Book Review: The King’s Bed
The King’s Bed:
Sex and Power in the Court of King Charles II
by Don Jordan & Michael Walsh
Pegasus Books, 2016
Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, in their latest book The King’s Bed: Sex and Power in the Court of King Charles II, have written a lively and gossipy nonfiction bodice-ripper about a virtually nonexistent subject and made it a genuine page-turner. That’s a feat of transubstantiation the “Merry Monarch” would have applauded with all the lazy-eyed sarcasm at his command.
The book purports to tell the story of an addiction: the sex-mania of Charles Stuart, King of England and collector of women. Our authors have the ability to state the obvious with a puppyish enthusiasm that by rights ought to be slightly alarming but never quite is. Charles, it turns out, really liked women:
Charles not only loved the physical allure of women, he also adored their company – their society and gossip, the games, the rivalry, the coquetry. He surrounded himself with women, keeping former mistresses on payroll in the royal seraglio at Westminster long after passion had abated. Some of his mistresses held such sway over him that they were in control of the relationship. This influence went beyond the bedroom to affect foreign and domestic policy.
It’s only at that last line where the book runs into trouble, but since it’s the subject of the book, it’s a fair amount of trouble. Charles had a long, long list of women in his life, from his wife Princess Catherine to Nell Gwyn to Barbara Villiers to Mary Davis to Hortense Manchini to the infamous Louise de Kerouaille to Lucy Walter and a dozen others, and he was open-handedly generous to all of them. His gifts included lavish amounts of money and also social elevation – he sometimes installed his courtesans in the ranks of the peerage (where they were fruitful and multiplied, as our authors titteringly point out with allusions to the bloodlines of the future King William V). He loved the subtleties of conversation with some of these women, and he talked about affairs of state just as easily as he talked about the odd itch he was feeling in his left side or the new comet in the night sky. But with the possible exception of Madame de Kerouaille, none of these women had the slightest influence on foreign or domestic policy. They intrigued and flattered Charles, but none of them ever touched the unfeeling steel at the core of the man. His political opinions and actions were no more influenced by these women than they were by his omnipresent swarm of shin-high dogs.
But Jordan and Walsh are witty, readable guides even so, and the reign of Charles II gives them enormous amounts of great material. The parade of exaggerated personalities alone is worth the read of the book. They bring together well-chosen quotes about such characters as young James, the Duke of Monmouth, Lucy Walter’s son:
The world took to Lucy’s son and would continue to admire him into manhood. He had the King’s carm and athleticism and his mother’s looks, as well as both parents’ absorption with sex. Pepys called him ‘the most skittish, leaping gallant that ever I saw.’ Another contemporary author, Madame D’Aulnoy, described him as the ‘handsomest and most attractive man in the world, young, gallant, endowed with every grace.’ It would emerge, however, that he was none too bright, which would prove a fatal flaw.
And of course there’s the King’s best friend, John Wilmot, the rancidly profligate 2nd Earl of Rochester:
Alcohol and syphilis were to end Rochester’s roller-coaster life at the age of thirty-three. The Bishop of Salisbury, Gilbert Burnet, was present at his deathbed and later recorded the rake’s full and complete recantation of his debauched ways. The volte-face is so extreme as to make one wonder at the veracity of the account. If the bishop did exaggerate the rakes’ deathbed confession, he was guilty of the rare offence of cynically exploiting the death of a cynic.
The market for this kind of bubbly, tale-telling look at the reign of Charles II is an eternal thing, and The King’s Bed is the liveliest example to come along in a few seasons. To get the most out of it, readers are encouraged to follow the same rule Charles used with his mistresses: enjoy it all, but believe it sparingly.