ELEANOR "NELL" GWYN (2 February 1650 – 14 November 1687; also
spelled Gwynn, Gwynne) was a long-time mistress of King
* 1 Early life
The details of Nell's background are somewhat obscure. Her mother's
name was Ellen (or a variant) and she was referred to in her lifetime
as "Old Madam", "Madam Gwyn", and "Old Ma Gwyn". Madam Gwyn was born,
according to a monumental inscription , in the parish of St Martin in
the Fields ,
Nell's mother drowned, while drunk, in a ditch near
Three cities make the claim to be Nell Gwyn's birthplace:
One way or another, Nell's father seems to have been out of the
picture by the time of her childhood in Covent Garden, and her
"dipsomaniac mother, notorious sister", Rose, were left in a low
situation . She experimented with cross-dressing between 1663-1667
going under the name "William Nell" and adopting a false beard; her
observations informed a most successful and hilarious character
interpretation acting as a man on the stage in March 1667. Old Madam
Gwyn was by most accounts an alcoholic whose business was running a
bawdy house (or brothel ). There, or in the bawdy house of one Madam
Ross, Nell would spend at least some time. It is possible she worked
herself as a child prostitute ; Peter Thomson, in the Oxford
Illustrated History of Theatre, says it is "probable". A rare mention
of her upbringing from the source herself might be seen to contradict
the idea: A 1667 entry in
Here Mrs. Pierce tells me that Nelly and Beck Marshall, falling out
the other day, the latter called the other my Lord Buckhurst's whore.
Nell answered then, "I was but one man's whore, though I was brought
up in a bawdy-house to fill strong waters to the guests; and you are a
whore to three or four, though a
However, it is not out of the question that Gwyn was merely echoing the satirists of the day, if she said this at all.
Various anonymous verses are the only other sources describing her childhood occupations: bawdyhouse servant, street hawker of herring , oysters , or turnips , and cinder-girl have all been put forth. Tradition has her growing up in Coal Yard Alley, a poor slum off Drury Lane .
Around 1662, Nell is said to have taken a lover by the name of "Duncan" or "Dungan". Their relationship lasted perhaps two years and was reported with obscenity-laced acidity in several later satires; "For either with expense of purse or p---k, / At length the weary fool grew Nelly-sick". ) Duncan provided Gwyn with rooms at a tavern in Maypole Alley, and the satires also say he was involved in securing Nell a job at the theatre being built nearby.
During the decade of protectorate rule by the Cromwells, pastimes
regarded as frivolous, including theatre, had been banned. Charles II
had been restored to the English throne in 1660, and quickly
reinstated the theatre. One of Charles' early acts as king was to
license the formation of two acting companies and to legalize acting
as a profession for women. In 1663 the King\'s Company , led by Thomas
Killigrew , opened a new playhouse, the Theatre in Bridges Street,
which was later rebuilt and renamed the Theatre Royal,
Mary Meggs, a former prostitute nicknamed "Orange Moll" and a friend of Madam Gwyn's, had been granted the licence to "vend, utter and sell oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manner of fruiterers and confectioners wares," within the theatre. Orange Moll hired Nell and her older sister Rose as scantily clad "orange-girls", selling the small, sweet "china" oranges to the audience inside the theatre for a sixpence each. The work exposed her to multiple aspects of theatre life and to London's higher society: this was after all "the King's playhouse", and Charles frequently attended performances. The orange-girls would also serve as messengers between the men in the audience and the actresses backstage; they received monetary tips for this role and certainly some of these messages would end in sexual assignations. Whether this activity rose to the level of pimping may be a matter of semantics.
The new theatres were the first in
If her good looks, strong clear voice, and lively wit were responsible for catching the eye of Killigrew, she still had to prove herself clever enough to succeed as an actress. This was no easy task in the Restoration theatre; the limited pool of audience members meant that very short runs were the norm for plays and fifty different productions might be mounted in the nine-month season lasting from September to June. She was reputed to have been illiterate.
She was taught her craft of performing at a school for young actors developed by Killigrew and one of the fine male actors of the time, Charles Hart , and learned dancing from another, John Lacy ; both were rumored by satirists of the time to be her lovers, but if she had such a relationship with Lacy (Beauclerk thinks it unlikely), it was kept much more discreet than her well-known affair with Hart.
Gwyn was slated to play a part in Killigrew's Thomaso, or The
Wanderer in November 1664, but the play seems to have been cancelled.
Instead, she made her first recorded appearance on-stage in March
Pepys, whose diary usually has great things to say about Gwyn, was displeased with her performance in this same part two years later: "...to the King's playhouse, and there saw 'The Indian Emperour;' where I find Nell come again, which I am glad of; but was most infinitely displeased with her being put to act the Emperour's daughter; which is a great and serious part, which she do most basely."
Gwyn herself seems to agree that drama did not suit her, to judge from the lines she was later made to say in the epilogue to a Robert Howard drama:
We have been all ill-us'd, by this day's poet. 'Tis our joint cause; I know you in your hearts Hate serious plays, as I do serious parts.
