King Charles II of England had a bevy of mistresses, but none of them were nearly as notorious as Barbara Palmer. Bawdy, babely, and super bad-tempered, Palmer wielded enough power to earn herself the nickname “The Uncrowned Queen” though, to be fair, other people called her “the curse of the nation.” With a life full of scandal, secrets, and good old-fashioned adultery, Barbara Palmer is one historical bad girl worth knowing about.
Barbara Palmer Facts
1. Poor Little Rich Girl
Palmer was born Barbara Villiers on November 27, 1640 to the old-as-balls aristocratic Villiers family. Her father William was a Viscount, while her mother Mary was a co-heiress. Sadly, one day it all came crashing down. When Palmer was just three years old, her father passed on while in massive debt. Suddenly, Palmer and her mother were very alone, and very poor.
2. Loyal to Royals
As it turned out, her father’s tragic end was the least of little Barbara’s worries. In 1649, England took drastic measures and beheaded their king, Charles I. While most people wisely transferred their loyalties to the new regime, the Villiers family went rogue. Putting themselves in grave danger, they secretly supported the old king’s son, Charles II.
3. It’s Not a Creepy Basement Shrine, It’s Our Life
Though they could be caught and prosecuted at any minute for remaining loyal to the crown, the Villiers family stayed committed to the young Charles, Prince of Wales. Every year on his birthday, they all crowded down into their darkened cellar and drank to his health. As we’ll see, this was all major foreshadowing for Palmer’s scandalous adult life.
4. A Hot Mess
There’s no two ways about it: Barbara was a bona fide hottie. Tall and statuesque, she had piles of brown curls, dark heavyset eyes, full lips, and a pale, alabaster complexion. With all her beauty, it wasn’t long before she earned a reputation among the smart set as one of the most desirable women in England. Except there was just one big problem.
5. Don’t Wanna Put a Ring on It
You see, Palmer was still dirt poor, at least for the aristocratic standards of the time. Her reduced circumstances meant that even though the most eligible young men noticed her striking good looks, they all ran away when it came time to lock it down with a ring. With a situation like this, it wasn’t long before Palmer went through utter heartbreak.
6. Nice Guys Finish Last
Palmer’s first steamy romance was with the rakish, handsome Philip Stanhope, AKA the 2nd Earl of Chesterfield. Yet while Stanhope was more than happy to romp around with Palmer, he had his sights set on something a little more luxe: a mega-rich wife. In 1660, he unceremoniously dumped Palmer as his main dish and married the heiress Elizabeth Butler. Ouch.
7. Daddy Knows Best
Palmer’s good looks and bad fortune got her into even more trouble. In 1659, not wanting to be outdone by Philip Stanhope, Barbara married a man named Roger Palmer. The match was doomed to a notorious end. Barbara’s family hated her beau, and her father even predicted she “would make him one of the most miserable men in the world.” Spoiler: He was right.
8. Boy, Hi
Just a year into Roger and Barbara’s marriage, Barbara basically destroyed their love forever. How? Well, she started taking up with King Charles II, even while the would-be monarch was in exile in the Netherlands. Still, it’s hard to blame her for transferring her affections. After all, Charles II was the strange dude her family had forced her to worship as a child.
9. The Pleasure Is All Mine
Even without Charles II, Barbara and Roger probably wouldn’t have worked out. Roger was, to put it kindly, a studious and serious man. To put it meanly, he was a super nerd. Meanwhile, his new wife was a stone-cold babe with a healthy appetite for the bedroom. Or, as Charles II reportedly later put it, “She hath all the tricks…that are to be practised to give pleasure.” And, uh, he would know.
10. If You Can’t Handle Me at My Worst, You Don’t Deserve Me at My Best
Palmer was infamous for her two-faced nature. One hour, she could be raucous good fun, but the next she was moody and tormented, and lashed out with her temper. The diarist John Evelyn even once called her “the curse of the nation” for the way she ruled the roost at the palace with her moods, forcing everyone to appease her whims.
11. The King of Shade
In 1661, Charles made Palmer’s husband into The Earl of Castlemaine. It sounds like a sweet title, but the honor was actually a massive insult. After all, it was more for Barbara’s “services” to the king than anything Roger had actually done. The kicker? The earldom could only be passed down to any children Roger had with Barbara, making it very clear what was really going on.
