Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Intrepid Women: Katherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester

Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Susan reports:

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

17 comments:

LaDonna said...

Katherine Seldely looks beautiful to me! Perhaps a flattering portrait? Still who doesn't like a story of intelligence and a sense of humor winning over empty beauty?

Deb said...

From your description I don't understand how she became Countess of Dorchester having been married to the Earl of Portmore...was it a title given by a king to her (as with Charles II and Lady Castlemaine) or from her own family or from another marriage?

Margaret Evans Porter said...

A fantastic read, as always--found the book @ Borders last week and enjoyed it over the holiday weekend.

So glad that Katherine will become known to a wider audience. She was certainly notorious enough in her own day!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Deb the title Countess of Dorchester was given to her by James II.

Susan, I adored THE COUNTESS AND THE KING. You made Katherine come to life with all her wit and joie de vivre. I was very sad when the book ended.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

LaDonna, I agree about Katherine's portraits. While there may be a bit of artistic flattery at work (that's what portrait painters DO!), I think in Katherine's case it's more a question of the changing standards of beauty. The 17th c. ideal was plump and languid, and Katherine just didn't fit it. But the descriptions of her that were so scornful then read like a supermodel now: tall and very thin, with long legs, a wide mouth, high cheekbones, and large dark eyes. As another blogger noted, she sounds like Angelina Jolie! *g*

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Deb, Elizabeth Kerri beat me to the answer! This post was already getting so long, I'm lucky I didn't rewrite the whole book with more info. *g*

Yes, James made Katherine Countess of Dorchester soon after he was crowned. He thought she'd be pleased; she wasn't. She realized that one James was king and had promised a new, less-bawdy regime, she'd have to keep a (relatively) low profile if she wished to continue as his mistress. But once he made her a peeress, therefore publicly acknowledging her role as his mistress, his wife the queen and his advisors at once protested. ("Went ballistic" probably wouldn't be too overstated.) It was the beginning of the end between James and Katherine.

The title was for her use only, and wasn't hereditary. So when she married Colyear, she became the Countess of Dorchester and Countess of Portmore. Her husband was not Earl of Dorchester. When she died, the title died with her.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Margaret and Elizabeth Kerri, thank you so much for your kind words! With such a fantastic woman as a heroine, it was, as you can imagine, a very entertaining book to write. :)

ILoveVersailles said...

Congratulations on the new book! I bought it this morning, and you hooked me in with the first page. I can tell already that I am going to totally adore Katherine Sedley!

KuriosityKat said...

I feel like I've been waiting for this book for ever! I'm going to buy it on my way home from work tonight. Good luck with your sales!

nightsmusic said...

Shamefully plain? Bah! Even in the portrait, her amusement is clear as if she's holding some private joke and teasing the viewer whether or not she'll tell.

You have such a gift for bringing the past and it's inhabitants to life.

Anonymous said...

Any chance this will come out for the Nook? Sounds like a book I'd like,but I'm trying to downsize my bookcases.

Deb Holland said...

BTW, a great writer named Kate Sedley has written 19 wonderful medieval mysteries featuring Roger Champman, plus one book on the Civil War. Wonder if there's any connection?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anonymous, I'm told that the book will soon be available on Amazon and B&N as an ebook - please check back on those sites in the next week or two. While downloading ebooks is fast, apparently it takes a bit to make them available (and no, I have NO idea why.)

Deb, I didn't realize there was a writer with the name! She can't be a direct descendent of the older Katherine, since she had no children named Sedley - but possibly a distant cousin? Even if it's just fortuitous coincidence, I love it - and probably so would the original Katherine.:)

Katya said...

I would like to thank you for such a remarkable work.
Just finished the your latest creation about the King and Countess of Dorchester. It was very unusual for me to read the book from the first person, but it created interesting point of view non the less. In other word I loved it every page of it.
Only one question: why do some believe that the Kathrine's daughter was not Kings but colonel Graham? (it's a bad habit called internet,it give you so many different opinions)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Katya, thank you so much for your kind words for "The Countess & the King" - I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed it so much. :)

As for the question as to whether Katherine's daughter could claim royal blood, or just "old gamekeeper Graham's" - that deserves a more complicated answer!

The 17th c. is a time when printed libels, slanderous poems, and other kinds of scandal sheets (most unsigned, or dubiously attributed) were just becoming popular. Kings and royal mistresses were obvious targets. While royal politics were the true target, the easiest and most amusing angle to take was often laden with sex. So to attack and belittle James, Katherine was often presented as unfaithful and unsatisfied, a lust-crazed harlot that seems to have had little basis in reality.

While Colonel Graham had been an earlier suitor of Katherine's, he seems to have been completely loyal to his wife, and also very loyal to James (to his near-ruin after James fled to exile.) So how conveniently wicked to say that Katherine's daughter was really Graham's, and claiming that James was doubly betrayed by two people he most trusted.

The problem with all this 17th c. slander is that later historians accepted it as truth. The Victorians are particularly guilty of this, esp. since they really wanted to believe that life in Restoration England was every bit as bad and sinful as they suspected. One historian accepts gossip as fact and prints it, and then the next one, too, reprints and retells the story, until it's completely accepted over the years as truth.

I've found this has happened over and over with the royal mistresses in particular - you really have to sift through and question almost everything about them until you get back to the primary source. So while there were certainly whispers about Graham and Katherine and the parentage of Lady Darnley, and even sources out there quoting Graham as declaring the baby was his, I don't believe it - not only because there's no primary source proof, but also because it just doesn't "feel" right with what is known of the people involved.

Of course, after 300 or so years, who really knows for sure? *g*

Katya said...

Good Day Susan, I finished another creation of yours "French Mistess". It was a delight to read more about beautifl Lady as Louise.
Please tell us who is going to be another historical lady?
Thank you so much for writing.

Anonymous said...

Katherine told her two sons by her husband, "If anyone calls you the sons of a whore, you must live with it, because its the truth. But if anyone calls you bastards, fight til you die, for you are an honest man's sons". Good for her.

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