TBT: The Last King (2003) Episode 1

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I loved The Last King (2003), also known as Charles II: The Power and The Passion, when I saw it way back when. It’s one I’ve always meant to rewatch, both because it was entertaining, but also because I know so much more about late 17th century costume now than I did back in the day. It’s got a great cast — Rufus Sewell as Charles II, Rupert Graves as the Duke of Buckingham, Helen McCrory as Barbara Villiers, Shirley Henderson as Catherine of Braganza — and who doesn’t love the story of the merry monarch and all his wimmin?

Well, I just signed up for BritBox, which is the BBC and ITV’s new streaming channel, via Amazon. Apparently it’s where BBC is going to release all their back catalogue, so it’s already historical costume TV series central, and should hopefully only get better. I saw The Last King there and decided to wind it up and give it a deep dive via a multi-part semi-recap review.

The costumes were designed by Mike O’Neill (Daniel DerondaNorth and South, Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren). Sadly the series is old enough that there’s only a teeny bit of press to be found about it, and very little about the costumes. I’m guessing the budget was small, because there are some costumes that are great and others that leave a lot to be desired… and everything is filmed in close-up, which I always think is a way to avoid showing the costumes and/or the lack of extras!

Today, episode one! In this first post, I’m not going to get at all into the men’s costumes in terms of real history. I’ve realized that I often overcomplicate my reviews by doing TOO much research, which then pains Trystan as it slows down the old content-generation! So, we’ll discuss men’s fashion history in another post.

We begin with Charles I being executed in a long shirt. I was all set to give props, as I had a vague memory of Charles’s execution shirt still existing, but a quick search brought up horror of horrors — the shirt that was long thought to be his execution shirt is actually a woman’s garment! That scandal came out in 1998, so WTF, costume designers? Here’s what he is much more likely to have worn, a knitted waistcoat preserved at the Museum of London.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

I do question the future Charles II hanging out underneath the scaffold, watching his father be beheaded, and ending up with blood on his face. Not screencapped because I care.

And now fast forward, we’re in the late 1650s in exile in Belgium with our boy Chuckie, the future Charles II, aka Rufus Sewell of Hotness! Lots of plain-ish menswear, which befits the situation as they are complaining about not having money for clothes, but with nice lace collars.
The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

There’s also a LOT of casual hanging around with shirts/doublets worn open. Sigh.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

We all think of Charles II with his super long curls, but yes, this shorter ‘do is appropriate for this period!

Charles II of England by Philippe de Champaigne, 1653, Cleveland Museum of Art

Henrietta Maria, Charles’s mother and former queen of England — aka Diana Rigg, or Lady Olenna Tyrell to me — is rocking the full-on widow’s weeds. Here’s your first evidence of how we never really get a clear shot of most of the costumes:

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

And get ready, because here comes Barbara Villiers Palmer, Charles’s first important mistress as king. First let’s look at hair and dress styles of the period.

Here’s what we all should be rocking: a very rigidly boned bodice with a long V in front, almost off-the-shoulder (but not quite!) neckline, wiiiide sleeves, cartridge-pleated skirt open in front over a petticoat. Hair should be pulled back smoothly on top into an arrangement, with shoulder-length (or slightly shorter) ringlets from the ears down.

Portrait of Princess Royal Mary Stuart by Bartholomeus van der Helst, 1652, Rijksmuseum

Instead, we get the fabulous Helen McCrory as Barbara in some cast-off reject from a high school theater. SERIOUSLY PEOPLE, WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

I SWEAR TO GOD THERE IS ELASTIC IN THOSE SHOULDER STRAPS (see left-hand, post-make-out shot). Also, HER HAIR.

Here’s a portrait of the real Barbara, slightly later so the hair is more elaborate. This gown is a little more pretty-drapery-worn-for-having-your-portrait-painted and a little less what-we-wear-every-day.

