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Frances Stuart and Barbara Villiers

Date: 10 February 2023

Author: Jamie Paterno Ostmann

The bond behind the (Windsor) Beauties

Steamier than Bridgerton, wilder than Euphoria and queerer than Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the Restoration Court of Charles II knew how to bring the drama. But the true intrigue lay with the women in this exclusive world.

Ten of those women are now forever immortalised in portraits, known as the Windsor Beauties, that line the Communication Gallery at Hampton Court Palace. Misunderstood for centuries, it is often wrongly assumed that the Beauties all had romantic relationships with the King. Through my research on a work placement with the Curators' team, I discovered that one of the most interesting relationships was between two of the Beauties themselves: Frances Stuart and Barbara Villiers.

'The prettiest girl in the world': Frances Stuart

Frances Stuart, born in Paris in 1647, arrived in the English court in February 1662 with a letter of introduction from exiled Queen Henrietta Maria, describing her as “la plus jolie fille du monde” (the prettiest girl in the world).

She took to court life, but her naivety stood out in the salacious world of Charles II. Courtier Philibert de Gramont reported: “Her taste for frivolous amusements, though unaffected, was only allowable only in a girl about twelve or thirteen.”

Gramont’s words may have been intended as an insult, but in fact Frances was a child, around 15 years old. This put her in a precarious position, in need of security and court survival skills. Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine could offer her both.

Image: Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond before 1662 by Sir Peter Lely. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Portrait painting of Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond (1647-1702) before 1662
Portrait painting of Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland

The most powerful woman in England: Barbara Villiers

Though only 23 herself, Barbara was a pro at the machinations of court. By June 1663, she had borne two of the King’s illegitimate children and was pregnant with their third. She was widely regarded as the most powerful woman in England, referenced as both ‘the uncrowned queen’ and ‘the curse of the nation’ for her ability to influence politics.

When Frances arrived at court, Barbara swiftly took her under her wing. Gramont noted that Barbara:

‘affected to make Miss Stewart her favourite, and invited her to all the entertainments she made for the king; And [. . .] she often kept her to sleep. The King, who seldom neglected to visit the Countess before she rose, seldom failed likewise to find Miss Stuart in bed with her.’

In the 17th century, bedsharing was a common practice among women in the court. While it existed in part to protect female virtue from men’s advances, it also allowed a culture of same-sex sexual expression between female bed-sharers.

For Barbara to invite Frances to share her bed would have meant a strong emotional bond, and the potential for a sexual one.

Image: Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, c. 1663-65 by Sir Peter Lely. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

'That they two must be married'

In February 1663, Samuel Pepys wrote of gossip at court:

'Another story was how my Lady Castlemaine, a few days since, had Mrs. Stuart to an entertainment, and at night began a frolique that they two must be married, and married they were, with ring and all other ceremonies of church service, and ribbands and a sack posset in bed [. . .] But in the close, it is said that my Lady Castlemaine, who was the bridegroom, rose, and the King came and took her place with pretty Mrs. Stuart. This is said to be very true.'

It is interesting that in this ‘entertainment’ of marriage, the two women use ‘ring and all other ceremonies of church service.’ Though Charles’ court was famous for lewdness, the use of religious symbolism in the ‘frolique’ implies there may have been deeper meaning. Even if the point of the joke had been to simply get the two women in bed together for sexual performance, there would have been no need for ‘ceremonies of church service.’

A 1663 poem mocking women of the court reads:

'Strangely pleasant were their chats, When Mayne and Steward played at flats, Their marriage night so taught them…'

A 1663 poem mocking women of the court

'Played at flats' was a vulgar slang term for sex between women. The past tense in the line ‘their marriage night so taught them,’ could even imply that ‘playing at flats’ continued past that evening. 

Even if the marriage never occurred and it was just a rumour, having two distinct contemporary sources discussing it means that people at the time believed it did. The story was reported matter-of-factly or even humorously, rather than with shock or disapproval. This shows that same-sex relationships were talked about and understood in the royal court.

Paintings and Perpetuity: Frances depicted 'like a soldier'

Centuries after their 'marriage', you can still see Frances and Barbara together in the Windsor Beauties on permanent display at Hampton Court Palace – a place both women called home. In Permissible Beauty, you’ll also see a painting of Frances ‘in a buff doublet like a soldier’, by Jacob Huysmans, temporarily joining her Windsor Beauty portrait.

This might have signified Frances’ newfound power at court, or have been a bold fashion statement. It also recalls the taking on of different gender roles seen when Barbara took the role of the bridegroom in the marriage 'frolique'. Without Frances’s own words to describe why she appeared in this outfit, we need to look at the wider culture of the 17th Century to understand what it meant. Although women did wear masculine style clothes for hunting and riding, Pepys' comment shows this outfit was noteworthy because it was what a male soldier wore.

Women’s cross-dressing in the period was associated with ideas of strength and resourcefulness, so Frances may have been trying to communicate similar ideas with her portrait. When women wore men’s clothes at this time they could sometimes take on the roles and privileges men had, including having relationships with other women.

While Frances had a reputation for having a sexual relationship, and even a marriage, with another woman, she was famed for her virginity and steadfastness against the King’s desire; she never officially became his mistress. Frances’ sexual experiences may have contributed to her choice to be fashioned in ways that subverted expectations of her.

Frances and Barbara prove that there are queer stories still waiting to be highlighted. Both the Pepys diary entry and the satirical poem were fully available in the archives. Queer stories like these are often hiding in plain sight, either overlooked or misunderstood by past researchers. While Frances and Barbara’s stories can be interpreted in different ways, they are vital evidence for the existence of queer cultures in the society they lived in. By bringing these stories to light, we can tell more complete stories of the people in the past.

Image: Frances Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond by Sir Peter Lely. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

Artwork recorded on display in the Cumberland Art Gallery in September 2017

Jamie Paterno Ostmann
Researcher for Historic Royal Palaces

Jamie is currently pursuing a PhD on the history of chocolate in conjunction with Durham University, the National Trust, and Historic Royal Palaces.

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