Frances Teresa Stewart or Stuart, 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 famously served as the model for an idealised, female Britannia, her image put on to British Coins right up until 1971.
The late Neil Gordon suggested Frances was born in Blantyre Priory, but this was not the case. That inaccuracy has also in recent years been repeated by Mr Bill Sim [aka Blantyre’s Ain] online, a site known to contain many errors about Blantyre. The myth dispelled here in this article.
She did not live in Blantyre, nor indeed was there any evidence that this distinguished lady ever visited the town, which in the 1600’s only had a couple of hundred people living in scattered farms. Additionally, she was not the daughter of the 3rd Lord Blantyre. These incorrect statements sadly have been copied and reproduced time and time again and whilst she had no direct association with this town, she was however related to the first Lord Blantyre who was her grandfather, and so her story is worth telling briefly here.
Frances was the daughter of Walter Stewart, or Stuart, a physician in Queen Henrietta Maria’s court, the 3rd son of the 1st Lord Blantyre, and a distant relative of the royal family. By the time she was born the Blantyre Priory had long been abandoned by the Stuart family. She was actually born on 8 July 1647 in exile in Paris. She spent her formative years in France and never set foot in Britain until 1662, when she was sent to England after the restoration by King 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. At that time she was 14.
In the next few years, the great diarist Samuel Pepys recorded that she was the greatest beauty he ever saw. She had numerous English 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. The Count de Gramont said of her that “it would be difficult to image less brain combined with more beauty”.
While a young woman and member of the royal court, she caught the eye of King 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. He showered Frances in gifts.
She declined all his advances and eventually married his cousin, 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. Charles was furious and sent her husband abroad to Denmark on diplomatic missions, which kept him apart from Frances for long spells. He was also posted to Scotland, away from London based Frances.
The now Duchess of Richmond, however, soon returned to court, where she remained for many years; and although she was disfigured by an attack of smallpox in 1669, she retained her hold on the king’s affections. Five years after her marriage, her estranged husband died in suspicious circumstances in 1672 falling between his ship and the harbour wall whilst disembarking, and drowning. Some claimed conspiracy and pointed fingers at the King. After the death of her husband and without children or a male heir, Frances’ husband’s estates reverted back to the King. He continued to be her good friend and granted her a 1000-pound pension per year for life.
The duchess was present at the birth of James Francis Edward Stuart, son of King James II, in 1688, being one of those who signed the certificate before the council. She died in 1702, leaving a valuable property and £50,000 in her will to her nephew Alexander, 5th Lord Blantyre, whose seat of Lethington in Scotland was renamed Lennoxlove after her. Lennoxlove is now the property of the Duke of Hamilton who purchased it in 1948.
The house is open to the public, and some of the gifts given to Frances by the King are on display. A fire in the Oak Room (formerly known as the Blantyre-Stewart room) destroyed 8 of 14 paintings of the Lords and Ladies of Blantyre and their families. The surviving 6 paintings one of which is Frances seen here, were badly affected by smoke but restored.
In 1664, England, at war with the Dutch, won several naval victories. Charles II decided to celebrate by having several medals struck. Charles II 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. To be honest, you don’t really see much of her face on any of the coins as she’s wearing a large helmet. Britannia 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.
On social media:
Helen Williams I was told as a child that the lady on the penny was a Blantyre girl that modelled for the image you see on the penny. She posed only as Fraces
Moyra Lindsay The King had her image on the penny so that she was handled by every common man in the country, all because she refused him. That’s what we were told.