Eyes full of knowledge both amorous and worldly stare back with a twinkle. Bare flesh is suggestively revealed under layers of fine clothing and jewellery. This painting by Henri Gascar of “that famed beauty,” Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, is one of many executed by the artist.
Portsmouth had an image to cultivate and a position at the royal court to uphold. As one of Charles II’s many mistresses, it was vital she remain in favour with the King and make the most of his attention. Portsmouth was impressively adept at managing both these aspects of court life. Delving behind what those cunning eyes hide reveals a woman of fortitude and bravery.
Early Life Lessons
Louise de Kérouaille was born in Brittany in 1649. Her parents were both from established aristocratic families, however they lacked power and wealth. Louise’s appointment at the age of 19 to the household of Henriette-Anne, Duchess of Orléans, was most likely owing to her good looks and genial personality. Indeed, diarist John Evelyn makes note of her father being a “good fellow” and her mother having a “shrewd understanding.” A discerning mind cultivated by a pleasant personality and attractive image would get Louise far.
The Duchess of Orléans was not only married to the brother of King Louis XIV of France she was also sister to King Charles II of England. These lofty connections allowed Louise to observe the mechanics of court life. In particular, how using sexual appeal could get a person power and how this power was then cultivated by a wealthy image.
Louise accompanied the Duchess on a visit to England in June 1670. This could potentially be when Charles II first laid eyes on Louise, although little is known about whether they interacted. However, her journey to the English court came not from the birth of new feelings but from the death of the Duchess later that year. Charles II promised his sister he would ensure the safety of her ladies. As a result, Louise would soon find herself whisked away to England to become part of the household of Charles’s wife, Catherine of Braganza.
Rise to Power
Charles II was incredibly fond of mistresses. Louise would join a long line of women bedded but never wedded by the monarch. Such was their status that cunning members of the court noticed their potential political importance. Louise was no exception. From the moment she became part of the royal court, the King’s chief minister, Lord Arlington, connived to establish her place in the King’s bed and in his heart.
Success came in October 1671 when Louise, “now being in greate favor with the King,” was invited to Arlington’s residence in Euston, along with the King. Evelyn reports on the occasion:
“It was universaly reported that the faire Lady was bedded one of these nights, and the stocking flung, after the manner of a married bride; I acknowledge she was for the most part in her undresse all day, and that there was fondnesse and toying with that young wanton.”
Louise’s position as the King’s mistress became further established the following year with the birth of her son, named Charles after his father. Numerous titles followed, falling on both Louise, now Duchess of Portsmouth, and her son. Young Charles soon became Duke of Richmond. The newly formed Duchess also used her power to secure a marriage for her sister to the Earl of Pembroke.
Along with love came wealth and power. One of the most lavish displays of Charles’s love for Portsmouth came from the building of the yacht HMY Fubbs. ‘Fubbs’ was Charles’ fond nickname for Portsmouth, and a public dedication with such a personal epithet surely demonstrated her elevated position and the strength of Charles’ feelings.
Portsmouth also had her own apartment in Whitehall Palace consisting of 24 rooms and an enormous gallery. Her residence was said to rival the King’s own and leave the Queen’s far behind in the dust. In fact, there is much to suggest Portsmouth acted and was treated by Charles like a second queen. Evelyn reports on attending Portsmouth’s levée, that is, the formal rising and robing of the mistress as styled after royalty in the French court.
“Following his Majesty this morning through the gallery, I went with the few who attended him, into the Duchess of Portsmouth's dressing-room within her bedchamber, where she was in her morning loose garment, her maids combing her, newly out of her bed, his Majesty and the gallants standing about her.”
That Portsmouth was acting like royalty and Charles was indulging in such formalities indicates clearly how much power she had accumulated.
Portsmouth as Politician
Portsmouth’s power as a political player should not be understated. Within the luxuries of her apartments, Portsmouth often hosted guests to the court, such as the Moroccan ambassador, and accommodated the King as he saw to state business. In fact, she was usually by his side, offering an open ear and mind.
Political players made note of this and Portsmouth began weaving a tangled web of alliances. Those who wanted the King’s favour and attention befriended her and she, in turn, kept abreast of court politics. She recognised when favour fell from one courtier to land upon another’s shoulders and followed along. She also picked her allies for her own gains, befriending Lord Danby when he became Lord Treasurer so that her generous pension from the King would not be touched. Her power lay in being a conduit, determining who had access to the King as he remained holed up in her rooms.
Overseas powers also noted her influence. It was not long before ambassadors from her homeland of France began to convince Portsmouth to support their interests. Louis XIV wanted to keep an eye on his cousin King Charles and ensure that Charles acted in his interests on the European stage. Portsmouth could facilitate his desires. In 1680 she was offered £10,000 by the French ambassador to encourage an Anglo-French treaty.
However, Portsmouth had to be careful with how she managed the King and there is little evidence to suggest any French efforts were that successful. She had learnt from her observations and allowed her natural shrewdness to guide how she managed the King. She deferred to his opinion and supported him as a loyal lover would. She was not passive, but she played her cards carefully. This paid off, and in 1682 Portsmouth was sent to France to meet Louis XIV on Charles’ behalf. Incredible when one considers she had no legitimacy as part of the royal family and was in the eyes of her critics, nothing more than a harlot.
French influence came not only in politics but in art too. We have seen how Portsmouth used material luxuries to furnish herself with rooms worthy of a queen, however, there was a distinctive French flavour to this finery.