As 17th-century diarist and general messy dude Samuel Pepys put it: “The honour is tied up to the males got of the body of this wife…the reason whereof every body knows.”
12. The Silent Treatment
After Barbara shacked up with King Charles, she and Roger had very little to do with each other. The only time their frenemy Pepys ever wrote about seeing husband and wife together was when he commented on how weird it was to get a glimpse of them together. Most of the time, when Roger and Barbara were in the same room, they pretended the other one wasn’t even there. That doesn’t sound awkward at all.
13. Squatter’s Rights
While serving as King Charles II’s mistress, Palmer had zero problems flaunting her power right in front of his wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza. One day, she came up with her best flex yet. While the king and queen were away on their honeymoon, a pregnant Palmer installed herself in the official Hampton Court Palace to give birth to the King’s child. Ambitious sidepieces, take note.
14. Putting the Trophy in Trophy Wife
Palmer settled into her life of privilege like she was born to do it—but she also took it way too far at times. She pilfered money from the King’s Privy Purse without even a second thought, and happily accepted bribes from foreign dignitaries.
15. Infidelity: Not for the Faint of Heart
Unsurprisingly, Queen Catherine and Barbara Palmer did not get along, and they constantly feuded behind the palace doors from the very first moment they met. In fact, when King Charles officially presented Palmer to his queen, Catherine was so shocked and offended that she fainted on the spot. But that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
16. The Sidepiece Becomes the Main Course
In 1662, King Charles II decided that he wanted to make things official with his good-time gal Barbara Palmer. When he set his mind on promoting his mistress to a member of his royal household, his plan was incredibly cruel. He insisted Queen Catherine of Braganza take Palmer on as her own personal Lady of the Bedchamber. This? Did not go well at all.
17. Pulling Rank
When the upset Catherine understandably threatened to return to Portugal rather than take in her husband’s mistress with open arms, Charles’s response was so disturbing, it’s impossible to forget. He cruelly took away Catherine’s regular Portuguese retinue and all but forced Palmer down her throat. Not exactly the makings of a feel-good girl friendship.
18. Together Forever
Bizarrely, Barbara and Roger never ended their marriage. Though the act would have probably saved them a literal lifetime of heartbreak and infidelity, Roger was far too much of a good Roman Catholic to support the idea of the split.
19. The Brady Bunch, But Make It X-Rated
In the end, Barbara had six children while married to Roger Palmer…and none of them were actually his. King Charles II eventually formally recognized five of the six as his own issue—but that’s just the tip of the drama iceberg.
20. You Always Go Back to Your First
Palmer’s first child hid an even darker secret. Although King Charles did formally recognize the baby girl named Anne, she probably wasn’t even his. Instead, many people saw an eerie resemblance between the babe and Palmer’s ex Philip Stanhope…even though Anne was born two years after Barbara married.
21. Oh Ye of Little Faith
Barbara was incredibly cruel to her husband Roger when she wanted to be. Upon the birth of her second child, a son with the king, Roger wanted to baptize him as a Roman Catholic. Instead, Palmer callously took the boy away and had him christened in the Church of England. By this point, Roger was probably starting to figure out that his marriage was not the stuff of fairy tales…
22. Court Cage Match
It wasn’t all bon bons and silks being Barbara Palmer, and she had to work hard to stay in the king’s favor and above all the other ladies at court. Around 1662, she got her most dangerous rival yet: the beautiful Frances Stuart. Pepys described the 15-year-old as “the prettiest girl in all the world”—so Palmer had to devise an ingenious plan to stay relevant.
23. New BFF Alert
Faced with the shiny new Frances Stuart, Palmer pulled the oldest trick in the book: She made friends with the girl. One evening, Palmer also orchestrated a fake wedding with Stuart. That way, everyone could admire their beauty together. When the ceremony was done, Palmer, who was serving as the groom, cheekily let King Charles come and take her place beside Stuart.
Of course, Palmer wasn’t above even darker means to get one over on naïve little Frances….
24. Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game
Palmer once reportedly convinced the King to pay a surprise visit to young Frances in her bedchamber. Except when he opened the door, he found the girl naked on the bed, and she wasn’t alone. Frances was accompanied by a gentleman caller. Yes, this timing was very convenient for our Barbara. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you play the game.
25. Close Call
For all of Palmer’s courtly games and expertise, she very nearly lost it all. In October 1663, Queen Catherine was terrifyingly ill, and Palmer ironically had to face the fact that if the queen passed on, she might be out of court forever. At the time, the court gossips believed Frances Stuart would marry Charles after Catherine, not Palmer. Luckily for both of them, Catherine survived the illness.
26. Finding God
In December 1663, Palmer converted to Roman Catholicism, either as a way to get closer to her King or to mend things at home with her Catholic husband, remember him? When she announced her intentions to King Charles, the super stand-up guy merely shrugged and told her he was interested in women’s bodies, not their souls. Alright, my dude.
27. Don’t Hate Me Cause I’m Beautiful
It’s hard to overstate how crazy Barbara drove most of the men at court. Diarist Samuel Pepys once described seeing a glimpse of her and admitting that “I glutted myself with looking on her.” In fact, Pepys almost never shuts up about how beautiful Palmer was, and keeps filling page after page with reminisces of her. In other words, Palmer was the first thot.
28. Haters Gonna Hate
Palmer and Queen Catherine may have been enemies, but Palmer also had a nemesis in Edward Hyde, the 1st Earl of Clarendon. Clarendon was her cousin by marriage, and he was deeply embarrassed that she was committing such flagrant adultery. Clarendon often conspired with Queen Catherine to stymie Palmer’s influence—so Palmer repaid him with sweet, sweet revenge.
29. Don’t Mess With Me
In the late 1660s, Palmer got together with some of King Charles II’s ministers and ousted Clarendon from power. When the court officially dismissed him in 1667, our girl Barbara did not mince words and loudly mocked him in public. All Clarendon did in response was calmly remind her that she would one day grow old, losing both her power and her beauty. They were prophetic words.
30. A Class Act
Palmer might have been infamously bad tempered, but she also had an enormous heart, and was equally known for her generous acts of kindness. One time while she was attending the theatre, a scaffold fell onto a crowd of people. Palmer immediately ran to help an injured child, even though all of the other court ladies stayed in their seats.
31. Ladies at Attention
In her heyday, Palmer was an extravagant clotheshorse. In one of his diary entries, Pepys describes her “linen petticoats….laced with rich lace at the bottom” in painstaking detail. Naturally, Palmer also always made sure to wear dresses that showed off her ample bosom.
32. Two Can Play at That Game
Even while Palmer was firmly King Charles II’s favorite mistress, the monarch didn’t limit himself to just one sidepiece—and Palmer didn’t either, not by any stretch of the imagination. Palmer loved showering her men with gifts, and some of her many beaus included the acrobat Jacob Hall as well as her naughty second cousin John Churchill.
33. Dangerous Liaisons
While getting tangled up in John Churchill’s sheets, Palmer also got herself tangled up in a potential scandal. Never one to spend wisely, Palmer gifted Churchill with a massive £5,000 present. Luckily, the king wasn’t bothered by her infidelities. When he heard about Palmer’s “generosity,” he apparently replied, chuckling, that a young man must have something to live on.
34. Show Me the Duchy
Palmer got some fabulous gifts during her time at the top. King Charles gave her the exquisite Phoenix Park in Dublin, and even made her the Duchess of Cleveland. Heads up: Ladies don’t want flowers, they want cash and titles.
35. Burning Down the House
In 1670, King Charles did his mistress another solid and gifted her the extravagant Nonsuch Palace, along with the title the Baroness of Nonsuch. In typical Barbara fashion, it wasn’t long before she flung the bauble back in his face. Around 1682, Palmer sold all the building materials to help pay off her massive gambling debts.
36. Mrs. Churchill, If You’re Nasty
Before she said goodbye to her baby-making days, Palmer made sure that her penultimate pregnancy would contain a world of scandal. The daughter, also named Barbara, never got the official seal of approval from King Charles, even though Palmer claimed she was his. Then again, Palmer was probably lying through her teeth. Most historians believe the baby was the daughter of Palmer’s other lover John Churchill. Babs, you’re dirty and I respect it.
