Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Question from Liz - Mistresses of the nobility

I was wondering if it was common for nobility in the Elizabethan era to keep mistresses. If a man's infidently came to light, would that hurt his repuation like it does today?


kb said...

I am not sure how 'common' it was but I would say it was not unusual. Sorry to be so vague on this point but I am unaware of a comprehensive study of noble mistresses for the period.

Having mistresses did not hurt a noble's reputation unless he handled the situation badly. There are several cases where a nobleman slept with someone other than his wife. The question was whether he then treated the wife badly. Henry Carey slept around quite a bit apparently including with Amelia Bassano. However, he continued to hold his wife in high regard, arranged a marriage for Amelia when she became pregnant and was, as far as I can tell, never held in disdain by his cousin Queen Elizabeth.

However, the 3rd duke of Norfolk (1473-1554) seems to have treated his wife Elizabeth Stafford Howard horribly when he began sleeping with his mistress Bess Holland- at least according to his wife's account. This is from the Barbara Harris entry in the Dictionary of National Biography:

"During the 1530s Lady Norfolk's marriage collapsed. In March 1534 the duke ‘locked me up in a chamber, [and] took away my jewels and apparel’ (LP Henry VIII, 12/2, no. 976). She was then moved to Redbourne, Hertfordshire, where she lived apart and, as she complained, in a state of virtual imprisonment with a meagre annual allowance of only £200. Despite Norfolk's offers of material awards and the return of her jewels and clothes, she refused to agree to a divorce. Instead, in a series of letters to Thomas Cromwell between 1535 and 1539, she aired her grievances and sought a fair financial arrangement. Three times she wrote how women of the household had bound her, pummelled her, and sat on her breast until she spat blood. She also made the claim, uncorroborated and strenuously denied by Norfolk, that while she was in labour with their daughter Mary in 1519, he had dragged her by her hair out of bed and around the house, wounding her in the head with his dagger. Her publicly aired complaints and accusations isolated her from her eldest son and her daughter, while her brother Henry Stafford condemned her for her ‘wild language’ and her ‘sensual and wilful mind’ (ibid., 6, nos. 474–5)."

Whether this hurt the duke's reputation is unclear. He was clearly trying to pressure his wife for a divorce.

There was less an emphasis on fidelity in marriage for men and less for women once legitimate heirs had been born than there is today in America. For example, Penelope Devereux Rich, baroness Rich later Mountjoy, had several children with her husband Robert Rich but then went on to have several children with her lover Lord Mountjoy. Those children were raised together with her legitimate (Rich) children and she continued to attend court despite having this very public affair with Mountjoy. The key I suspect was that her husband tacitly tolerated her infidelity and kept mostly to the country so that there were no awkward moments in the queen's presence between Penelope's husband and lover.

The precipitous fall of a politician's reputation when infidelity is revealed is uniquely American. Don't forget that at the French president Mitterrand's funeral both his wife and his mistress with her illegitimate daughter attended side-by-side.

PhD Historian said...

I agree completely with KB. Certainly a significant number of instances are known of men having extra-marital sexual relations, at all levels of society, not just among the nobility. And whether or not those affairs damaged the man's reputation depended largely upon whether or not the affair resulted in public scandal. The most common way for scandal to occur was, as KB notes in several examples, the poor treatment of the wife.

It is very important to recall that among the propertied and wealthy classes, marriage was viewed not as an issue of "love" and companionship, but rather as a contracted financial arrangement intended to increase the social and economic standing of one or both families involved. Many couples went on to develop loving relationships, but many did not. For those who did not, it seems logical that the male might seek companionship elsewhere.

But of course there was the usual double-standard. Married women were heavily frowned upon, if not brutalized, for having sexual relations outside a marriage. Society demanded that women remain faithful; men were allowed a certain degree of latitude.

There is actually a recently published book on the subject: Love, Lust, and License in Early Modern England: Illicit Sex and the Nobility, by Johanna Rickman (Ashgate Publishing, 2008).

kb said...

I've browsed through the Rickman book. It looks at a few specific cases instead of a broad picture. So she looks at Penelope Devereux Rich and her affair with Mountjoy and the infamous Frances Howard case early in James I's reign.

I didn't find a lot of new (to mne) information for the Elizabethan era although we need more work like this.

Anonymous said...

Did it make a difference if the mistress was also part of the nobility or a servant? What would have been more socially acceptable?

PhD Historian said...

Anonymous, I'm not certain of this, but my distinct impression is that men of high status did not have "mistresses" who were simultaneously servants. They had occasional sexual relations with female (and male) servants, certainly. But I do not have the impression that any significant number of men of wealth and status carried out long-term relationships with their own or anyone else's servants. But I could easily be wrong.

Anonymous said...