Evelyn observed this when he visited the Duchess’s apartments:
“Here I saw the new fabric of French tapestry, for design, tenderness of work, and incomparable imitation of the best paintings, beyond anything I had ever beheld. Some pieces had Versailles, St. Germain, and other palaces of the French King, with huntings, figures, and landscapes, exotic fowls, and all to the life rarely done.”
Charles II was the Restoration monarch, seeing the return of the royal family after Oliver Cromwell’s abolition, and he needed to display wealth and assert his divine right to rule. Art and embellishment were vital to this resumption of power. As Painting Illustrated put it: ‘all arts seemed to return from their exile.’
Sir Peter Lely was the dominant force in court painting. His romantic, elegant style, inspired by Van Dyck, was distinctly English. By the time the Duchess of Portsmouth was prominent at court, however, he was floundering under the demand for his works, and the English court was in much need of a new painter with a new style. Enter Henri Gascar.
Gascar had not found much success in the French court and it was upon Portsmouth’s request that he came to England in the early 1670’s. Perhaps they had been acquainted whilst Portsmouth was in the retinue of the Duchess of Orléans and Gascar trying to establish himself at the French court.
Whatever the case, Portsmouth was a kind and generous patron not only having her own portrait painted on numerous occasions but also providing Gascar with connections. He painted predominantly Catholic members of the court, Portsmouth being herself a Catholic. The Duke of York, Barbara Villiers, in each painting Gascar brought glorious opulence in a distinctive French style.
For a time, Gascar even threatened Lely’s predominance with his new, novel, French style of painting. Portsmouth’s power over painting is evident. Jane ‘Jenny’ Myddleton sought his services to elevate her status at court desiring to entice the King whilst also flattering his main mistress with use of ‘her’ painter. Portsmouth’s French style influenced the court and elevated the career of one painter against fierce competition. In a world where art was as much as a weapon of power as politics, Portsmouth wielded her sword stylishly.
Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Henri Gascar, c. 1670.
Such power and prestige came with its dangers, no matter how well Portsmouth played the game. Portsmouth’s French, Catholic blood was a source for derision and dislike for some and hate for others. The rise of satirical prints in England in the 17th-century meant Portsmouth was often the butt of a joke. She also did not garner much affection from the other mistresses at Charles II’s court although these relationships were manageable and Charles’ love for her ensured her safe stability.
However, real danger would come in 1680. This period of Charles’ reign saw the messy business of the Exclusion Crisis. This revolved around panic over the succession. Charles had no legitimate children, making his brother next in line. However, James, Duke of York was Catholic, which caused anxiety. It was worried that, like the French Catholic King Louis XIV, James might potentially rule as an absolute monarch, threatening the democracy of Parliament. Something had to be done, and many were lobbying for Charles’ illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth to become heir.
Portsmouth was once again politically scouted as politicians sought to sway the King to their side. Henry Sidney wrote: “she will be of great use to us, particularly against the Duke of Monmouth,” and that regarding the King, “she hath more power over him than can be imagined.” Portsmouth’s Catholic, French blood made her a focus for those supporting the Duke of York. However, this spotlight would come with a price.
James, Duke of York by Henri Gascar 1672-3.
In June 1680 Portsmouth was accused of High Treason in an article brought to Parliament. The article claimed “she hath laboured to alter and subvert the government of church and state . . . and to introduce popery in the three kingdoms.” She had “placed and displaced great ministers in church and state as she judged might be most serviceable in promoting the French and popish interest.”
Finally, the article claims that “such is her ascendancy over the King that, in her own apartments, she prevailed with the King there to sign and seal warrants for grants of vast sums of money.”
Such serious accusations could not be dismissed, and Portsmouth, utilising her politically shrewd nature, did what she could to save her skin. She dropped her support for the Duke of York and supported the Duke of Monmouth instead.
Despite all of this, it seemed no matter what anyone did, no one could shake Charles II’s love for his beloved mistress. Even when Portsmouth courted a lover in the Duke of Vendôme, Charles blamed it all on the duke and sent him packing back to France. A letter from Charles to Portsmouth, written in 1684, 13 years after she had first become his mistress, Charles wrote:
“I should do my selfe wrong if I tould you that I love you better then all the world besides, for that were making a comparison where ‘tis impossible to express the true passion and kindness I have for my dearest, dearest fubs.”
Charles II died in February 1685, and with his loss came the loss, too, of all of Portsmouth’s power. No longer receiving her pensions from the crown, she retreated back to France and to lands she had been gifted in Aubigny. Navigating the French court after so long away brought some dangers, and she very nearly saw herself exiled after speaking badly about one of Louis XIV’s lovers.
It seems it took Portsmouth some time to regain her footing and realise her new place within court society, no longer a second queen but simply an old lover of a dead monarch.
Portsmouth’s erasure from the English court was as quick as her time by Charles II’s side was long. In 1691, a large fire destroyed her apartments, and she would only ever briefly return to England. She died in Paris in 1734, desperately trying to maintain her financial stability where once she had splashed thousands on fine furnishings and art. It had now all gone up in flames.
Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, was a savvy, sensual, and sophisticated member of the court of Charles II. She understood the important role of luxurious presentation, surrounding herself in riches and commissioning artists such as Henri Gascar.
She cultivated and managed affections with the King that never saw her drop from favour despite challenges in the form of other mistresses and accusations of treason. She even became a political player, making her importance known to people of power both in England and abroad.
Whilst Portsmouth’s rooms might have gone up in flames, the true fire burning in her life was her sense of self. The many paintings that remain, the only tangible connection left of Louise de Kérouaille, are testament to her power.