Sunday, 31 October 2010

For the Love of a Spy - The Story of Anne Halkett

Following on from my last blog about Thurloe, I had intended to write about the double agent, Colonel Joseph Bampfield, but in doing the research I came across an intriguing story and one
entirely appropriate for the Hoydens and Firebrands, the story of Anne Halkett.

Like Lucy Hutchinson, in her later years Lady Halkett saw fit to write notes of her life in her "Auto Biography". Unfortunately much of the manuscript is fragmentary but what it reveals is one of those spirited young ladies who so characterised the period of the English Civil War.

Born in 1623 and highly educated (her parents were tutor and governess to the children of Charles I), young Anne Murray began her tumultuous love life with an unfortunate liaison with a young man. Both sets of parents disapproved and the young lovers were forcibly parted - Anne being made to say farewell to her lover while wearing a blindfold. This caused an estrangement with her mother and poor Anne was not pleased to hear that her loyal and faithful swain promptly married another!

But it is her relationship with Colonel Joseph Bampfield that is most intriguing. She appears to have met him through her brother, Will Murray. Bampfield was much of her own age and by 1648 when they met,  he already had a long history of espionage for Charles I.  Anne writes that, “...his discourse was serious, handsome, and tending to imprese the advantages of piety, loyalty, and vertue; and these subjects were so agreeable to my owne inclination that I could nott butt give them a good reception...”. Bampfield was tramelled with an inconvenient wife but as she lived in the country and he in London, it did not prevent the two from becoming better acquainted.

The three youngest children of Charles I,
a likeness done during their captivity
Parliament had in its custody, the young prince, James Duke of York. He was held at St. James’ palace with his younger brother, Henry, and sister Elizabeth (Anita did a lovely blog on the fate of these two youngsters in *). Bampfield confided in Anne that the King had entrusted him with the task of securing the escape of the Duke of York. It was agreed between them that the best means of escape would be to disguise the young man as a woman. Anne made clothes for him and on 20 April 1648 they put their plan into action.

The Prince had instigated a nightly game of “hide and seek” with his brother and sister. Having inveigled a key to the garden gate from a gardener, under cover of the game, James went swiftly into the garden where he met CB (Anne’s nickname for Colonel Bampfield) who smuggled the boy down to the water and into a boat to take them to a private house where Anne waited. Anne was under strict instructions to leave if they had not turned up by ten o’clock but ignoring these instructions, Anne waited faithfully.

Bampfield and the prince arrived and Anne dressed the boy in the gown she had made, remarking that he “...looked very pretty in it...”.  Bampfield then took the Prince by barge to Gravesend where a Dutch ship waited to take him to France. The captain of the barge had his suspicions:  “Mr. Andrews and his sister” were accompanied by no less than three other people, none of whom appeared to have any luggage and the “sister” was seen to pull up her stockings in a most unladylike manner! 

Failing to find the Prince in the game of Hide and Seek, some hours had passed before the hue and cry went up and the ports were closed. By that time the Prince was well and truly at sea and safe. No suspicion appears to have attached to Anne and she waited the return of CB. 

On his return to London, CB sent for Anne and told her  the sad news that his wife was dead (she wasn’t!). Anne fell for the story hook line and sinker and became “betrothed” to him.  She sighs: “...hee was unquestionably loyall, handsome, a good skollar, which gave him the advantages of writting and speaking well, and the cheefest ornamentt hee had was a devout life and conversation...”. They lived together (probably in Holland) as man and wife for nearly a year before she returned to Scotland where Bampfield continued to court her.

Their on-off relationship continued for some years, resulting in a duel with one of her brothers but it was inevitable Anne would discover that Bampfield’s wife was alive and well and, her reputation ruined she took service in the household of Sir James Halkett as governess to his children. She  eventually married Halkett and enjoyed twenty years happy marriage with him.

Bampfield fell out with Charles II and  by the early 1650s, was already a double agent in Thurloe’s pay. He spent the remainder of the interregnum on the Continent and on the restoration was imprisoned in the Tower for more than a year. He returned to the continent where he “...screwed his way into the service of the Prince of Orange...”(State Papers). Shortly before his death in 1685 he wrote an “Apologie”, an account of his life and career.  For her part, Anne Halkett died in 1699 leaving behind a literary legacy of 21 volumes of her writing.

