We are celebrating author Deborah Swift and her newest novel, The Gilded Lily today!
I invited Deborah to write about one of her favourite women of history. She chose Moll Davis, a fascinating mistress to the king in the 17th century. Sit back and enjoy this wonderful biography.
The Impertinent Mistress
The Lady's Slipper
The Gilded Lily
December 21st 1668
“It vexed me to see Moll Davis, in the box over the King’s and my Lady Castlemayne’s head, look down upon the King, and he up to her; and so did my Lady Castlemayne once, to see who it was; but when she saw her, she looked like fire; which troubled me.”
Thus wrote Pepys, spotting the rivalry between two of the King’s mistresses, the well-bred Lady Castlemaine and Moll Davis, the upstart actress.
In the seventeenth century a royal wife would be chosen for political reasons rather than as a love-match. So following the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, and the subsequent demise of Puritanism, it is hardly surprising that Charles should have taken not one, but many mistresses. However, even by the permissive standards of the day, Charles was an extraordinarily vigorous monarch when it came to women. He made no secret of his fourteen illegitimate children, which horrified the remaining Puritans who railed against him as 'that great enemy of chastity and marriage'.
Little is known of Mary (Moll) Davis’s early life. Some asserted she was one of Lord Berkshire’s illegitimate children, though others believe she was the daughter of a blacksmith on the Earls of Berkshire’s estate in Wiltshire. From poor beginnings Moll rose to fame and fortune through the theatre. Women’s parts had previously been played by boys, so women in the theatre were immensely popular, particularly brunettes. Often they were asked to play a part where they had to disguise themselves as a boy, thus providing a convenient excuse for showing off shapely legs in a pair of hose. The new spirit of gaiety and loose-living of the Restoration brought theatre back into the public imagination. In The Gilded Lily, set during this period, Ella is auditioned by the King’s men, rivals to the Duke’s company, for the new theatre on Vere Street. Perhaps if things had gone differently for her, she might have followed in Moll’s footsteps and become a King’s mistress, for Charles did not care about rank or family where his mistresses were concerned. A pretty face and good legs were enough.
After the King asked to meet Moll, it is thought that she was introduced to the King in a coffee house, and by 1668 she was an acknowledged royal mistress.
On 11th January Pepys recorded that “Miss Davis is for certain going away from the Duke's house, the king being in love with her, and a house is taken for her and furnishing; and she hath a ring given her already worth £600.”
This picture of Moll by the court painter Peter Lely shows her holding the symbolic gold unguent jar of Mary Magdalene, so implying she is a reformed sinner, although I have to say her décolletage doesn’t exactly convince the viewer of her repentance!
Charles lavished expensive gifts on his new mistress, including a fine coach. When she became pregnant Moll gave up the stage and delivered a healthy daughter, who was to become the famous Lady Mary Tudor. Moll was one of the most renowned women of her day, though as the King’s Mistress not universally liked, and she only fell from the King’s affections when he became besotted by Nell Gwynne. In fact Samuel Pepys’s wife called her “the most impertinent slut in the world.”
Hearing that Moll was going to sleep with the king, Nell invited her to eat some sweetmeats she had prepared. Unknown to Moll, her rival had spiked the food with the laxative jalap, with the foreseeable inconvenient effect. Nell Gwynne took Moll’s place, and she must have pleased His Majesty as this event led to Moll’s fall from favour. Eventually Moll was paid off with a pension of £1,000 a year and a house in Suffolk Street. By 1673 she had bought a new house in St James Square, and later in her life after Charles’s death, she married the composer James Paisible and for a time resided at the court of the exiled James II in France.
Sir George Etherege wrote scornfully of this later marriage: "Mrs Davies has given proof of the great passion she always had for music, and Monsieur Peasible has another bass to thrum than that he played so well upon."
Moll Davis returned to London in 1693, and died in 1708, in Soho.
The effect of the King’s behaviour and the tone he set at court cannot be underestimated. What the King did, the population imitated, and many rakes and scoundrels began to emulate him and his ‘fast set’ by forming into small bands who would go about the town intent on seduction and worse. What better place could I choose to place my innocent country girls, than into this atmosphere of hedonism and danger?
Diary of Samuel Pepys
Constant Delights, Rakes Rogues & Scoundrels in Restoration England – Hopkins
The Play of Personality in the Restoration Theatre – Masters
A Gambling Man, Charles II and the Restoration – Uglow
The Gilded Lily
Winter, 1661. In her short life Sadie Appleby has never left rural Westmorland. But one night she is rudely awoken by her older and bolder sister, Ella. She has robbed her employer and is on the run. Together the girls flee their home and head for London, hoping to lose themselves in the teeming city. But the dead man's relatives are in pursuit, and soon a game of cat and mouse ensues amongst the freezing warren that is London in winter. Ella is soon seduced by the glitter and glamour of city life and sets her sights on the flamboyant man-about-town, Jay Whitgift, owner of a beauty parlour for the wives of the London gentry. But nothing in the capital is what it seems, least of all Jay Whitgift. Soon a rift has formed between Ella and Sadie, and the sisters are threatened by a menace more sinister than even the law. Set in a brilliantly realised Restoration London, The Gilded Lily is a novel about beauty and desire, about the stories we tell ourselves, and about how sisterhood can be both a burden and a saving grace.
'Deborah Swift's THE GILDED LILY is a heart-rending story of two sisters on the run, searching for a better life. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, the novel drew me straight into the teeming streets of Restoration London. An addictive, page-turning read.’ Mary Sharratt