The short answer is that it did matter-- but not the way we might think now. First, not all servants were commoners-- monarchs had some servants that were nobles, and greater nobles might have lesser nobles as servants. If a noble had an ongoing sexual relationship with a genuine lower class servant, he was within his rights to turn her out to starve. If instead he provided her with enough money to live quietly on, or to get someone of her own class to marry her, he was being generous. If he actually married a lower class woman, he was regarded as being irresponsible or even demented.

Things were rather different if the woman was noble. If both the man and woman were single, pressure might be brought on them to marry. If either or both were married to someone else, much depended on the husband and or wife of the lovers. If he and or she didn't mind, few other people cared all that much. And if one or both of the lovers had more than one relationship outside of marriage, that could be even worse.

Robert Dudley, after his first wife died and after he had given up, more or less, on getting the Queen to marry him, had long term affairs with two noblewomen, each of whom gave him a son. Douglas Sheffield was an unmarried woman and a maid of honor to Elizabeth. Lettice Knollys was the widow of the former Earl of Essex, and the mother or the current Earl. Faced with choosing between them (and making the Queen very angry either way), Dudley choose Lettice. Douglas, who was younger and perhaps better looking, and had been Dudley's partner before he took up with Lettice, claimed that she was the real wife, and her son the real heir-- he kept on trying to prove it, right in the reign of James I, but never suceeded. Lettice became Countess to Dudley's Earl, but Elizabeth refused, as long as she lived, to reocgnize Lettice or let her come to court. This make for a lot of talk, but the only person whose opinion could really affect Dudley's career was the Queen. And she continued to employ him in her service, if with less trust. All quite complicated, and sober people like William Cecil disapproved of the whole thing.

kb said...

entspinster makes some good points but I would like to clarify the Dudley/Lettice/Douglas Howard timeline a bit.

Douglas Howard and Robert Dudley did have a a serious affair that resulted in the birth of a son Robert Dudley on Aug 7 1574. There may have been a still born girl before that but evidence is tenuous at best. At the time of the affair Douglas Howard was a widow, her first husband, John Sheffield, baron Sheffield had died on 10 Dec 1568. They had 2 children, Edmund (1565-1646) and Elizabeth (dates unknown to me). So by 1571 Douglas was a widowed baroness, mother of 2 children, 29 years old and a lady of the privy chamber (no longer a maid of honour).

Douglas and her sister Frances Howard were both thought to be in love with Robert Dudley according to a letter dated May 11 1573. In response to the original question the same letter goes on to say that the 'Queen thinketh not well of them, and the better of him'.

Lettice Knollys Devereux, widowed countess of Essex did not marry Robert Dudley until Sep 21 1578. This is four years after the birth of Douglas's son. It is also 3 years after the famous progress to Kenilworth which is generally considered to be Robert Dudley's last great attempt to convince Elizabeth to marry him. Lettice was at the 1575 Kenilworth festivities as a lady of the court who was still married to the earl of Essex who was in Ireland. It is possible that Lettice and Robert became involved then but unlikely.

Lettice was one of Elizabeth's closest female relations and looked a great deal like her according to the portraits.

When Lettice and Robert did marry in 1578 it was in secret as to not anger the queen. Lettice was also pregnant at the time. When the queen found out about the marriage, she was, as expected, furious and refused to see Lettice. She also was angry at Dudley but eventually forgave him.

Elizabeth's anger at Lettice did not extend to her son Robert Devereux earl of Essex or her daughters who all served at court.

Dudley did not choose between Douglas and Lettice. He and Douglas were over before he and Lettice started. As far as we know, Douglas was not socially punished for her relationship with Dudley. Until their illegitimate son tried to sue to prove his legitimacy in 1604, Douglas always denied that Robert Dudley had ever promised to marry her. She went on to marry in 1579 Edward Stafford (1552-1605) who later was ambassador to France. Douglas was very successful as an ambassador's wife and apparently developed a productive relationship with Catherine d'Medici.

kb said...

The original question and it's follow-up regarding social status overlooks a basic feature of 16th century marriage - a feature PhD historian brought forward.

Marriage amongst any person of property was about property. Spousal partners may have been affectionate, or even in love, but the birth of an heir (and hopefully a spare) was thought a necessary component of marriage. The legitimacy of heirs needed to be unquestioned. If a woman had an affair before there were heirs, it was considered nearly criminal. What would happen to the wealth of the estate? Would it descend to a bastard?

If however, the spouses had guaranteed the continuation of the estate through the production of legitimate heirs, some latitude was allowed the woman. The man had latitude regardless although a parcel of bastard children could make his life difficult if he never had legitimate ones.

Reputations were based on how scandal free the person was - not who they slept with. Scandal was defined differently in the 16th century than it is in the US today.

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall that Bess of Hardwick's last husband had a mistress after he left Bess? And she did rather well out of the situation when he died.