Portrait of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, 1st Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709)

Portrait of Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, 1st Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709) via Christie’s

There’s a great close-up during the make-out session (note: this is a relatively smutty production, yay! Although there isn’t much in the way of naughty bits, so hopefully no one one will faint) where we can see that the back is misaligned, which happens when you either 1. incorrectly spiral lace something, or just 2. fuck things up. (Yes! Back-lacing IS period for this era!)

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Oh and by the way, it’s supposedly months later and she’s still in the same godawful dress.

Charles is hot for Barbara, but she’s not putting out (despite a completely slutty reputation) until… Cromwell dies! Parliament invites Charles to be king! Barbara shows up in a dressing gown with a jangly sash (seriously, there are foley effects for this sucker), and the two get it on.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

The dressing gown is, however, quite plausible.

Chuck heads to England to be crowned wearing a red and gold ensemble that may involve panné velvet or may be some kind of lamé. My jury is out.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)
The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

I don’t know why, but this lace just looked like something that was done in puffy paint. It’s probably actually 17th-century lace and I’m just an idiot, however. I know little about lace.

Charles’s bestie is the Duke of Buckingham. Both their fathers were executed by Cromwell, they grew up together in exile, but at the beginning of the episode, Buckingham abandons Charles for England. Charles forgives him when he returns, but clearly there is TENSION.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Buckingham and Barbara get it on, despite being cousins. There is implied cunnilingus, of which I approve. Babs wears a nicely made, if very 18th-century, pair of stays. Here’s a pair of late 17th-century stays for comparison — notice they come up much higher and are generally boned more vertically.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003) The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

We finally get to see what Queen Henrietta Maria is wearing, and, sigh, apparently she also only owns one dress.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

It’s not BAD, per se, it’s just not good.

Let’s look at the real Henrietta Maria in this era. She’s still wearing a very 1640s-50s style, with a squarer neckline and higher waist, but ok, good enough for government work.

Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria in mourning by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen (1593–1661), 1650s via Bonham's

Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria in mourning by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen (1593–1661), 1650s via Bonham’s

Barbara has a son:

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Thank god for sari fabrics to give a rich look on the cheap, amirite?

She throws an absolute HISSY FIT, which is apparently her prime method of getting her way, about getting a title and stuff(TM) for her son. Get excited about this sort-of-mantua, because she’s going to be wearing it for pretty much the next few years.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

I know you can’t see much of it, but notice the pleated back.

Here’s a posed shot (with MUCH better hair, let’s hope this is forthcoming):

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

What I think they’re going for a mantua, which was a new style introduced in the 1670s — so we’re about a decade too early, but it works okay for me because it’s very much a dressing-gown-turned-actual-dress, and that works for Barbara’s slutty character. The mantua was based on men’s dressing gowns and Middle Eastern/Asian robes, and was basically a long, loose, pleated gown that was made a “dress” by wearing it over stays and petticoat, and cinching it at the waist with a belt. It would get far more complicated in the 1700s, but it was pretty simple in the 1670s-90s. Here’s a lady from the following decade wearing a mantua:

Dame en habit d'ete, Jean Lepautre, 1676 - 1678

Dame en habit d’ete, Jean Lepautre, 1676 – 1678, Rijksmuseum

And here’s something similar without a sash — this may be more of an overrobe than the mantua-the-dress.

Madame La Marquise de Richelieu, anonymous, 1680 - 1742

Madame La Marquise de Richelieu, anonymous, 1680 – 1742, Rijksmuseum

Charles’s first (illigitimate) son, the Duke of Monmouth, is an all-grow’d-up 14, and both Barbara and I notice his hotness.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

There’s lots of parliamentary infighting. Thankfully there’s also some great costume detail to look at:

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

It’s time for Chuck to get married, so they send to Portugal for rich Princess Catherine of Braganza! All the court lines up for her arrival:

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)
The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Wait, who is that actually-quite-well-dressed lady on Charles’s left (red arrow)? And why is she so much better (as in historically accurately) dressed than Barbara (white arrow)?

And here we go, the old trope — or is it a truism? anyone know? — of the Iberian (Spanish or Portugese) all dressed in a-century-out-of-date styles and all black.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)
The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

I question the construction of these hoods, even if it WERE the 16th century.

