Everyone knows of King Charles II as ‘the merry monarch’, with his perky Cockney mistress, Nell Gwyn. We think of a Court life of gaiety and romance; portraits of the time depict glamorous figures flamboyant in silks, satin and ruffles, with flowing, lustrous locks (and that’s just the men,let alone the Court beauties); records list astonishing displays of wealth, often earned in bed or drawn from extensive estates, taxes and royal gifts.
Nevertheless, for all its glamour, the glittering Court life was also an amoral world of catch-as-catch-can greed and sexual predation. Samuel Pepys reported the King dancing to a popular song of the time, ‘Cuckolds All A-Row’, which epitomised the cheery, heartless sexual merry-go-round of a revived, arrogant but uncertain aristocracy, where traditional forms and codes of behaviour were hollowed out by a rapacious selfishness.
Drawing extensively on lively, contemporary writings, from the scandalised observations of Samuel Pepys, the fascinated and amused reports of foreign courtiers and visitors, and, particularly, the many witty satires and bawdy lampoons on Court life written by courtiers themselves, Scandalous Liaisons explores the varied and often surprising love-lives and intrigues of the Court’s great and not-so-great.
Charles’s own sex-life is traced from his early years in France and first important mistress, young Lucy Walter (mother of the future Duke of Monmouth), and his stormy relationship with the outrageous, insatiable Mrs Barbara Palmer, who defeated his poor, childless wife, Catherine of Braganza, to go on to become, many lovers later, Duchess of Cleveland. In the ‘Court of Love’ (or ‘great bawdy-house’, as the City apprentices called it) James, Duke of York (later King James II) led the way, despite his inappropriate marriage, with relentless pursuit (sometimes with disastrous results) of willing wives and Maids of Honour. Here, too,the brilliant Duke of Buckingham had probably the only true love-affair in the book, wrecked by his fatal duel with the cuckold husband.
The King’s obsessive pursuit of beautiful young Frances Stuart is interwoven with his struggles with the ever-demanding, self-willed Barbara, and stories of his later mistresses, the extravagant, bisexual Italian, Countess Mazarin, the ever-popular, irrepressible actress, Nell Gwyn, and the rapacious (the French King’s not very secret agent) Louise de Keroualle, perhaps at the end, his favourite.
With its diverse, sometimes comic and occasionally shocking stories, amplified by the ribald verses and satires that showed what people rally thought about what was going on, Scandalous Liaisons provides an entertaining and illuminating view of a hedonistic culture, remarkable even in its own time for its excess. To quote a famous Victorian review of Antony and Cleopatra, ‘How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen.’