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On this day in history in 1702, died Frances Stewart.

Lady Frances Stewart was one of the mistresses of King Charles II, and the model for the first portrait of Britannia.

Frances Stewart was born on 8th July 1647, at Paris, at the court in exile of Charles II, whose throne had been usurped by the dictator Cromwell. She was the daughter of the physician to Queen Henrietta Maria, widow of Charles I. Lady Frances was brought up in France, until after the Restoration, when was sent to London as maid of honour to Catherine of Braganza, queen of Charles II.

Lady Frances was considered one of the great beauties of the age, becoming known as ‘La Belle Stewart’, a title first given to her by the Dutch ambassador. Samuel Pepys records that she was the ‘greatest beauty ever I saw’, and other commentators remarked on her great beauty and infantile behaviour. King Charles became infatuated with her, and made her one of his mistresses. In 1663, when Queen Catherine was thought to be dying, Charles made plans to marry Lady Frances, and in 1667, he considered the possibility of divorce in order to marry her.

In 1667, The Duchess of Cleveland, the highest ranking of the king’s mistresses became jealous of Lady Frances and plotted against her. She examined all the gossip at court and when she found out that Lady Frances was having an affair with the Duke of Richmond, took the king to Lady Frances’ room at midnight, where the king found the pair in bed together. Richmond was immediately expelled from the court and not allowed back during the king’s lifetime. Lady Frances later escaped from Whitehall and eloped with the Duke, marrying him in a secret location.

In 1668, Charles gave Richmond an appointment in Scotland, and admitted Lady Frances back to the court. In 1669, after a victory over the Dutch, Charles had a commemorative medal cast, featuring the allegorical figure of Britannia, ruling the waves and triumphing over all enemies. Lady Frances was chosen to pose as the model, so that Britannia could not only exude power and grandeur, but also radiant beauty. The figure of Britannia was later used in other medal issues and, in 1694, was first depicted on coins. Sadly, Lady Frances was disfigured by smallpox, shortly after posing for Britannia, but her beauty has continued to shine on our coins, and today radiated from the tails side of the fifty pence piece.

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