Royal Mistresses: Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester

'Good God, who would have thought that we three whores should have met here!'

The Countess of Dorchester , mistress of James Ii on encountering the Duchess of Portsmouth ,mistress of Charles II, and the Countess of Orkney, mistress of William III, at the coronation of George I, October 20, 1714

Poor James II, he gets no love, not from his people, his daughters, or from biographers. And the same for his mistresses as well, apart from Anne Hyde, the daughter of the Earl of Clarendon, who he married in 1660 after being forced into it by his brother Charles II, who took the view that James 'must drink as he has brewed.' Over the 11 years of their most unhappy marriage, she bore him 8 children, only two of whom lived, the future Mary II, and Queen Anne.

But James had many mistresses, in fact he was as big of a rake as his brother Charles II. He was taller, handsomer, if somewhat dimmer than his brother. While Charles was swarthy, favoring his Bourbon ancestors, James was fair. Perhaps we don't hear as much about his mistresses, because for the most part, they didn't dazzle the court the way that Charles II's did. Not for James II, a Nell Gwyn, or a Barbara Castlemaine. No James liked them young and plain for the most part, most of his mistresses were in their teens, at least at the start of the relationship. His taste in woman was catholic, if they were willing, then he was able. His brother Charles II once remarked on both the quality and quantity of his brother's conquests, encouraging the joke that James was given his mistresses by his priests as a penance! Although some of James's mistresses were known for being beautiful, such as the Countess of Chesterfield, and Susan, Lady Belasyse, it was the uglier ones that seemed to last the longest.

His first major mistress was Arabella Churchill, the daughter of Sir Winston Churchill and sister of John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough. Arabella was seventeen when she was appointed a maid of honor to the first Duchess of York, and their relationship continued even through his remarriage to Mary of Modena. Unlike the Duchess, who after her years of trying to bear a boy had gotten fat, Arabella was tall, pale-faced and nothing but skin and bones. 'That ugly skeleton Churchill' was how she was described. However, the Duke had seen her fall off a horse, and was enchanted to find that she had a great set of gams. 'He could hardly believe the limbs of such exquisate beauty should belong to Miss Churchill's face.'
Their affair lasted twelve years, until she got too old (she was almost thirty when the affair ended), and the Duke needed to find greener pastures. She gave him four children, two boys and two girls. Her son James FitzJames, 1st Duke of Berwick, became the ancestor of the Spanish Dukes of Alba. Her daughter Henrietta FitzJames married the Earl of Waldegrave (the late Princess of Wales was one of her descendents).

His next mistress was Catherine Sedley (1657-1717) who was described by no less than Samuel Pepys as 'none of the most virtuous but a witt.' Catherine was said to have inherited her ready wit and her easy virtue from her father Sir Charles Sedley. Sir Charles was rich, a rake, and dabbled in playwrighting. None of his plays are produced today compared to his contemporaries such as Dryden and Etherage. In 1663, Sir Charles was heavily fined for an indiscretion. Samuel Pepys writes about the incident in his diary entry for July 1, 1663.

"Mr. Batten telling us of a late triall of Sir Charles Sydly the other day, before my Lord Chief Justice Foster and the whole bench, for his debauchery a little while since at Oxford Kate’s,1 coming in open day into the Balcone and showed his nakedness, … . and abusing of scripture and as it were from thence preaching a mountebank sermon from the pulpit, saying that there he had to sell such a powder as should make all the [women] in town run after him, 1000 people standing underneath to see and hear him, and that being done he took a glass of wine … . and then drank it off, and then took another and drank the King’s health. It seems my Lord and the rest of the judges did all of them round give him a most high reproof; my Lord Chief justice saying, that it was for him, and such wicked wretches as he was, that God’s anger and judgments hung over us, calling him sirrah many times. It’s said they have bound him to his good behaviour (there being no law against him for it) in 5000l."

Catherine's mother, also named Catherine, was the daughter of Earl Rivers. When Catherine was a child, her mother went mad, imagining that she was the Queen of England, and having to be addressed as 'Her Majesty.' She was confined to a Catholic convent abroad (Lady Catherine was Catholic while her husband and daughter were not) while her husband continued his carousing with his friends, 'the Merry Gang' in between his duties in Parliament. Although Catherine was his only legitimate heir, her father took a common-law wife named Ann Ayscough by whom he had a son. Although she was an heiress with the prospect of 10,000 pounds (6,000 from her mother, with an additional 4,000 upon her father's death), with this marital history behind her, it was no wonder that Catherine chose the life of a royal mistress as opposed to marriage.

Catherine was fifteen when she joined the court as a Maid of Honor to the Duke of York's second wife Mary of Modena (who was also 15 when she married James). She was just as surprised as anyone when James chose her to be his mistress in 1678 when she was 21. According to contemporary sources, she was tall, extremely thin, plain (as she got older she became almost emaciated) and had a squint. The standard of beauty of that time was plump, with rosy cheeks and golden curls. Charles II used to refer to Louise Keroualle, Duchess of Portmouth affectionately as 'fubs'. "We are none of us handsome," Catherine remarked,"And if we have wit, he has not enough to discover it." She was said to have endeavoured to make up for her lack of beauty by the extravagance of her gowns.

Her wit, which she came by naturally from her father, was shocking in its indelicacy as it was diverting. The first Earl of Dartmouth wrote that 'Her wit was rather surprising rather than pleasing, for there was no restraint in what she said of or to anybody: most of her remarkable sayings were what nobody else would in modesty or discretion have said" (Memoirs of the Court of England During the Reign of the Stuarts, page 506). In other words, she just said outloud what other people might have been thinking but who knew enough to censor themselves. She seems to have been as spirited as she was witty. By the time she was 20, Dorinda as she was nick-named in a satiric verse by a rejected suitor Lord Dorset, was a celebrated if not popular member of court. Like Nell Gwyn, she seems to have been able to make her royal lover laugh, particularly when she joked about the black-robed priests in evidence at court. James was always torn between his baser instincts and his immortal soul. Whatever the reason, James fell passionately in love with her.

When she was 25, she was courted by a distant relative, John Churchill. It would have been a good match for Churchill, despite her lack of looks, Catherine was rich as she was her father's only legitimate heir. Her parents urged the match, but by this time Churchill had already met and fallen in love with Sarah Jennings, they were even secretly engaged. When Sarah heard about the match, she wrote Churchill that upbraided him for his inconstancy and ended their engagement. She went off to France with her sister. Although he knew his parents were right to push the match with Catherine, Churchill couldn't bring himself to do it, and the negotiations ended.

In 1685, Charles II died, leaving his hapless brother King of England. James, his conscience no doubt pricked by a myriad of Catholic priests, decided to break off the connection with Catherine now that he was King. He sent her the royal equivalent of a 'Dear John' letter, in essence saying that she should go abroad or depart for the country for he would provide for her but 'he would see her no more.' Catherine refused to go but she left the palace and went to live in a house that had been taken for her in St. James Square at a cost of ten thousand pounds, which she decorated lavishly. Catherine was also given a lovely parting gift of four thousand pounds a year (!). However, on the day of the coronation, James Darnley, their infant son died and both parents were understandably distraught. He was given a royal burial in Westminster Abbey as befitting the son of a King albeit one born on the wrong side of the blanket. Drawn together by their grief, the King was soon sneaking out to see her.

Unlike Catherine of Braganza who bore her husband's infidelities stoically, Mary of Modena was appalled at her husband having mistresses, particularly one who was her Maid of Honor and not even pretty (shades of Diana and Camilla). Catherine had produced her first child, a daughter, while Mary of Modena was still not with child. So she raised a holy stink when James then created Catherine, Baroness of Darlington and Countess of Dorchester for life on the 2nd of January 1686 shortly after his accession to throne. There was also a rumor that James was planning to give her the apartments once reserved for his brother's mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth. The Queen was so pissed that it was observed that she refused to speak to her husband when they twice dined in state.

