The seventeenth century supermodels

When England installed a playboy king as supreme leader in 1660, the monarch’s weakness for women gave rise to a court where beauty ruled.

In 1660, in the ribald court of King Charles II, two publicly hated women got together to reclaim their reputations. 

The first, the Duchess of York, Anne Hyde, had been effectively cancelled by the highborn gentry for a litany of alleged social crimes. The second, the alluring Barbara Villiers, was the King’s acknowledged mistress and was, accordingly, despised. It was an era in which a woman could be ruined by “even the suggestion of inappropriate behaviour”, according to historical author Lauren Chater, whereas wealthy men possessed “an entitlement where they expected they would be able to do the things they wanted to do”. 

The lusty king was unmatched in this field, to the point that his licentiousness earned him the nickname The Merry Monarch. As his sister-inlaw, Anne understood the King had a weakness for a pretty face, and she saw that, for women, the key to influence was beauty. So it was beauty that she wielded to claw back some control. 

Anne, however, was not beautiful. She had made an advantageous marriage, which was in part the reason scorn was heaped upon her by courtiers. What she did have was a close friendship with the royal portrait artist, Peter Lely, who she commissioned to create a painting of the ravishing, reviled Barbara Villiers. In doing so, Anne signalled to the court that Barbara was a woman of importance, and that she, as Duchess, had the power to anoint her as such. 

An image of Barbara Villiers, a Windsor Beauties portrait.
Barbara Villiers, the king’s mistress, was reviled by the public but held power in court.

The portrait would become the first in a series of 10 paintings known as The Windsor Beauties. They conferred fame and distinction on the women who appeared in them. 

“Being chosen to sit for a portrait in the series is significant because it elevates the women’s status within the cutthroat social world of the Restoration court and presents a way to acquire more wealth by putting them directly in the King’s sight,” says Lauren, who researched the paintings for her novel, The Beauties

“They were the most beautiful women in court. They were very desirable, and everyone wanted to be in one of these portraits.” 

Centuries later, the portraits remain hanging in the Communication Gallery at Hampton Court Palace. 

Love out of wedlock 

Anne Hyde was born in 1637 during the reign of King Charles I. Her father was one of the King’s trusted advisers, but in the highly stratified British class system, Anne and her family were decidedly working class. 

“Her status was a lot lower than nobles and courtiers,” Lauren says. Though, “she wasn’t a commoner-commoner”. 

When Anne was a child, the country descended into civil war and she was forced to flee. King Charles I was executed and his children, including Charles II and James, the Duke of York, were exiled.

Anne went to the Netherlands, where she became a lady-in-waiting to Mary, The Princess of Orange and eldest daughter of Charles I. It was there that Anne met the Princess’ brother, James, and fell in love

“James would have been expected to marry someone who had a lot of money and a lot of status and was able to carry herself with a lot of poise,” Lauren says. “Also, someone whose reputation was pure. The Duke gave Anne a promissory note of marriage.” At the time, they were both living in exile. “He couldn’t really offer her anything. She fell in love with him when he was the heir to nothing.” 

When Charles II was restored as ruler of England, James returned to court with his brother and Anne remained in the Netherlands. By the time she reached England to be with her fiancé, she was visibly, scandalously pregnant. 

“Outraged by what they saw as a violation of the natural aristocratic order, a group of nobles and courtiers set out to take Anne down by smearing her reputation and claiming she had seduced the Duke with false promises,” Lauren says. 

However, Anne had two things on her side. The first was that King Charles II approved her marriage to James. The second was her friendship with Peter Lely. 

The King’s favourites 

Anne was being pilloried by self described “Anne haters” when she commissioned a grand oil painting that captured Barbara Villiers in swathes of olive, white and blue silk. 

“It would have been a way of asserting some kind of alliances with those women,” Lauren says of the artwork. “Especially someone like Barbara who really ran the court at that time.” 

One of the Windsor beauties portraits.
Anne Hyde commissioned a series of portraits.

Courtiers accused Barbara of having a foul temper, being extravagant and promiscuous. Some called her “the curse of the nation”. 

“Despite everything that people said about her, she was the King’s mistress, so she had a lot of power,” said art historian Dr Laurence Shafe in a lecture on the beauties. It also appears that Anne and Barbara simply liked each other. 

