Often lampooned, she was reportedly possessed of great comedic talent, making her the most famous of the Restoration actresses. She also won the heart of a king, but ultimately died alone and in debt.
Eleanor (Nell) Gwyn was allegedly born on 2nd February 1650 (or possibly up to eight years earlier). The place of her birth is disputed. Hereford, London and Oxford all claim her as their own and her surname is distinctly Welsh, lending some weight to Hereford's claim as this city is on the Welsh-English border. Whatever the truth of it, she was certainly raised in London, around Covent Garden.
Hers was an inauspicious start. The daughter of a a father with an uncertain background who disappeared from her life in early childhood, while her mother probably ran a 'bawdy' house, along with Nell's sister, Rose. It is highly likely that Nell herself worked as a child prostitute.
How then did she become a famous actress and catch the eye of a king?
It all began with a former prostitute called Orange Moll who was licensed to sell oranges in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - the King's own theatre. Business must have been good because Orange Moll was able to offer work to both Nell and her sister, Rose. Less than a year after starting her new job, Nell had caught the eye of Thomas Killigrew, who owned the theatre, and, at the age of fourteen, her good looks, clear, penetrating voice and witty banter had landed her a new career as part of the theatre's company of actors.
King Charles II was a regular member of the audience and, learning the craft of acting quickly, Nell was soon performing on stage, where she sparkled in comedic roles. Her reputation grew and, when the King moved to Oxford as a result of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London (summer 1665 to autumn 1666), she became one of the select King's Company of actors, performing for His Majesty and the exiled court. She played role after role opposite her real-life lover, Charles Hart, as part of a series of comedies based around two central characters - a male and a female known as a 'gay couple'. In fact, it is said she perfected this style of comedy and made it her own.
Her affair with Hart ended when she caught the eye of the aristocratic Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. It was to be the first rung on the ladder that led her to claim the ultimate prize.
By now, it was 1667 and Nell was aged somewhere between 17 and 25 - young, vivacious, attractive and talented. Her new lover was charming, dissolute, cultured and witty. They must have been much in demand at discreet country-house parties! But, just a few months later, her affair ended and events took a momentous turn.
In April 1668, Nell was at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, in the next box to the King, who seemed far more interested in her than in the play and flirted outrageously with her. Anecdotally, Charles discovered after supper that he had no money on him and Nell had to pay, whereupon, she is said to have exclaimed in an excellent imitation of the monarch, "Od's fish! But this is the poorest company I ever was in!" The King was entranced.
Following her two previous affairs with men called Charles, she nickamed the King, her "Charles the third." She was under no illusions that he would be faithful to her. His wife, Catherine of Braganza, had found herself virtually powerless at court as a result of her husband's longrunning - and continuing - affair with the powerful Barbara Palmer (Lady Castlemaine), whose five children were fathered by Charles. In fact, there existed a veritable harem of women, drawn from every level of society, who were called upon to warm the King's bed as his fancy took him.
Nell gave birth to her first son, also named Charles, on May 8th 1670. He was the King's seventh son by five different mistresses. In the same year, she rather extraordinarlily returned to the stage, while her royal lover took yet another mistress - the French maid of honour, Louise de Kerouaille. Nell nicknamed her 'Squintabella' and they remained rivals for years - although they did occasionally take afternoon tea together! A fly on the wall would have witnessed some interesting exchanges between the woman of noble birth used to the gentility of Versailles and the ex-orange seller and actress with a tendency to use colourful language.
|Charles Beauclerk, 1st Earl of Burford|
Nell's second son by the King - James - was to die tragically young, while her eldest became the Earl of Burford, a title he may or may not have been given as a result of a carefully calculated remark of Nell's. On a visit from the King, she is alleged to have summoned her son, saying, "Come here, you little bastard and speak to your father." When the king protested, she simply replied, "Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him." So Charles Beauclerk, Earl of Burford he became.
The king bestowed property on Nell but she was by nature spendthrift and accumulated vast debts. At the King's death, on February 6th 1685, his brother, James II, succeeded him, as none of Charles's many children was legitimate. "Let not poor Nelly starve," the dying King is reputed to have said and James II respected his wishes and paid off most of the outstanding debts at that time.
As for Nelly, she suffered a series of strokes that kept her confined to her Pall Mall home and, less than three years after the King's death she died from apoplexy, almost certainly due to syphilis. She had accumulated yet more considerable debts - but also left a legacy to the prisoners of Newgate in London (the infamous debtors' prison), no doubt in gratitude for having been spared their fate.
Colourful, bawdy, witty and pretty, Nell Gwyn was a unique and honest character who never forgot who she was, unlike so many courtesans. I'll leave the last words with her.
When riding in her carriage one day, she was mistaken, by the crowds, for her rival, the Roman Catholic Louise de Kerouaille. They shouted obscenities and called her a "Catholic whore". Undaunted, Nell stuck her head out of the window, smiled and said, "Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore."