Lucy Walter: Charles II’s Scandalous Mistress in Exile
You’ve probably heard of Charles II. He was, so I hear, quite popular with the ladies. But have you heard of his first mistress, Lucy Walter?
Lucy Walter was Charles II’s lover during his years in exile, and although she can’t claim to be only woman that he slept with, she does have a claim as his first ‘proper’ mistress, rather than just a fling. She was beautiful and bold, and her story is just as fascinating as those of Charles’ later mistresses.
Lucy Walter was a Welsh woman; born in about 1630, making her a similar age to Charles II himself. William Walter was local gentry, but his wife Elizabeth came from a wealthy family, boasting an impressive dowry and aristocratic connections. Despite this promising background, Walter and Elizabeth didn’t have a happy marriage and had separated by the time Lucy was around 11 years old.
Elizabeth claimed that Walter was frequently unfaithful, forced her to take in his illegitimate children as servants, and assaulted her when she protested. At first, Elizabeth was granted financial support to raise Lucy and her siblings in London, even during the chaos of the English Civil War, but after six years Walter counter-sued, accusing Elizabeth instead of adultery and abandonment. This time, the courts found in his favour.
Lucy appears to have spent some of her formative years between Wales and London, but aged around 18 she decided to take her chances elsewhere, and followed the trail of the exiled court of Prince Charles, based at the time in Holland.
Mistress to a Prince
The Walter family were staunch Royalists during the English Civil War – their main home in Wales, Roche Castle, had even been destroyed by Parliamentarian forces – so it made sense for Lucy to join the exiled court. She had also apparently spent her teenage years in London learning how to use her beauty and charm to effective use on men.
Lucy Walter was known for being dark, beautiful and fun, although several writers at the time commented on her lack of education or wit. Lucy might not have been the cleverest or most educated woman, but she certainly wasn’t stupid. From her arrival at the Hague, she was linked to several wealthy men, until she caught the eye of the Prince.
Charles II was a prince in exile, having fled during the final years of the English Civil War. He had already had several sexual liaisons with various women, and was very much living in the moment. Lucy Walter was the perfect diversion.
It’s not clear how long their affair actually was – Linda Porter suggests it could even have been as little as a few nights together – but the most important part of their fling was that it left Lucy pregnant. It would be this that then tied her to Charles for many years to come.
Charles and Lucy were still living at the Hague when he found out the news of his father’s execution. On 5 February 1649, Charles II was declared king in Edinburgh, and just 9 weeks later, Lucy Walter gave birth to the king’s first illegitimate child (Charles would go on to have 14 children with several women, excluding his wife).
Charles now had a son who could not be an heir (because he was a bastard) and a crown but no country. He was in a weird, uncomfortable position, and although he had already begun to distance himself from Lucy, she was about to spend the next few years not making things any easier.
Charles II and his embarrassing ex
Things didn’t go downhill immediately. Although Charles was clearly not interested in continuing his relationship with Lucy, he claimed her son as his own, and allowed her to move to Paris with his court. Rumours swirled that they had secretly married – something that Charles had to continue to deny for years to come. Despite tales of Lucy’s ‘black box’, where she allegedly stored their marriage certificate and other documents, it’s unlikely that Charles would have married her.
Lucy was seeking financial security, while Charles II’s main mission seemed to be to keep her at arms length, fobbing her off with empty promises of support. She moved away from Paris, and had several relationships with older men, including Viscount Theodore Taafe, who acted as her protector, and apparently with Sir Henry de Vic. De Vic even wanted to marry Lucy, but the king apparently refused permission.
By 1656, Lucy was seen as an embarrassment, a scandal and damaging to the royal cause. His family put pressure on Charles II; he clearly found her behaviour mortifying but didn’t want to confront her. So instead, he asked her former lover, Theodore Taafe, to ask Lucy to leave the Hague quietly. Lucy refused.
Lucy’s scandalous behaviour was damaging to Charles in two ways. The first was that it provided the Puritan government under Cromwell with plenty of propaganda to show that the Royal Court was full of sin, vice and hypocrisy. The second was because Charles II was a pauper king, reliant on financial handouts from other, more proper European rulers, like the straight-laced Spanish king, Philip. Lucy, racketing around having illicit sexual relationships and illegitimate children, was not someone he wanted to be associated with.
He set spies on her, in particular Daniel O’Neill, who soon reported back to Charles II with tales of Lucy’s behaviour, including her scandalous fling with Thomas Howard and the shocking information that her maid was willing to go public with stories that Lucy had had 2 abortions.
