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Love rats: Three of England’s lustful kings

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When it comes to love, many of the kings of England adopted a ‘sharing is caring’ philosophy – why only woo their wives, or woo them at all, when there were mistresses to be had?

Edward IV

Edward IV shocked the country when he married the widowed commoner Elizabeth Woodville, who already had two sons from her previous marriage, in 1464. He had numerous documented mistresses, perhaps his most famous being Elizabeth “Jane” Shore who is also believed to have carried out affairs with Edward’s stepson, Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset and one of his close friends, William Hastings, 1st Baron Hastings.

Following Edward’s death and Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s rise to power, Jane was charged with conspiracy after she was accused of carrying messages between Hastings and Elizabeth Woodville. Her punishment included open penance at St. Paul’s Cross, London for her promiscuous behaviour, and Richard turned his attention to Lady Eleanor Talbot. Richard claimed that Edward and Eleanor had a legal precontract of marriage, invalidating his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and their son’s claim to the English throne, leading him to take the throne as Richard III. While Richard has been remembered rather unfavourably thanks to William Shakespeare’s portrayal of him, there are many historians who claim Richard wouldn’t have questioned the validity of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth if he hadn’t truly believed a precontract between his brother and Eleanor existed.

Henry VIII

Just in case his six wives weren’t enough, two of whom were (rather hypocritically) executed for alleged adultery, this infamous Tudor king also took several mistresses during the early years of his reign. Unlike many of the other king’s affairs, which were generally short-lived and unacknowledged, his affair with Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount lasted for some time and resulted in the birth of the only illegitimate son Henry every acknowledged, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Not long after this, the king set Bessie aside – possibly because he’d already set his eye on Mary Boleyn.

Though she would eventually be Henry’s sister-in-law following his second (and doomed) marriage to Anne Boleyn, Mary was Henry’s mistress first and their relationship would later be used to claim that his marriage to Anne was incestuous and therefore invalid. There is some belief that two of Mary’s children, Catherine and Henry Carey, were the king’s children, but the king himself never acknowledged them.

Of his six wives, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard all caught his eye while serving as ladies-in-waiting to the queen who preceded them. For the most part he seemed to have been content in his sixth marriage to Catherine Parr, but some historians believe he may have been considering setting Catherine aside to marry Katherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, the widow of his best friend.

Charles II

Charles II is believed to have had around 14 children – none of them with his wife, the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. Catherine was unpopular in England due to her Roman Catholic beliefs, but Charles refused to divorce her and seemed to have a genuine fondness for her. That didn’t stop him from engaging in several affairs, though.

His relationship with the Welsh Lucy Walter resulted in the birth of one of his many acknowledged illegitimate children, James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, who would later use a legend that Charles and Lucy had secretly married to attempt to depose his uncle, James II, and take the throne for himself. Unfortunately for James Scott, the Monmouth Rebellion failed and he was beheaded for treason in 1685.

The beautiful Barbara Villiers was one of Charles’s longest-standing mistresses, their relationship lasting 14 years and resulting in five children, and managed to obtain so much political power during this time that she was known by some as ‘The Uncrowned Queen’. Perhaps the king’s most famous mistress, however, was Nell Gwyn, who rose from orange-seller to actress to mistress during her lifetime, and jokingly referred to the king as ‘her Charles the Third’ because of her previous relationships with Charles Hart and Charles Sackville.

Nell shared the king’s attentions with Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, who was rumoured to be a French spy and was also incredibly unpopular in England for her faith and her nationality. Louise was eventually replaced in Charles’s affections by Hortense Mancini. Known as the ‘Italian Whore’ in England, she was known to have a penchant for cross-dressing and is believed to have been bisexual due to evidence pointing to a sexual relationship between her and Anne, Countess of Sussex, who was one of Charles’s illegitimate children by Barbara Villiers.

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