On Tuesday, Tracy asked me if there was anyone I really fell in love with as I was researching and writing ROYAL AFFAIRS, and I rhapsodized about my lifelong affection for Nell Gwyn, an admiration that only increased the more I delved into her life story. Here, much distilled from her entry in ROYAL AFFAIRS, is the story of the love affair between Nell Gwyn and Charles II.
When Charles II was crowned in 1660, the kingdom joyously cast off the repressive shroud of Puritanism and the pendulum swung wildly in the opposite direction. It was time to party—and no woman better typified the ethos of the era than “pretty, witty Nell Gwyn,” (1650-1687) as the king’s friend and noted diarist Samuel Pepys called her—the Cinder-Nella who went from street urchin to oyster-seller to orange-girl plying the theatre pit with her tray of fruits and sweetmeats, and thence became the nation’s first female stage star before leaping headlong into the king’s bed and affections for nearly two decades.
To say that Nell was lowborn is to sugarcoat her childhood. She grew up in Coal Yard Alley amid the London slums. Her father, who had been jailed in Oxford for being a royalist, died in prison, most likely a debtor as well. Nell’s mother, a beauty who hard luck and hard times had reduced to an obese, brandy-swilling soak, sold ale at Mrs. Ross’s in Drury Lane, so Nell used to tell people that she was “brought up in a bawdy house to bring strong waters to the gentlemen.” Nell’s older sister Rose, after a brief stint as an orange seller, followed the predictable course for such a pursuit and ended up a prostitute.
With her flame-colored curls streaked with gold, her oft-praised tiny, dainty feet, her flawless peaches and cream complexion, perfect teeth hidden by a full and sensuous mouth that poets swooned over, and hazel-green eyes framed by soft brown brows, Nell was a petite, yet voluptuous, spitfire. She had an infectious laugh, an earthy sense of humor, cursed like a carman; and, though illiterate and uneducated, had a lightning-quick rapier wit. Her secret girlhood crush was the new king, twenty years her senior, 6’2” and swarthy with blazingly intelligent black eyes, a dashing moustache gracing the upper lip of a sexily sardonic mouth; and a head of inky black curls that tumbled past his shoulders.Charles II
Upon his accession, Charles had immediately set about reopening the theatres that the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, had shut down. Charles tapped Thomas Killigrew to form a company in the king’s name and it was at the new King’s House in Drury Lane that the twelve-year-old Nell and her sister Rose got a job hawking oranges to the gallants in the pit, honing their skills at flirtation and witty repartee.
Nell had been working as an orange girl for eighteen months when she came to Killigrew’s attention. Impressed with her pluck, the theatre manager asked Nell if she’d ever considered taking acting lessons. So in March of 1665, at the age of fifteen, Nell made her stage debut, appearing in Dryden’s The Indian Emperor. It was an instant success, leading to the prompt invitation to join the company. Nell possessed a strong clear voice that could be heard above the rowdiest crowd, an effortless gift for mimicry and improvisation, and matchless comic timing. Her vitality was contagious. “Sweet Nell of Old Drury” as she was affectionately called, was a star.
But in 1665, the plague emptied the playhouses and streets of London, and those who still had their health fled for better air. Nell and her mother decamped to Oxford, but no sooner did everyone feel safe enough to creep back home, than the flames of the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed one-third of the city.
King Charles vowed to rebuild swiftly and was true to his word. And by the end of 1666, Nell was the indisputable queen of the London stage. One early evening in April, 1668, after watching a performance of She Wou’d if She Cou’d, Nell and her date repaired to a nearby tavern. Dining there was the king himself and his brother James, the dour Duke of York (who Nell called “Dismal Jimmy.”). The royals invited Nell and her friend to join them. When the bill came, the monarch and the duke fished through their purses, but neither had the means to pay it. Nell suddenly found herself stuck with the tab. Making use of the king’s favorite expression—and making as much light as possible of her predicament—Nell cried, “Od’s fish, this is the poorest company I ever was in!”
The King, utterly smitten, laughed uproariously. Nell had made a conquest for life. The illiterate actress and the royal polymath found common ground in myriad ways, drawn to each other by a mutual passion for the theatre, a ribald sense of humor, and a love of sport and the outdoors.
