On October 9, 1709, Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, one of the most famous royal mistresses of all time, died at the age of 68, after having lived one hell of a life.
Barbara was born in London on November 27, 1640. She was the only child of William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison, who died in the English Civil War shortly before his daughter’s third birthday. The war left Barbara’s family nearly penniless, and although Barbara was considered a great beauty, her lack of funds reduced her marriage prospects. She married Roger Palmer in 1659, but the honeymoon didn’t last long. Only a year after her marriage, she met King Charles while he was in exile in The Hague and became his mistress. She and Palmer separated in 1662, after he was granted the titles Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine as a reward for his wife’s services.
Barbara gave birth to six children, five of whom were acknowledged by Charles as his. The boys were all elevated to the peerage, and the girls married into some of Britain’s greatest noble families.
After Charles was restored to his throne in 1660, Barbara happily took up her position at court as his mistress, wielding even greater power than Charles’s wife, Catherine of Braganza. She was named a Lady of the Bedchamber, despite the queen’s objections, and Barbara and Catherine fought constantly. Barbara’s fiery temper also ran her afoul of the king on occasion, but he still named her Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland in the 1670s. Others were less inclined to be tolerant: Diarist John Evelyn referred to her as “the curse of the nation,” and she was notorious for being extravagant, promiscuous, and for meddling in politics. She was also in the habit of helping herself to money from the Privy Purse and taking bribes from foreign envoys.
Eventually, the king tired of Barbara. She lost her position as a Lady of the Bedchamber in 1673 due to the Test Act, which barred Catholics from holding office. Charles, who had started a liaison with Louise de Kéroualle, cast Barbara aside completely soon after. She traveled to Paris with her youngest children for a few years, returning to England in 1680. After Charles’s death in 1685, she had an affair with an actor named Cardonell Goodman and gave birth to his child. Her husband, Roger Palmer, finally died in 1705, and Barbara (who had remained Palmer’s wife throughout her affair with Charles) married Major-General Robert Fielding. Fielding turned out to be a fortune hunter and a bigamist who’d married a poor woman he’d mistaken for an heiress less than a month before marrying Barbara. After news of the double marriage came out, Barbara stopped covering Fielding’s expenses. He responded by abusing her so badly she had to get a magistrate involved. Proving he was a real winner, he also had an affair with Barbara’s granddaughter. Fielding was prosecuted for bigamy and found guilty, but he escaped punishment by claiming to be a clergyman, which essentially put him outside the jurisdiction of secular courts. His marriage to Barbara was, however, annulled.
Barbara kept going another four years before being felled by dropsy. She died at Chiswick Mall. Amongst her descendents are Diana, Princess of Wales; Sir Anthony Eden, Prime Minister from 1955-1957; and Serena Armstrong-Jones, wife of Princess Margaret’s son.