(PS:  I could not resist including Joseph Bampfield in my own story of Thurloe's spy ring, THE KING'S MAN)

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Prince Rupert Of The Rhine 1619-1682

Born in Prague in 1619 to Frederick V Elector Palatine and Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I, the family enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle in Heidelberg. Outlawed at the Battle of the White Mountain, Frederick fled with his family from Bohemia to the Netherlands. In the court’s rush to escape from Prague, Rupert was almost left behind in the court's rush to escape The Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand's advance, until a courtier tossed the prince into a carriage at the last moment.

Elizabeth reputedly paid her children little attention, preferring her pet monkeys and dogs, while governors brought up the children as strict Calvinists. Rupert was a 'fiery, mischievous, and passionate' child, nicknamed ‘Robert le Diable,’ though an able student and by age 3, he could speak some English, Czech and French. He mastered German, but had little interest in Latin and Greek, excelled in art, and found the maths and sciences easy. By the time he was 18 he stood 6 ft 4 in tall with the Stuart dark looks.

Whilst at The Hague, Rupert's family continued their attempts to regain the Palatinate though money was short. They relied upon a pension from The Hague, the proceeds from family investments in Dutch raids on Spanish shipping, and revenue from pawned family jewelery. By the early 1630’s Frederick’s attempts to regain the Palatinate and Bohemia seemed achievable, however a dispute with the Swedish King Gustavus over religious tolerance stalled negotiations. Frederick set off back to The Hague, died of a fever along the way and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Rupert was 13, and King Charles proposed that the family move to England; Elizabeth declined, but asked that Charles extend his protection to her remaining children instead. Rupert’s eldest brother Henry drowned at the age of 15, but he had another nine siblings.

At 14, Rupert fought alongside Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange at the siege of Rheinberg, and fought against imperial Spain at Breda at 16, earning himself a reputation for fearlessness in battle. Imprisoned by Emperor Ferdinand III, Rupert was released on the promise he would never take up arms against the Emperor again. He refused a final offer of an Imperial command and left Germany for England in 1641.

Rupert’s Civil War - He landed at Newcastle in August 1642 with his younger brother Prince Maurice, and rode to Leicester Abbey where King Charles I had a tiny army. Appointed General of Horse, Rupert's reputation continued to rise when he routed a Parliamentarian force at Powick Bridge in September 1642. He fought at Edgehill in October, after which he suggested a swift cavalry attack on London before the Earl of Essex's army could return. The King's counsellors urged a slow advance, and by the time they arrived, the city had organized defences against them forcing the King to retreat to Oxford. Some theorists say that, in delaying, the Royalists had perhaps lost their best chance of winning the war.

Rupert often quarrelled with his fellow commanders in front of his troops and thus undermine discipline. After Edgehill, Rupert and Maurice began to clear the South-West, taking Cirencester and then Bristol, becoming so famous, Parliament wanted him punished as part of any negotiated solution.

Of an apparently: 'frank and generous disposition', Rupert showed a 'quickness of... intellect', was prepared to face grave dangers, but he lacked the social gifts of a courtier, and his humour could turn into a 'sardonic wit and a contemptuous manner': with a hasty temper that made him enemies, among them George Digby, a favourite of both the King and the Queen with whom he repeatedly argued in meetings.

By 1644, now the Duke of Cumberland and Earl of Holderness, Rupert was appointed General of the Royalist army, but suffered a severe reversal of fortunes at Marston Moor and the Battle of Naseby, and urged Charles to negotiate a peace with Parliament, who, supported by an optimistic Digby, still believed he could win the war. By late summer, Rupert had become trapped in Bristol by Parliamentary forces, and surrendered. Furious, Charles dismissed him from his service and command.

Rupert was exonerated over his conduct at Bristol, but still shunned by his uncle, he left the service of King Charles in disgrace, along with most of his best cavalry officers. Some say this was an act of vanity, but Rupert knew that the war by this point was effectively lost.

Reconciled with the King by 1646, Rupert remained to defend Oxford during the siege, while the King left for the north. At the surrender of the city, Parliament banished both Rupert and Maurice from England.

Rupert’s Dog - Given to Rupert during his imprisonment at Linz by the Earl of Arundel, Boye was a rare breed of white hunting poodle. He slept in Rupert's bed, had more haircuts than his master, at the word "Charles", he jumped for joy, lay with his paw on young Prince Charles' foot, and Charles I fed him choice morsels of roast beef and breast of capon from the table.