Still, Nell realized that if she was not to be his official mistress, or maîtresse en titre (because of her low birth), her position was a precarious one, and she would require some sort of insurance policy.
To that end, Nell didn’t quit the stage for the first three years that she and the king were lovers. She even returned to the theatre soon after giving birth on May 8, 1670 to their first child, Charles, a clear message to her adoring public that the monarch was not providing her and their son with enough to live on. In February, 1671, the king, publicly shamed, settled Nell and their baby into a fashionable town house at 79 Pall Mall, which he paid for and furnished. She was soon pregnant again, and on Christmas Day, 1671, she gave birth to their second son, James, the king’s eighth son by five different mothers. That year, at age twenty-one, Nell finally retired from the stage.
Soon, it was common knowledge that a person had to visit “Mrs. Neslie” if they wanted the ear of the king. Charles trusted Nell implicitly, fully aware that she was looking out for his interests in preference to her own. For one thing, unlike Charles’s other mistresses, Nell never meddled in state affairs, happily admitting her ignorance on such subjects, perfectly aware that the role she played in the king’s life was that of a sexy pleasure giver, not a political adviser, “the sleeping partner on the ship of state.” In fact, a little ditty popular in the 1670s goes like this:
Hard by Pall Mall lives a wench call’d Nell
King Charles the Second he kept her.
She hath got a trick to handle his prick
But never lays hands on his scepter.
And because Nell herself was of the people, she kept her lover connected with the needs of his subjects. To the lower classes she became something of a cult heroine. She was the goddess of the guttersnipes, as close to a queen as one of their own could ever aspire. The tradesmen adored her because she was the only one of the king’s mistresses who always paid her bills promptly.
Despite her low birth, there were some who countenanced Nell’s presence in their king’s bed more easily than that of his Papist mistress Louise de Kéroualle. At least Nell was a Protestant. In 1681, during a time of open anti-Catholic sentiments, Nell’s coach was stopped in an Oxford street by a mob who believed passenger to be the detested Louise. The shade was lifted and out of the window popped Nell’s pretty face amid a profusion of red curls. “Pray good people, be civil. I am the Protestant whore!” she cheerily announced, turning the jeers of the angry swarm into a rousing chorus of cheers.
Louise de Kéroualle
Although Nell herself, being baseborn, was never ennobled by her royal lover, she did convince Charles to bestow titles on their sons, which she once described as “princes by their father for their elevation, but they had a whore to their mother for their humiliation.” In fact the boys had never even enjoyed a surname!
One day when Charles paid them a visit, Nell, waiting for their six-year-old son to greet his father, called into the next room, “Come hither, you little bastard!” Nell’s frank punning shamed the king, and on December 27, 1676, he signed a royal patent, granting little Charles the titles of Baron Heddington, Earl of Burford—and later, the boy was made Duke of St. Albans. He ended up living better than his mother did, with apartments in Whitehall, and an allowance of £1500 a year. Among all seventeen of Charles’s royal bastards, Nell’s Charles was always a favorite of the king. And in January 1677, little James was given the title Lord James Beauclerk (the surname King Charles chose for both boys).
It wasn’t parity with the titles he given his other mistresses and their royal bastards, but Nell retained her sense of humor and consoled herself for her lack of commensurate honors by cheerfully reminding her aristocratic rivals that when all was said and done, they were providing the same service to the king.
Ironically, for the basest and bawdiest member of Charles’s harem, Nell was the most assiduous when it came to matters of hygiene. She knew what it was like to come from squalor and filth, and perhaps there was no better confirmation of her arrival than to enjoy the pleasures of soap and water and the luxury of pristine undergarments. Her fastidiousness in this regard was a point of pride with Nell, who boasted to the visiting French ambassador Monsieur de Coutin that unlike his countrywomen Louise de Kéroualle and another rival mistress, the bisexual Hortense Mancini—whose undergarments were filthy and stinky—her own linen was daisy fresh. To prove her point, Nell lifted her skirts, to display her immaculate petticoats. Monsieur de Coutin, stealing a glimpse at Nell’s pretty ankles and calves, concurred.
