Barbara Villiers: History of Monetary Crimes - Alexander Del Mar

V. Barbara Villiers.

WE now come to the intrigue which was set afoot to remove this restriction, and to deprive the Crown of its seigniorage upon coins, but which, as it happened, had the far more important and lasting effect to substantially deprive the State of its control over the Measure of Value. This intrigue began directly after Blondeau was employed by Charles II. and had put his coining machines to work in the Tower. Its inceptors were the "goldsmiths" (or bankers) of Lombard Street; its instrument was a woman.

Barbara, the only child of William, viscount Grandison, was born in Ireland in 1640, and at the age of 16, being already famous for her extreme beauty and vivacity, was married to Sir Edward Villiers, who died in the following year. After the prescribed interval of mourning the young woman married the rich Roger Palmer, who in 1661, that is to say, a year after Barbara had become the king's mistress, was rewarded for his complaisance with the title of the Earl of Castlemaine. Pepys tersely describes Barbara as a "pretty woman . . . her husband a cuckold," and says that she turned papist not for conscience sake, but to please the king. He adds that the news of her "conversion," in 1663, was carried to Bishop Stilling-fleet by William Penn, the Quaker.

The relations between the king and Barbara Villiers, then Mrs. Palmer, began on the very first day of the Restoration, May 21, 1660. The woman was both depraved and sordid, and she seized upon every occasion to augment her power and fill her purse. She afterwards had, or was reproached with having had, intrigues with Mr. Rowly, Lord Chesterfield, Mr. Churchills, Harry Jermin (Lord Dover), Charles Hart, Jacob Hall, "Fleshy Will of Market Clare," Mr. Goodman, Robert ("Beau") Fielding, Ralph, Duke of Montague, the Viscount Chateillun, and others. Defoe afterwards maliciously remarked that Charles II. had by his own efforts contributed four dukes to the peerage, alluding by this to the dukes of Grafton, Richmond, St. Albans and Buccleugh." But if the stories of Barbara's numerous intrigues had any foundation in fact, Defoe missed his mark by shooting too low.

With Barbara's subsequent marriage to and divorce from Fielding, in 1705-7, this treatise has no concern. Evelyn described her as a "lady of pleasure and the curse of our nation." "Pepys alludes to her as "a burden and reproach" to the country. Clarendon said she would sell everything in the kingdom. She was supported by a vile faction, which included the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, Lord Arlington (Sir William Bennett), Sir William Coventry, and many others, five of whom afterwards constituted the notorious "Cabal" Ministry of 1670. Three months after her relations began with the king, to wit, on the 20th of August, 1660, she was granted by letters patent, a mortgage upon, or pension from, the mint, of "two pence by tale out of every pound weight troy of silver money, which should thenceforth be coined by virtue of any warrant or indenture made and to be made by his Majesty, his heirs, and successors from the 9th of August, 1660, for 21 years." By letters patent dated 19th January, 1664, she was granted "£4,700 a year out of the Post Office revenues." Besides these, she had several other pensions, and was concerned in the promotion of numerous grants, monopolies, benefices, and other sources of revenue. She won £25,000 on cards in a single night; in another, she lost £15,000, and would play for £1,000 to £1,500 upon the single cast of a die. On one occasion the king paid £30,000 to clear her debts.

The movement, which culminated in the Coinage Act of 1666, though it apparently originated with the East India Company, had long been supported by the landlord class, whose interest had caused them to view with alarm the influx of the precious metals from America which began with Potosi. According to Brantome, the fears of the French landlords from this source had amounted almost to phrensy. The Marquis de Tavannes even proposed to demonetise both the precious metals, and employ in their stead coins made of iron; in other words, of some substance that capital could control.

Pending this proposal the creditor class in France tried to exact payments in ecus and other special kinds of coins, which they hoped to render scarce by limiting or obstructing their coinage; but this plan was defeated by Henry II., who, in a public ordinance dated 1551, threatened with death any one who should attempt to thus defeat the beneficent influence of an increase of money. The English nobles, more fruitful in financial resource than their French compeers, devised another plan to check the rise of prices. This was to obtain permission, directly or indirectly, to melt the coins of the realm into plate, to export it to the Antipodes, to get rid of it in some way or another, and thus contract the Measure of Value. All that was needed was a repeal of the statutes against exporting and melting. A movement of this character was made, as previously stated, in the reign of Charles I., about the year 1639. The establishment of the Commonwealth postponed the accomplishment of the design, but no sooner did the Restoration occur than it was again taken up and pursued through the agency of the East India Company and Barbara Villiers.