And here’s Princess Catherine, in the craziest, most fabulous hair EVER. I am in love!

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Note the jeweled bows along the bottom edge!

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Did Catherine really show up in such outlandish clothes and hair? Why is she dressed so differently from all of her Portuguese peeps? Re: wearing a very different style of dress with huge, square-ish hoops, it sounds like yes. Re: the hair, I’m not so sure. Supposedly Charles called her a bat, a line they use in the show, but the source sounds pretty friend-of-a-friend to me.

Obviously the costume designers were referencing this style worn in Spain:

Mariana of Austria by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, 1652-3, Museo Nacional del Prado

However, the only images I can find of a pre-marriage Catherine show her in a slightly different style of dress, with mellower hair:

ainting of Catherine of Braganza, Queen of England and Infanta of Portugal, outside the Royal Pantheon of the House of Braganza, in the Monastery of Saint Vincent Outside the Walls, Lisbon, Portugal

Painting of Catherine of Braganza, Queen of England and Infanta of Portugal, outside the Royal Pantheon of the House of Braganza, in the Monastery of Saint Vincent Outside the Walls, Lisbon, Portugal via Wikimedia

Portrait of Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), after Dirk Stoop, c. 1660-61, National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), after Dirk Stoop, c. 1660-61, National Portrait Gallery

Here’s that costume on exhibit. There’s some really lovely details, particularly the lace, trim, and pearls on the bodice:

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003) The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003) The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

It’s time to shag, but Catherine only speaks Portugese and is terrified. Charles is kind and leaves it for another night, but Catherine is clearly confused and upset.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

If you have to wear an unfortunate biggins, I guess embroidery is your only hope?

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

He heads to Barbara’s place instead. Babs talks him into making her first lady of Catherine’s bedchamber by freaking out and wearing a panné velvet robe.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

NO.

The menswear is all working for me for late 17th century, although I haven’t yet looked into the history closely. There is a shocking lack of hats, however.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003) The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Catherine keeps her hairstyle, learns English, starts wearing more English-style dresses, and reaches out to Chuck:

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

This dress! Really beautifully done! The rigid bodice, long boned point, cartridge pleating, and the huge sleeves canted towards the back are all spot-on. The only thing I’d tweak is lowering the neckline slightly to the shoulder point.

She’s been super quiet and shy, until she learns about the whole king’s-whore-is-going-to-be-my-first-lady-in-waiting thing. She bursts in on a council meeting and freaks the fuck out in Portugese, and it is faaaabulous! I love getting to watch the hair move!
The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003) The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Catherine throws furniture and dishes at Charles, and it’s just super satisfying to see her bust out.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Barbara wins this war, however, while wearing an actually appropriate-to-the-1660s-dress.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Yet another dress we only see for a split second, so the best I could do was the tiny little image in the top right corner. Barbara has added pearls to her hair, but otherwise refuses to get with the (historically accurate) program.

Compare the little you can see of that dress with another portrait of Barbara. At least the lines are right?

Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland and Countess Castlemaine (1640–1709)

Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland and Countess Castlemaine (1640–1709), c. 1670, via Sotheby’s

Catherine is suddenly in still weird, yet mellower hair. I’m confused, because NOW her hair looks like that real portrait of her I posted above.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

The weird bangs/fringe thing IS period for Portuguese styles.

Now we finally figure out who that well-dressed lady was — Anne Hyde, wife of Charles’s brother James, the Duke of York. Or, as I know her, Lydia from Berkeley Square. James wants to divorce her, despite her having historically accurate hair, but Charles says nope.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

BTW Charles’s chief advisor is played by Ian McDiarmid, aka Emperor Palpatine.

Here’s the real Anne Hyde, wearing “pretty classical drapery”:

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York by Peter Lely, 1661, Scottish National Gallery

Anne Hyde, Duchess of York by Peter Lely, 1661, Scottish National Gallery

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

Suddenly Catherine gets all Historical Manic Pixie Dream Girl, running around with her hair down, in a panné velvet men’s suit (huh?), playing with dogs, and being all cute. Charles is intrigued. The two shag, and she’s into it, and they connect. There’s hope for this marriage!