While she was his mistress, Nell’s annual royal pension (on which she was expected to subsist and support her two sons by Charles) was a paltry £4000. Yet Nell did ultimately convince Charles to give her the freehold of 79 Pall Mall, where she was a popular hostess, and where Charles so often met his ministers and foreign emissaries to conduct affairs of state. After all, Nell teased, she deserved the freehold because she “had always offered [her] services for free under the crown!” Though her pensions were a fraction of her rivals’ allowances, Charles did give (and built for) Nell a number of houses, as well as a passel of Irish properties, from which Nell derived an income during her lifetime.
And because she was the mother of an earl, she was accorded the status (though not the title) of a lady and entitled to receive a coat of arms. Nell immediately had it applied to her vast services of silver plate.
In 1679, Nell’s mother died after falling into a ditch in a drunken stupor, and typical of Nell’s loving heart, she honored the fat old bag with a lavish funeral. Later that year, Nell’s younger son James, who had been sent off to France to be educated died, purportedly “of a bad leg.”
Endeavoring to cheer and console her, Charles built his little Nelly a house just inside the grounds of Windsor Castle, where rumor had it that a secret tunnel connected Burford House with the king’s apartments in the castle. Together the lovers poured their energies into improvements to Windsor, adding tennis courts, an orangery, and a bowling alley. Because Nell so loved hawking, Charles made their surviving son Master of the Hawks and Grand Falconer, a sincure the future Dukes of St. Albans would enjoy for centuries. And on June 11, 1679, a royal warrant reaffirmed Nell’s pension.
On February 1, 1685, Charles spent the evening in the company of Nell and his other mistresses, past and present. The following morning, Nell’s thirty-fifth birthday, while he was waiting to be shaved, the king’s eyes suddenly rolled back into his head, he began foaming at the mouth, and he slipped off the chair, hitting the floor with a heavy thud.
When Nell heard the news, she came running to Whitehall, but the Establishment refused to allow a fallen woman to sully his royal presence. For the next four days, Charles swung from violent convulsions to periods of lucid tranquility, but all the bleeding, cupping, purges and purgatives, and quack remedies did not avail.
During the king’s final hours, he bestowed on their son the ring that his paternal grandfather, Charles I, had worn on the scaffold the day he was executed. Charles II had himself worn the ring during his triumphant Restoration Day procession through London on his thirtieth birthday, May 29, 1660. If ever there was an indication of preference for Nell above all other mistresses, it was Charles’s gift of this most personal, and most treasured, possession to their only surviving son.
On Charles’s deathbed he was said to have uttered the plea to his brother James, the future king, “Let not poor Nelly starve.” Romantic last words perhaps, but those who adore Nell Gwyn’s unique spark and her insatiable vitality might argue that Charles could have ensured that she would never hunger for anything while he lived. He had plenty of opportunities to do so.
Nell was in desperate financial straits following Charles’s death in 1685. She began selling off her possessions, and feared that her lover’s last words would go unheeded by the new king.
But three months later, James did send Nell some money to live on, paid the lion’s share of her creditors’ bills, and in January 1686, granted her an annual pension of £1500. Nell was the only one of Charles’s mistresses ever to receive her funds directly from the treasury, as only she could be depended upon to spend the money on what it was intended for.
Still faithful to the memory of her lover, Nell repulsed the advances of several suitors after the king died, sorrowfully telling one expectant gent that she would “not lay a dog where the deer had lain.”
She spent the brief remainder of her life as she had always lived it, gaily and in the company of good friends. In March of 1687, Nell suffered a stroke, then was felled by a second one in May that left her paralyzed. For months, from her sumptuous silver bed, attended by Charles’s former physicians, she waited for death to reunite her with the king. Nell Gwyn died on November 14, 1687. She was only thirty-seven years old. Nell would never live to see her royal son become a war hero, nor dandle any of her thirteen grandchildren.
On November 17, the day of Nell’s funeral, the streets were mobbed with mourners from all strata of society. Her eulogy was delivered without irony by the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Contained in her will were numerous charitable bequests to Protestant and Papist alike, consistent with Nell’s lifelong sense of generosity and her refusal to become mired in state or religious politics.
Nell's friend, the playwright Aphra Behn, once told her, “You never appear but you glad the hearts of all that have the happy fortune to see you, as if you were made on purpose to put the whole world into good humor.” No wonder Nell Gwyn captured the heart of a king.
Have you ever "met" someone during your research and felt their story was "yours" -- that you wanted to claim dibs on it because no one could understand what made that person "tick" as well as you do? Who were they? Did you write their story?