A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
Today, in North America, it’s Groundhog Day. For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is the day when a select group of small-town politicians and business people get their 15 minutes of fame by torturing a rodent. You can read about it here. The day has no other redeeming qualities except Harold Ramis made a decent movie out of it. However, and much more importantly, today is also Nell Gwyn’s birthday. Again, for the unfamiliar, Nell Gwyn was the most famous of King Charles II’s numerous mistresses. (He had about a dozen.)
So, to hell with the rodent. Here’s a brief look at one of the most forgotten heroines of history — the mistress.
Diane de Poitiers — She became Henry II’s mistress when he was 16 and she was 35 and basically ran the show in France for the next 24 years! She even wrote most of his official correspondence and signed it HenriDiane. When Henry married Catherine de’ Medici, a woman he didn’t even like, Madame de Poitiers practically pushed Henry into Catherine’s bed to ensure the continuation of the dynasty. (They had 10 children!)
Aspasia of Miletus — There is a lot of speculation (from folks like Plato and Plutarch) that Pericles’ mistress Aspasia was such a brilliant conversationalist that she may have “helped” him write some of his famous speeches.
Alice Keppel — She became Edward VII’s mistress when he was 57 — old, fat, a closet alcoholic and grumpy with gout. Why she put up with him is impossible to know, but even the British Prime Minister Asquith thanked her for her “wise counsel.” Coincidentally, Mrs. Keppel is the great-grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who was Prince Charles’ mistress before, during and after his turbulent marriage to Princess Diana.
Barbara Palmer — She became Charles II’s mistress while he was still in exile and practically ordered him to accept the throne when Cromwell finally had the good sense to die. By all accounts, Mrs. Palmer was bossy, bad-tempered and promiscuous. (She even had an affair with her cousin John Churchill.) However, she got things done, including “suggesting” Charles declare war on Holland in 1665 and pushing a lot of people around to get London rebuilt after The Great Fire. Eventually, Charles had to dump her because she was Catholic. Two of Barbara Palmer’s descendents are the late Diana, Princess of Wales and Sarah, Duchess of York.
Which brings us to Nell Gwyn
Nell Gwyn — As the mistress of Charles II, Nell Gwyn was the very soul of the Restoration. She was witty and urbane, danced, sang, gambled and helped make England fun again after the dreary days of Oliver Cromwell. Plus, unlike Barbara Palmer, she kept her mouth shut. In fact, Nell Gwyn was so good at her job that she’s the only royal mistress ever publically immortalized with a statue. It’s on Sloane Street, Chelsea.
These days “mistress” is one of those bogeyman words. It upsets our puritanical view of female sexuality and makes us vaguely uncomfortable. The problem is, because our society’s sexual sophistication is limited to Kim Kardashian flashing her ass across Instagram, we simply can’t get past the idea that a “mistress” could be anything more than a high-priced hooker. Guess again! Nothing could be further from the truth.
So, rodent, go back in your hole. I’m celebrating mistresses!