Portrait of Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709), with her son Charles FitzRoy, 2nd Duke of Cleveland (1662-1730).
Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, Charles Fitzroy, as Madonna and Child. After Peter Lely, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

My second “secret family” is directly responsible for several of Fitzrovia’s street names, and ultimately for the tag applied to the whole area in the 1940s. Community activists and property developers alike have reason to be grateful to Barbara Villiers for having unwittingly created the affectionate term “Fitzrovia”.

FitzRoy is an Anglo-Norman name meaning “son of the king”, generally attached to a monarch’s illegitimate children. And our local heroine Barbara produced quite a number of these in the course of her eventful career.

Barbara’s royal children were never a very closely guarded secret. But Catherine of Braganza certainly knew nothing about them when she made the journey from Lisbon to London in 1662 to marry King Charles II. At that point Barbara was about to give birth to her second child, the first to be acknowledged by Charles as his own. The news that her lover was soon to be joined in wedlock to a princess from Portugal threw her into a fit of temper. While the ship carrying Catherine to Portsmouth was still en route, Barbara announced her intention of staging the birth of her baby at Hampton Court Palace. If she was successful, then the happy event must have coincided with Charles’ and Catherine’s honeymoon in the same riverside location. The King’s liaison with Barbara was to continue for several years, in what by then was an established royal tradition. To add insult to injury, Charles also appointed Barbara as his new bride’s Lady of the Bedchamber, probably to keep his mistress both sweet, and close at hand.

Barbara Villiers was born in 1640, the only child of William Villiers, Lord Grandison, and his young wife Mary. Grandison died in 1643 after being wounded at the battle of Newbury while fighting in the Royalist cause. Barbara had grown up to be a beauty, with long auburn curls and violet-blue eyes. But as the daughter of a man who had backed the losing side in the English Civil War, she had little in the way of influence or fortune, and had difficulty attracting a suitable husband. Charles I had been executed and his son and heir was living in exile on the Continent. After Oliver Cromwell was sworn in as Lord Protector in 1653 Barbara’s uncle Edward Villiers became involved in a conspiracy called the Sealed Knot, whose mission was to foment an uprising in England and bring about the restoration of the monarchy. Barbara meanwhile began a passionate affair with the Earl of Chesterfield, and then in 1659 married a Royalist supporter called Roger Palmer, who disregarded his father’s prediction that his intended bride would make him one of the most miserable men in the world. At the end of the year, with the return of Charles II already on the cards, she and her husband set sail for the Netherlands with other would-be courtiers to demonstrate their Royalist fervour. Barbara probably succeeded in becoming Charles’s mistress before he ever set foot on the shores of his kingdom.

At Court it was generally believed that Barbara Villiers possessed a good deal of power over the King. Opinion was sharply divided as to whether she should be cultivated, or manoeuvred out of the way. On one level this is pure Restoration comedy; but we ought also to bear in mind that in 1649 Charles’s father had been sent to the scaffold for wielding power in an unconstitutional manner. Now, according to some, the new king was being ruled by a woman who was little more than a whore. It wasn’t long before someone at Court went to the trouble of letting Queen Catherine in on the secret of just how far her Lady of the Bedchamber’s duties in the Palace extended. Samuel Pepys, on the other hand, the Clerk to the Navy Board, was one of Barbara’s most ardent admirers. One day while walking through the Privy Garden in Whitehall he caught sight of some of her lacy smocks and petticoats hanging on a washing-line: “The finest … that ever I saw,” he wrote in his Diary, “and did me good to look upon them.”

The child who was born to Barbara in 1662 was christened Charles, in two separate ceremonies. Roger Palmer had arranged for the baby to be baptised into his own Roman Catholic faith. Six days later, in St. Margaret’s Westminster, he was re-christened into the Church of England with both Barbara and the King in attendance. Palmer at that point separated from his wife, who between 1663 and 1665 went on to present Charles with three further children — Henry, Charlotte and George FitzRoy. In 1670, when the King was finally planning to shunt Barbara aside to make room for his new love Nell Gwynn, he awarded her the title Duchess of Cleveland. This is commemorated in the name of a street built over 100 years later along a former farm track marking the western limit of the Tottenhall Manor Estate. Back in 1685 the Earl of Arlington had left this Estate to his daughter Lady Isabella Benet, who since the age of four had been married to Barbara Villiers’ second son Henry Fitzroy. Today Cleveland Street still straddles a boundary, between the modern boroughs of Camden and Westminster.

At the time of his marriage nine-year-old Henry Fitzroy was created the Earl of Euston, and three years later he became the Duke of Grafton. His son Charles, the 2nd Duke, took over the lease of the Tottenhall Estate from his mother Isabella when she died in 1723, making him the owner of the land that was later to form the northern part of Fitzrovia. It was Charles’s grandson, another Charles (great-great-grandson of Barbara) who actually gave the go-ahead to the development of the area in the 1760s, when he purchased the Manor’s freehold from the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s. The Act of Parliament confirming this transfer was signed by his older brother Augustus, the 3rd Duke of Grafton, who at the time was the Prime Minister. This particular Charles Fitzroy, incidentally, was married to a woman called Anne Warren, the daughter of Admiral Sir Peter Warren. Charles was also Vice-Chamberlain to Queen Charlotte, which probably gave rise to yet another of our street names.

Though Barbara Villiers never lived to benefit from the enormous profits which her sex life had generated, she did emerge from her relationship with Charles as quite a wealthy woman.  She went on to have affairs with a whole string of men, including several aristocrats, an acrobat and an actor. She gave birth to her last child when she was 45, and in 1705 married a notorious chancer named Beau Feilding, who was later prosecuted for bigamy when his existing wife complained to Barbara’s grandson the 2nd Duke of Grafton. Barbara herself died in 1709 at the age of 68.

To us her life may seem rather wild and desperate, but Barbara probably enjoyed herself a good deal more than the Queen whose existence she had blighted from the moment her ship docked in Portsmouth Harbour. Though Charles was in some ways quite loyal to Catherine, he soon made it clear that she was going to have to tolerate not only his love affairs but also the daily companionship of his mistresses. The Queen’s Roman Catholicism and her failure, after three miscarriages, to furnish Charles with any legitimate children made her the target of a wave of unpleasant intrigue at Court. Eventually this lack of an heir was to lead to yet another constitutional crisis. Charles died in 1685 and was succeeded by his brother James II. In the 1688 Revolution which ousted him from the throne, one of the men who died fighting on the side of the Protestants William and Mary was Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Grafton, aged just  27.

Personally I have mixed feelings about Barbara Villiers, but one thing seems clear. In the pleasure-seeking court of King Charles II both sexes enjoyed the freedom to engage in extra-marital affairs. For women, however, this lifestyle was only an option if they were beautiful and young. Some of them certainly acquired wealth and a degree of influence as a result. But in the process they also lost respect. The term most consistently applied to Barbara in the seventeenth century was ‘Royal Whore’.  Surely today she deserves to be celebrated in a different guise, as the Not-quite-Queen-Mother of Fitzrovia.

There are four portraits of Barbara Villiers in an excellent exhibition at Hampton Court, called “The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned”, which runs until 30 September 2012. In one of them (pictured above) she is shown in a “Madonna and Child” pose with her eldest son Charles Fitzroy.

Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies. sueblundell.com