Back to All Events

ROF Lecture: Harlot or Housewife? 17th Century Women at the English Royal Court

  • The General Society Library 20 West 44th Street New York, NY, 10036 United States (map)
Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland as a Shepherdess, after William Sherwin ©National Trust Images.jpg

Harlot or Housewife? 17th Century Women at the English Royal Court

Presented by Angus Haldane


Powerful women have been regarded with fear and perceived as skillful 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 favorite 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. 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 maneuvers 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.


Angus Haldane is an independent curator, art historian and Director of Haldane Fine Art, an art dealership and consultancy based in Central London. Angus studied Classics at University College Oxford, 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. 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 forthcoming. Angus has appeared as an art commentator on the BBC and CNN.

A part of the Royal Oak Foundation's Spring 2019 Lecture Series.

Registration opens 21 August.
St. George’s Society members receive $10 OFF the standard ticket price! Contact us for discount code.

For more information, please call Kayla Smith at 212-480-2889, ext. 201.

Earlier Event: November 13
Great British Pub Quiz
Later Event: December 4
British Bash