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Nell Gwyn

The low-born actress whose wit seduced a king
Nell Gwyn: detail from an oil painting from the studio of Sir Peter Lely. National Portrait Gallery, London

Long before the man who would become Charles III had a mistress, a mistress had her own Charles III. Nell Gwyn’s lover back in the seventeenth century was Charles II to his people: she added another ordinal. Nothing to do with royal protocols, but simply to reflect that two of his predecessors in her favours had also been called Charles: Charles Hart, one of the best-known Restoration actors, and Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst.

An actor, an aristocrat and a monarch: not an especially surprising progression, perhaps, unless you first take into account where Nell had come from. Her mother Ellen was an alcoholic who ran a brothel. Nell herself claimed to have only “fill[ed] strong waters to the guests” there, but if she had been a child prostitute it would have been neither unusual nor a matter in which she would have had any choice.

The more widely accepted of her birth dates, 1650, places her as being born a year into the Protectorate which followed the execution of Charles I. Much of her early childhood took place under the joyless Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell, whose attitude towards life seems to have been half Lady Whiteadder (“wicked child!”) and half Taliban. Nell was ten years old when the monarchy was restored under Charles II, and one of the king’s first acts was to reverse Cromwell’s ban on theatres. Indeed, Charles went further than restoring the status quo ante: he legalised acting as a profession for women (previously, female parts had been played by boys or men in drag).

Restoration London was filthy, licentious, dangerous and exciting. Nell was not just born for such times: she was such times

Restoration London was filthy, licentious, dangerous and exciting: intrigues and plots abounding at court, great leaps forward in arts and science being made in salons and laboratories, a time of smoke and mirrors, of rebirth and reinvention, of turmoil and revolution. A reckless and charismatic young woman like Nell was not just born for such times: she was such times.

She and her elder sister Rose became “orange girls” at the King’s Company’s Brydges Street playhouse, selling “oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manner of fruiterers’ and confectioners’ wares” within the theatre. Not only did this give Nell a close-up view of theatrical productions, but also allowed her to meet people of influence: the orange girls would pass messages from smitten male theatregoers to actresses backstage.

Nell, of course, was not content with being merely a messenger. Soon she was one of the leading ladies herself, and Samuel Pepys was one of the many men captivated by her: “pretty, witty Nell” he called her in an entry of 3 April, 1665. The description was pithy in its brevity and rhyme, but also deadly accurate in identifying Nell’s unique appeal. There were women of beauty and women of wit, but few combined them to such bewitching effect as she did.

And along came the Charleses. On stage, Nell and Hart regularly played the “gay couple”: two lovers witty and antagonistic in equal measure, forever sparring with each other to both disguise and emphasise their mutual attraction. Pepys reckoned her finest hour came in just such a role: writing of John Dryden’s The Maiden Queen, he said that “so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this.”

Sackville was “cultured, witty, satirical, dissolute, and utterly charming,” according to a contemporary. Perhaps inevitably, the affair only lasted a few months. The king was clearly already interested, and Nell was equally clearly reciprocating of the attention while being fully aware that life as a royal mistress would neither be easy nor exclusive – especially not with a man whose nickname was “the Merry Monarch” and to whom history credits at least a baker’s dozen of mistresses.

Nell Gwyn with Charles II by Edward Matthew Ward (1816–1879), Victoria and Albert Museum

Royal mistresses were nothing new, of course. At a time when marriages were dynastic arrangements and political contracts, kings felt themselves entitled to seek women not just for sex but also for companionship and advice too. Smart women used this to their advantage, and they didn’t come much smarter than Nell. Consorting with the king proved beneficial to her career: large crowds came to see her, and playwrights began to write roles specifically for her. She was rumoured to have seen off one rival, Moll Davis, by slipping laxative into her cakes before a scheduled evening in the king’s chamber. She also enjoyed a spirited antagonism with another of Charles’s mistresses, Louise de Kérouaille. Nell, still at heart a street child scornful of Louise’s French Catholic, high-society softness, nicknamed her Squintabella for her looks and “the weeping willow” for her propensity to tears. This rivalry provided Nell with her most famous quote of all: mistaken by a hostile Oxford mob for Louise, she leant out of her coach and said “Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore.”

When Charles died in 1685, one of his last wishes was “let not poor Nelly starve”, a request honoured by his brother James who paid most of her debts and gave her an annual pension of £1,500. In the end, neither Nell nor James were around for very long. Nell died in 1687, only two years after her lover (apoplexy, almost certainly due to syphilis, was deemed the cause), and in 1688 James was deposed in the Glorious Revolution as the crown passed to William of Orange.

But why do Nell’s name and memory endure when pretty much all other royal mistresses and Restoration actresses alike have been forgotten? Though most certainly a vibrant and real person, she is also to some extent a construct of the public imagination: a Cinderella figure whose ascent from rags to riches we can celebrate as the triumph of human and national spirit alike, without perhaps enquiring too closely into the myriad systems of power which oblige such women to be outlying folk heroines rather than the norm. She was poor and became rich: she was a working-class girl who ended up at the royal court and in the royal bed: and she was a woman in a world where men were used to holding sway.

There is also an alluring mystery about her. Much of the material about her life is not infallibly accurate: even her birthdate and birthplace are disputed (some scholars putting the date at 1642 rather than 1650; Hereford, Covent Garden and Oxford all lay claim to being the site.) The picture we have of her comes from a collage of sources, many of them biased by hearsay, gossip, exaggeration, and rumour – accounts of the plays in which she appeared, satire both pictorial and poetic, letters, diaries, and so on, admiration and resentment jostling side-by-side.

Gwyn portrayed with her sons, in an engraving by Antoine Masson (1636-1700)

Nell was a woman adept at playing several roles at once: mistress, mother, actress, political operator, friend, confidante. Accounts of her dressing as a boy, “William Nell”, in her teenage years add to this sense of her as shapeshifter, tacking and tacking again to carve out any advantage for herself in a world which valued some of the currencies she possessed but scorned many more. Sometimes the real Nell can feel frustratingly elusive: or perhaps the real Nell is no more or less easily found than the real version of any of us, hidden and glimpsed in turn beneath palimpsests of our own and others’ making. If you seek her today, your best bet is to head to SW3: first to the Royal Hospital, where the red coats of the Chelsea Pensioners are rumoured to have been her choice, and then to Sloane Avenue, where an Art Deco block of flats bears her name and boasts a statue of her with a King Charles spaniel at her feet.

That Camilla’s great-grandmother Alice Keppel was one of Edward VII’s mistresses is well-known, Less well-known is a possible link between Camilla and Nell through Nell’s first son Charles Beauclerk (at least if a 1993 story in The Independent is to be believed). Beyond that, it would be a stretch to seek too many parallels between them. It was unthinkable that Nell would ever have been crowned Queen the way Camilla has been, and a life which began amidst the hardscrabble slums of seventeenth-century inner London was a far cry from an upper-middle-class upbringing in twentieth-century East Sussex and South Kensington.

Yet at a deep level, there is much to link the two women. The word “mistress” can imply being kept, subservient: someone without agency, dependent on the whim of a powerful man for affection and validation. But in both Nell and Camilla can be seen women every bit the equal of their paramours: women of spirit, intellect, warmth, and wit. Until recently, Nell was the only royal mistress to have enjoyed genuine public affection. Camilla has now reached the same position, even if she has trodden a very different path to get there. Charles III is lucky to have her, just as his predecessor was lucky to have had Nell. As Shirley Bassey once sang, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. His latest novel, “The Law Of The Heart”, is out now

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May 2023, People, reputations

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