Before the restoration of the monarchy, Britain was under the yoke of strict Puritan principles. For 18 years, all theatre was banned – the stage was, to Puritan eyes, immoral and sinful – so when Charles II was crowned king in 1660, the monarchy wasn’t the only thing to make a triumphant return.
Theatres re-opened, and playwrights and actors were intent on enjoying their new incarnation. Plays were infamously graphic and sexually explicit, much to Charles II’s liking. And, for the first time, women were allowed to tread the boards. One such actress who ascended to the stage, and far beyond, was Nell Gwyn.
Who was Nell Gwyn?
Little is known about Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn’s childhood but it is thought that her mother owned a brothel where Nell served drinks to the booze-soused patrons and, despite being a young girl, there is a chance she also became a prostitute. With theatres opening around London, however, there were other opportunities for a job. A teenage Nell and her sister Rose found work at the King’s Theatre on Drury Lane as orange girls – selling fruit to the audiences. Bold, witty and a beauty, Nell caught the eye of actor Charles Hart and with his help, the pair were sharing the stage before long, as well as a bed.
Gwyn’s first recorded play was alongside Hart in a drama, The Indian Emperour by John Dryden, but she always knew her acting future was in comedies, not serious plays. For several years, Gwyn was a star in play after play, from her role as Florimel in Secret Love – which won the plaudits of renowned diarist Samuel Pepys, who had previously called her “pretty witty Nell” – to All Mistaken by James Howard. Supposedly, it was while rolling around the floor in the latter that she wowed Lord Buckhurst, Charles Sackville, and the two became lovers, even though Hart appeared in the play.
The affair didn’t last long, and Gwyn was soon back on stage. Her charms, svelte figure and flowing brown hair worked their magic once again, but on a much bigger fish than Lord Buckhurst. She was not yet 20 when she became a mistress of the rakish libertine Charles II, who was himself approaching 40. As the (possibly apocryphal) tale goes, they flirted together while she was on stage then went out to supper. After food, Charles realised he had no money so Gwyn paid, but not without blurting, “Od’s fish! But this is the poorest company I ever was in!”
Charles was enamoured by her jovial spirit, risqué humour and smouldering sexuality, which meant she became the talk of the country. In May 1670, Gwyn gave birth to Charles’s son, his seventh from five mistresses (his wife had never had a child due to numerous miscarriages). It was not long after the birth that Gwyn retired from performing. Although, she did return to appear in Dryden’s Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards. It was something of a sensation, to see the favourite mistress of the king – and mother to his son – performing on stage.
Mistress to King Charles II
Now an established feature in Charles’s court, Gwyn moved into a grand home at 79 Pall Mall. From there, she entertained the King, impressed nobles, was loved by the poor and always had a charming story to tell. Her son, Charles Beauclerk, was made Earl of Burford after, if the story is to believed, she tricked the King. One day, she called out to the boy, “Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father”. When met by Charles’s remonstrances, she declared, “Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him,” and so Charles gave him a title. Gwyn gave birth to a second son, but he died as a child.
Gwyn enjoyed many luxurious years, but then it almost came to a crashing halt. On 6 February 1685, Charles died, leaving Gwyn alone and in debt. She was so badly off that her creditors outlawed her, but she was saved from ruin by Charles’s dying wish. He implored his brother, James VII and II: “Let not poor Nelly starve”, and the new future king kept his word. He had most of her debts paid off and gave her an annual pension of £1,500 (over £100,000 a year today).
In March and May 1687, Gwyn was struck down by two strokes that left her paralysed on one side and bed-ridden. She lived on for six months but, at the age of 37, she died. To many, Gwyn personifies the spirit of the Restoration – after the colourless existence of the Puritans, she embraced the new cultures and social conventions and made them her own.
Did you know: Nell Gwyn wasn’t Charles II’s only mistress…
“What’s rather curious is that, although the colourful stories that have been passed down in English folklore about Nell Gwyn make her the most well-known of Charles’s mistresses, in my view she was one of the least significant,” says Linda Porter
This content first appeared in the March 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed