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Hampton Court Showcases Women Who Captivated King and Court

By April 9, 2012

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Throughout history powerful men have frequently sought the company of beautiful women, and likewise many attractive females -- knowing the value of a pretty face -- have parlayed their looks to their best advantage. Today we have websites like SeekingArrangement.com that hook up sugar daddies and sugar babies. But centuries before the internet provided easy access, women had to finagle their way into the world of the royal court to find benefactors.

In an article for the UK's The Telegraph, Sarah Crompton takes a look at "The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned," an exhibition at Hampton Court, East Molesey, Surrey from April 5-September 30. The exhibition's title was inspired by its subjects -- females whom Crompton says "might be termed 17th-century strumpets - the beautiful women who sought to make their way in the world in the licentious court of Charles II."

Barbara Villiers

Barbara Villiers Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Instead of Sex and the City, think Sex and the 1600s. The escapades of Carrie Bradshaw, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha are mild in comparison to these women's lives.

This fascinating cast of characters includes Francis Stuart, "the prettiest girl in the world" whose features were reproduced as the image of Britannia on coinage; her sister Margaret Brooke, mistress of a duke who went on to marry a man nearly 3 times her age who may have poisoned her out of jealousy; Nell Gwynn, a former orange seller and actor who bore the king two sons and once called herself "the Protestant whore"; Lucy Walter who died of syphilis; Hortense Mancini who was rumored to have slept with countless men (including a priest), several nuns and the illegitimate daughter of the king; and Barbara Villiers, who -- out of Charles' many mistresses -- lasted the longest as his favorite.

Brett Dolman, curator of the exhibition, told The Guardian that "beauty was a very thin line" for those women who could never be sure of how long they'd stay in favor. As he explained:

On one side, beauty is taken as a symbol of virtue and perfection, beauty could allow you to rise far beyond your original station in life. On the other, beauty is viewed with suspicion as a snare and one wrong step and your reputation is destroyed forever.

At Express.co.uk, Dolman says it more succinctly and notes why the theme of the exhibition remains relevant:

If you were ambitious, beauty could get you what you wanted. I don't think those are alien concepts to the 21st century

Related article:

Men, Sex and Power - Why Powerful Men Behave Badly

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