Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth and Aubigny, and Mistress of King Charles II of England

Portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Henri Gascar

“I should do my self wrong if I told you better than all the world besides, for that were making comparison where ‘tis impossible to express the true passion and kindness I have for my dearest fubs.” (Charles’ nickname for Louise was ‘fubs’). (Source: Duchess of Portsmouth’s MSS, Goodwood MS 3)

According to an existing letter, King Charles II professed his sincere love for Louise. It’s impossible to tell if she returned his love, but she certainly understood his character and knew how to handle him. Based on observations of her personality, it is more likely Louise’s position at court held more importance for her than love. There’s also been a good deal of drivel written about Louise, mostly by her detractors. Let’s see if we can clear up some misunderstandings about her.

Louise was born in September 1649 at the Manoir de Kéroualle, the family home near Brest in Brittany. She was the second of three children of Guillaume de Penancoët, count de Kéroualle and Marie-Anne, daughter of Sebastien de Ploeuc, marquess of Timeur and of Kergolay. It is true her family came from an ancient lineage, but at the time of her birth, they were considered of relatively minor and impoverished nobility. Louise was most likely educated at the Convent of the Ursulines of Lesneven, near where she was born.

At the end of 1668, Louise obtained a position as maid of honor to Henriette-Anne, Duchess of Orléans, beloved sister of King Charles II of England. When Henriette-Anne, known as Minette or Madame, traveled to Dover in 1670 to negotiate a secret treaty between King Louis XIV France and her brother, Louise came as part of her entourage. It is unknown if Charles noticed Louise during her first trip to England, but she may have caught his eye, as she was strikingly beautiful. She returned to France with her mistress after they completed the treaty.

Minette died a few weeks after their return, and this would be the principal turning point in Louise’s life. Minette requested on her deathbed that Charles take care of her servants. Louise and others arrived in England in the fall of 1670 and were taken into the service of Charles’ queen, Catherine of Braganza. As Charles mourned his sister, he took little notice of the new maid of honor.

Portraits of Louise reveal she had features and a figure that were rounded, her hair was dark and curly and her eyes brown. She succumbed to the king’s charms the following autumn during a court visit to the horseraces at Newmarket. Louise stayed at Euston, the home of Lord Arlington, and the French ambassador arranged for the king to visit while she was there. Ten months later, she gave birth to her only son.

Louise has a reputation for not being known as the most clever or beautiful of Charles’ mistresses. She excelled in her talent to please, and many considered her kind, polite, and appealing in her conversation. She would always be willing and ready to act as an intermediary for Charles, a talent that allowed her to become a significant and persistent political force at the Restoration court. Early in her career, she received advice, stressing she give the king peace and contentment while he was in her apartments.

She was in tune with the king’s temperament, and intelligent with refined tastes in the beautiful and artistic, and fond of music. All these traits appealed to the king. Above all, she was a good listener. She knew how to discriminate during any situation, when to talk politics and when to entertain. To her detriment, she was extravagant and acquisitive in the extreme. She cried a lot when she didn’t get her way, annoying the king, and didn’t hesitate to reproach him for his infidelities.

By December 1672, Louise received a ten-thousand-pound pension from the revenues of Irish lands, and she was exercising some influence at court. She assumed the position of maîtresse-en-titre and occupied designated lodgings at Whitehall Palace. She would remodel this apartment three times and extend it until it comprised twenty-four rooms with a sixty-to-seventy-foot gallery. Her accommodations were the focal point of her ascendancy at court, offering an alternative place for meeting the king as opposed to the chambers of Charles or Queen Catherine. Charles spent many hours there as she staged magnificent entertainments or allowed him to lounge, take naps and discuss politics, government and gossip.

On July 25, 1673, Charles elevated Louise with the titles of Duchess of Portsmouth, Lady Petersfield and Countess of Fareham. He also made her a lady of the bedchamber to the queen, against Catherine’s wishes. The position came with the caveat that Louise would not actually perform any duties.

Louise’s son, named Charles Lennox, was given the titles of Duke of Richmond and Lennox. The ladies of the court adopted curly hair like Louise’s and imitated her French fashions. Louise made cautious political alliances while being watched and encouraged by King Louis XIV of France, who believed she could be useful in promoting French interests. Louise contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the king in 1674. Her illness lasted about a year, with her health never being the same for the rest of her life. She suffered a miscarriage in March 1676 and would have no more children.

Louise had a reputation as a generous patron of the arts. Because of her initiative, workmen arrived from France and she aided them in establishing royal workshops. Some of her proteges were Charles Le Brun, Henri Gascar, Sir Peter Lely, Verelst, Wissing, Laguerre, Pierre Mignard and Sir Godfrey Kneller. The playwright Nathaniel Lee dedicated two of his plays to her.

By 1676, Louise’s principal pension from Charles amounted to eighty-six hundred pounds per annum for life. In addition, by December 1680, she received annuities worth eleven thousand pounds, along with other payments. The last four years of Charles’ reign, she collected about twenty thousand pounds per year.

