The Mistresses of Cliveden: Natalie Livingstone

Cliveden, once the home of noblemen, is now a five-star hotel. It’s only five miles from Windsor Castle, but Cliveden, a huge spectacular house, in spite of its size and grandeur, somehow exudes illicit intimacy. Perhaps it’s the Fountain of Love statue or perhaps it’s the reputation of the Spring Cottage added in the early nineteenth century and rented by Stephen Ward. I first read about Cliveden in connection to the Profumo Affair, for it was at Cliveden that John Profumo met a naked Christine Keeler frolicking in the pool.

the mistresses of cliveden

But the Profumo Affair is not Cliveden’s only claim to fame. In the 17h century, Cliveden was originally two lodges on 160 acres when it was purchased by the notorious rake, George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham who then built Cliveden as a “monument to his scandalous affair” with his married mistress Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury. Their very public affair led to a duel between Buckingham and Shrewsbury which resulted in Shrewsbury’s death, and eventually a penitent Countess of Shrewsbury gave up Buckingham and reconciled with her son after many years of estrangement.

It’s the history of Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury that launches this non-fiction book, and sets the tone for the idea that Cliveden is a very special place–initially designed as a splendid, shameless love nest for the married-to-other-people couple who flaunted their love affair and damned the consequences. The fact that with the death of Shrewsbury, Buckingham and the Countess of Shrewsbury got what they wanted–only to discover that it came at too high a price, also places a sort of mark upon Cliveden. Not a stain, not a blemish, but a reputation….

During its dawn in the 1660s as much as its twilight in the 1960s, Cliveden was an emblem of elite misbehavior and intrigue.

This reputation which includes a huge degree of notoriety continues with the stories of the other women who inhabited Cliveden throughout the centuries in The Mistresses of Cliveden: Three Centuries of Power, Scandal, and Intrigue in an English Stately Home by Natalie Livingstone.  Other mistresses of Cliveden include: Elizabeth Villiers, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, and Nancy Astor. Adding to the sense of scandal which seems to hang like a cloud over Cliveden’s history, Elizabeth Villiers was mistress to William III, a rather lucrative job, as it turns out.

Author Natalie Livingstone clearly loves her subject providing minute details about the building of Cliveden. For some readers who are familiar with British history, some of the information will be already well-known. The section of the Duke of Buckingham, for example, goes into the English Civil war and Buckingham’s privileged relationship to Charles II. While it’s necessary to include this information in a where-does-a story-begin-and-end sort of way, some of it will be a repeat for readers at all familiar with the period. However, there’s masses of information here about daily life including the stringent 18th century mourning requirements that necessitated the covering of any shining surface.  While the book’s title emphasizes The Mistresses of Cliveden, this is essentially the history of a house–originally designed as an ostentatious love nest (the word ‘nest’ seems ironic in this case,) and the history of this house is set within the larger context of the shifting history of England.

Cliveden had been reduced to a charred ruin. Following the fire, Mary lived alone, a tragic figure, residing in the dilapidated wing that had escaped the flames. The remains of the house, along with the lone inhabitant, became a source of morbid fascination to the public.  Her fallen situation and the ruins in which she lived fitted well with the late 18th-century trend for Gothic sites. In the latter part of the century, under the influence of writers such as Horace Walpole and William Sotheby, ‘picturesque’ and ‘melancholy’ settings began to attract artists, writers, and as the fashion for the Gothic took hold, crowds of tourists.

The house, soaked in scandal, rebuilt in the nineteenth century following a catastrophic fire, morphs with the times and with each new owner until it became a huge unsustainable white elephant that could be put to best use as a hotel. For its owners however, the house started as a temple to a licentious  man’s mistress, and ended as a symbol of monumental indiscretion.

Review copy

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13 Comments

Filed under Livingstone Natalie, Non Fiction

13 responses to “The Mistresses of Cliveden: Natalie Livingstone

  1. Very interesting, Guy. I live quite close to Cliveden (just 15 minutes away by car) and have visited quite a few times. The grounds and gardens are beautiful. While the book itself probably isn’t for me, it’s absolutely of interest to the local community here – definitely one for the local library network so I’ll check to see if they have a copy on their list. Thanks for flagging it up.

  2. This sounds very interesting. Since I don’t know too much about English history I wouldn’t mind some basic information.
    I’m glad it’s a hotel and not a ruin by now. I wonder if it was used in movies.

  3. It sounds quite interesting, but what’s the tone? Having visited a couple of British Stately Homes, I’ve been struck by the attitude of both the visitors and the tour guides… to an Aussie (albeit British born) it seems somewhere between reverential awe and obsequiousness. At one stage I thought the tour guide was going to curtsey to the bed some queen was reputed to have slept in…
    I like a nice Bolshie author when it comes to contemporary writing about BSHs…

  4. A genteel kind of advertising, eh?

  5. At last you’re reading something salubrious. Guy. I’ve been to Cliveden, and as Lisa says above, the reverential attitude does grate on us colonials. And as with many of the royals through history, the scandals that are so spicy in these grand settings are basically the stuff the hoi polloi get up to anyway. But I have to admit the Christine Keeler story was pretty interesting.

  6. I too live close to Cliveden, have been in its lovely gardens many times and even saw an open-air performance of Wind in the Willows there many years ago. I knew it for its more recent scandal, of course, but had no idea it was such a hotbed of intrigue from the very start…

  7. It must be interesting from the historical point of view.

    I’ve never been there but from what Lisa and Gert write, I bet I’d be amused and irritated by the attitude. Each time I visit places where I’m expected to bow to some king or aristocracy I’m glad Louis XVI was guillotined. 🙂

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