By Jeannine Kerwin
Biographies and Portraits
Frances Stuart, or “La Belle Stuart” as seen through the eyes of Samuel Pepys and beautifully depicted by artist Peter Lely here and by Wissing and Van der Vaart here, won her fame as the love interest of King Charles II and was “immortalized” in coinage as the face of Britannia. Pepys and other writers of the time extolled on her beauty and charms and all noted her dramatic impact on King Charles. Several wonderful websites offer excellent short biographies or stories related to Frances, including: Face of Britainna; 1911 Encyclopedia;Wikipedia and Royalty Restored or London under Charles II by J Fitzgerald Molloy where Frances first appears in Chapter 7. Of note, although some of these sites, and even initially Pepys in his Diary, assume that she was a “mistress” of Charles II, most historians consider her to have actually eluded the charms of the sovereign, remaining a virgin until her “runaway” marriage to the Duke of Richmond.
Frances in the Diary
Frances’ first entry into the Diary takes place on 8 February 1662/1663 when Sam introduces gossip from Captain Ferrers detailing the mock marriage of Frances to Lady Castlemaine. This mock marriage frolic and the implications behind the court politics of the time are further detailed in Section I of the Article A Walk with Ferrers. In Sam’s words, Ferrers shared the following:
Another story was how my Lady Castlemaine, a few days since, had Mrs. Stuart to an entertainment, and at night began a frolique that they two must be married, and married they were, with ring and all other ceremonies of church service, and ribbands and a sack posset in bed, and flinging the stocking; but in the close, it is said that my Lady Castlemaine, who was the bridegroom, rose, and the King came and took her place with pretty Mrs. Stuart. This is said to be very true.
into the Queen’s presence, where all the ladies walked, talking and fiddling with their hats and feathers, and changing and trying one another’s by one another’s heads, and laughing. But it was the finest sight to me, considering their great beautys and dress, that ever I did see in all my life. But, above all, Mrs. Stewart in this dress, with her hat cocked and a red plume, with her sweet eye, little Roman nose, and excellent taille, is now the greatest beauty I ever saw, I think, in my life; and, if ever woman can, do exceed my Lady Castlemaine, at least in this dress nor do I wonder if the King changes, which I verily believe is the reason of his coldness to my Lady Castlemaine.
Other Court political players will also note Frances’ beauty and her impact on the King’s affections. They will try to use her to their benefit by hopefully establishing her as the King’s mistress. Sam shares the gossip that he hears about the “committee” from Lord Sandwich:
… we begun to talk of the Court, and he tells me how Mr. Edward Montagu begins to show respect to him again after his endeavouring to bespatter him all was, possible; but he is resolved never to admit him into his friendship again. He tells me how he and Sir H. Bennet, the Duke of Buckingham and his Duchesse, was of a committee with somebody else for the getting of Mrs. Stewart for the King; but that she proves a cunning slut, and is advised at Somerset House by the Queen-Mother, and by her mother, and so all the plot is spoiled and the whole committee broke. Mr. Montagu and the Duke of Buckingham fallen a-pieces, the Duchesse going to a nunnery; and so Montagu begins to enter friendship with my Lord, and to attend the Chancellor whom he had deserted.
During the months of October and November 1663, Queen Catherine fell sick, with an illness that almost claimed her life. Shortly after this, on 9 November 1663 Mr. Pierce, confirms the general belief shared by many of the Courtiers, that had Queen Catherine died during her illness, Frances would have taken her place as Queen:
and how the King is now become besotted upon Mrs. Stewart, that he gets into corners, and will be with her half an houre together kissing her to the observation of all the world; and she now stays by herself and expects it, as my Lady Castlemaine did use to do; to whom the King, he says, is still kind, so as now and then he goes to have a chat with her as he believes; but with no such fondness as he used to do. But yet it is thought that this new wench is so subtle, that she lets him not do any thing than is safe to her, but yet his doting is so great that, Pierce tells me, it is verily thought if the Queene had died, he would have married her.
From this point on, Frances is now well established as a “presence” in the Court of the King and a much admired beauty of Sam and others. Although her nature never revealed an interest in the world of politics and intrigue, her beauty and the King’s desire to have her for his mistress dominated much of her role in the Diary.
The King’s Anguish
While the King surrounded himself with a bevy of mistresses throughout his life, most historians see Frances, the “one who got away”, as the one love interest who truly broke his heart. During his pursuit of her, Charles wrote her the love poem, “The Pleasures of Love”:
I pass all my hours in a shady old grove,
But I live not the day when I see not my love;
I survey every walk now my Phyllis is gone,
And sigh when I think we were there all alone,
Oh, then ‘tis I think there’s no Hell
Like loving too well.
But each shade and each conscious bower when I find
Where I once have been happy and she has been kind;
When I see the print left of her shape on the green,
And imagine the pleasure may yet come again;
Oh, then ‘tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.
While alone to myself I repeat all her charms,
She I love may be locked in another man’s arms,
She may laugh at my cares, and so false she may be,
To say all the kind things she before said to me!
Oh then ‘tis, oh then, that I think there’s no Hell
Like loving too well.
But when I consider the truth of her heart,
Such an innocent passion, so kind without art,
I fear I have wronged her, and hope she may be
So full of true love to be jealous of me.
Oh then ‘tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.
As Frances started to mature and “come into her own” she realized that the only role she would ever have in the Court of Charles II, would be that of his mistress. In order to avoid that role, on March of 1667, she eloped with the Duke of Richmond, a shock that would cut to the heart of the monarch.
Months after Frances’ elopement her departure still pained Charles greatly as seen in this portion of a letter he wrote to his sister Minette (from Ruth Norrington’s My Dearest Minette) dated 26 August 1667:
I do assure you I am very much troubled that I cannot in everything give you the satisfaction I could wish, especially in this business of the duchesse of Richmond [Frances’ formal title through marriage], wherein you may think me ill natured, but if you consider how hard a thing ‘tis to swallow an injury done by a person I had so much tendernesse for, you will in some degree excuse the resentment I use towards her; you know my good nature enough to believe that I could not be so severe, if I had not great provocation, and I assure you her carriage towards me has been as bad as breach of friendship and faith can make it, therefore I hope you will pardon me if I cannot so soon forget an injury which went so neere my hart.
Charles eventually forgave Frances and established her as a Lady in Queen Catherine’s bedchamber. After the death of her husband, she never remarried.
Biographies and related non-fiction about Frances are listed below. Although the Hartmann biography is the only book focused solely on Frances, additional information about her is found on books related to the mistresses of Charles II. These books may be available through your local library (with the help of the research department) or are sometimes available through the used book search. Some may be available on the US Amazon or UK Amazon .
- La Belle Stuart by Cyril Hughes Hartmann
- All the King’s Women by Derek Wilson
- The King’s Ladies by Dorothy Ponsonby Senior