“She got along with Anne, apparently, really well,” Lauren says. “It’s interesting that she and Anne hit it off in that way … because Barbara was famously really outspoken and not always easy to get along with … So maybe it was a strategic move in more than one sense to create a group of supporters.” 

Not all the King’s mistresses were, however, included in the Windsor Beauties, and not all Windsor Beauties were mistresses. Frances Stuart, for example, famously resisted the King. Her refusal only made her more attractive to him. 

“She was chaste,” Dr Shafe said. “She was certainly chased around the palace by Charles II when she arrived from Paris as a teenager. The King fell deeply in love with her.” King Charles II reportedly pursued her, and pined after her, for many years. 

“When [the King’s wife] Catherine of Braganza fell ill … he said he intended to marry Frances Stuart after [the Queen] died,” said Dr Shafe. The Queen didn’t die, so Charles was unable to make Frances his legitimate bride. 

“She ended up marrying someone else, but the King still loved her,” says Lauren. Unfortunately, “she got smallpox, which disfigured her face. But the King still held a candle for her until he died.” 

Death by chocolate 

Another beauty, Margaret Brooke, became Lady Denham after she married the poet Sir John Denham, who was much older than her. Perhaps seeking excitement she couldn’t find in her marriage, Lady Denham became the mistress of the Duke of York, Anne’s husband. This, according to Dr Shafe, drove Sir John Denham mad with jealousy. 

Portrait of Margaret Brook.
Margaret Brooke became the Duke of York’s mistress.

“[Lady Denham] became ill, and she suspected that she had been poisoned. She insisted that, if she died, an autopsy be carried out, and she did die. An autopsy was carried out,” Dr Shafe said. 

The autopsy found nothing sinister, but nobody in court believed this. Rumours circulated. Her husband was accused of poisoning her chocolate

Suspicion also fell on other women of the court. “Some thought it was Anne Hyde, James’ wife,” Dr Shafe said. Another persistent rumour was that the poisoned chocolate was given to Lady Denham by Henrietta Boyle, the Countess of Rochester, another beauty. 

Henrietta had been born into a relatively rich and influential family, and her wealth and influence only grew. It’s unclear why the Countess of Rochester would want to dispatch Lady Denham, though she was described as “ruthless and acquisitive”. 

“Every possible perk, every possible earning that she could acquire, she did,” Dr Shafe said. Her alleged link to the death of Margaret Brooke earned her the nickname “the poisoner”. 

The portraits’ power 

Other beauties include commoner Jane Myddleton, whose desirability allowed her to rise in status. “She was chased by the Duke of York and was known for unwillingness to have a bath,” says Dr Shafe. 

Mary Bagot was the daughter of a poor soldier whose charms attracted an Earl, but she was widowed shortly after their wedding. Single once again, she became “much sought after” in court. 

“The Duke of York declared he would marry her when his wife [Anne] died,” said Dr Shafe. Instead, Mary became one of Charles II’s mistresses, earning land and a state pension. “Financially you can do quite well, being a mistress,” Dr Shafe added. 

One of the Windsor beauties portraits.
Elizabeth Hamilton.

The beauty Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Gramont, was perhaps another strategic inclusion. Her brother was a writer who published a pamphlet about the portraits and the women in them, helping solidify the Windsor Beauties’ notoriety. 

“Engravers would make copies of [the portraits] and distribute them throughout the taverns,” Lauren says. “The men would keep them in their pockets. Like Playboy magazines.” 

In her short life, The Duchess of York overcame scandal, created an artistic legacy and gave birth to eight children, of whom two survived and went on to rule as Queen Mary II (1689-1694) and Queen Anne (1702-1714). 

Anne Hyde died in her mid-30s. Despite the many difficulties she faced, Lauren says she does seem to have ultimately triumphed in court and by her death she was, if not loved, then at least respected. For her, and the beauties, the portraits were an avenue for women to reclaim their autonomy. 

“To me, that was maybe a way of giving these women some control over their image or over their status,” says Lauren. “Some little escape for women who were trapped in this system of marriage.” 

The Beauties by Lauren Chater, Simon & Schuster, is out now.

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