Vicars and Tarts

If William Chiffinch – Keeper of His Majesty’s Backstairs – was alive today, he’d have probably sold his story for a king’s ransom. As Charles II’s spymaster and general goafer, Will was privy to a host of salacious secrets which, if they’d been leaked, could have destroyed the monarchy.

In 1660, Charles returned from European exile. His father Charles I had been executed and replaced with Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanical regime. The people were immensely relieved to find the Merrie Monarch on the throne in place of the dour Lord Protectorate, who hated parties and anything closely resembling fun. Everyone sought access to the ebullient Charles who found it difficult to get a moment’s peace. The royal bedchamber was a crowded venue, forcing Charles to decamp to his private closet, guarded and protected by his faithful factotum Will Chiffinch.

Nobody could gain private access to Charles (or his closet) without Chiffinch’s consent. He and his wife Barbara took bribes from those desperate for a word in the king’s ear and together they amassed a sizeable fortune. The couple plied supplicants with wine to ferret out information of use to the king. While Barbara acted as hostess, Will ‘let none part from him sober’ and ‘fished out many secrets.’

Chiffinch’s power invariably ruffled feathers; one man who couldn’t get anywhere near Charles, called his esteemed servant a ‘pimp.’ The title was not undeserved. It’s no secret that Charles’s love-life was action-packed, with mistresses overlapping throughout his reign. In order to keep rivalries to manageable levels, the importance of secret entrances and exits was no small matter. In true French-farce style, while one harlot entertained the king in his bedchamber, another was bustled up the backstairs and secreted into Charles’s private closet.

Barbara, bless her soul, had the presence of mind to keep a log of Charles’s whores. Sadly, it no longer exists. The book listed every female visitor’s name, address and sexual expertise. If Charles wanted to see her again, a mark was placed alongside her name. If, alas, she didn’t please him – p’raps she’d given him the pox – she’d be blacklisted.

But it wasn’t only concubines and politicians who were smuggled up the backstairs. England was officially Protestant, but privately Charles was a devout Roman Catholic; sometimes Chiffinch was asked to conceal priests in the king’s private closet so his master could receive the sacrament. During the Popish Plot – a conspiracy to spark a Jesuit rebellion and assassinate the king – Roman priests were common visitors to Charles’s private closet – a national scandal if it had been publicly known.

Alone in his closet, a sanctuary from a bustling and ceremonial public life, Charles indulged in an eclectic array of passions. The king was a keen art collector and used his closet as a private art gallery housing, amongst other notables, Bronzino’s Lady in Green, now on display at Buckingham Palace. Charles was also an amateur scientist, fascinated by alchemy, and pursued his interest in his private closet. According to diarist Samuel Pepys, who actually got to have a nose round the king’s closet, Charles once dissected a human foetus, rumoured to have dropped during a miscarriage at a court ball.

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