The scandalous love stories of the Tudor period, particularly those surrounding King Henry VIII and his six wives, have left the subsequent Stuart period in the dark – at least when it comes to the public consciousness.
With seven monarchs and two Lords Protectors, however, the period spanning 1603 to 1714 had some incredibly salacious and downright shocking sex scandals.
Following the death of the last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, her Stuart cousin King James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne.
James’s sexual preferences would likely be described as bisexual or gay today. He was quite public with his very tactile relationships with handsome men, beginning with Esmé Stuart.
Nonetheless, James married the fifteen-year-old Princess Anna of Denmark, and this union led to several children, including sons Henry and Charles.
Their marriage also produced the dynastically-important Elizabeth, later known as ‘the Winter Queen’, from whom the Hanoverians descended to succeed the Stuarts.
Following the move down to England, James struck up a relationship with a very aesthetically-pleasing young man named Robert Carr, who became his ‘favourite’ for some years.
The most intense and passionate love of James’s life, however, came later, in the form of the beautiful George Villiers, whom the king met in 1614.
Young, ambitious Villiers profited well from the king’s love and became one of the most powerful men in the country. History remembers him as the Duke of Buckingham.
James and Anna’s youngest son, Charles, the ‘spare’ who became the heir following his elder brother Henry’s untimely death in 1612, was very different to his father.
Almost rigidly formal in comparison, his greatest amorous (mis)adventure was his journey to Spain in 1623 to woo the Spanish Infanta, accompanied by the Duke of Buckingham.
This proved to be a total disaster and he turned his sights to the youngest sister of King Louis XIII of France, Henrietta Maria.
Wedded by proxy in 1625, Charles bedded his seasick bride following her arrival in Dover.
The couple had a rather tempestuous early married life, but in time things improved and Charles and Henrietta Maria had many children, including future sovereigns Charles II and James II (VII).
Although Charles was a lusty fellow, he was loyal to his wife and was not known to indulge in the extramarital liaisons so common amongst others of his station.
That said, during the chaos of the Civil Wars, Charles I (by then not having seen his wife in a few years) had a sexual fling with the devoted Jane Whorwood.
Following Charles’s execution in the winter of 1649, the Three Kingdoms eventually became a republic. This period is often referred to as the Interregnum, or period between kings.
In 1660, after a decade without a king, Charles II was welcomed back with great felicity and celebration.
A highly-sexed man, by 1660 he had already had a few amours, including with his former wetnurse, Christabella Wyndham.
Charles had a son, later known as the Duke of Monmouth, with Lucy Walter. But his strong libido was equalled in the bedchamber by a young and stunningly beautiful woman named Barbara Palmer, wife of Roger Palmer.
Their adulterous relationship led to several children, including a daughter, Anne, whose later passionate lesbian affair with her father’s mistress, Hortense Mancini, made waves.
Charles’s other mistresses included actresses such as Moll Davies and Nell Gwynn, and a wide variety of court ladies.
He married the Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza, who had to endure his open philandering and siring of bastards whilst she remained childless.
“The One Who Got Away” was Frances Stuart, a teenaged beauty who had the reputation of being rather silly but who inspired so great a passion in the king that it led to rumours that he would divorce Catherine of Braganza and marry Frances.
The young beauty, to her credit, resisted Charles’ considerable charms and instead eloped with another Charles Stuart, the 3rd Duke of Richmond and 6th Duke of Lennox.
Charles’s younger brother, James, was (and is) considered the most handsome of the two.
Married twice, first to Anne Hyde and then to Mary of Modena, James, who was as sexually voracious as his elder brother, if not more so, chose to have extramarital sexual relationships with women who were considered rather odd choices.
His two main mistresses, Arabella Churchill (sister to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough) and Catherine Sedley were both considered rather plain and skinny – the opposite of what was considered sexually alluring in the Stuart period.
James II ruled from 1685 until he was ousted from power in an invasion led by his son-in-law, William III of Orange.
William III and Mary II
Following the revolution of 1688, William III and his first-cousin wife, Mary II, ascended the throne as a diarchy, or joint rulers.
William III’s known sexual escapades included a drunken invasion of a lady-in-waiting’s bedchamber in his youth.
But he was a devout Calvinist and decidedly more stern in character than his very libidinous uncles, so he tended to keep his only known extramarital relationship—with Elizabeth Villiers, Mary’s childhood friend and lady-in-waiting—under close wraps.
Although his political enemies bandied about rumours of his having homosexual affairs with his best friends Hans Bentinck and Arnold Joost van Keppel, these remain unsubstantiated.
Every Stuart monarch and consort following the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ was rumoured to be homosexual: a common tactic used to discredit a political, or in this case, royal opponent.
Mary II having died from smallpox in 1694, an intensely grief-stricken William did not remarry and died in 1702 at Kensington Palace.
His successor, Queen Anne, was a chronically ill women whose gynaecological history is amongst the most tragic in all royal history.
Each of Queen Anne‘s sixteen to eighteen pregnancies (with her beloved husband, Prince George of Denmark) resulted in either miscarriage, stillbirth, and those who were born alive went on to die in childhood.
None of their children survived into adulthood.
Anne lived her youth in the shadow of her more ebullient and attractive sister Mary, instead becoming known for her shyness, her stubbornness, and a desire to be loved—personality traits which she would have for the rest of her life.
It was during her childhood that she befriended Sarah Jennings, her senior by a decade. Sarah was everything Anne was not: shrewd, gorgeous, sharp-tongued, and confident. Anne looked up to Sarah with starry-eyed awe and admiration.
By the time Prince George died in 1708, however, Anne had developed a friendship with Sarah’s impoverished cousin, Abigail Hill (later Masham).
Sarah had become increasingly unkind towards Anne, whilst Abigail was humble and caring…and of a different political stance.
When Sarah was ultimately ousted from her position by Abigail, she had rumours of lesbianism between the queen and her new favourite published to get back at them both.
After all, as one writer observed in 1746: ‘who breaks with her [Sarah] provokes Revenge from Hell’.
Although Charles II’s love life is the most well-known of the Stuarts of the 17th-and-early-18th centuries, each Stuart monarch certainly had their share of courtly seductions, sexual intrigues, adultery, and romance.
Andrea Zuvich is a 17th-century historian specialising in the House of Stuart (1603–1714), as well as a historical adviser and author of historical fiction. Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain is her first book for Pen & Sword.