Exhibition about women’s sex lives in the 17th century by Hackney Charity opens in Islington

Duchess of Portsmouth Louise de Kerouale was one of many mistresses of King Charles II

Duchess of Portsmouth Louise de Kerouale was one of many mistresses of King Charles II - Credit: Archant

An exhibition depicting the sexual and private lives of women in the 17th century will be launched in Islington on Saturday.

Elisabeth Pepys, wife of diarist Samuel Pepys

Elisabeth Pepys, wife of diarist Samuel Pepys - Credit: Archant

The Restoration Wyfe – A Saucy London Life is the result of a year’s research by Hackney charity Unity Arts, which wanted to understand what life was like for women during the Restoration period.

The period runs parallel with Charles II’s reign, which started in 1660, and primary historical sources for this time include the diaries of MP Samuel Pepys.

Director Lil Warren, from the charity based in Defoe Road, Stoke Newington, said: “The initial impulse for it was reading Samuel Pepys’s diary and wondering where the diary of his wife Elizabeth Pepys was.

“There’s very little written from the women’s perspective at that time.

“We were looking at their sexual and private lives, the mortality rates in childbirth and the clothes they wore.

“A woman was her husband’s property. She did not go anywhere without her brother, husband or father.

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“Many women went off their heads with boredom, something people referred to as hysteria,” she reveals.

“ Really highbrow women could not read and women overall were very rarely educated.

“It was totally acceptable for men to have mistresses. They brought home sexual diseases to their wives.

“The wives would not know what it was and would have to keep it quiet.

“These mistresses would do things for them that their wives would not. More often than not, it was heavy petting rather than full-on sex.

“The Restoration period was a transitional period and a reaction to the puritanism of Cromwell. It was led by King Charles II who came over from France. He was particularly open about having mistresses and had more than 30 of them,” she added.

“He had a particular thing for actresses, and if he wanted a slap-and-tickle he would go to the shows and take his pick. Actresses were considered fair game. If clever, you could make yourself and your children safe. It was a way of having some power.

“Barbara Villiers, who was his long-term mistress and bore him four children, got them ennobled and was given a lot of land.”

In his diaries, Pepys recounts his tempestuous relationship with his wife Elizabeth, who he married for love when she was 14, and the other women he pursued.

Ms Warren said that Elizabeth had caught her husband having an affair a few times.

“Whenever Samuel was up to no good she would not wash for a few days”, said Ms Warren. She had herpes but would have thought that was a malady of her own.”

During the exhibition there will be a lifesize 17th century bed to try out, interactive displays and people in costume talking to visitors.

Music and dance also form part of the visit.

Unity Arts sourced information from the Hackney Archives at Dalston CLR James Library in Dalston Square, Dalston, and the London Metropolitan archives in Northampton Road, Finsbury, in addition to others.

n The exhibition opens at noon at The Nave, 1 St Paul’s Road, Islington. More details at http://www.thenave.org/.