Oral History

Oral History: The Sex Lives of the Kings and Queens of England

Prince Harry’s famous romps, Prince Charles’s ‘tampon’ comment—these are nothing compared to some of their ancestors. Tom Sykes on the royal’s family’s naughty history.

We common folk can hardly be blamed for our sometimes prurient interest in the sex lives of the Kings and Queens of England. Given the hereditary principle, who’s doing what to whom when has not just been a subject for terrific gossip for the upper classes and peasantry alike through the ages, it’s a matter of vital national interest. Kate.

Indeed, the sex life of Prince Charles has been the subject of constitutional importance ever since a 1989 conversation with Camilla, recorded by an amateur radio enthusiast, was published in which Charles expressed a desire to be reincarnated as his lover’s tampon (in fact, when you read the tape in full and hear the tampon quote in context, it’s less creepy and more dumb than it sounds).

One of the principle reasons why Prince Charles’s detractors say he should not be King is because he indulged in an extra-marital affair with his now-wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles, when he was married to Princess Diana. But the outrage that greeted the revelation that the Prince of Wales was having an affair, especially when compared to the well-known licentiousness of the monarchs of the past, shows just how puritanical we have become in the 21st century, demanding that our rulers - even ceremonial ones - lead lives free from the blemish of sexual infidelity.

It was not always thus: King George II (1683 - 1760) was quite happily married to his wife, Queen Caroline (he had to be dragged from an enthusiastic bout of love-making to be informed of his father’s death and his own accession) but he took mistresses to maintain his reputation. A mistress-less king could be seen as weak or worse still, impotent.

He kept one mistress, Henrietta Dowd, for twenty years, and when he finally dropped her, his wife begged him to reconsider, for fear he would go on the tear with a string of feisty new lovers, which he duly did, hanging a portrait of one of them at the base of his bed.

Of course, there is no King who can compete in the popular imagination with the original Tudor Bad Boy, King Henry VIII, who came to the throne in 1509 and had six wives. In fact, however, Henry was more of a serial monogamist than a philanderer. As the writer Hilary Mantel, author of the Tudor epics Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies recently remarked, each time he married his mistress, he created a vacancy.

Henry was like a male Elizabeth Taylor - the only difference being that when he grew tired of his spouses, they had a one-in-three chance of being beheaded, usually on trumped-up charges of incest and/or – the gall of it – infidelity.

Henry came to the throne an 18-year-old virgin, and was first married to the widow of his brother, Catherine of Aragon, and did not embark on his first affair until 1514, when Catherine was pregnant (it was believed that having sex with a woman while pregnant could cause miscarriage).

He swiftly made up for lost time thereafter, having affairs with several noblewomen at court, including Lady Anne Hastings, and Jane Poppincourt of Flanders, who was at the time also the mistress of the Duc de Longueville, who was being held hostage, in great comfort, within the Royal household.

Henry had several illegitimate children, including one with Mary Boleyn, the sister of his second wife, Anne Boleyn (see Philippa Gregory’s book, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’). Anne and Mary’s ambitious father offered his wife to the King, but Henry declined, with the immortal words, “Never with the mother,” according to the writer Nigel Cawthorne’s masterful and encyclopedic book on the subject, “Sex Lives of the Kings and Queens of England,” shortly to be reissued on Kindle.

In his later life, Henry would send the artist Holbein overseas to paint portraits of prospective lovers and wives. In a scenario familiar to today’s internet daters, Anne of Cleves didn’t live up to her picture, and he subsequently dubbed her ‘the mare of Flanders.’

When his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was beheaded for adultery, Henry celebrated by throwing a party with 26 ladies at his table.

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It was not a case of like father, like son, however: Edward VI, Henry’s sickly son, died a virgin.

There have been many gay Kings in British history. William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror was gay, as was James I, his son Charles I and Richard I (Richard the Lionheart). Indeed, some historians say Richard’s sexual orientation had a pivotal role to play in the history of the world as it was responsible for the prolonging of the Crusades because gay sex was tolerated in the Middle East. Richard never slept with his wife, unlike Edward II, who was bisexual, and produced four children with his wife Isabella of France (who was twelve when he married her). His gay relationships however caused his knights to revolt against him – he was forced to abdicate and then murdered by having a red-hot poker forced into his back passage.

