Rosamund de Clifford, nicknamed “Fair Rosamund” because of her gorgeous good-looks, she was a merchant’s daughter who became the longest-lasting mistress of King Henry II, the relentlessly ambitious monarch who ruled a vast European empire between 1154 and 1189. Henry’s marriage to the glamorous Eleanor of Aquitaine broke down during Rosamund’s time as his mistress, leading to rumours that the Queen had been driven mad by jealousy of her younger rival and even tried to poison her. Stories later circulated that Henry had hidden his adulterous love interest in a manor house surrounded by an impenetrable maze to save her from his wife’s wrath. Most of these stories were nonsense, however, and it was politics that prompted Eleanor to betray her husband during the rebellions against him. Enshrined in legend as the archetypal fair yet fallen woman, Rosamund later repented of her adultery with the King and retreated to a community of nuns living near Oxford. She died of natural causes in her late twenties.
Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall was a spectacularly handsome young man who captured the heart of the future King Edward II. Edward’s elderly father took a dim view of his son’s romantic proclivities and banished Gaveston, only to relent in the face of entreaties from the prince’s stepmother, Queen Marguerite, who was moved by the young men’s plight. When Edward became king in 1307, his obsessive love for Gaveston alienated many members of the nobility when Gaveston was elevated to the position of Earl of Cornwall, a title formerly reserved mainly for members of the royal family. Whether Edward and Piers were ever lovers in the fullest sense of the word is still debated, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that they were. Regardless of the exact nature of their relationship, Piers was inextricably linked in aristocratic minds to Edward’s drive towards absolutism and to weaken the King he was kidnapped and murdered in 1312.
Jane Shore was actually christened Elizabeth and like Rosamund de Clifford, she was a merchant’s daughter. From an early age she apparently mimicked the behaviour of her father’s wealthy patrons meaning that later in life she could pass for an aristocrat or a member of the gentry. Her prettiness and poise brought her to the attention of the womanising King Edward IV, who was already married to the spectacularly beautiful Elizabeth Woodville. Jane was said to be witty and charming, but she did herself no favours by also carrying on an affair with the King’s stepson, the Marquess of Dorset, and with Lord Hastings. When Edward died in 1483, Dorset was executed by the new monarch Richard III who also arranged for Jane to be paraded through the streets of London as penance for her promiscuity and then had her detained at Ludgate prison. Irrepressible to the end, she caught the attention of a solicitor, who married her and provided her with a comfortable lifestyle to the end of her days.
Elizabeth Blount served in the household of Queen Katherine of Aragon when she was seduced by King Henry VIII. Beautiful and interested in the arts, Bessie’s long-term historical significance was assured when she produced the King with his only illegitimate son, Henry, who was later created Duke of Richmond and Somerset and set-up nearly as a rival to his legitimate half-sister, the Princess Mary. After the King had tired of her, Blount was married off to a minor member of the gentry before briefly resurrecting her career at Court two decades later, when she served as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne of Cleves. She retired not long after and died in her late thirties or early forties.
Anne Boleyn. The stunning youngest daughter of the heir-apparent to the Irish earldom of Ormonde was French-educated and possessed of a haze of charm. She is perhaps the most famous “other woman” in history but she was not, technically, a royal mistress – if the litmus test of that position is an active sex life with the King. Anne and Henry’s decision to wait until marriage stunned their contemporaries and raised the incredulity of others. Their relationship was the driving force behind England’s initial break with the spiritual authority of the Vatican and the birth of the Church of England in the 1530s. Anne’s time as consort was no less controversial than her time as “mistress,” with the new Queen polarising political opinion. She was executed on 19th May 1536 after she was framed on charges of high treason, incest and adultery. Her only surviving child later became Queen Elizabeth I.
Jane Seymour was Henry’s third wife, but he began pursuing her while his second was still alive. Queen Anne Boleyn even went so far as to blame stress over Jane Seymour for her miscarriage in January 1536. Whether Jane and the King ever slept together before marrying eleven days after Anne Boleyn’s death is unclear, but as queen, Jane behaved like a model of propriety. She exerted zero political influence but was remembered as a successful consort after giving birth to the future King Edward VI in 1537, in a gruelling labour that tragically resulted in her death.
Catherine Howard was the teenage granddaughter of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk who was brought to London in late 1539 to serve the new queen, Anne of Cleves. Attractive and vivacious, Catherine almost immediately attracted the attention of the ageing and corpulent King Henry VIII. By Easter, their liaison was public knowledge and the couple married within weeks of the King’s divorce. Catherine was executed on 13th February 1542 amid allegations of adultery; three others were executed for complicity with her.
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham was the last of James I’s lovers. James’s public condemnations of sodomy were not quite borne out in his passionate letters to the handsome young George, in which he expressed his admiration for the young man’s muscular legs. George was rapidly elevated through the ranks of the English aristocracy, earning him the enmity of half the country. When James died in 1625, Buckingham managed to retain royal favour by ingratiating himself with his dead lover’s son, the new King Charles I. Although there was no hint of a sexual relationship between the pair, Buckingham’s friendship with Charles proved every bit as unpopular. He was assassinated by a Puritan fundamentalist in 1628 to the barely-concealed joy of Charles’s French queen, Henrietta-Maria. He was later immortalised in literature as a lead character in the 19th century novel "The Three Musketeers."
Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine was one of Charles II’s tribe of mistresses, but the only one to cause his Portuguese wife, Queen Catherine of Braganza, real distress. Greedy, spiteful and interfering, Barbara took a delight in humiliating the Queen wherever she could and she also alienated the King by taking a string of lovers of her own, then trying to pass her illegitimate children off as the King’s. Sickened by her greed and exhausted by her quarrels, the King eventually dismissed her, by which point she had become the most unpopular woman in Britain.
Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk was hard of hearing but said to be very funny. The mistress of King George II, Henrietta actually got on quite well with the Queen, Caroline of Ansbach, who was able to retain her political influence over the King and generally seemed to find Henrietta a good influence on her husband. Remembered as “a reasonable woman,” she later separated from her husband and married the son of the Earl of Berkeley in 1735. Immortalised in “The Heart of Midlothian” and (some say) in “The Rape of the Lock,” Henrietta retired to land on the banks of the Thames, where she lived in Marble Hill House. She died in 1767, at the age of seventy-eight.
Lillie Langtry was the indisputably gorgeous daughter of a Channel Islands pastor with a rather chequered private life. She became a famous theatre actress who embarked upon an affair with Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future King Edward VII. Known for her beauty, charm and lively personality, she was also briefly involved with Prince Louis of Battenberg. Bored and irritated by the modern world, she died in Monte Carlo in 1929, aged seventy-five.