Thursday, May 7, 2015

The First Duke of St Albans: His Early Years

by Margaret Porter

On this date, the eighth of May, in 1670 actress Nell Gwyn bore a son and named him Charles—for his father, whose identity was no secret. As one letter-writer reported, "Elianor Quin, one that belongs to the King’s play hous, was brought to bed of a boy in her house in Lyncoln’s Inns fields . . . the King’s bastard.” Unlike the other illegitimate offspring, the infant had no surname and no title. Within months the royal mistress returned to the stage, for she received no income from the royal purse. Before long her protector provided a grand new residence close to St. James’s Palace and its gardens, which he eventually deeded to her.

When the court painter Peter Lely portrayed her on canvas as Venus, her little son was included in the portrait as Cupid, kneeling at her side. The next time she posed as the goddess of love, she was attended by a pair of cherubs—she had borne a second son.

The boys wore the costliest of children’s garments and had a pet donkey in the garden which provided milk for His Majesty's bastards. In his sixth year, young Charles received at last from his father a surname—Beauclerk—and a pair of titles, Baron Heddington and Earl of Burford. At age 10 he became an only child again after his little brother died at school in France. Despite this tragedy, Charles was also sent there for his education, academic and social. On his birthday in 1683 he was presented to King Louis XIV—his cousin—and was at that time described as “le duc de Saint-Alban, fils du roi d’Angleterre et de Mademoiselle Gouin, comédienne.” His father had bestowed the dukedom earlier that year. He divided his time between England and France, for in March of the following year John Evelyn observed him at the Royal Chapel, and his mother wrote from Burford House, her mansion in Windsor, “The Duke brought me down with him my crochet of diamonds, and I love it the better because he brought it.”

In February 1685 the fates of Charles and his mother altered drastically. The young man received a ring from his dying father, and was still in London six weeks later, when the Gazette reported, “Lost in the King’s Garden near St. James's Park, a black and white Spaniel Bitch, near a year old, her Legs white, with some mottled black Spots, most white about her Neck, with a little white up her Face, and the top of her Tail white. Whoever brings her to the Duke of St. Albans in the Pall-Mall, shall have a Guinea reward.” Perhaps the runaway spaniel was another legacy from the King, who was remarkably devoted to his dogs.

By November Charles had resumed his studies at L’Académie du Sieur Coulon near Versailles, where in 1686 he contracted smallpox and promptly recovered.His education was intended to prepare him for a career in the military—his elder half-brothers had served with distinction in the army. But he was also attending balls in his spare time, for early in 1687, Princess Anne wrote to her sister Princess Mary in Holland to report her fondness for a dance “called the Rigadoon which the D[uke] of St Albans brought out of France . . . mightily liked and indeed it was a very pretty one I thought.” But soon thereafter she reported with regret, "I have no reason to like it now, for I believe it was the dance that made me miscarry, for there is a great deal of jumping in it.”

His mother had been suffering from ill health for some time, and after a period of prolonged illness during 1687, she died in November. Unaware of the extent of her debts, everyone assumed that Charles inherited a vast fortune. At the end of the month his uncle, King James II, wrote to his daughter Mary, “she hath not left the Duke of St. Albans so much as was believed.” James had settled the mortgage on Bestwood Park, the Nottinghamshire hunting lodge King Charles had granted Nell, but her income had never adequately supported her spendthrift ways and lavish lifestyle. Unlike the other royal mistresses, she had made no financial demands of the King. His widow, Dowager Queen Catherine, was fond enough of Charles Beauclerk to provide him with an allowance of £2000 per year to augment his other stipends from the Privy Purse.

Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St Albans
As the product of an irregular liaison between a monarch and a play actress, a proud young man, and a firm Protestant, Charles would not have felt comfortable at a newly Roman Catholic court. He’d firmly resisted King James’s unrelenting efforts to bring about his conversion. Apparently the prospect of becoming a soldier was more to his liking, and he not only received his uncle’s permission to return to the Continent for that purpose, he received a recommendation. Shortly before Charles’s eighteenth birthday, King James wrote in French to the Duke of Lorraine declaring his nephew’s interest in supporting the war against the Turks, who had recently been driven from Vienna but now occupied Hungary.

And there the Duke of St. Albans would seize the opportunity to escape the shadow of scandal cast by his parents and begin to establish his own identity and reputation.
Images: National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

Sources: Manuscript Letters in the British Library; The London Gazette; Oxford Dictionary of English Biography; Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King by Charles Beauclerk; Right Royal Bastards: The Fruits of Passion by Peter Beauclerk-Dewar and Roger Powell; The House of Nell Gwyn by Peter Beauclerk-Dewar; Journal de Philippe de Courcillon de Dangeau.


Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of several historical fiction genres, and is also published in nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, was recently released in trade paperback and ebook. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.


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