Parliamentary propaganda claimed Boye could become invisible to spy for the Royalists, that he was also a witch's familiar, or the Devil in disguise. Pro-Royalist publications listed Boye as being a "Lapland Lady" transformed into a white dog; Boye was able, apparently, to find hidden treasure and could catch bullets fired at Rupert in his mouth. Boye had been left safely tied up in the Royalist camp at Marston Moor in 1644, but escaped and chased after Rupert, only to be killed during the fighting.

Rupert's Restoration - At the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Rupert returned to England, where Charles II rewarded him with a pension of £4,000 a year. After the deaths of the Duke of Gloucester and Princess Mary, Rupert was the King's closest adult relation after his brother, the Duke of York, and a key member of the new regime. Rupert resumed his seat in the House of Lords as Duke of Cumberland, his financial position now relatively secure. His temper was reputedly 'less explosive than formerly and his judgement sounder' Rupert served as an admiral in the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of "General at Sea and Land". He also became a Knight of the Garter and Constable of Windsor Castle, where he conducted improvements, entertained the King and undertook scientific experiments.

Appointed to the King's Privy Council Rupert took roles on various Committee’s including the Tangier Committee. Samuel Pepys, no friend of Rupert's, declared that all Rupert did was to laugh and swear occasionally, though other reports say he took a full and active role in proceedings.

Rupert’s Ladies - He became romantically engaged to Frances Bard, the daughter of the English explorer and Civil War veteran Henry Bard. Frances claimed to have secretly married Rupert in 1664, although Rupert denied this and no firm proof exists to support the claim. Rupert acknowledged their son, Dudley Bard (1666–1686), often called "Dudley Rupert", who was schooled at Eton College.

In 1656 Rupert visited the Palatine and fell in love with Louise von Degenfeld, one of his sister-in-law's maids of honour. One of Rupert's love notes accidentally fell into the possession of Charles Louis' wife Charlotte, who believed it was written to her. Charlotte was keen to engage in an affair with Rupert, so was devastated when the mistake was explained. Von Degenfeld was uninterested in Rupert as she was engaged in an affair with Charles Louis whom he bigamously married.

Rupert, for his part, was unhappy that Charles Louis could not endow him with a suitable estate, and the two parted on bad terms in 1657, Rupert refusing to ever return to the Palatinate again.

During the late 1660’s, Rupert left Frances Bard when he fell in love with Drury Lane actress Margaret Hughes. Hughes appears to have held out reciprocating his attentions with the aim of negotiating a suitable settlement, and subsequently became a member of the King's Company which gave her immunity from arrest for debt. She was also painted four times by Sir Peter Lely, the foremost court artist of the day.

Rupert did not marry Hughes, but acknowledged their daughter, Ruperta and gave ‘Peg’ at least £20,000 worth of jewellery, including several items from the Palatinate royal collection. Margaret returned to the stage in 1676 with the prestigious Duke's Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre, near the Strand. Rupert presented her with a 'grand building' worth £25,000 that he bought in Hammersmith from Sir Nicholas Crispe. Rupert enjoyed family life,  commenting that his young daughter, 'already rules the whole house and sometimes argues with her mother, which makes us all laugh.'

In 1673, Karl Ludwig, Elector Palatine, Rupert’s elder brother, fearing his only son would not survive infancy, used their sister Sophie as an intermediary to persuade Rupert to marry and return to the Palatinate. Sophie sent him a boatload of Hanoverian deer for Windsor Great Park, but Rupert stuck by his oath that he had finished with the Palatinate after his brother denied him his heritage.  Margaret remained on friendly terms with Rupert's sister and sent her shoes from London. However, Sophie's thank-you note maintained that they were 'the prettiest in the world, only too small'.

After the end of his naval career, Rupert’s health was less robust; his head wound from his employment in France required a painful trepanning treatment, a painful leg wound persisted and he still suffered from the malaria caught whilst in the Gambia.

In January, 1666, Pepys writes in his Diary: Here I hear from Mr. Hayes that Prince Rupert is very bad still, and so bad, that he do now yield to be trepanned. It seems, as Dr. Clerke also tells me, it is a clap of the pox which he got about twelve years ago, and hath eaten to his head and come through his scull, so his scull must be opened, and there is great fear of him.