Of all the sex rumors about the current British royal family, none had been quite so bizarre as that of Prince Charles's supposed gay affair with his valet. For several weeks in late 2003, the British press printed banner headlines about a royal sex scandal but, conscious of Britain's strict libel laws, never came out and openly stated the accusations, instead, relying on hints and innuendo. This led to the strange phenomenon of the royal family issuing a statement denying allegations that had never publicly been made.

Charles II, the figure head for the libertrine Restoration era used to say, “God will never damn a man for allowing himself a little pleasure,” and during his nine years of exile (when Oliver Cromwell ruled Britain), he had at least seventeen recorded mistresses, according to Cawthorne. His first sexual experience at the age of 15 was a deeply Oedipal affair, taking place with his former wet nurse (in the era before bottle feeding, a wet nurse was a woman employed to breast feed noble-born children). At 16 he fathered his first illegitimate child - who subsequently became a Jesuit priest.

One of Charles’s most valued court members was Colonel Cundum, the inventor of the condom. Pregnancy was less of an issue than syphilis, which could be fatal (the disease killed the heir to the throne as late 1908).

Charles’s most famous mistress was Barbara Villiers, who had studied the banned sonnets of Pietro Aretin, whose work graphically illustrated the sixteen ‘known’ sexual positions. Her husband was created Earl of Castlemaine by a grateful King, and after she was discarded as a mistress, she retained her power and influence at court by managing a stable of young women for the King to sleep with throughout his marriage to Catherine of Braganza.

The Restoration court of King Charles was famous for ‘restoring’ the theatres and he also restored the tradition of seducing the actresses of the stage, including Moll Davis and Nell Gwyn, who received a townhouse in Pall Mall for her trouble.

Charles was succeeded by his brother James II, who was even more promiscuous, and was said to have bedded over a thousand women.

Queen Victoria was the mother of the new era of respectability, but her father Edward, Duke of Kent, had a mistress for 25 years. He was finally forced to marry another European royal to pay off his debts. When his mistress read of the impending marriage in a newspaper, she accepted her fate with equanimity. Edward wrote, “It produced no heat or violence on her part, just an extraordinary noise and a strong convulsive movement in her throat.”

One of the few kings who was never unfaithful was George III. He married the plump Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761. Seeing her for the first time on their wedding day, George winced in disgust, but the two came to love one another immensely (and frequently - they had 15 kids).

The most promiscuous monarch of modern times was Edward VII, the son of Queen Victoria, famous for being the longest-serving Prince of Wales owing to his mother’s longevity. His first sexual experience was with an Irish actress named Nellie Clifton, who was smuggled into his bed when he was on duty with the army at the Curragh.

Edward had many mistresses, but in 1870 there was a huge scandal caused by The Mordaunt Case, when, in 1870, Sir Charles Mordaunt bought a divorce against his wife, and the Prince of Wales was subpoena’d. She confessed to having ‘done wrong’ with the Prince, and the man of letters, Sir Henry Ponsonby, commented, “London was black with the smoke of burnt confidential letters.”

Other mistresses included Frances Daisy Brooke (later Lady Warwick), Mrs Langtry and Mrs Keppel who was his mistress for the last twenty years of his life. His taking up with Mrs Keppel was met with almost universal satisfaction. He was, according to Lady Sutherland, “a much pleasanter man since he changed mistresses.”

By the time he took up with Mrs Keppel, the Queen had nicknamed him ‘tum tum” because he was so fat.

Mrs Keppel was invited to be in the room with the Queen when Edward died, where the Queen said to her, “I am sure you always had a good influence over him.”

The most important sexual relationship for the Royals in the modern era, however, was undoubtedly that between Mrs Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, which led to the abdication crisis and nearly finished the British monarchy for good. Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, always claimed that Wallis’s hold over Edward was purely sexual, and destroyed the Windsors by spreading the rumour that Wallis’s power over Edward derived from ‘secret sexual practices’ she had learnt in brothels in China. It was completely untrue, but she even managed to get the British government to investigate her claims, many of which are still repeated today.

Of the current crop of young Royals, Prince Harry is widely portrayed as a woman-chasing Lothario. However, as the example of his promiscuous ancestors shows, naughty Harry still has a long way to go before even being considered for entry into this gallery of Royal Rogues.

With thanks to Nigel Cawthorne