Frances Teresa Stewart Duchess of Richmond (1647-1702)
By Samuel Cooper
Frances Stewart (or Stuart) was a prominent member of the Court of the Restoration and famous for refusing to become a mistress of Charles II. For her great beauty she was known as La Belle Stuart and served as the model for an idealised, female Britannia.
She eventually married the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, also a Stuart, in March 1667. It is possible she had to elope to do so, after being discovered with him by a rival for the king’s affections, Lady Castlemaine.
The now Duchess of Richmond, however, soon returned to court, where she remained for many years; and although she was disfigured by smallpox in 1669, she retained her hold on the king’s affections.
The great diarist Samuel Pepys recorded that she was the greatest beauty he ever saw. She had numerous suitors, including the Duke of Buckingham and Francis Digby, son of the Earl of Bristol, whose unrequited love for her was celebrated by Dryden. Her beauty appeared to her contemporaries to be equalled only by her childish silliness; but her letters to her husband, preserved in the British Museum, are not devoid of good sense and feeling.
Though she officially did not have children, a Dutch television-episode of ‘Hidden Past’ showed that there is quite strong evidence that she had an illegitimate daughter with Charles II. This daughter, Rebecca Stewart, was apparently concealed because Stewart’s virtue and beauty were the primary bases of her appeal.