Barbara Villiers – Countess of Suffolk

Category: 17th century women’s history

This is the tale of yet another ambitious Villiers girl, and another Barbara to boot.  This Barbara was the eldest daughter of Sir Edward Villiers and Barbara St John, making her aunt to two Royal mistresses and a Royal favourite.

Barbara Villiers Countess of Suffolk

Baptised in Westminister Abbey on June 1, 1622, Barbara was on the celebrity A list from birth, thanks to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, her father’s half brother and favourite of King James I.

A prized pawn in the matrimony market, Barbara was married off at a young age, although there appears to be some confusion over the identity of Barbara’s first husband.  The Westminster Abbey archives describe him as Thomas Wenman, son and heir of Philip third Viscount Wenman while other sources have him as Richard Wenman son of Thomas 2nd Viscount Wenman.  The marriage was most probably of short duration as Thomas/Richard died in 1646, aged 24 and leaving no issue.  By the age of 28 Barbara had seen off husband number two, Sir Richard Wentworth.

On February 13, 1650 Barbara married James Howard, 3rd Earl of Suffolk, her third marriage and his second. Then, with the King recently beheaded and the population collectively holding its breath waiting to see how this whole new Commonwealth thing was going to pan out, Barbara repaired to possibly one of the most palatial properties in the country, Audley End.

Built in 1140, this former Benedictine Priory close to the market town of Saffron Walden in Essex, was acquired by Lord Chancellor Walden, Sir Thomas Audley following the dissolution of the monasteries.  But it was his grandson, Thomas Howard Earl of Suffolk who set about transforming the old ancestral home in 1603.

Thomas went a bit overboard with his plans and the building work came in at a reputed £200,000.  He was later accused of embezzling the King and spent a spell in the Tower.  The house was to prove a huge financial burden and was sold to Charles II in 1666 as a stop over for the racing at Newmarket, however even the Royals couldn’t keep up the maintenance and it was eventually returned to the Howard family in 1701 when it was partly demolished and remodelled.

During the ten years of the interregnum James hung on to his estates while keeping his head below the parapets of Audley End.  A closet Royalist he knew it would all come good in the end.  With the restoration of the monarchy came a royal wedding and the arrival of the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza. The new Queen and the uncrowned one,  Countess of Castlemaine came head to head in the Lady of the Bedchamber crisis when poor Catherine was forced to accept her husband’s mistress – and the Lady’s aunt as well.

Queen Catherine of Braganza

But the Countess of Suffolk appears to have perfected the work/home life balance. When in July 1662 her niece insisted on giving her son by Charles II a Protestant christening at St Margaret’s, Westminster in addition to the Catholic one he had already received, Barbara acted as witness alongside the King himself.  However later that year when Catherine was dangerously ill and it was feared she might die, Barbara, Groom of the Stole to the Queen, was one of her closest attendants.

St Mary’s Church, Saffron Walden

Barbara died on December 13, 1681 of apoplexy – a 17th century term for what is today called a stroke. She was buried at the church of St Mary’s, Saffron Walden close to her old home at Audley End.  Her husband joined her there seven years later.