Charles’ long-time mistress, the former actress Nell Gwyn, was not an admirer of Louise and would always be a constant source of irritation, mocking her and making jokes at her expense. Hortense Mancini, duchess of Mazarin, arrived from the continent in December 1675 and took the fancy of the king. Hortense temporarily displaced her as primary mistress. Louise complained bitterly to the French ambassador. Eventually, Hortense took another lover, alienating the king. Charles returned to Louise, restoring her position in 1677.

At Charles’ request, Louis XIV gave the estate of Aubigny in France to Louise. She requested positions for her relatives in France which King Louis would always politely decline. Louis gave her an expensive pair of earrings in 1675 in recompense. After this, Louise gave the French ambassador admission to her apartments and access to the king. For several years, she engaged in discussions about foreign affairs between England and France.

A conspiracy called the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis dominated the politics of Charles’ reign during the years 1678 to 1680. The Popish Plot was a manufactured conspiracy whereby the Jesuits and other Catholics were accused of plotting to kill the king and replace him with his Catholic brother, James, Duke of York. The Exclusion Crisis was a political movement to persuade Charles to disinherit his brother and replace him with James’ Protestant daughter Mary and son-in-law William of Orange or with Charles’ eldest illegitimate son James, Duke of Monmouth. During these tense years, many high-ranking Catholics at court were threatened, especially Queen Catherine and Louise.

It took everything Charles had to defend his wife and his brother against these machinations. Charles’ aid to the Queen would draw them closer together, with the unintended consequence of Louise losing her maîtresse-en-titre status. Louise’s open support of French interests, her Catholicism and her association with Thomas Danby, one of the king’s ministers, gained her unfavorable attention. Louise broke her relationship with Danby, involved herself in secret plans to invite William of Orange to England and advocated for the Duke of Monmouth against the Duke of York as heir to the throne.

Written and spoken campaigns to denigrate Louise emerged, accusing her of treason and other high crimes. She openly supported a bill before Parliament to exclude the Duke of York from the throne. The bill made no progress and only earned her the wrath of the Duke of York. She would eventually reconcile with the duke in 1681.

The Popish Plot died down by 1680 but in 1682, it reared its ugly head once again. One of Louise’s servants accused the Queen of plotting the king’s death. They forced Louise to testify at the servant’s trial, and Charles was angry with her suspected involvement. In January 1682, to get back in Charles’ good graces, Louise hosted a banquet for the Moroccan delegation in her apartments.

With the king’s wholehearted agreement, she visited France from March to June 1682, traveling in grand style, meeting with King Louis XIV and delivering messages from Charles. She went to Brittany and bought back the family estates of Kéroualle and Mesnouales which her father had been forced to sell. Upon her return to England, she regained her position and influence and aligned herself with the Duke of York against his opponents.

Louise’s son, Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond and 1st Duke of Lennox. Portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller (Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery)

Rumors surfaced she was having an affair with the French nobleman, Philip de Vendôme, from June to November 1683, which alarmed the French ambassador. He requested Louis XIV recall Vendôme from England. Despite this state of affairs, Charles’ love for his mistress endured. He requested King Louis elevate the French estate of Aubigny to a duchy in January 1684. Louis obliged and also naturalized her son as a French subject, so he could inherit his mother’s properties. Louise became ill from October to November 1684 and it was during this time Charles wrote his letter to her (quoted above).

By the end of November, Louise had recovered. However, Charles fell fatally ill on February 1, 1685 and died five days later, after secretly converting to Catholicism. The only women allowed in the king’s chamber during his final fatal illness were the Queen and the Duchess of York. Louise could not enter. Although we do not know who originally posited the idea of Charles’ religious conversion, the French ambassador credited Louise. The truth is, we will never know.

After Charles’ death, Louise’s influence ended, and she returned to France in August. In 1686, she made some careless remarks about Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s morganatic wife, and she was nearly exiled from the French court. She visited England in 1686-7 and attended the marriage of her niece in July 1688. After the invasion of William of Orange and the deposition of King James II from the throne of England in what is known as the Glorious Revolution, Louise lost her pensions. King Louis XIV stepped up and endowed her with an income. Fire destroyed her apartments at Whitehall in 1691.

During the 1690s, she lived in Paris. She reconciled with King William III of England and attempted to regain financial stability. In 1716, she sold her estates in Brittany and her French pension was increased, eventually being turned into an annuity in 1721. She founded a convent in Aubigny and visited England in 1732-4. She died in Paris on November 14, 1734 and two days later, was buried in the church of the Barefooted Carmelites in the chapel of the Rieux family. Her grandson inherited her property.

Further reading: “Scandalous Liaisons: Charles II and His Court” by R.E. Pritchard, “All the King’s Women: Love, sex and politics in the life of Charles II” by Derek Wilson, “The Mistresses of Charles II” by Brian Masters, “Charles the Second’s French Mistress: A biography of Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth” by Bryan Bevan, “Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II” by Linda Porter, Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kéroualle, suo jure duchess of Portsmouth and suo jure duchess of Aubigny in the French nobility, entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by S.M. Wynne