sun 16/06/2024

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines, BBC Four

Harlots, Housewives and Heroines, BBC Four

Lucy Worsley's 17th-century history for girls exposes all the king's women

Unashamedly populist: Dr Lucy Worsley looks the part

Ooh look, she’s at it again. Fresh from hurling insults at David Starkey (well, he started it) and provoking the ire of historian Alison Light - who presumably didn’t make it through BBC casting - for daring to try on a bonnet on the box and thus “cheapening history”, Dr Lucy Worsley is back on our screens, doing ninja kicks in Puritan dress, trying Restoration gowns for size and shamelessly discussing Samuel Pepys’s “emissions”.

Worsley, who is Chief Curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, is one of a number of increasingly visible female academics (see also Amanda Vickery, Bettany Hughes and Mary Beard) who are, in their own way, changing the way history is done on telly. Worsley doesn’t do hushed reverence or wide-eyed wonder. She larks about, gets her hands dirty and… takes off her clothes. It’s not enough for her to look at a dress that Barbara Villiers, long-serving mistress of Charles II, might have worn at court. She needs to try it on for herself, to assess its loose-fittingness and see how quickly it could come off should the king pop round for a quickie.

The first of three programmes, Harlots, Housewives and Heroines looked at the women of the Restoration period and argued how they brought about a shift in status, for the first time achieving fame, wealth and power. Beacons of sisterhood they were not. At Charles’s court they vied with one another, used their sexual allure as weapons and manipulated the king’s advisers and ministers for their own gains. They piled on the make-up, posed semi-naked for portraits, their breasts spilling out of bodices, and were the focus of Heat magazine-style pamphlets that recorded their movements. They were “career mistresses”, WAGs before they were invented, and, rather than locking themselves away and sparing poor Queen Catherine’s feelings, they paraded their status in public in their sluttish, nipple-flashing gowns.

Worsley told the story of Villiers, who bore the king five children and became a fantasy figure for perennial mucky pup Samuel Pepys who ogled her underwear as it hung on the line, and once got so excited in her presence that he unloaded in his trousers right in front of her.

There was also Nell Gwynne, who ascended the career ladder from orange seller to actress to the king’s favourite squeeze. Worsley asked us to imagine a present-day equivalent: “A leading member of the Royal family acknowledging a mistress, her being a Cockney actress, her being photographed nude by Mario Testino and circulating the images for everybody to see.”

A glib comparison perhaps, but Worsley is unashamedly populist and, in the sliding scale of royal indiscretion, it went some way in illustrating Charles II’s unapologetic licentiousness, making the present-day royals look like paragons of virtue. In Worsley’s hands, history may not be the serious broadcasting endeavour it used to be but it’s full of unexpected detail and mucky as hell.

Worsley doesn’t do hushed reverence or wide-eyed wonder. She larks about, gets her hands dirty and… takes off her clothes

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters