Frances Teresa Stewart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox (8 July 1647–15 October 1702) was a prominent member of the Court of the Restoration and famous for refusing to become a mistress of Charles II of England. For her great beauty she was known as La Belle Stuart and served as the model for an idealised, female Britannia.
Frances was the daughter of Walter Stewart, or Stuart, a physician in Queen Henrietta Maria's court, and a distant relative of the royal family. She was born on 8 July 1647 in exile in Paris, but was sent to England in 1663 after the restoration by Charles I's widow Henrietta Maria as maid of honour (a court appointment) and subsequently as lady-in-waiting to Charles II's new bride, Catherine of Braganza.
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.
The Count de Gramont said of her that "it would be difficult to image less brain combined with more beauty".
While a member of the royal court, she caught the eye of Charles II, who fell in love with her. The king's infatuation was so great that when the queen's life was despaired of in 1663, it was reported that he intended to marry Stewart, and four years later he was considering the possibility of obtaining a divorce to enable him to make her his wife because she had refused to become his mistress.
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. It is certain, at least, that Charles went on to post the Duke to Scotland and then to Denmark as ambassador, where he died in 1672.
The duchess was present at the birth of James Francis Edward Stuart, son of James II, in 1688, being one of those who signed the certificate before the council. She died in 1702, leaving a valuable property to her nephew Lord Blantyre, whose seat of Lethington was renamed Lennoxlove after her.
Following the war with the Dutch, Charles had a commemorative medal cast, in which her face was used as a model for Britannia; this subsequently became customary for medals, coins and statues. She continued to appear on some of the copper coinage of the United Kingdom until the decimalization of the currency in 1971. She also appeared on the fifty pence piece in 2006.
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