Harlot or Housewife?

17th-Century Women at the English Royal Court

Powerful women have been regarded with fear and perceived as skilful manipulators ever since Pandora opened her box, Eve persuaded Adam to sample some fruit, and Cleopatra rolled out of a carpet at the feet of Caesar. English playwright and poet John Dryden may have hoped in 1661 for a world in which “every father govern’d as a King,” but reality for 17th century Restoration England women of the royal household was not easy. The court was hedonistic and dangerous. Cleavage and a quick wit were weapons to be employed for advancement and royal mistresses were often capable strategists, who invisibly influenced society. They were portrayed in portraits as either virtuous or lascivious—extreme ends of the moral spectrum. 

One of the most strategically astute mistresses and the favourite of Charles II was Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, who was infamous for performing a sex act on a 14th-century mummified corpse of a bishop. Despite being deemed a “harlot”, she is rarely depicted in portraits as a seductress, but rather as a humble shepherdess or a religious figure. Frances Teresa Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, who seemed to have achieved the impossible in resisting the sexual advances of the King, is depicted as Diana the virgin huntress. Nell Gwynne, who worked as a scantily clad orange seller to theatre audiences before crescendoing to a royal mistress, is frequently depicted with fully exposed breasts. The court of Charles II was extravagant, sensuous and treacherous, but it was also a place where ambitious female poets, artists, preachers (who sometimes preached naked) and actors, among others could excel. 

Art consultant and popular Royal Oak speaker Angus Haldane will illustrate the lives of notorious mistresses, faithful wives, and creative figures who set the court aflame with their intrigue, brazen manipulation and talent. Mr. Haldane will discuss the stories, vanities, gossip and political manoeuvres behind their portraits and examine how the depictions of them as seductresses and sirens should be viewed through the filter of their roles and achievements. 

Jan de Baen, Princess Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchess of Orléans. Hatchlands Park ©National Trust Images

Jan de Baen, Princess Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchess of Orléans. Hatchlands Park ©National Trust Images

Angus Haldane

Angus Haldane

Art Consultant

Angus Haldane is Director of Haldane Fine Art, an art dealership and consultancy with an international clientele which was founded over a decade ago and is based in Central London. He is also an independent curator and art historian. Angus studied Classics at Oxford University, specializing in history, literature and antique sculpture. After Oxford, Angus graduated from the Courtauld Institute with an MA in Byzantine and Early Renaissance art. He worked for many years as a senior specialist in paintings at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, where he gained considerable experience researching, attributing, and valuing pictures. His deep knowledge and passion extend from the art of the sixteenth century to the most contemporary of works. In addition to art dealing, he has catalogued museum collections and provides consultancy to some of London’s leading Art Advisors. He recently published his first book, titled Face of War: Portraits of the English Civil Wars and a second volume on the Portraiture of the American War of Revolution is soon to be forthcoming. Angus has appeared as an art commentator on the BBC and CNN.


Thursday, June 18th 2:00 pm (eastern)

Online via Zoom Webinar

$15 members*; $20 non-members

Free to Heritage Circle members


Between Friday, June 19th and Tuesday, June 23rd

“Rent” the recorded lecture to watch at your leisure

$15 members*, $20 non-members

Free to Heritage Circle members

The video will expire on Tuesday, June 23rd at 11:59pm and will not be available after that date and time.