King Charles II was very fond of his youngest sister, Princess Henrietta, the last child of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, though he did not get to know her until he was an exile at the French court, where she was brought up. The little sister had rather a grim time of it until her two elder brothers arrived. She was dominated by her mother and patronised by her Bourbon relatives, who barely tolerated their penurious cousin. The wandering Stuarts were an embarrassment. So it must have been with great pleasure that, now duchess of Orléans and the second lady of France, Henrietta wrote the following lines to her brother, restored as king of England, at the beginning of 1662: ‘I would not lose this opportunity of writing to you by Mrs Stuart, who is taking over her daughter to become one of the Queen your wife’s future maids. If this were not the reason for her departure, I should be very unwilling to let her go, for she is the prettiest girl in the world, and one of the best fitted of any I know to adorn your Court.’
Since Minette, as Charles called his sister, well knew her brother’s weakness when it came to women, one has to question her judgement in so enthusiastically advertising the physical attractions of this newcomer. For the girl in question was just fifteen years old. Her name was Frances Teresa Stuart and for much of the next five years she would be a prominent figure at a glittering but corrupt court, the object of endless innuendo and comment, her clothes and appearance subjected to the kind of interest we associate with today’s celebrities. And she would be pursued, pawed and adored by the hopelessly infatuated king, who frequently and quite literally could not keep his hands off her, without ever becoming his mistress. In the end, she resolved an increasingly desperate situation with daring, giving the lie to the general impression that she was an empty-headed giggler. Though not so well- known as the other women in Charles’s life, Nell Gwyn, Barbara Palmer and Louise de Kéroualle, I developed considerable admiration for Frances Teresa while researching my new book on Charles II’s mistresses and felt disappointment with the way she has been written off in the past.
‘La Belle Stuart’, as she was known to contemporaries, was born in Paris in 1647, the daughter of royalist exile, Walter Stuart and his wife, Sophia. A younger son of the Blantyre family, Walter was distantly related to the royal Stuarts which perhaps explains why he found favour with Queen Henrietta Maria, who was surrounded by warring factions competing for her notice and what meagre funds she possessed. Walter and Sophia had three children, all brought up as Catholics and Sophia became one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, while attracting plaudits for her elegant dancing style and less favourable gossip for her perceived ambition and cunning. When the opportunity arose for Frances Teresa to become maid of honour to Catherine of Braganza, Sophia and her husband were evidently keen to take it. We do not know whether the initiative came from them or from Minette but it would have been regarded as a wonderful opportunity for Frances to learn the courtier’s craft and make a good marriage.
Yet while the role was less onerous than that of being a lady-in-waiting, it was not without its dangers. Despite being chaperoned by an older lady, the maids could easily become prey to male courtiers, whose flattery and admiration sometimes went much further than propriety dictated. A girl in this situation, who lost her virtue to some handsome but dishonourable beau, was ruined, often for life. Then there were also the inevitable petty rivalries among the ladies at court, where sisterly support was in short supply. It was this heady but perilous mix that Frances Teresa Stuart would now have to negotiate. And, almost from the outset, she was the object of feverish attention—not least from the king himself.
Why was Frances so admired? The answer is not immediately obvious from her portraits. She is attractive, with a good figure, but lacks the presence of Barbara Palmer. Contemporary accounts of her personality, admittedly from an unreliable source (the memoirs of the so-called count of Gramont) dismiss her as a silly, shallow girl who loved to play blind man’s buff and build castles with playing cards. Easily amused, she apparently laughed at everything but was especially in thrall to the duke of Buckingham’s merciless mimicry of Charles II’s ministers. ‘It is hardly possible,’ wrote Gramont, ‘for a woman to have less wit and more beauty.’ This crushing put-down has coloured most subsequent judgements of Frances Teresa Stuart. But time would show there was rather more to ‘Mrs Stuard…with her hat cocked and a red plume, with her sweet eye, little Roman nose and excellent taille …’, as Pepys so fulsomely put it, than anyone could have guessed. She was undoubtedly charming and good-natured, this latter a quality not in abundant supply in the Restoration court and while her flirtation with the king may not have been artless, she knew when it had to stop.
By the time she was twenty years old, Frances was acutely aware that she could not fend the king off for much longer. She had managed to maintain an uneasy friendship with Barbara Palmer, the king’s difficult chief mistress, who was anxious about losing her predominance to the younger woman. She had also refused to become involved in the convoluted political faction-fighting at court and consistently declined the expensive presents that Charles wished to bestow. Her fame was at its height when she sat as the model for Britannia on English coins – indeed, her image only disappeared with decimalization. But the king’s very public canoodling had to stop and she was desperate to evade the royal bed. Fortunately, an unexpected solution presented itself, in the form of the recently widowed king’s cousin, Charles Stuart, Duke of Lennox and Richmond.