37. Bow Down
Baby Barbara’s questionable paternity didn’t stop Palmer from fighting for what she thought was hers. Apparently, when King Charles II refused to confer paternity onto the little girl, Palmer threatened to off herself unless he stepped up. Though she obviously never got what she wanted, Charles did reportedly grovel and beg for her forgiveness in front of the entire court.
38. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
In 1673, fate finally caught up with Barbara Palmer. A parliamentary act banned her from being Lady of the Bedchamber because of her Catholic faith, and she suddenly lost her official power at court. Even worse, Charles dealt her an utterly cold-hearted betrayal. He dropped her almost completely as his mistress, and took up with his new favourite, Louise de Kérouaille.
39. The Favorite
Louise de Kerouaille meant huge danger for Palmer in more ways than one. Not only was she almost a decade younger than Palmer with a beautiful baby face to match, Louise was also nothing but polite and deferential to Charles’s wife Queen Catherine. Faced with the demure Louise or the insulting Barbara, the queen clearly supported the more malleable option.
40. Kiss Off
Eventually, the king told Palmer the jig was up, and advised her to live away from him, refrain from scandals, and take up with whoever else she wanted. Her old enemy the Earl of Clarendon had been right after all. Here she was, just past 30 years old, and turned out of the king’s bedroom. But if you think Palmer was done with drama, you don’t know Barbara.
41. All the World’s a Stage
Palmer’s later years were pretty much everything you want from a bawdy has-been mistress. For one, she definitely didn’t settle back in with her husband Roger, who was still alive. Instead, when she was 45 years old, she started a tryst with the English actor Cardonell Goodman. Besides being handsome, Goodman was mostly known as an incredibly terrible thespian. Sounds about right.
42. Setting Son
In 1685, Palmer had a big surprise coming to her: She discovered she was pregnant with Goodman’s child. In March 1686, she gave birth to a baby boy, but sadly, historians don’t know what became of the child.
43. Major Bummer
Even when she was well into her 60s, Palmer didn’t stop making horrible life decisions. When her husband Roger (finally) passed on in 1705, Palmer wasted no time making it official with her latest lover, the Major-General Robert Fielding. Yet almost as quickly as she married the dashing Major General, Palmer discovered his scandalous secret.
44. Poetic Justice
Palmer sure knew how to pick ‘em. Shortly after tying the knot with Fielding, she found out he was actually a nefarious fortune hunter after her money—oh, and that he was already married. Yep. Two weeks before their wedding, Fielding married another woman because he (mistakenly) thought she was an heiress. Palmer’s response was swift and brutal.
45. I’ll Make You Pay
First, Palmer cut off Fielding’s allowance, and when he responded with “barbarous ill-treatment,” she got the court magistrates after him. Then, she prosecuted the jerk, quite rightly, for bigamy. If we learn anything from this list, it’s this: Do. Not. Cross. Barbara.
46. This Wallet’s Closed for Good
In 1685, Barbara Palmer met King Charles II again for one heartbreaking reunion. That January, they enjoyed a night of each other’s company for the very last time. A week later, the King died of an apoplectic fit.
47. My Name in Lights
At the height of her fame, Palmer was one of the most recognizable women in England. Never one to shy away from the spotlight, she sat for a series of official portraits, which then got turned into engravings and sold to the public.
48. Thus Passes a Real One
On October 9, 1709, Palmer herself had to face the mortal music. On that day, she died of oedema and congestive heart failure at the age of 68. The legendary mistress had outlived both her husband and her king.
49. Big Cuck Energy
Remember when Barbara gave birth to her first daughter, Anne? Well, she entered the world with one heck of a bang. King Charles II claimed her as his daughter…and so did Palmer’s husband Roger…and so did Barbara’s boyfriend on the side, Philip Stanhope. That meant the girl had not one, not two, but three men claiming to be her daddy.
50. Ousting the Old Boys
According to Pepys, Barbara Palmer had the king’s ear on everything from fashions to international relations—earning her the nickname “The Uncrowned Queen.” The lively mistress apparently hated all the conservative, dour men who usually told her man what to do. Whenever the king exited a meeting with them, Palmer would convince him not to listen to their ideas and instead, do what she wanted.