La Belle Stuart

If you’ve ever held a modern UK 50p piece, you’ll be familiar with the image of Britannia, seated with her spear and shield, appearing as the personification of Britain itself.

50p

What many do not know is the story behind it, and the real woman whose image would still be gracing our money over 350 years later.

When Charles II wanted to cast a medal in commemoration of his victory over the Dutch in 1664, the model he chose was a woman who had famously refused to become his mistress, and bucked the usual Restoration trend by saying no to the King’s advances.

Her name was Frances Stuart, and her father was a physician at Henrietta Maria’s court in exile. After the Restoration she returned to England, serving first as maid of honour to Henrietta Maria, and then lady-in-waiting to Charles’s new wife, Catherine of Braganza. Nicknamed “La Belle Stuart”, various 17th century commentators declared her the most beautiful woman they ever saw, including (unsurprisingly) Samuel Pepys, and besides the rebuffed monarch her suitors included the Duke of Buckingham and George Digby, son of the Earl of Bristol.

There are several portraits of Frances surviving today, including probably the most famous one (featured here previously), painted by Peter Lely and now in the Royal Collection.

Frances Stewart Richhmond

 

Frances Stewart 2
By Willem Wissing, 1687 ©historicalportraits.com

Frances Stewart vdv
By Jan van der Vaart ©National Portrait Gallery, London

I found the below painting on an auction site, named as Frances Stuart and attributed to Sir Peter Lely, although I think that’s unlikely, given the one above. Peter Lely was famous for his portrayal of glamorous, beautiful women. If Frances Stuart was as ravishing as it is claimed, I think Sir Peter could have done better than this uncharacteristically demure attempt!

Ebay Frances Stewart

Although Frances was a famed beauty, she wasn’t known for being all that bright. One man said of her that “it would be difficult to image less brain combined with more beauty”. Ouch. She married the Duke of Richmond and Lennox in 1667 and contracted disfiguring smallpox in 1669, but she continued to be a feature of court life and remained in the affections of the King.

So the next time you have a 50p in your pocket, turn it over and take a look at La Belle Stuart. She may have been, in words I once heard used for a mistress of Louis XV, ‘as beautiful as an angel, but as stupid as a basket’, but since she managed to avoid falling into bed with the notoriously skirt-chasing Charles II, she must have had some good sense!

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2 Comments

  1. There’s also the Duchess’s funeral effigy at Westminster – have you seen it? I agree that this painting doesn’t look much like her. Lely’s portraits of women were often enough “beautiful, but not like” (can’t recall who said that, maybe Pepys?) but at least his best-known of her is recognisably the same person as the effigy.

    As for the comments about her supposed lack of intelligence – they sound to me exactly like the things men say about women who say No, so I’ll take that with a grain of salt. Doesn’t have to be the man rejected saying it, either (Charles II wasn’t that sort, afaik). He’s also supposed to have written the poem/song I Pass All My Hours while in pursuit of her.

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  2. Yes it sounds like a pretty standard male comment!

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