The Queen wept and wailed over the great injustice that was being done to her, and she was joined by a chorus of Catholic confessors who also went to work on the King, who was in fear of his mortal soul from all the sinning he'd been doing since puberty. Finally, in front of witnesses, Mary told her husband that he must either give up Catherine or she would leave the court and the marriage and join a convent. This amused Lady Dorchester who had for some time been waging a war of wit with the black-robed fathers. She was open about her contempt for them and ridiculed their piety.

Catherine however was determined to be received by the Queen in her new rank as a Countess. She was already dressed and ready to go when she received a message that she would not be admitted. The King indicated that it was time for Catherine to go, and this time he didn't grant her the final interview that he had once promised her in the event of their parting. Catherine once again stood her ground. Soon after she apparently miscarried or faked one. When she recovered, it was decided that Catherine would go to Ireland where the King had given her some lands. This made her exile a little bit more palatable or as she put it 'the less invidious as well as the more obscure part of the world,' but by March she was already causing trouble for English officials in Dublin. They feared welcoming her too courteously lest they piss the Queen off. It wasn't long before rumors hit London of her possible return, fueled by the refurbishment of her house in St. James Square. The idea thoroughly discomfitted the Queen, which caused Catherine to wonder why she spent so much time worrying about her supposed charms. "She thinks much better of me than I deserve."

In November of 1686, Catherine was back at court taking her place with her usual aplomb. She bought Ham House in Weybridge from the widow of the Duke of Norfolk but her influence over James had waned. After James II was deposed and sped off to France with his tail between his legs so to speak, Catherine continued to write to him for support for her and her daughter, which led many to consider her to be a Jacobite sympathizer. There were also rumors that she was a spy for the other side but those proved unfounded as well. The truth was Catherine found herself between a rock and hard place.

Catherine's father Sir Charles Sedley decidedly was not, he had supported the Glorious Revolution. "I have now returned the obligation I owed to King James; he made my daughter a countess - I have helped to make his daughter a Queen." When Mary and William ascended the throne, Catherine was received rather coldly at court. Every day she watched as women like Hortense Mancini and Barbara, Duchess of Cleveland were admitted warmly to the royal presence. Full of wounded pride, Catherine told Lady Nottingham that 'the jury might possibly acquit me that would whip for being whores every one of the ladies afore mentioned.'

When Queen Mary finally admitted her, the former royal mistress exclaimed "Why so haughty Madam? I beg your majesty to remember that if I broke one of the commandments with your father, you broke another against him. On that score we are both equal." William III looked on her more kindly giving her a pension of fifteen hundred pounds a year (or maybe he was just afraid of what she might say if he didn't). Afterward, she said that 'both Kings were civil to her, but the queens had used her badly.'

Catherine also fought for the rights to the lands given to her in the Fens by the Duke of York in 1683, after they were given by William III to the Earl of Torrington. She took the case to the High Court of Chancery and won, but Torrington put the kibosh on that by bringing a Bill to the House of Commons to confirm the grant. Catherine, not to be outdone or outfoxed, went to the House of Commons in her turn to press her case. Although she lost, the House added a clause to the bill granting her four thousand pounds in back rent and an annuity of six hundred pounds a year. Unfortunately the bill was passed in the negative and she never received her rents.

In August of 1696, Catherine, at the age of thirty-eight, married a one-eyed Scot named Sir David Colyear, afterwards the first Earl of Portmore. He was an officer in William III's army and highly respected. By her husband, Lady Dorchester gave birth to two sons, and by all accounts the marriage was a happy one. When her sons were sent off to school, she told them, "If anybody call either of you a son a whore, you must bear it; for you are so: but if they call you bastards, fight till you die; for you are an honest man's sons."

