Tuesday, 14 February 2017

St Valentine's day: Love and death for the Merry Monarch, Charles II

Pierre Mignard painted this flattering portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Charles II's French Catholic mistress, in 1682 in Paris; some years later he became Louis XIV's first painter.
The distinctive blue sleeves may have been from a studio prop, and the negro child, the coral, nautilus shell, and the pearls all contrast with Louise's pearly skin, and also hint at the "vanitas" of earthly love.


Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth,   Perre Mignard, 1682
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles II had many mistresses - or "Valentines",  over the years, most famously English-born Nell Gwyn, and it was her rival Louise de Keroualle she was referring to, in her famous quip "I am the Protestant whore!" during a period of anti-Catholic demonstrations.

There were constant rumours that the King himself was a closet Catholic, and almost certainly died as such on 6th February 1685.   It was to avoid such anti-Catholic disturbances that Charles II was quietly buried between eight and nine at night on St Valentine's Day, 14th February 1685, as John Evelyn recounts:

"the King was [this night] very obscurely buried in a vault under Hen: 7th Chapell in Westminster, without any manner of pomp, and soone forgotten after all this vainity, & the face of the whole Court exceedingly changed into a more solemn and moral behaviour: The new King affecting neither Prophanesse, nor bouffonry:  All the Greate Officers broke their white-Staves on the Grave &c: according to form:"  Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E.S. De Beer


Henry VII's Chapel, © Westminster Abbey

Evelyn's friend, Samuel Pepys, whose Diary tells us so much about Charles II and his Court in the 1660s,  also records Valentine's Day merrymaking, a mixture or romance, sex, and 'bouffonry'.  It was the custom for groups of friends to draw lots for their Valentines for the forthcoming year, and give their ladies gifts. John Locke writes to his Oxford valentine in 1659: "I have an overflow of happiness and honour in being yours though a Lottery made me soe, and you have given no small proofs of an excellent and obliging nature in accepting such a trifle from the hand of fortune. "

You were also expected to take as your Valentine the first person of the opposite sex whom you saw that morning:
"14. St.  Valentine. 
This morning comes betimes Dicke Pen[n] to be my wife's valentine, and came to our bedside.  By the same token I had him brought to my side, thinking to have made him kiss me, but he perceived me and would not. So went to his Valentine -- a notable, stout, witty boy.  I up, about business; and opening the door, there was Bagwell's wife, with whom I talked afterwards and she had the confidence to say she came with a hope to be time enough to be my Valentine, and so endeed she did -- but my oath preserved me from losing any time with her."  Samuel Pepys, Diary 1665

In May 1660, Pepys sailed with Edward Lord Montague to the Hague, part of the  convoy to bring King Charles and his brother James back to England, where Pepys was presented to the King, his brother James, Duke of York and their sister Mary, the Princess Royal.  Before this, Charles and his attendants in exile had been living in penury, " in a sad, poor condition for clothes and money…their clothes not being worth 40s., the best of them".

Here is Charles as Prince of Wales with his siblings in happier times, with on the left in the painting Princess Mary, whose son would reign as William III, and Charles' brother James, still in long skirts, who would succeed Charles as King James II, in February 1685.

The five eldest children of Charles I,  copy after Anthony Van Dyck 1637
© National Portrait Gallery

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