By Andrea Zuvich, author of His Last Mistress.
Royal mistresses have fascinated countless generations of people. Why? Well, the power and influence a royal mistress could potentially wield over her royal lover could be great, and it is this power over the powerful which is invariably interesting. How could a woman have power by merely being the means of satiating a king's lust? Of course, the role of a royal mistress was mainly to attend to his sexual desires, but she would usually receive some perks in return.
A mistress could even rise up from the traditional role of subservient woman, to someone who could sway politics or take on important diplomatic roles.
From ancient times, with Aspasia, traditionally held to have been the influential mistress of Pericles, to Egyptian Queen Cleopatra with the most powerful men of her time, Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius, these women who forces to be reckoned with. In the early 1500s, King Henri II of France's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, had such power that she even signed important political documents, often wielding more power than the Queen of France.
There perhaps was no more influential and powerful mistress than the English Anne Boleyn, who later became Henry XVIII's second wife. During her meteoric rise, she wielded such influence over the besotted king, that others, wary of this, eventually named her 'The Great Whore' and some thought she had bewitched the king. Sadly, she attracted the hostility of many which ended with her beheading in 1536.
During the turbulent Seventeenth century, a period in history that is very dear to my heart, becoming a royal mistress could raise a woman from the position in which she had been born. "Pretty, witty" Nell Gwynn, for example, came from a background of poverty, to become one of King Charles II's most popular and wealthy mistresses. Charles's most dominant mistress was the infamous Barbara Palmer, who threw violent tantrums in order to get her way. Charles, suffice it to say, eventually got fed up with her histrionics, and new royal mistresses eagerly took her place.
Charles's French cousin and fellow sovereign, Louis XIV, was equally insatiable when it came to his sexual appetite, and he, too, had several mistresses. The most influential of these were Madame de Montespan, his maîtresse en titre, whose dominance at court waned and ultimately ended after the Affaire des Poisons rocked the French court; and her rival, Madame de Maintenon, who eventually pulled an Anne Boleyn and became Louis's second, though secret, wife. Maintenon, however, was fortunate; she lost neither her head, nor her position.
A mistress could sometimes be more than an inspiration and outlet for a sovereign's sexual needs - she could provide intellectual stimulation - something that appears to have been Elizabeth Villiers's role with King William III.
Fast-forward into the twentieth century, and the huge scandal surrounding the uncrowned King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Whilst Edward was not married, Wallis held a certain power over him. He was so determined to marry his lover, who was an American divorcee; that a constitutional crisis arose leading him to abdicating from the throne in 1936.
Fascination with royal lovers and mistresses will probably never cease, and whilst we would be heartless to deny that adultery probably caused great pain in the betrayed wife and children, perhaps this cruel thorn adds to the timeless allure of royal mistresses.
Andrea Zuvich is the author of His Last Mistress, published by Endeavour Press Ltd.