Whitehall and a most delicate protest

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers). © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Barbara Palmer (née Villiers). © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Today Whitehall is the scene of frequent protests and demonstrations as it is the home of government and decision-makers. However, in the spring of 1662, Whitehall was the setting of a rather different objection – that of a determined woman against her lover.

On 21 May 1662 the famous diarist Samuel Pepys was walking through the Privy Garden of Whitehall Palace. The garden would have spanned an area marked today by Richmond Terrace, the Wales Office, Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office. Strolling along the grass plots and statues, Pepys stumbled across a sight that pleased him so much he recorded it in his diary. He wrote:

“saw the finest smocks and linnen petticoats of my Lady Castlemaine’s, laced with rich lace at the bottom, that ever I saw; and did me good to look upon them.”

The laced underwear belonged to Barbara Villiers, or Lady Castlemaine, who lived in a house at the edge of the palace garden with her husband. She had hung the laundry in the palace grounds to protest the marriage of her lover – King Charles II. As Pepys was discovering the racy undergarments, Charles II was in Portsmouth saying his wedding vows to the new queen, Catherine of Braganza. By placing her smocks in the king’s estate, Barbara was not only objecting to the marriage but making a claim of ownership. The underwear gave her a physical presence within the palace – she was marking her territory.

Reconstruction of Whitehall Palace in the reign of Charles II showing the Privy Garden on the left. Crown Copyright: Historic Royal Palaces.
Reconstruction of Whitehall Palace in the reign of Charles II showing the Privy Garden on the left. Crown Copyright: Historic Royal Palaces.

Undeterred by the marriage, Barbara was determined to maintain her position as royal mistress and to gain superiority over Catherine. The queen was powerless and had to succumb to the appointment of her husband’s courtesan as one of her ladies of the bedchamber. The affair continued and Charles visited Barbara often in her house at the edge of the palace. Pepys wrote how the king “stays till the morning with her, and goes home through the garden all alone privately”. While infatuated with Castlemaine, Pepys condoned the king’s behaviour as a “poor thing for a prince to do”.

In 1663 Barbara moved into the palace so she could be closer to the king. As a resident of the palace, her protests and objections took a different turn – instead of marking her presence in the palace, Barbara now removed herself from Whitehall. When she fought with the king she withdrew from court and the king would almost always follow her and beg for her return.

As she aged, Barbara fell from favour and was moved to a house at the edge of St James’s Park. She was replaced by the famous Restoration actress Nell Gwyn and the French courtier Louise Kerouaille. Nonetheless, Barbara remained the king’s most longstanding and notorious mistress; she had five children by Charles, all of whom were acknowledged and subsequently ennobled. Her fierce personality and great influence over the king meant that she was both feared and admired – not a bad achievement for a pair of linen knickers.

The Lost Palace will bring Whitehall Palace to life again by digitally transforming Whitehall’s modern streets into the rooms, gardens, courtyards and passages of the once great Tudor and Stuart palace. The Lost Palace runs as a new visitor experience at the Banqueting House until 4 September 2016.

Anni Mantyniemi, Curatorial Assistant

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