be able to ‘perform’ for the King. The guitar was a Restoration craze: with its inscribed loveheart in this portrait, it alludes both to Moll’s theatrical and sexual performances.


Ask Chiffinch logo - sketch of William ChiffinchTips for mistresses: Ask Chiffinch

17th century love-life advice from Charles II's 'Pimpmaster General'. FOLLOW for a weekly photo-dilemma, or SUBMIT your own question for his no-nonsense response... what will you ask?


Further information

Entrance to the exhibition is included in your Hampton Court Palace admission ticket and is free for members. This exhibition contains adult content.

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Late opening on Mondays

On the first Monday of each month from May to September, the exhibition will remain open until 21.30. Hampton Court Palace closes as normal, but the exhibition remains open to daytime visitors wishing to stay. Evening-only tickets are priced at £10.00 per person and are available for pre-booking, or walk-up on the day.


Watch the exhibition preview film

Watch nowThe art, the exhibition and the scandalous characters, with curator Brett Dolman.

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