Lady Dorchester died at Bath on October 26, 1717 at the age of 60 of unknown causes. While her former lover, James II came to regret his prolifigacy in his old age. "I abhor and detest myself for having lived for so many years in a perpetual course of sin," apparently she had no such regrets. She leaves behind a legacy of priceless bon mots. At the coronation of George I, when the Archbishop of Canterbury formally asked the congregation for the people's consent to the King's crowning, the Countess was heard to say loud and clear, "Does the old fool think that anybody will say no to his question when there are so many drawn swords?" (Charles and Camilla, Brandreth page. 21).

Catherine gave birth to several children while James II's mistress, but only a daughter survived. The daughter Catherine, although acknowledged by James, in all probability was the daughter of Colonel James Grahame, a witty and fashionable hanger-on at court and the King's Keeper of the Privy Purse. Apparently Catherine felt no need to confine her favors to just the one man. When her daughter began to give herself airs, Catherine told her, "You need not be so vain, daughter, you are not the King's child, but old Grahame's." Catherine the younger married first James Annesley, 3rd Earl of Anglesey, and had a daughter Lady Catherine whose descendants include the Baron Mulgrave. After his death, she married John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby.

In an age when women were considered 'The Weaker Vessel,' Catherine Sedley forged her own non-conformist path to happiness with wit and moxie. She used her god given wit to entice a king and keep him enthralled for over seven years, a lifetime for a royal mistrss. And instead of being tossed aside as a former mistress, she fought for the rights to the lands and money that were given to her. And she married happily and on her own terms, at a time when most women were considered past their prime.

Sources include:
Charles & Camilla: Portrait of a Love Affair - Gyles Brandreth
Sex Lives of Kings & Queens of England - Nigel Cawthorne
The Weaker Vessel - Antonia Fraser
Seductresses - Betsey Prioleau
The Diary of Samuel Pepys
Memoirs of the Court of England During the Reign of the Stuarts - John Heneage Jesse
History of England from First Invasion by the Romans - John Lingard
Royal Panoply - Carrolly Erickson
The Life of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough to the Acession of Queen Anne - Garnet Wolseley Wolseley


Heather Carroll said…
Oh I just love your introductory quote. That says it all.
Thanks Heather. Isn't it great? I think she was just a bawdy, awesome woman.
Heather Carroll said…
Indeed! And who doesn't love those
Margaret Porter said…
So rich a coincidence--I've just written a scene featuring one Jamess II's sons by Arabella Churchill, and editing a gossipy scene in which court ladies discuss Catherine Sedley.

So glad that you featured her as one of your Scandalous Women, she's such a fab character.
How fabulous Margaret. Yes, she is a fantastic character. I wish more people knew about her. Susan Holloway Scott included a scene with her father in the King's Favorite.
Basher said…
You could only respect Sedley if you don't know the difference between crudeness and wit, grace from low-mindedness, and you somehow know yourself to have more in common with a vindictive, jealous woman more than a sincerely classy and enviable one.

I feel rather sorry for you people. To you it seems women with no talent are fantastic. Pity.
Basher said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jolene said…
I believe what Basher and kotty do not understand is our appreciation of a woman with "spunk" at a time when the sex was perennially undervalued. I'm not sure I would categorize Mary of Modena as "remarkable" -- certainly not half so interesting!
But to each her own, much like 17th century society. Basher/kotty might have snubbed Sedley, while others of us would attend her salons.
ECC said…
Granted that the Countess was a bit of a brash loud-mouth, but that judgement must be tempered with the reality that she was rated by the standards for women of her time, which generally expected ladies of rank to be silent and obedient.
I wouldn't have had the cohones to speak up like that at a coronation, but I would have laughed at her comment if I had been there! I laughed out loud reading it here.

No, I wouldn't want to live in the chaos of people always saying everything they think without editing themselves, but it is important to remember that people who do remind us of the truth and keep us honest. Today they are our comedians and writers of satire.

Katherine Sedley wasn't a murderer, nor was she blinded by a quest for power that crushed everything and everyone in it's wake. There are many "respected" royals who were precisely that (and we can find the equivalent sort of people in power today!). She just spoke her mind without fear.

Just a thought.

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