It was in the new form of restoration comedy that
There is some debate over the year The Mad Couple debuted, with earlier authorities believing it to be 1667. This was the first of many appearances in which Gwyn and Hart played the "gay couple", a form that would become a frequent theme in restoration comedies.
The gay couple, broadly defined, is a pair of witty, antagonistic lovers, he generally a rake fearing the entrapment of marriage and she feigning to do the same in order to keep her lover at arm's length.
Theatre historian Elizabeth Howe goes so far as to credit the enduring success of the gay couple on the Restoration stage entirely to "the talent and popularity of a single actress, Nell Gwyn".
The Great Plague of
The King's Company is presumed to have mounted some private theatrical entertainments for the court during this time away from the virulent capital. Gwyn and the other ten "women comedians in His Majesty's Theatre" were issued the right (and the cloth) to wear the King's livery at the start of this exile, proclaiming them official servants of the King.
After the theatres reopened, Gwyn and Hart returned to play role after role that fit the mold of the gay couple, including in James Howard's The English Monsieur (December 1666), Richard Rhodes ' Flora's Vagaries, an adaptation of John Fletcher 's The Chances by George Villiers , and then in their greatest success, Secret Love, or The Maiden Queen .
This play, a tragicomedy written by the theatre's house dramatist,
... to the King's house to see 'The Maiden Queen', a new play of Dryden's, mightily commended for the regularity of it, and the strain and wit; and the truth is, there is a comical part done by Nell, which is Florimell, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again, by man or woman. The King and the Duke of York were at the play. But so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girl, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the notions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her.
After seeing the play for the third time, Pepys writes, "It is impossible to have Florimel’s part, which is the most comical that ever was made for woman, ever done better than it is by Nelly.” Killigrew must have agreed with Pepys’s opinion. Once Nell left the acting profession, it would be at least ten years before his company revived The Maiden Queen and even the less favored The Indian Emperor because “the management evidently felt that it would be useless to present these plays without her.”
The Maiden Queen featured breeches roles , where the actress appeared
in men's clothes under one pretense or another, and as Bax supposes
"was one of the first occasions upon which a woman appeared in the
disguise of a man"; if nothing else this could draw an audience eager
to see the women show off their figures in the more form-fitting male
attire. The attraction had another dynamic: the theatres sometimes had
a hard time holding onto their actresses, as they were swept up to
become the kept mistresses of the aristocracy. In 1667,
Yet Hart more manners had, then not to tender When noble Buckhurst beg'd him to surrender. He saw her roll the stage from side to side And, through her drawers the powerful charm descry'd.
Beauclerk describes Buckhurst: "Cultured, witty, satirical,
dissolute, and utterly charming". He was one of a handful of court
wits, the "merry gang" as named by
EARLY YEARS WITH KING CHARLES II
Late in 1667,
George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham
The love affair between the King and Gwyn allegedly began in April 1668. Gwyn was attending a performance of George Etherege 's She Wou'd if She Cou'd at the theatre in Lincoln\'s Inn Fields . In the next box was the King, who from accounts was more interested in flirting with Nell than watching the play. Charles invited Nell and her escort (a Mr. Villiers, a cousin of Buckingham's) to supper, along with his brother the Duke of York . The anecdote turns charming if perhaps apocryphal at this point: the King, after supper, discovered that he had no money on him; nor did his brother, and Gwyn had to foot the bill. "Od's fish!" she exclaimed, in an imitation of the King's manner of speaking, "but this is the poorest company I ever was in!"
Having previously been the mistress of Charles Hart and Charles
Sackville, Gwyn jokingly called the King "her Charles the Third". By
the summer of 1668, Gwyn's affair with the King was well-known, though
there was little reason to believe it would last for long. She
continued to act at the King's House, her new notoriety drawing larger
crowds and encouraging the playwrights to craft more roles
specifically for her. June 1668 found her in Dryden's An Evening\'s
Love, or The Mock Astrologer , and in July she played in Lacy's The
Old Troop, a farce about a company of
During Gwyn's first years with Charles, there was little competition
in the way of other mistresses: Barbara Palmer was on her way out in
most respects, certainly in terms of age and looks, while others, such
as Moll Davis, kept quietly away from the spotlight of public
appearances or Whitehall . Nell gave birth to her first son, Charles ,
on 8 May 1670. This was the King's seventh son — by five separate
Louise de Kérouaille . Painting by
Several months later,
Louise de Kérouaille came to
Gwyn returned to the stage again in late 1670, something Beauclerk calls an "extraordinary thing to do" for a mistress with a royal child. Her return was in Dryden's The Conquest of Granada , a two-part epic produced in December 1670 and January 1671. This may have been her last play; 1671 was almost certainly her last season. Nell Gwyn's theatrical career spanned seven years and ended at the age of 21.
