Barbara Villiers and the Butler Family Feud.
Barbara Villiers (Palmer), 1st Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine was born in November 1640. She became over the course of her career at court one of the principal mistresses to King Charles II of England. Lady Castlemaine produced five children that were all acknowledged by the King Charles II and were suitable ennobled with various titles.
Over her lifetime she became a constant thorn in the side of the Butler family most noticeably with James Butler 1st Duke of Ormond and Elizabeth (Preston) the 1st Duchess of Ormond.
The cause for this feud lay in the matter of the marriage of Lady Elizabeth Butler to Phillip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield in 1660. Before his marriage Stanhope was involved in a passionate relationship with Barbara Villiers and after his marriage to Elizabeth he continued this affair even though Barbara Villiers had married Roger Palmer, 1st Earl of Castlemaine by this time. The affair was public knowledge and caused much embarrassment to his young bride. Below is a shortened account from the book ‘Memoirs of the Beauties of the Court of Charles II’ by Mrs. Anna Jameson published in the 19th Century.
“The Duchess of Ormond was not an indifferent spectator of her daughter’s domestic misery. It appears, from a very respectful and submissive letter from the Earl (Chesterfield) to his mother in law, that she had interfered kindly but discreetly, with a hope of calming all disquiet. To reconcile himself to his wife’s parents. Lord Chesterfield took her to Ireland in 1662: they spent three months at Kilkenny Castle, and there Lady Chesterfield witnessed the marriage of her sister, Lady Mary Butler, with Lord Cavendish afterwards the first Duke of Devonshire.”
Nonetheless on his return to the English court Chesterfield was to continue his affair with Barbara Villiers.
“…it is only certain, that he met the affection of his young and charming wife with a negligent, frigid indifference, which astonished, pained and humiliated her”.
“The King hated Chesterfield, on account of the favour with which Lady Castlemaine (Barbara) had regarded him: but the Earl on royal attention could not be overlooked”.
Barbara Villiers continued her affair with Chesterfield, as much to ignite the King’s jealousy and she seemed to revel in the humiliation of her rival Lady Elizabeth. This became of course common knowledge with the gossip at court and would have made its way back to the worried Duke and Duchess.
Lady Elizabeth Stanhope later became popular at court despite her husband and we have a wonderful piece describing herself and her brother the Earl of Arran and their enjoyment with music “Lady Chesterfield was as proud of possessing the finest guitar in England, as her brother, Lord Arran, of being confessedly the best player next to Francisco himself. The Guitarist had composed a certain sarabande, which the King greatly admired and patronised. The Duke of York wished to learn it from Lord Arran and he invited the duke to accompany him to his sister’s apartments, that he might hear it performed on this wonderful guitar”.
Chesterfield later convinced himself that James Duke of York was having an affair with Elizabeth and in a fit of rage “…and without waiting for any explanation, gave way at once to all the transports of jealous rage. The poor guitar was the first victim of his fury: it was broken into a thousand pieces”.
Lady Elizabeth was banished by her husband from court in 1662 and a year later she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, sadly she died only two years later in 1665 she was only 25 years old.
The Butler family squarely laid a lot of the blame with Barbara Villiers and her behaviour with their son in law. Along with this Lady Castlemaine was directly responsible for the banishment of the Duke’s great friend and ally, Lord Clarendon from the royal court while promoting her own favourites in his stead. Clarendon gently reminded her that if she lived, one day she would grow old. The English diarist John Evelyn called her the “curse of the nation” due to her influence over the King in her position as a royal mistress. However, to be balanced others have described her as great fun, keeping a good table and with heart to match her famous temper.
This dispute with the Butler family was to rage on for many years, most especially in Barbara Villiers desire to acquire the lands of the Phoenix Park in Dublin, much to the Duke of Ormond’s great objections. She had later pulled down the Tudor palace of Nonsuch and had its building materials sold off to pay her gambling debts.
After the death of Charles II in 1685 Barbara retired from public view, remarried, and died in Chiswick Hall in 1709 age 68.

Peter Kenny