Whenever we post about a historical Intrepid Lady, we always see at least one comment about how that lady's story would make a fantastic book. Today I'm heading the comments off at the proverbial pass, because this Intrepid Lady is the heroine of my brand-new historical novel The Countess and the King.
Though only a footnote in most histories, Katherine Sedley (1657-1717) deserves more than that. True, she didn't change the course of history, or create or inspire great works of art. But she was wickedly funny, independent, and unpredictable, and determined to go her own way, which very few other well-bred 17th c. ladies dared to do.
The only child of libertine poet Sir Charles Sedley and a lady-mother who went mad, Katherine was treated more like a pet than a daughter by her father, one of the riotous young gentleman who made the Restoration court such a scandalous place to be in the 1660s. Like some modern Hollywood child, Katherine mingled with rakes and actresses in taverns, playhouses, and at racecourses, and at an early age learned to drink, swear, and speak her mind.
While she could still have been redeemed by her father's connections and wealth and made a good marriage, there were two stumbling blocks. First, Katherine was considered shamefully plain. Second, and more importantly, she didn't want to give control of her life to a husband. Instead she became known as an independent lady at court, shocking and delighting with her wit and outrageous observations. She was often on the receiving end of cruel jests, too, but she held her head high, and laughed in return. She endured several painful love affairs before shocking everyone yet again by becoming the mistress of the king's brother, James, Duke of York. He was smitten by her cleverness and her audacity, and he seems to have genuinely loved her, and she him. Unlike other royal mistresses, she'd chosen to be with him not for wealth or prestige, but simply because it pleased her to do so.
But when Charles II died and James was made king, the relationship soured beneath the weight of James's increasing loyalty to the Catholic Church. The end was untidy, with public scenes and dramatic banishments, but Katherine had chosen wisely when she parted with him. Three years later, James was chased from the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange.
Most royal mistresses disappear with their kings. Katherine wasn't ready to retire. Instead she fought Parliament to keep the lands and other gifts that James had given their daughter, and won. She teased the new Queen Mary about being her father's old mistress, and acted up in the staid new court as the defiant reminder of the wicked old days. At the then-ancient age of nearly forty, she finally found a man she loved well enough to marry, Sir David Colyear, a gruff, one-eyed officer noted for his bravery, who was in time made Earl of Portmore. She bore him two sons, and relished her new role as a mother.
But even in old age, Katherine was determined to be outrageous. At one of George I's stuffy assemblies, she was sat near Louise de Keroualle, Charles II's last mistress, and Elizabeth Villiers, William III's mistress. "Who would have thought that we three old whores would have met here?" she cackled loudly, to the shocked delight of everyone around them.
"Her wit was rather surprizing than pleasing," wrote Lord Dartmouth, "for there was no restraint in what she said of or to any body." How, really, could I resist?
Above: Katherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester, by Godrey Kneller, c.1683
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.