Great Royal Scandals – Monarchs Behaving Badly

Henry VIII and his court in 'The Tudors'

Looking forward to the mayhem, vice and scandal of The Tudors? Season 3 starts tonight (Nov. 16) at 9/8c and picks up where the lust, double-dealing and murder of Season 2 left off.

As you know, Henry VIII (portrayed by actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers) knew how to get what he wanted – except, perhaps for a male heir – by engaging in the most outrageous behavior. If the church was an obstacle, just create a new church. A pesky, conniving aristocrat? An annoying wife? Off with their heads.

Just in case you’ve forgotten any of the scandals – and even if you haven’t – you might enjoy this brief (but steamy) Tudor Tutorial:

But lest you think that the Tudors had a monopoly on scandal, we thought we’d look at some other royals behaving badly. Take, for example, the dynasty that immediately followed the Tudors – the Stuarts could certainly hold their own in plots and intrigue, as we found out from Michael Farquhar’s amusing book, Behind the Palace Doors: Five Centuries of Sex, Adventure, Vice Treachery, and Folly from Royal Britain.

Here’s a look at just the first three Stuarts:

• King James I, aka King James VI of Scotland (b. 1556 – d. 1625)

In the words of one contemporary observer, the court of King James I was filled with “malice, pride, whoredom, swearing and rejoicing in the fall of others … so wicked a place as I wonder the earth did not swallow it up.”

James, who’s been called “the wisest fool in Christendom” was an accomplished scholar – remember, he oversaw writing of the version of the Bible that now bears his name – but he also believed seriously and devotedly in witches.

Beginning in 1590, James encouraged a series of witch trials in Scotland aimed at rooting out more than 300 witches who, he believed, had conspired against him with spells, trying to kill him by melting his image in wax and trying to summon ocean waves to sink his ship at sea.

Actually, James didn’t just encourage the trials, he was an enthusiastic participant, writes Farquhar, “cross-examining some defendants, triumphantly heralding the tortured confessions of others, and exhorting juries to send them to the stake.”

A failed assassination attempt against James in 1605 became perhaps England’s most famous conspiracy against a monarch. Known as the Gunpowder Plot, a group of conspirators planned to blow up Parliament, kill James and reclaim England as a Catholic country.

Charles I (b. 1600 – d. 1649)

Anti-monarchists were much more successful against James I’s son, Charles I, who as you’ll recall, was overthrown and beheaded, probably because he had no idea how to compromise. A staunch believer in the divine right of kings above all else, Farquhar says his world view was basically “medieval.”

“Parliaments, he believed, were merely instruments to carry out his will,” writes Farquhar. “In this, Charles was woefully out of synch with the evolving political order, and his inability, or unwillingness, to recognize it had terrible consequences.”

Like a series of bloody civil wars, the aforementioned beheading and the dissolution of the monarchy.

Or, as Farquhar puts it: “Charles I was, in short, a bad king.”

Farquhar, and others, do acknowledge that Charles went a long way towards redeeming himself during his trial and execution. But the real indignities came after the beheading.

After the executioner held up the king’s head, he slammed it down and bruised it. “His hair was cut off,” wrote one contemporary witness. “Soldiers dipped their swords in his blood. Base language upon his dead body.”

“His hair and blood were sold by parcels,” said Sir Roger Manley. “Their hands and sticks were tinged with his blood and the block, now cut into chips, as also the sand, sprinkled with his sacred gore, were exposed for sale.”

The business in Charles’s gore was apparently so brisk that one  soldier even was overheard to say: “I wish we had two or three more Majesties to behead, if we could by make such use of them.”

Charles II (b. 1630 – d. 1685)

After the repression of Oliver Cromwell, Charles I’s son was invited back as King Charles II, but only after he was defeated by Cromwell’s forces in battle and spent nearly two decades as a wanted fugitive in Europe.

Charles II’s reign, which became known as the Restoration, was marked by religious and political turbulence, but for our purposes mostly what people seem to remember about the so-called “Merrie Monarch” is his, well, merriness.

And he was very merry indeed.

“A king is supposed to be the father of his people, and Charles certainly was a father to a good many of them,” said the Duke of Buckingham at the time. Charles admitted to having a dozen illegitimate children.

His numerous affairs were well-known, except, at first to his new wife, Catherine of Braganza. After a difficult period of adjustment, however, she seems to have accepted his very public dalliances with a string of famous mistresses – and author Farquhar says that Charles grew to love her as well, in his own, non-monogamous, way.

In fact, most of Charles’ personal difficulties seemed to arise from jealousies between his mistresses.

One of his most famous paramours, Barbara Villiers Palmer, whom Charles made the Countess of Castlemaine, felt so threatened by Charles’ infatuation with one of the Queen’s young ladies-in-waiting that she thought the only way to keep the King’s interest was to arrange a royal threesome, planning a mock lesbian wedding for herself to the young lady.

Then, of course, there was the famous actress Nell Gwynn –  – who liked to refer to her regal lover as “My Charles the Third” because she’d had two previous lovers with the same name. Called “a bold merry slut” by Samuel Pepys, her main rival was the high-born Duchess of Portsmouth, Louise de Keroualle, though the lively Nell always seemed to have the upper hand.

In one catty encounter, the Duchess snootily remarked on the actress’s fancy clothing: “Nelly, you are grown rich, I believe, by your dress. Why, woman, you are fine enough to be a queen.”

“You are entirely right,” Nell replied, “and I am whore enough to be a duchess.”

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If anyone’s looking for a spin-off series to the Tudors, we think The Stuarts would be royally entertaining.