The merry monarch and his mistresses; was sex for Charles II a dangerous distraction?

A review of The King’s Bed by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh finds the king’s concubines disappointingly greedy and self-seeking

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

31 January 2015

9:00 AM

The King’s Bed: Sex, Power and the Court of Charles II Don Jordan and Michael Walsh

Little Brown, pp.354, £20, ISBN: 9781408704882

In a tone of breezy bravado in keeping with their concept of their subject’s character, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh have written a swashbuckling life of Charles II. This is narrative history that seldom slows to accommodate analysis, the Restoration court presented as the stuff of a TV mini-series: febrile, frenetic and vivid. At the centre of the vortex, Charles himself emerges as an amorous roisterer, dominated by his libido.

The King’s Bed reminded me of the Ladybird history books of my childhood, biography in bite-size chunks, centred on suitably memorable happenings or themes, the events of the past pithily retold and pared down to externals. But while the Ladybird books were at pains to offer their young readers a wide-ranging (albeit short) overview of their subjects, Jordan and Walsh maintain a single focus: Charles’s sex life. Their premise is straightforward. Sex for Charles was an obsession and a distraction. It shaped court culture and aspects of the life of the nation; it certainly affected his performance as monarch (no pun intended) and the politics of his reign.

The result is a book of enjoyable self-indulgence of the sort usually termed ‘history without the boring bits’. As history it’s a virtual non-starter, as shameless in its shallowness as any of the sleepy-eyed strumpets who occupied, however fleetingly, the bed of the title; as a story, it’s a snappy paean to bad behaviour.

In the summer of 1670, a continental diplomat reported to his royal master: ‘It is said the ladies have great influence over the mind of the said King of England.’ The King’s Bed sets out to prove the truth of that assertion. Here they all are, that cavalcade of plump lovelies, remembered in their portraits by Peter Lely and his imitators, full-lipped, pert-breasted and virtually identical in their attitudes of languorous loucheness: Barbara Palmer, later Duchess of Cleveland; the actresses Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn; Frances Stuart; Hortense Mancini; and Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, Louis XIV’s spy. Charles encountered Barbara Palmer months before the monarchy was re-established in 1660. Despite surrendering her position as principal mistress to the Breton-born Kérouaille from 1670 onwards, she would continue to be important to him for the rest of his life.

For Jordan and Walsh, Barbara is ‘wonderful’, though the epithet goes unsubstantiated. In fact she appears simply selfish, and the nature of her enduring hold over Charles is left unexplained beyond the suggestion that he was in thrall to her ability to bear his children — unlike his Portuguese wife Catherine of Braganza, whose three miscarriages left Charles without an heir save his Catholic brother James. Selfishness emerges as the hallmark of the Restoration court. The royal mistresses are as alike in their vices as in their painted images, and the same can be said of Charles’s friends and associates. In this dissipated maelstrom of rapacious self-interest, only the King himself emerges as halfway likeable.

The danger with reviewing a book like The King’s Bed is that, confronted with such determinedly lightweight junketing, the reviewer appears po-faced and stuffy. Read on its own terms, this is an agreeable romp that repays being devoured at speed like a guilty indulgence. Slow down, start to ask questions, and the spell is broken. Jordan and Walsh are not in the business of evaluation: theirs are bold brushstrokes and they ignore grey areas.

The result is a two-dimensional presentation of Charles II and his world, which magnifies aspects of the distinctive character of both while simultaneously diminishing them by oversimplification. The political, constitutional, intellectual and religious debates of Charles’s reign are acknowledged only parenthetically and even the mistresses themselves appear simply alternative faces of acquisitiveness. Up to a point, of course, this is true of Charles’s amoral, libertine court. In their defence, the authors have a keen eye for memorable anecdotes which consistently hold the reader’s attention.

There has been much debate about how merry England’s merry monarch really was. Jordan and Walsh suggest that Charles’s compulsive pleasure-seeking masked arrested development and that his behaviour contained fluctuating degrees of actual merriment. Happily, their own buoyant account provokes a simpler response.

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