Among all the fair ladies who graced the gay Court of Charles II. one of the most lovely, and perhaps quite the most individual, was "La Belle Stuart," afterwards the Duchess of Richmond and Lennox. Her behaviour is marked by a delightful, petulant childishness which is like a breeze from the meadows suddenly blowing upon the hothouse atmosphere of the Court.
So we feel as we watch her escapades across the intervening years, and evidently Charles II. thought so too. He was undoubtedly strongly attached to her, and it was no idle rumour which said, when the Royal Consort, Catharine of Braganza, was very ill, that the King intended to make Mistress Stuart his wife in the event of Catharine's death. And when the Queen ungraciously recovered, it was only his lady-love's elopement with the Duke which prevented the King from showing his disappointment by taking steps to procure a divorce. The career of this lady, therefore, is particularly interesting, inasmuch as she very nearly became the wife of one of England's monarchs.
Frances Teresa Stewart, or Stuart, was born in the year 1648, the elder daughter of Walter Stewart, M.d., himself the third son of Walter Stuart, first Lord Blantyre. She was thus a year old when the Commonwealth entered upon its life, and when her father, a Royalist, as his name implies, took refuge in France.
Frances' Parisian upbringing resulted in the adding to her English beauty of all the charm and fascination of the Frenchwoman, and in her acquiring to the full the taste, particularly in dress, for which she is famous. Louis XIV. was very fond of Frances, and considered her one of the greatest ornaments of his Court. His partiality was such that the Queen Henrietta thought it well, in 1662, two years after the Restoration, to remove this dangerously fascinating young lady out of the way by obtaining for her an introduction to Charles II. The French king was genuinely sorry to lose her, and presented her with a handsome farewell gift.
Early in 1663 Frances was appointed maid of honour to Catharine of Braganza, and henceforward she reigned supreme among the beauties of the Court. Historians do not, as a rule, dilate upon the beauty of the ladies of whom they write, but they make an exception in the case of "La Belle Stuart" -perhaps because she was admittedly rather lacking in brains, and they can bear her no grudge for her cleverness. Pepys, who thought her the loveliest woman he had ever seen, and described her "with hat cocked, red plume, sweet eye, little Roman nose, and excellent taile." These few words give a far more sparkling little picture of her than the lengthy descriptions of her charms given elsewhere. From these, however, we learn that she was " one who made a very glittering show," her features being fine and uniform, her figure slender, tall, and straight. She was a good dancer-pepys exclaims enthusiastically that she danced "mighty fine" - and possessed refinement of manner, "and had to a nicety that air of dress, so much admired, which is not to be hit exactly, unless one has taken it very young, in France."
Such was the new maid of honour. It was not long before she attracted Charles' notice, for Lady Castlemaine took the young beauty under her protecting wing, and insisted on her presence at all the entertainments she prepared for the King's enjoyment. She probably thought that even Frances' charms could not rob herself of the King's affections.
Early in the summer Pepys remarks that the King " will be with Mistress Stuart half an hour together kissing her." But it was long before Frances yielded to the King's importunities. She was very happy at her favourite games of blind man's buff, hunt the slipper, card building, and other childish amusements. It was not very easy to win her favour. John Roettiers, Nathaniel Lee, Francis Digby, all of whom were passionately devoted to her, failed to do so. But Anthony Hamilton was able to hold two lighted tapers within his mouth longer than anyone else succeeded in doing, and he was admitted to favour immediately as a reward for this wonderful feat. My Lord Buckingham, too, was another favourite, because he could write and sing lampoons, invent and tell stories which made her " die with laughing." His forte was that of mimicry, and Frances liked nothing better than to see him imitate the mannerisms of the people around them.
Buckingham was indirectly responsible for her offending the dignity of Lord Arlington on one occasion. The former particularly excelled in mimicking Lord Arlington's expression and speech, and when one day that gentleman came to lay before her a host of carefully prepared maxims and advice as to her conduct-my lord strongly disapproved of Royal favourites-frances astounded her would-be mentor by bursting into a fit of laughter before he had said many words, mindful of the Duke's clever imitation of his ways. The discomfited Arlington went off abruptly, deeply hurt, wise counsels and all, and nearly took them to Lady Castlemaine, that they should not be wasted, but prudence got the better of his pique.
She was, indeed, an amazing young lady. She loved her toys and her childish games; her talk could only be described by the word " prattle." She astonished the French Ambassador by the artless way she chattered to the King. And the circumstance which led her at last to take pity on the King's sighs is very characteristic of her babyishness. A new coach arrived at the Court from France. All the Court ladies, including the Queen, were anxious for the honour of the first drive in it, and rivalry was particularly fierce between Frances and Lady Castlemaine. Charles saw his opportunity, and Frances was finally won by the granting of the favour to her, and her alone.
In January, 1667, when Frances was nineteen years old, she was sought in marriage by her cousin, Charles Stuart, third Duke of