Richmond was close to the throne by birth and frequently at court, though he was far from popular. This may partly have sprung from the king’s obvious dislike of him but his reputation as an inveterate gambler, his showy extravagance and his love of drink could not have helped his cause. He was now 28 years old and still childless, his first two wives having died without giving him an heir. But he was a great landowner, in England, Scotland and France, and a considerable catch. Like many others, he was also an admirer of Frances Teresa Stuart. During the first few months of 1667 the couple became close and, in March, they apprehensively approached Charles II for permission to marry.
The king appears to have been taken aback by this development and prevaricated, telling Richmond that he would have to demonstrate that he could make sufficient financial provision for his intended before he would sanction their wedding. Frances appears to have feared that ultimately the king would never give his consent. At the end of the month, she took the desperate step of eloping with Richmond to his mansion of Cobham Hall, in Kent, where they were secretly married. It would prove to be a union characterised by mutual respect and affection, which survived the king’s fury when he found out and flourished despite long periods of separation when Richmond was visiting his estates or on military service. Few would have predicted that the apparently empty-headed Frances and the debauched spendthrift Richmond would find such support in each other.
Frances was persona non grata at court for a full year and this disfavour might have lasted much longer had she not contracted smallpox. This terrible disease, which had killed the king’s sister, Mary, and his youngest brother, Henry, was the cause of an unlikely reconciliation. Frances escaped too much disfigurement but was left with a droopy eye.
Charles II acknowledged that the danger she had been in ‘made me pardon all that is past.’ This was true as far as Frances was concerned but the king never really forgave Richmond and was further incensed when the duke did homage to Louis XIV in return for the French king’s recognition of his rights to his family’s ancestral lands in France. Charles’s revenge was to appoint Richmond as ambassador to the Danish court. Frances did not accompany her husband, who wished her to take charge of his business affairs in his absence: ‘I cannot so well leave money in any hands as yours’, he told her. Besides, it was not the most attractive of postings – Richmond found Copenhagen deadly dull and hated the weather. Probably he and Frances thought it would be a temporary parting. Alas, they were wrong.
As Christmas 1672 approached, Richmond believed an opportunity to relieve the darkness of a Scandinavian winter had opportunely presented itself in the unlikely form of an English frigate that was anchored in the sound of Elsinore. In the company of the English consul, he set out for dinner on board, as the guest of the captain. The evening was certainly convivial, for Richmond consumed at least two bottles of wine. Unsteady in the icy night, he missed his footing while leaving to return to shore and ‘fell between the ship and the boat and sank straight…’. The shock and hypothermia were too much for an already over-indulged system and he died the same night in his lodgings.
Left so unexpectedly a widow, Frances’s grief was compounded by having to deal with her husband’s huge debts and her childlessness meant that his estates reverted to the Crown. Charles II, still fond of her despite the hurt her behaviour had caused him, allowed her the use of the Lennox estates for the rest of her lifetime. Less generous was her sister-in-law, Lady Catherine O’Brien, who contested the terms of Richmond’s will. She was eager to have Frances removed from Cobham Hall immediately and also challenged Frances’s right to keep jewels and other gifts from Richmond before all his debts were paid off. Rising to the challenge, Frances began a counter-suit. The legal wrangling lasted for five years before it was settled. Frances agreed to sell her life interest in Cobham Hall to Lady Catherine and, in return for giving up her interest in her late husband’s French estates to the king, she received a pension of £1000 a year. Together with her salary as one of Catherine of Braganza’s ladies she was able to live comfortably at court. Frances was fond of Charles II’s neglected wife and always took her side against Louise de Kéroualle. It must have been a bitter pill for Frances to swallow when the king passed Richmond’s titles and French estates to Louise’s son.
Frances lived on into the reign of Queen Anne, attending her coronation in 1702. She died six months later, leaving her estate in trust, to be used to purchase the Scottish lands of the Maitland family. This she stipulated was to be settled on her father’s family, the Blantyres, and given the name Lennoxlove. The house, one of the finest in the Scottish Borders, still stands, a testament to a faithful wife and much under-estimated woman, who got away from Charles II with her honour intact.
Linda Porter has a doctorate in History from the University of York, where she studied early modern English and French history under the late Professor Gwyn Williams. She was the winner of the 2004 Biographers Club/Daily Mail Prize, which helped launch her on a new career as an author. She is the author of several works of historical biography including, Mary Tudor, the First Queen, Katherine the Queen, Crown of Thistles and Royal Renegades. She is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine and History Today. She lives in Kent. Her latest book, Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II is out now: