Cupid and the King: five royal paramours

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9780002239110: Cupid and the King: five royal paramours

The royal European courts were unsurpassed for their glamour, wealth, fame, danger, treachery, and politics. The royal mistress was at the center of that world -- admired for her beauty and sensuality; feared for the power she wielded; even vilified, envied, and resented. In times when women had very little power, the royal mistress had enormous influence, and yet she is seldom mentioned in official histories.

In Cupid and the King, Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent recounts the stories of five very different women, each of whom became a celebrated -- or notorious -- courtesan:

Nell Gwyn, the bawdy, vivacious orange seller turned actress who endeared herself to Charles II -- and the country -- with her wit and down-to-earth manner

Madame de Pompadour, the extravagant, elegant maitresse-en-titre of Louis XV who became one of the great patrons of her time while enraging the people of France

Marie Walewska, who became Napoleon's mistress to save her country

Lola Montez, the flamboyant, scandalous Irish beauty who reinvented herself as a Spanish aristocrat to win the heart of Ludwig I of Bavaria

Lillie Langtry, the legendary beauty immortalized by the most famous artists of her day and the only woman to completely monopolize Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII

Written with an insider's keen understanding of court life and filled with delicious details born of impeccable research, Cupid and the King explores a little-known chapter of the history of women's roles in the royal bedrooms of Europe.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent is the author of two previous books, Crowned in a Far Country: Portraits of Eight Royal Brides and Cupid and the King: Five Royal Paramours. For more than ten years, the Princess has pursued a successful career lecturing on historical topics. She lives with her husband, Prince Michael of Kent, in Kensington Palace in London and in their seventeenth-century manor house in Gloucestershire, England.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Nell Gwyn

1650-1687

MISTRESS OF CHARLES II OF ENGLAND

"The amours of a good king are always deemed a pardonable weakness, providing they are not attended with injustice or violence."

Anti-Machiavelli

"Permit me, Sir, to help you to a whore:

Kiss her but once, you'll ne'er want Cleveland more.

She's Buckhurst's whore at present, but you know --

When sovereign wants a whore, the subject must forgo."

Etherege (Dedicated to Charles II, about Nell Gwyn)

"He [Charles II] thought no man sincere, nor woman honest, out of principle; but that whenever they proved so, humour or vanity was at the bottom of it. No one, he fancied, served him out of love, and therefore he endeavoured to be quits with the world by loving others as little as he thought they loved him."

Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, 1643-1715

No one can be sure exactly where Nell Gwyn was born, but most of her biographers agree that her birth occurred in miserable circumstances in Hereford, on February 2, 1650. Her father may have come from a respectable Welsh family, and was rumored to have been a captain, most probably a Royalist.

Like so many others caught up in the army in those troubled times, Thomas Gwyn was broken by the Civil War. When he married Eleanor Smith of London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields at Oxford, the union was considered beneath him, and he could scarcely have married lower. Mrs. Gwyn, who had come to Royalist Oxford at the start of the Civil War, was an alcoholic who shared out her favors most liberally. After the war, Thomas Gwyn returned to his father's birthplace of Hereford and kept a tavern -- and most probably a brothel as well. It is likely that both Nell and her older sister Rose were born here. After lying low for a few years, Gwyn returned to Oxford, where he was promptly put in prison for his Royalist sympathies. Mrs. Gwyn and her daughters fled to St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where they lived in a cellar in the squalid Coal Alley Yard, Drury Lane. Thomas Gwyn died in Oxford in prison before the Restoration, without ever seeing his family again.

While their mother worked ostensibly selling ale at Mrs. Ross' "house of ill repute," the barefooted Nell and Rose hawked fish and oysters in the filthy streets around their home. Both girls quickly learned to live on their wits and entice customers with their cheeky repartee. By the time pert little Nellie was nine, she had joined her mother and sister at Mrs. Ross's. But although Nell later maintained that her duties involved no more than filling the customers' cups with "strong waters," John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, had his doubts when he wrote that she was

By Madame Ross exposed to town, I mean to those who will give half-a-crown

-- the going rate for her whores. But then Nell Gwyn's name was often coupled with that of Rochester, and she may even have been his mistress before she met the king.

Two districts of London were the main centers of activity at this time: the City and the Whitehall Palace area. Here the money was made and business was done, and inevitably the need for relaxation and entertainment, as well as blessed relief from Cromwell's Puritan restrictions, led to the rapid spread of taverns and brothels.

Nell Gwyn was ten years old in the summer of 1660 when Charles Stuart returned to England to be restored as the rightful king. No one in London on that bright May day, least of all an impressionable young girl, could forget the sight of the darkly handsome young monarch, riding at the head of a procession of twenty thousand cavalry and soldiers, smiling and waving to his cheering subjects. The sun shone, the streets were garlanded and the children ran in front of his prancing charger throwing petals in its path.