Rupert was an active shareholder in the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa whose backers included the King, the Duke of York and the Royal Society engaged in the West Africa slave trade, and later the Royal African Company, with a royal charter to set up forts, factories, troops and to exercise martial law in West Africa, in pursuit of trade in gold, silver and slaves. He also invested in the Hudson Bay Company which was granted a trading monopoly in an immense territory named Rupert's Land, with Rupert appointed the first Governor.

A founding member of the Royal Society, which fitted his wide interests in science and technology, Rupert engaged in scientific research and became credited with many inventions and discoveries. He converted some of the apartments at Windsor Castle to a luxury laboratory, complete with forges, instruments and raw materials, from where he conducted a range of experiments.

He designed the Rupertinoe naval gun; devised a gun that fired multiple rounds at high speed, and a "handgun with rotating barrels". He is credited with the invention of a form of gunpowder, which had a force of over ten times that of regular powder; he developed a form of grape shot for use by artillery. Rupert’s naval inventions included: a balancing mechanism to allow improved quadrant measurements at sea, and a diving engine for retrieving objects on the ocean floor. While recovering from his trepanning treatment Rupert set about inventing new surgical equipment to improve future operations.  He also invented a brass alloy, called Prince’s metal, slightly darker than regular brass, to improve naval artillery, but which also became used as a replacement for gold in decorations.

Rupert’s Death - Rupert died at his house in Spring Gardens, Westminster, on 29 November 1682 after a bout of pleurisy, and was buried in the crypt of Westminster Abbey. He left most of his £12,000 estate, equally to Hughes and Ruperta. Hughes had an "uncomfortable widowhood" due to her gambling. Presents from Rupert such as Elizabeth of Bohemia's earrings were sold to the Duchess of Marlborough, while a pearl necklace given by Rupert's father to Elizabeth was sold to fellow actress Nell Gwynn. Hughes sold the house in Hammersmith to the Margrave of Brandenburg—it ultimately became known as Brandenburg House.

Rupert’s Children - Ruperta married Emanuel Scrope Howe, future MP and English general, and had five children, Sophia, William, Emanuel, James and Henrietta. Rupert's son, Dudley Bard, became a military officer, frequently known as "Captain Rupert", and died fighting at the Siege of Budapest while in his late teens.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Irrepressible Katherine Sedley

At first glance, Katherine Sedley (1657-1717) doesn’t seem like heroine material. In most English history books, she’s not mentioned at all, and even in histories that concentrate on the Restoration (1660-1685), she’ll merit just a footnote if she’s lucky. She didn’t come from a stellar royal family, or one with notable talent or power. She wasn’t a great beauty, or a queen or princess who changed the course of history.

Yet still I made Katherine Sedley the heroine of my new historical novel, The Countess & the King, and in the perverse ways of writing, all those reasons why Katherine shouldn’t merit a book turned out to be exactly the same reasons why she made for such a wonderfully contradictory heroine.  Katherine was always unpredictable, and always determined to go her own way – not something most 17th c. English ladies would dare to do.

 Katherine was born the only child of privelged teenaged parents who weren’t much more than children themselves. In another time period, their families would have likely exerted a steadying influence, and seen that the young family followed a responsible path through life. But Katherine was born just before the grim Puritan ways of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate were replaced by the much merrier ones of Charles II, restored at last to his throne. With the king’s return, wealthy young aristocrats like the Sedleys flocked to join the free-wheeling court.

Respectability was out of fashion; exuberant excess was the new style, and young Sir Charles became a well-known libertine, famous for drunken debauchery. His young wife, however, remained at home, sinking deep into madness. Against such a background, Katherine’s upbringing reads like something from a modern tabloid. Her father treated her more like an amusing pet than a daughter, taking her with him to playhouses and taverns and introducing her to his notorious friends.  She was both adored and spoiled, and learned how to drink, swear, and tell off-color jokes, and was equally comfortable with actresses like Nell Gwyn and with the king himself.  With such connections, and as the heiress to her father’s large fortune, Katherine should have been primed for a splendid dynastic marriage.

Except, however, for a few sizable stumbling-blocks. First, Katherine was considered shamefully plain. In a court that prized languid, voluptuous beauties, she was pale, thin, and angular, with heavy brows and a wide mouth.  She was also intelligent, her wit quick and sharp. (Her first portrait as a teenager, above left, by Sir Peter Lely, shows how she didn’t fit the fashionable ideal, yet still captures the sense that she was a lot of fun.) Most of all, she had no wish to wed and give control of her life to a husband. From her own mother to the queen herself, the court was full of neglected, lonely wives, and Katherine was far too independent for that.  She had her own fortune, and was determined to choose her own loves.  The first two men she gave her heart to very nearly broke it, choosing prettier women to wed instead, and another who she rejected proved to be a fearsome enemy at court.

But finally Katherine found a man who appreciated her: James Stuart, Duke of York, and heir to the throne of England. Katherine didn’t care that James was married, or that he was much older, or that the rest of the court regarded him as a poor second in comparison to his brother the king. James found her witty and outrageously amusing and beautiful, and Katherine gleefully gave herself over to the role of a royal mistress. Her portrait by Godfrey Kneller, above right, from this time shows her unadorned elegance, her expression seemingly bemused by her good fortune.

Even as a prince’s mistress, Katherine couldn’t be conventional. She delighted in the scandal she caused, enjoying every moment of it. But the carefree days were short-lived. James had always been a polarizing figure at court, and before long his religious beliefs made him a politically dangerous one as well. Katherine was thrust into the intrigue, torn between her royal lover and England itself, and her cleverness was valuable not for amusement, but for survival. When Charles suddenly died and James became king, Katherine’s position at court grew all the more perilous. The last portrait, lower left, by the studio of Godrey Kneller, shows her soon after James has been crowned, and after he has made her Countess of Dorchester. Formally posed on the edge of a gilded bed, lifting aside the bed curtain in a royal mistress’s welcome, her earlier merriment has vanished. Instead she appears reserved and self-contained, as if she already knows the difficult choice before her, a choice that will determine both her fate, and that of The Countess and the King.  

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Not-So-Secret Passion of William, Earl of Craven

This month, Hoydens and Firebrands is delighted to welcome Guest Blogger, USA Today best selling author Nicola Cornick. Nicola is historian and guide at Ashdown House.

The Not-So-Secret Passion of William, Earl of Craven

Hello Hoydens and Firebrands and thank you for inviting me to visit today! I’m very excited to be talking about that most chivalrous cavalier William Earl of Craven and Ashdown House, the beautiful seventeenth century hunting lodge that he built on the Berkshire Downs for Elizabeth of Bohemia, the Winter Queen.

The name of William, Earl of Craven is not one of the more familiar ones from the English Civil War period. In part this is because Craven, whilst a staunch cavalier and supporter of King Charles I, did not fight in the Civil War and spent the entire period abroad. Craven was the son of a cloth merchant and moneylender; his father had made a vast fortune during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, bought himself a knighthood from James I, been Lord Mayor of London and had died one of the ten richest men in England. William Craven studied law at Oxford but gave it all up to become a soldier, making his name in Europe fighting with distinction under Prince Maurice of Nassau in the conflict later known as the Thirty Years War. In 1629 rumours circulated that he was to marry Lady Ann Cavendish, daughter of the earl of Devonshire, but instead he returned abroad. Lady Ann was willing but Craven evidently was not particularly keen!

It was whilst Craven was abroad that he met Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I. Elizabeth was a remarkable woman possessed of a charm and charisma that was absolutely dazzling. She was known as the “Queen of Hearts;” Sir Henry Wootton wrote a sonnet extolling her beauty and Sir Walter Raleigh called her “one of the brightest jewels of the kingdom.” Elizabeth gathered about her a coterie of gentlemen sworn to her service in the courtly style of medieval knights. William Craven was one such, the Marquis of Hamilton another, Sir Thomas Roe a third and her cousin Christian of Anhalt, who rode into battle with her glove pinned to his hat as a token, yet another of her admirers. Craven, twelve years her junior, remained devoted to her for the rest of her life. 

Elizabeth had been married at the age of sixteen to Frederick, the Elector Palatine. They ruled in Bohemia for one year only before being defeated by the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. Elizabeth and Frederick fled into exile with their young family and found refuge in The Hague. From there Frederick launched a number of unsuccessful attempts to regain his patrimony with the financial and military support of William Craven, amongst others. Frederick died in 1632 and Craven remained at Elizabeth’s court-in-exile throughout the period of the English Civil War. He became even more of a support to Elizabeth during this time, providing the financial means to keep her afloat in her exile. One letter from Elizabeth to William Craven reads: “There is no more to eat and today, if no money be found, we shall have neither meat, nor bread nor candles.” Craven, clearly a man who could take a hint, came through with the cash she needed!

Elizabeth finally returned to England in 1660 after the restoration of her nephew King Charles II to the English throne. She had nowhere to live and again it was William Craven who came to her aid, putting his house in Drury Lane at her disposal. John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys record in their diaries that Craven was the master of her household (with the official title of Master of Horse) and that he squired her about London, to the theatre and other entertainments. This was the time that Craven, aware of Elizabeth’s desire “to live in quiet” started to build houses for her – Ashdown, a hunting lodge high on the Berkshire Downs, and Hamstead Marshall, modelled on her palace in Heidelberg. Sadly Elizabeth died before these were completed.

Rumours of a secret marriage between the Winter Queen and William Craven at some point during her widowhood in the Hague have never been substantiated. In support of the marriage is the portrait by Van Dyck showing the two of them together, joined by a cupid. The original stone gateposts at Ashdown House and Hamstead Marshall also had a crown and an Earl’s coronet entwined, although these were built after Elizabeth’s death. Members of the Craven family in the 18th century spoke of the marriage as a fact. It has even been suggested that the £50 000 that Craven gave to the Royalist cause during the Civil War was contingent upon Charles I giving him permission to marry his sister. Against such a marriage is the lack of contemporary record and Elizabeth’s strong sense of her own status – would she really marry a man who was the son of a cloth merchant and so far below her in rank? Whatever the truth of the secret marriage, Ashdown House still stands as a testament to Craven’s devotion to Elizabeth, the Winter Queen.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Le Droit de Seigneur: Fact or Fiction?

[Above, Vaisly Polenov, a Victorian artist, illustrates Le droit du Seigneur—his fantasy of a man offering his daughters to the feudal lord.]

Le droit de seigneur, or the "right of the first night," is commonly understood to be the right of the lord of an estate to take the virginity of the bride or daughter of a serf working his land.

Fact or fiction?
I've read that there was no evidence to support the belief that this was, in fact, a custom of the Middle Ages, that le droit de seigneur was a fiction people had created about the past. (A lively fiction, in fact: Voltaire wrote a five-act comedy based on it, as is Beaumarchais's The Marriage of Figaro and the movie Braveheart, to name a few.)

Therefore, I was rather interested (and surprised) to see reference to it in The Clermont Assizes of 1665, Abbé Fléchier's memoirs. Fléchier was a judge, and his memoir is, among other things, an account of the cases brought before the court.

The case in question had to do with the suit of a certain Madame de Montvallat to separate from her husband. He stood accused, among other things, of exercising "the nuptial right." I quote:
There is a right, quite commonly exercised in Auvergne, called the nuptial right. ... This right originally allowed the lord the right to be present at all marriages among his subjects; to be present at the bedding of the bride... 
This usage is no longer current, either because it would be unbecoming for the lords to be present at all the village weddings and to thrust their leg into the beds of all the respectable people who get married, or because the custom was somewhat incompatible with propriety, and exposed gentlemen who had more authority than self-restraint to dangerous temptation when the opportunity was attractive. 
So a substitue was found for this disgraceful ceremony in a pecuniary gratuity, the lords having agreed to receive a more substantial earnest of their rights [i.e. money] and the subjects being glad to buy themselves off from the application of a law so perilous to their honour. 
So: from this I understand that le droit de seigneur had formerly been a ceremonial custom that occasionally invited abuse, but as of this writing—mid-17th century France—the custom was that the serf simply paid the lord to stay away.
Monsieur de Montvallat, however, was persuaded that old customs were the best when a pretty village girl was to be married, and would not give up his rights; and as they had good reason to fear in his case that he might go beyond the limits of a mere ceremony, they thought it best to capitulate and to give him as substantial a present as they could afford. In any case, he claimed this tribute, which often amounted to half the bride's dowry. 
That the lord had a right in some capacity on the wedding night is clear—that it was a right to take a girl's virginity is not. Somewhere in this grey area, truth resides.

For more on this subject, see Wikipedia.

Sandra Gulland