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

The two get close:The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

But never fear, Barbara lurks — in the same mantua she’s been wearing for however-many-years — ready for the king to get bored.

The Last King - Charles II: The Power & the Passion (2003)

 

Onwards to episode 2 of The Last King!

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About the author

Kendra

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Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

19 Responses

  1. MoHub

    Charles I famously wore extra layers to his execution as it was a bitterly cold day and he did not want to be seen shivering and have it seen as fear.

    Reply
  2. LadySlippers

    Y’all how can you notice the costumes when it’s Moaning Myrtle?!? That’s all I see. 😂

    Reply
  3. Susan Pola Staples

    Ah you had me at Rufus Sewell.

    But I agree – with all the power/influence Barbara Villiers had, you would think she’d dress better. snicker

    Reply
    • Alluria

      Since I was brought up on the campy pomp and cheesy circumstance that was The Lady and the Highwayman, anytime I hear Charles the II, it will always be Michael York to me, but I do say Sam Neill was alright in Restoration…I shall have to give this new one a go…however I only wish that they could have done more with the costumes for the ladies! And I adore the British hair on the women of this time period – it isn’t hard to do – even with medium length hair!!

      As usual, the review is a welcome diversion, thank you! :)

      Reply
  4. Rori

    “Did Catherine really show up in such outlandish clothes and hair? Why is she dressed so differently from all of her Portuguese peeps? Re: wearing a very different style of dress with huge, square-ish hoops, it sounds like yes. Re: the hair, I’m not so sure. Supposedly Charles called her a bat, a line they use in the show, but the source sounds pretty friend-of-a-friend to me.”

    While the dress and hairstyle Catherine wore when she arrived at Charles’ court is appropriate in Portuguese wise, it’s not accurate in terms of what actually happen. A biography i read said that Catherine arrived in a “satin white dress” that Charles gave her as a gift prior before their marriage. Apparently before leaving Portugal, Catherine argued with her Portuguese women on whether she would wear her native or they, called it, “inappropriate” English clothing. Catherine choose the latter cause she want to impress her future husband.

    Just a a little tidbit i want to offer. :)

    On the side note, this is sort of nitpicking, but Helen McCrory’s portrayal of Barbara seems to make her look kinda old than how the actual Barbara really look like.

    Reply
  5. Olivia

    Good article! I’ve watched it without knowledge about costumes.
    I love and hate beautiful and badass Babara (Helen McCrory).

    Reply
  6. Elisa

    I haven’t seen this in years, but saw it several times Before that. Clearly I know more about 17th century fashion now than I did then… Rufus Sewell is still dreamy in it, though.

    I Always though the first scene wasn’t a memory, but a dream sequence. :)

    I have vague memories from a biography over Charles II that Catherine of Braganza really did enjoy wearing men’s clothes for casual moments. Don’t quote me on that.

    Reply
    • Emily Klaczak

      If you’re thinking of Antonia Fraser’s biography of Charles II, Fraser does mention that Catherine and other court ladies did dress in men’s clothes — “trouser suits” — especially if like Catherine, they had nice legs.

      Reply
  7. Peacoclaur

    I remember watching this years ago – I’ve never entirely “got” the fuss about C2 and the restoration, always felt like an intermission between the civil war and the glorious revolution (now why don’t they make somthing about that?), but I remember enjoying this for the same reason I enjoyed The Tudors – good campy soap opera fun.

    Reply
    • Peacoclaur

      Also that bit about Charles i’s execution at the start, according to what I’ve read it’s Charles II having a nightmare/flashback about it – he was in exile in France with his mother when it happened – it’s meant to be about how C2’s approach to being king was defined by the “trauma” and legacy of the civil war and his father’s death, or at least it’s about how the shows creators see it, historians might beg to differ.

      Reply

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