WHEN Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries some monks were lucky enough to receive compensation. Forty pounds a year, a sum beyond the dreams of avarice to the peasantry, was awarded to the abbot of Shap; so said English Heritage's notes at the delightfully secluded abbey ruins by the River Lowther a mile from the Westmorland village once notorious as an A6 bottleneck.

This gleaning from a weekend in the Lake District provoked a not very profound thought on workaday Monday. That harlotry pays rather better than piety.

"Pretty, witty Nell," the lifelong illiterate and former Drury Lane orange-girl who was the only one of Charles II's mistresses also to win the hearts of the populace, was granted £1,500 a year pension when, on the king's death, she had to give up her night job.

The comparison is made in the light of inflation that during the intervening 150 years was at a rate (a baron of beef and a barrel of sack that cost a groat in 1687 came without the free mustard of the 1530s) to make Gordon Brown drool with envy.

Ms Gwyn was that rarity, a lass genuinely from the gutter who was taken into the royal bed. Well, almost from the gutter, because she did have a mother from the employing classes, if bawdy-house keeper can be so described, and she had progressed from stalls to stage before catching Charles' eye.

Becky Sharp, of Vanity Fair, was self-made but started not from the lowest rung and anyway aspired merely to the gentry. Also without royal aspirations, but back in real life, only Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies come quickly to mind as ordinary good-time girls who were, briefly, protected from the foggy foggy dew by powerful figures, in their case politicians and other well-heeled chancers.

It is a train of thought which leads to Saltburn-on-Sea, via Lillie Langtry, whose admirers, as the less-racy biographies of both parties put it, included Bertie, Prince of Wales. The future King Edward VII and his mercenary lover, it is suggested, conducted part of their affair in the little seaside town.

Mrs Langtry neatly makes my social point. She was of good family in the Channel Isles. The father of Emilie Charlotte Le Breton was Dean of Jersey and the Edward Langtry she married there in 1874, when she was 21, was a wealthy man, the idle scion of a Belfast shipowning family.

Seven years later she caused a sensation when she became the first society woman to go on the stage. Thus there was a certain piquancy in the fact that her first important London part was in She Stoops to Conquer as a well-born young thing mistaken for a domestic servant and athletically seduced by a baronet's son who, sight unseen, is her suitor.

So the Prince of Wales, with little of importance to do but amuse himself in the long waiting years before he succeeded Queen Victoria, did not have to stoop quite as far to conquer Lillie as her invariable description as "actress" implies. A professional thespian she was to become, at a time when the calling was scarcely respectable, but first she had been a lady; indeed, much later she was to be formally so, when her second husband was knighted.

Lillie met the heir to the throne in 1877. Since arriving from Jersey with her yacht-racing but socially ineffectual husband she had taken London society by storm. This was due almost entirely to her cool beauty, with pale complexion and hour-glass figure. The prince engineered a meeting and within months he was building her a house at Bournemouth.

All this was before her fame was greatly widened by the first showing in public, at the 1878 Royal Academy exhibition, of A Jersey Lily, Sir John Everett Millais' painting of his fellow Channel Islander.

There's the apocryphal story about an absent-minded aristocrat, chatting to a haughty woman at a 1970s charity do and fishing wildly to put a name to a very familiar face: "And your sister," he ventured, "what is she doing these days?" "Still Queen," he was told tartly by Princess Margaret.

Turned on its head, that is a tale that could have evolved from an exchange during one of Mrs Langtry's early appearances alongside her prince. Bertie was showing her off to an important visitor newly in London from New York: "What have you been doing after your Civil War?" she inquired of Gen Ulysees S Grant. "Well, I've served two terms as president of the United States," he replied with a grim smile to an unabashed Lillie.

Gen Grant's country, however, although Oscar Wilde was famously to say that he would sooner have discovered Lillie Langtry than discover America, was within a few years clamouring to know all about her. Drinking saloons there were christened The Jersey Lily, her acclaim after coast-to-coast stage appearances encouraged her to buy a house in San Francisco and she was susceptible enough to the way of life to try for US citizenship.

How does Victorian-prim Saltburn fit into all this glamour and scandal? Somewhat uncertainly and, given that assignations there between Lillie and the prince are alleged to have taken place at a house built for a member of one of the North's sternest Quaker dynasties, rather uneasily.

The claim is recorded in Chris Scott Wilson's 1980s' History of Saltburn. It says she "stayed at the house sometime between 1877 and 1880" and was often visited by the Prince of Wales "who had a suite of rooms at the Zetland Hotel".

When thousands descend on Saltburn next month for the annual celebrations of its 19th-century development as a genteel resort, many of them will cast an envious eye on the large sandstone villa standing alone towards the top of the cliff across from the Zetland and to one side of the 1884 vertical tramway to the beach. It has fine views out to sea and along the coast. Here it was that Lillie is said to have entertained Bertie.

Henry Pease, founder of Victorian Saltburn, had the place built in 1862 for his own occupation, perhaps as a holiday home, but within a very few years someone else was living there. It was originally called The Cottage and was the only one built of what were intended to be one of four similar houses, "Clifton Villas". Now the story of royal dalliance there is reflected in the name Teddy's Nook, which it was given in the 1920s, it presumably being thought that a respectful period had elapsed since King Edward's death in 1910.

But one wonders why Bertie would bother with the Zetland Hotel and why in any case Lillie should be at The Cottage. He was not bothered about anyone in his circle knowing about the liaison, of which he was rather proud, and there was not then the tabloid newspaper factor.

When he came to the North-East, the natural thing would have been to stay with Lord Zetland or the Londonderrys at Wynyard Park.

Around this time he certainly stayed with his trustworthy friend the Earl of Feversham at Duncombe Park, Helmsley, on a long Yorkshire holiday while his wife, the beautiful Alexandra who learned to live with his infidelities, was visiting her native Denmark.

He was a racing man but there is no record of his coming to the new course at Redcar, which had been opened in 1872. And Lillie? The 1877-80 years were before her stage debut so she would not have been here on a tour of provincial theatres (in 1899 she was the star at the opening of the Empire, Middlesbrough).

Later, when she had made her fortune as an actress and from payments from other wealthy sexual partners besides the prince, she too indulged a passion for racing and bought her own stable at Newmarket.

But let's be positive about the idea of princely naughtiness on our patch. It is too firmly believed at Saltburn for it not to be true. We want it to be true.

AMONG the women who were to succeed Lillie as the antidote to Bertie's boredom was the voluptuous Mrs Alice Keppel, daughter of a baronet, whose husband's forbearance was rewarded by membership of the Royal Victorian Order.

Our own Prince of Wales, Bertie's great-great grandson, is not a serial philanderer - for would not the tabloids tell us? - but it is a neat symmetry that Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles, cited by Princess Diana as the third person in her unhappy marriage, should be Alice Keppel's great-granddaughter