Beauty, Sex & Power at the Restoration Court

… Or, what not to read on a packed bus.

I don’t often harp on here about things written recently (or, you know, since the Crimean War), but I SO enjoyed this romp of a book that I thought I’d give a little sneak peek at it. It was published to accompany an exhibition on the same topic at Hampton Court Palace (archived here), and as well as being written in an entertaining and erudite way it is packed full of beautiful 17th-century portraiture. The majority being, of course, a bit sexually charged… if not outright racy. [this slowly dawned on me as an unsavoury-looking gentleman facing me on the bus started wheezing and winking in my direction.]

The openly libidinous pursuits and tangled love-lives of the English court in the latter part of the seventeenth century would make almost anyone blush, and where some found fame and happiness through their liaisons, others lost everything. Without giving away too much about the lives of the women who gave colour and charm to the Stuart court, here are a few of those who made me wish – for a fleeting moment – that I could have been numbered amongst them. [Then I remember the chapter in which we learn that ladies wore gloves made from the skin of unborn calves to keep their hands soft. And I’m over it.]


Louise de Kerouaille [1649-1734], after Peter Lely (c.1671)

The favourite French mistress of Charles II, she didn’t enjoy the love of the English people (they much preferred Nell Gwyn, who was at least a ‘Protestant whore’). Teased by her rival as ‘Squintabella’ and in her latter, chubbier years known by the king as ‘Fubbs’, she is seen here sexily feeding a sheep.


NPG D31351; Margaret Jones (nÈe Cecil), Countess of Ranelagh by John Faber Jr, printed for and sold by  Robert Sayer, printed for and sold by  John King, after  Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt

Margaret Cecil [1672-1728], by Godfrey Kneller (c1691)

One of Kneller’s ‘Hampton Court Beauties’ as a teenager, Margaret went on to be widowed and remarried by the age of 24. Her second husband, the Earl of Ranelagh, was well into his sixties, and is said to have found his new bride in bed with the Earl of Coningsby shortly afterwards. Adding insult to injury, Coningsby followed up the seduction of Ranelagh’s wife by then seducing and marrying his daughter Frances in 1698. Presumably Margaret would have been none too happy to have been supplanted by her own stepdaughter.



Catherine Sedley [1657-1717], by Godfrey Kneller (c1685)

Catherine was the only legitimate child and heir of a notorious Restoration libertine, and despite growing up ‘notoriously plain’, she became a royal mistress after enchanting James II in the late 1670s. (The Countess Cowper scribbled charmingly in her diary that she thought that her ‘Wit makes Amends for her Ugliness’.) After having several children out of wedlock, and being embroiled in reported conspiracies to assassinate the new King William III in around 1690, she married in 1696.


But perhaps one of the most intriguing – and haunting – stories , is that of Elizabeth Butler, immortalised here by Peter Lely.


Elizabeth Butler [1640-1665], by Peter Lely (c. 1660)

Elizabeth was twenty when she sat for this portrait, at around the same time that she became the second wife of Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield. Three years later she gave birth to their only surviving child, also Elizabeth. Although orchestrated as a marriage of ‘convenience’ according to Samuel Pepys, it was in fact to prove turbulent and perhaps even fatal. Her husband – a sometime lover of royal mistress Barbara Villers – was by no means willing to suffer his wife the same sexual freedoms, and when it became clear that her beauty was inviting the attentions of other men at court he secured her a permanent home in Derbyshire. Her death at the age of just 25 gave rise to whispers that Stanhope had ordered the poisoning of his ‘beautiful and unhappy wife’, as a result of her rumoured intimacies with James, Duke of York.


Here is the book. Go and find it in a nice bookshop!


10 thoughts on “Beauty, Sex & Power at the Restoration Court

Add yours

  1. Thanks, Emily, you’ve brought back memories of that lush, intriguing exhibition. I really must buy the book. I’m a bit of a Restoration nerd, so I should have it on my bookshelves.

    Though I don’t think I’ll be reading it on the bus…

  2. Fascinating! I wish I could have seen the exhibition while it was on, but this has definitely inspired me to pick the book up! Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: