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Nell Gwyn

Updated on September 13, 2012

Actress

Nell Gwyn, the orange seller turned actress was a favourite of King Charles 2nd. She later became his mistress and bore him two sons. She was rewarded with lavish gifts including country houses.

Early Days

Nell (Eleanor) Gwyn, 1650 to 1687 mistress of King Charles 2nd, to whom she bore two sons, was born in Coal Yard Alley, Covent garden, London. Her mother was called Old Madam Gwyn, or plain Madam Gwyn, a keeper of a bawdy house or brothel. Nell's father was Thomas Gwyn, a Captain in King Charles's army.

Nell's childhood occupations were, bawdy house servant, street hawker of herring, oysters and turnips seller.

In 1662, Nell is said to have taken a lover by the name of Duncan who gave her rooms at a tavern and got her a job at the theatre being built nearby.

King Charles 2nd had been restored to the throne in 1660, after ten years absence. During the rule by Cromwell, entertainment in theatres had been classed as frivolous pursuits and had been banned. One of the first of Charles's acts as King was to license the formation of two acting companies, and in 1663 the King's Company led by Thomas Killigrew was formed. The company opened a Theatre in Bridges Street , which was later named the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

A friend of Madam Gwyn's, Orange Moll, had been granted the licence to sell oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and such inside the theatre. Moll hired Nell and her older sister Rose as orange-girls, selling the small, sweet oranges to the audience. This work introduced Nell all aspects of theatre life and to London's higher society. This was the 'King's playhouse' and Charles frequently attended the performances. The orange-girls would also serve as messengers between men in the audience and actresses backstage and they received tips for doing this.

Nell Gwyn joined the rank of actresses at Bridges Street when she was fourteen, less than a year after becoming an orange-girl. Her natural wit and good looks soon made her a favourite with audiences.

The Great Plague struck in the Summer of 1665, shutting down the Bridges Street theatre, and most of the city of London.

The King's Company followed King Charles to Oxford to escape the plague which ravaged London until the autumn of 1666. It gave some private theatrical entertainments for the court during this time away from the capital. Nell and the other ten women in 'His Majesty's Theatre' were given the right (and the cloth) to wear the King's livery proclaiming them official servants of the King.

The company returned to London in early 1667 and the theatre opened again.

The affair between Nell Gwyn and the King started in April of 1668, when Nell was in the audience of a play at a theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In the next box to hers was the King, who from accounts was more interested in flirting with Nell than watching the play. Charles invited Nell and her companion to supper, along with his brother James, Duke of York. After supper the King found that he had no money on him; nor did his brother. Nell had to pay the bill and caused much merriment when she proclaimed, mimicking the King's voice, 'Odd's fish! but this is the poorest company I ever was in!'

Mistress

By the summer of 1668, Nell'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 Theatre. King Charles 2nd had many mistresses throughout his life, both short affairs and committed arrangements. His wife, Catherine of Braganza took a back seat and let his affairs run their course.

During Nell Gwyn's first years with Charles, there was little competition in the way of other mistresses. Nell gave birth to her first son, Charles, on 8 May 1670. The King was soon back to his amorous ways, though, and a Frenchwoman, Louise de Kerouaille, a catholic was soon his favourite. One day when in her carriage Nell was insulted by someone shouting at her, 'Catholic Whore,' so she stuck her head out of the carriage and replied, 'You're wrong. I am the Protestant whore.'

This appealed to the British sense of humour and made her immensely popular.

Nell is also famous for another remark made to her coachman, when he was fighting with another man who had called her a whore. She broke up the fight, saying, 'I am whore. Find something else to fight about.

Nell was the only one of Charles 2nd's many mistresses to be genuinely popular with the English public. It is thought to have been Nell who persuaded the king to build the Royal Hospital in Chelsea for ex-servicemen.

King Charles died on 6 February 1685. His brother James 2nd was asked by Charles on his deathbed, 'Let not poor Nelly starve.' He paid off most of Nell's debts and gave her a pension of 1500 pounds a year.

In March 1687, Nell Gwyn suffered a stroke that left her paralysed down one side. In May, a second stroke left her confined to her bed. She died on 14 November 1687 less than three years after the King's death at the age of 37. In her will she left a legacy to the prisoners in Newgate Jail.



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