Eleanor Gwyn was born in February 1650, when her future lover King Charles II of England was already twenty years old. Eleanor or Nell was the daughter of Ellen and Thomas Gwyn, a peasant couple who hailed from a Welsh bloodline. Despite Nell’s fame, there is little available evidence to piece together her early life story and facts are often disputed, even today London, Oxford and Hereford all claim to be her birthplace.
Nell spent an impoverished childhood in London with her mother and sister after her father apparently died in debtor’s prison. As a child, Nell’s mother is said to have run a brothel in Covent Garden. Luckily for Nell, she was able to leave the brothel behind and take a job selling fruit and refreshments in the King’s company playhouse, a job which she found through her aunt. It is this job which secured Nell’s reputation as an orange seller, who were renowned for selling sexual favours as well as fruit to their customers.
King Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, and he soon put an end to the strict Puritan rule which had gripped the country for over a decade since his father Charles I had been executed. The theatre thrived once again in Restoration London, and King Charles allowed women to take to the stage in public for the first time. Nell Gwyn quickly rose from orange seller to actress, when her wit and talent were noticed by the manager. Although there were better actresses than Nell, because she was fun-loving and could tell a good joke, she found her niche as a comedy actress and soon became a star. Nell appeared in ground-breaking roles such as that of Florimel in John Dryden’s Maiden Queen. In this role, Nell was one of the first actresses to dress in male clothing on stage. The diarist Samuel Pepys said of the performance ‘It is impossible to have Florimel’s part, which is the most comical that ever was made for a woman, ever done better than it is by Nelly’. Nell’s contribution to Restoration theatre was immense long before she became mistress to the King and it should be noted that it was her own skill which made her, she did not use the King to advance herself, as other mistresses did. Once Nell was an established actress, she was admired and pursued by swathes of men. It was fashionable at the time for high-ranking men to take an actress as a lover, which meant many of the best actresses left the stage to live as kept mistresses. Nell was rumoured to have seduced John Dryden, and Samuel Pepys worshipped her from afar, calling her ‘pretty witty Nell’. Nell entered a more formal relationship with a man called Charles Hart who was her co-star in a number of productions, followed by another relationship with Charles Sackville who is said to have lured her away from the stage.
In 1667, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, was seeking to replace Barbara Palmer, the King’s principal mistress with somebody new in order to advance himself at court. It was at this time that Nell was suggested to the King, but when she asked for a sum of £500 to make up for her leaving the stage, this was deemed too expensive. At this time Moll Davis entered the King’s bed, and Nell was left on the sidelines. Within a year, however, a love interest had blossomed between Nell and Charles II anyway. Due to her two previous lovers sharing the same forename as the King, Nell jokingly nicknamed Charles as her ‘Charles the third’.
Charles II is rumoured to have had up to seventeen serious mistresses and many more flings. These ranged from petty dalliances to relationships which spanned decades and provided children. Usually, the mistresses which lasted long-term were ladies of high birth such as Barbara Palmer, the Duchess of Cleveland and Louise de Kérouaille, the Duchess of Portsmouth. These women often had more influence at court than Queen Catherine or Charles’s ministers.
In 1670, Nell gave birth to a son named Charles Beauclerk, who was later created 1st Duke of St Albans after Nell called him a ‘little bastard’ in front of the King in order to show that he had no status as an illegitimate child. Nell and the King had another son James who died at the age of nine.
Unlike many of the other mistresses, Nell was widely liked by the people. Her few enemies were often found in the circle of another of Charles’s mistresses Louise de Kérouaille who came to court in 1670. Louise had links to Louis XIV the French King and was under his pay. Louise spent many years promoting ideas of Catholicism at Charles’ court and a faction developed around her. Louise, the Duchess of Portsmouth, spent vast amounts of crown money and was hated by the people. Due to Nell’s own religious beliefs, she unwittingly became the figurehead for the Protestant faction. One day whilst out in her carriage, people mistook her for the Duchess of Portsmouth and began to attack the coach. Undaunted, Nell opened her window and said ‘good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore’. The crowds soon cheered and parted to let Nell pass through.
Nell and Charles’s relationship lasted almost twenty years. She was never made a Duchess like her sister mistresses Louise and Barbara, but she always lived comfortably and had the King’s love and respect. Days before his death, Charles was seen spending time with all three of his long-term mistresses, Nell, Barbara and Louise. The group had become more like a dysfunctional family and was often seen attending events together. Charles died in February 1685 leaving Nell deep in debt. Thankfully the new King James II adhered to his brother’s death-bed request ‘let not poor Nelly starve’, James paid off Nell’s debts and provided her with a sizeable pension. Sadly Nell was to suffer a stroke in March 1687 which led to her early death at the age of just thirty-seven in November that year. Nell’s stroke was believed to have been caused by syphilis.1