While the affair with Thomas Howard did happen, it’s unclear whether he was dangled in front of Lucy to deliberately cause a scandal, or if the maid’s story was true. By this point, O’Neill was not the only person to want to neutralise Lucy’s chaotic impact on the king’s reputation; even his sister, Princess Mary, was actively against her. But then Lucy made an unexpected decision: she went back to England.
The Tower of London
Before Lucy left for England, she was paid a visit by the King. Why he did this, how it came about, and what actually happened remains a mystery. But Charles II visited his former mistress in Antwerp for ‘a day and a night’ according to Lucy’s maid, and then after that, Lucy was back in London, possibly to contest her recently deceased mother’s will.
Lucy definitely arrived in the capital with an interesting group: her brother, the formidably named Justus, her illegitimate son by the deposed heir to the throne, her illegitimate daughter (father unknown), and her married lover, Thomas Howard. They arrived in Cromwellian London and set up house under the guise of being the family of a dead sea captain: a ruse that lasted all of five minutes. Within two weeks, Lucy and her family were chucked in the Tower of London.
Once imprisoned, Lucy was questioned about her relationship with Charles II, and the parentage of her son. Lucy remained loyal to the king, and lied, claiming she hadn’t seen Charles for several years, and that the son she had given him had died – that the boy she had with her was the son of her dead Dutch sea captain husband. It was a brave lie, especially as she was being questioned by John Barkstead (who was a big fan of cutting Charles I’s head off) and because they apparently found a pension warrant with the royal seal amongst her belongings. In the end, it didn’t matter. Her maid blabbed everything.
Cromwell and his advisors now had to decide what to do with Lucy. They came to the conclusion that only was she not a Royalist spy, but that she would probably do more damage to Charles’ cause by racketing around Europe, rather than anything much they did with her. So they packed her off back to mainland Europe.
Kidnapping the King’s son
Cromwell bet correctly when he thought that Lucy might be more damaging to Charles II by releasing her back into Europe. First, her affair with Thomas Howard fizzled out and, broke, she sold most of the possessions in her house. Unfortunately, Thomas then disputed Lucy’s right to sell those items, arguing that they belonged to him. Furious, in 1657 Lucy asked her cousin, newly arrived to Europe, to take action. He first challenged Thomas Howard to a duel. Thomas told him to clear off. So then the cousin decided to try and assassinate Thomas, and botched that, only injuring his arm.
Lucy was also in some kind of dispute with a wine merchant – the details are unknown – and ended up in jail. And by autumn or winter of 1657, Lucy was once again threatening to publish letter sent to her by the king. Charles II had to act. And his first priority was to get hold of his son.
It’s uncertain as to why he didn’t just ask Lucy for custody. It’s possible he did, and she said no. But either way, the king felt that his way forward was essentially to kidnap his own son.
By Winter 1657, this wasn’t a new concept. As early as 1650, when James was only a year or so old, there had been a plot to kidnap the son of the King. Lucy was enticed to Rotterdam fair, and while she was gone, her son was taken. When Lucy returned, she was devastated, running out into the streets, crying and tearing at her hair.
Lucy soon began to make more logical plans, riding to the port of Maassluis, where she thought her son might have been taken to in order to be shipped back to England. She stood there, throwing gold coins into the water, screaming that the child of a king had been kidnapped, and made a huge scene. Sadly, her son wasn’t there, but ten days later he was found, perfectly safe, with two of the king’s men. Lucy regained her son.
But by 1657, patience had worn too thin with her. In December 1657, Lucy and her children were lodging with the king’s friend, Sir Arthur Slingsbury. He attempted to calmly remove Lucy from her son, but she, recognising the importance of public noise, ran out in the streets weeping and screaming for her son. Her behaviour was a huge embarrassment, but she kept James again.
The next time, Lucy was not so lucky. In April 1658, Lucy was distracted in another part of the house, while 9-year old James was quietly taken away. When she realised he had gone, she wasted no time in trying to find him; heading first to Brussels, and then following him to Paris. James was kept under the care of several people that Charles trusted, including his own mother, Henrietta Maria, but he would never see Lucy again.
After she lost her son, Lucy Walter faded fast. Once he had his son, Charles II instantly cut any contact with his former lover, and she died in December 1658, alone.
She is remembered for her scandals and embarrassments; and for the son she had and lost. James was made the Duke of Monmouth by Charles II, and eventually tried to overthrow his uncle, James II, but failed and was executed for his rebellion. It feels a fitting, if grim, end to the son who the scandalous Lucy once pinned so many hopes on.
If you’d like to read more about Lucy, I’d recommend these two books:
Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II: Linda Porter
The King’s Bed: Sex, Power and the Court of Charles II: Don Jordan and Michael Walsh
If you’d like to know more about scandalous women, you should check out these posts
Let me know what you think of Lucy, and if there’s any other scandalous women you want to know more about below!
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