In the cast list of Aphra Behn's The Rover (produced at Dorset Garden in March 1677) the part of Angelica Bianca, "a famous Curtezan" is played by a Mrs Gwin. This has sparked some confusion. The spelling of 'Gwin' does not refer to Nell Gwyn, but to Mrs. Anne Quin. Nell Gwyn had left the stage by this point.
AFTER THE STAGE
In February 1671, Nell moved into a brick townhouse at 79 Pall Mall . The property was owned by the crown and its current resident was instructed to transfer the lease to Gwyn. It would be her main residence for the rest of her life. Gwyn seemed unsatisfied with being a lessee only – in 1673 we are told in a letter of Joseph Williamson that "Madam Gwinn complains she has no house yett." Gwyn is said to have complained that "she had always conveyed free under the Crown, and always would; and would not accept till it was conveyed free to her by an Act of Parliament." In 1676, Gwyn would in fact be granted the freehold of the property, which would remain in her family until 1693; as of 1960 the property was still the only one on the south side of Pall Mall not owned by the Crown.
There are two variations about how the elder of her two children by Charles was given the Earldom of Burford, both of which are unverifiable: The first (and most popular) is that when Charles was six years old, on the arrival of the King, Nell said, "Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father." When the King protested against her calling Charles that, she replied, "Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him." In response, Charles created him Earl of Burford . Another is that Nell grabbed young Charles and hung him out of a window of Lauderdale House in Highgate , where she briefly resided, and threatened to drop him unless he was granted a peerage. The King cried out "God save the Earl of Burford!" and subsequently officially created the peerage, saving his son's life. On 21 December 1676, a warrant was passed for "a grant to Charles Beauclerc, the King's natural son, and to the heirs male of his body, of the dignities of Baron of Heddington, co. Oxford, and Earl of Burford in the same county, with remainder to his brother, James Beauclerc, and the heirs male of his body." A few weeks later, James was given "the title of Lord Beauclerc, with the place and precedence of the eldest son of an earl."
Shortly afterwards, the King granted a house which was renamed as
Burford House , on the edge of the Home Park in Windsor , to Nell and
their son. She lived there when the King was in residence at Windsor
Castle . In addition to the properties mentioned above, Nell had a
summer residence on the site of what is now 61-63 King's Cross Road,
which enjoyed later popularity as the Bagnigge Wells Spa. According to
Just after the death of
Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans
King Charles died on 6 February 1685. James II , obeying his
brother's deathbed wish, "Let not poor Nelly starve," eventually paid
most of Gwyn's debts and gave her a pension of 1,500 pounds a year. He
also paid off the mortgage on Gwyn's
In March 1687, Gwyn suffered a stroke that left her paralysed on one
side. In May, a second stroke left her confined to the bed in her Pall
Mall house; she made out her will on 9 July and a codicil on 18
She was buried in the Church of
Nell Gwynn was one day passing through the streets of Oxford, in her coach, when the mob mistaking her for her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth, commenced hooting and loading her with every opprobrious epithet. Putting her head out of the coach window, "Good people", she said, smiling, "you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore."
The Catholic whore was still the Frenchwoman Louise de Kérouaille , who had been created Duchess of Portsmouth in 1673.
The author of her 1752 biography relates a conversation (more than
likely fabricated) between Nell and
"If it please your Majesty," she replied, "there is but one way left,
which expedient I am afraid it will be difficult to persuade you to
embrace. Dismiss your ladies, may it please your Majesty, and mind
your business; the People of
She is noted for another remark made to her coachman, who was fighting with another man who had called her a whore. She broke up the fight, saying, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about."
IN STAGE WORKS AND LITERATURE
* 1799, The Peckham Frolic : or Nell Gwyn, a comedy in three acts by
* 1884, Nell Gwynne , an operetta by
* 1900, English Nell, a play by
Edward Rose , later retitled Nell
Gwynne, adapted from
IN FILM AND TELEVISION
* In the 1911 film,
Sweet Nell of Old Drury (based on the play of
the same name described above), Nell is portrayed by
* In the 1915 film,
Mistress Nell , based on Hazelton's play of
1900; Nell is portrayed by
* ^ Howe 1992 , p. 67.
* ^ A B C Davies, p. 124.
* ^ T. C. D., "The Will of Nell Gwynn", The Genealogists' Magazine,
vol. VII, pp. 8-10.
* ^ George Wilson, "Nell Gwynn", The Genealogical Magazine, vol. IV
(1901), pp. 384-389 (contains most of her descendants but ignores the
* ^ Arthur Irwin Dasent, Nell Gwynne (London: Macmillan, 1924), pp.
* ^ John Harold Wilson,
* Bax, Clifford (1969). Pretty Witty Nell. New York/London: Benjamin
Blom. ISBN 0-405-08243-6 .
* Beauclerk, Charles (2005). Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King. Atlantic
Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-926-X .
* Cunningham, Peter (1888). The Story of Nell Gwyn: and the Sayings
of Charles the Second. John Wiley's Sons, New York.
* Dasent, Arthur (1924). Nell Gwynne. New York/London: Benjamin
* Davies, Edward J. (2011). "
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