After years of austerity and the horror of civil war, England rejoiced and relaxed. Among the main factors in favor of the Restoration of Charles II had been the fear in the minds of thinking people that the country would be dominated by the army. Charles had endured exile and the knowledge that his father had lost his crown, and his head, as a result of his intolerance, inflexibility and apparent lack of charm. His son determined that he would lack none of the qualities needed "to regain his throne, retain his throne, and maintain the legitimate succession to that throne" (Imbert-Terry), and swore he would never go on his travels again.

Hypocrisy had characterized the Puritan domination of England during the Commonwealth years; with the Restoration, the people's reaction to the end of the enforced restriction of their pleasures was an orgy of immorality. For Charles, tolerance became the keyword of his reign, and the easygoing attitude of the monarch permeated all aspects of society.

In questions of behavior, tone or fashion, the people looked to the king and his court, an entourage dominated by wits and beauties. This was a court of youth -- Charles was twenty-nine, his brother James, Duke of York, was twenty-seven. Of the king's closest companions, the Duke of Buckingham was thirty-two, the earls of Sunderland, Dorset and Arran were in their twenties, and the cleverest, wittiest and most debauched of them all, the Earl of Rochester, was still in his teens.* Inevitably, these young men, exiled for years and deprived of their homeland by joining their king abroad, made merry with their monarch on his triumphant return. They had all suffered hardship and danger, and the strain of an uncertain future. The restored Charles could now reward their constancy and loyalty by granting his friends titles and positions which would guarantee great prestige and yield them enormous incomes.

At the time of the Restoration, London's inns hung out their old signs again: The King's Head, The Duke's Head and The Crown. Their patrons spilled into the streets, overfed and usually drunk. Strict observance of the Sabbath was no longer enforced, and morals were extremely lax. The streets were filthy -- muddy in wet weather and dust-filled when dry, unsafe to walk because of the likelihood of attack by footpads and rogues, and incredibly noisy, the cries of the hawkers, porters and watermen mixing with the myriad signs creaking over almost every doorway, and the crash and clatter of horses, carriages and carts over the uneven cobbles. Much traffic centered on the river, as it was the only swift, safe avenue of conveyance (except when shooting the rapids under London Bridge) through the capital. The old city was concentrated along the banks of the Thames.

Maypoles were re-erected on their former sites and traditional dances performed around them once more. The common folk and the gentry dressed in bright colors again, the fashionable covered in a profusion of ribbons, ruffles and lace, broad-brimmed feathered hats, short cloaks and square-toed high-heeled shoes. Ladies favored green silk stockings with diamond-buckled black velvet garters below the knee, though the French ambassador, le Comte de Comminges, reported to his sovereign that the English ladies often preferred to show "their white satin skins by wearing none." Gentlemen wore powdered periwigs and fringed, scented gloves, and carried special combs for their wigs and quizzing glasses with which to examine those of their neighbors. Pocket watches were worn, snuff was used, and both men and women carried muffs. Ladies dyed their hair in exotic colors, sported loose curls on their foreheads and stuck black beauty patches on their white-powdered faces.

The king was famous for his courtesy and courtly manners (just as he was for his amours), but the bad language adopted by his young courtiers while in exile was enthusiastically copied by all classes of society. The courtiers' table manners were appalling, and swearing was energetic and commonplace. When the Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany visited London, his secretary noted:

there are no forks, nor vessels to supply water for the hands, which are washed in a basin full of water that serves for all the company; or perhaps at the end of dinner, they dip the end of the napkin into the beaker of water set before each guest, and with this they clean their teeth, and wash their hands.

The gossip and scandals of the court and society were recorded with relish by the diarists of the day, such as Samuel Pepys (who, at the age of twenty-six, had come from Holland on the same ship as the king), John Evelyn, Aubrey and le Comte de Grammont, and dozens of lesser known and anonymous writers. The middle classes lived lives as dissolute as those of the courtiers they emulated.

One of the first decisions taken by King Charles was to restore the theatrical life of London, which had been banned for twenty-three years. Starved of entertainment during the lackluster years of the Commonwealth, the people looked to the revival of the theaters as the preminent source of amusement and social life. Two theaters were immediately commissioned: the King's House in Drury Lane, known simply as "The Theatre," and the Duke's House (known as "The Opera"), named in honor of the Duke of York.

The dashing young men of the court were matched by the talented, and equally young, writers of the day -- Dryden, Etherege, Wycherley and Sedley -- all in their twenties. The young king at the center of this high-spirited, brilliant society was himself charming, witty and generous. He encouraged a series of glittering entertainments to be staged so that he could meet and be seen by his people. The highways of the kingdom were choked with coachloads of subjects making their colorful way to London -- a huge caravanserai, all anxious to catch a glimpse of the sovereign.

The king was a fine and worthy sight to see. Tall and slender and immensely fit, due to his constant pursuit of sport of all kinds, Charles Stuart always rose early and rode or walked briskly in St. James's Park before breakfast, exhausting his slower entourage....

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