November 14, 1687 — King Charles II consorted with a long line of mistresses and had 13 children by them. Nell Gwyn, who died on this day, is the most famous of the mistresses and became a legend, the only royal mistress in English history to be warmly regarded by the people.
Charles was married in 1662 to Portugal's Catherine of Braganza but her pregnancies all ended in miscarriages, causing the King to look elsewhere for a "supplier" of children. As a result, Catherine was ostracised at Court, her retinue was sent back to Portugal and the Queen was forced to acknowledge the semi-official status of her husband's lovers (and their children).
Prominent among them, as the years went by, was Nell Gwyn (also spelled Gwynne or Gwynn).
It is generally accepted that she was born in 1650 as Eleanor Gwyn, though some accounts say that her birth year was 1642. Like many aspects of her life, nobody knows for sure.
It is rumoured that her father died in a debtors’ prison while Nell was still very young. Her mother kept a bawdy-house in London's Covent Garden district, where Nell was brought up. And there, according to the diary of Samuel Pepys, Nell would “fill strong waters [brandy] to the guests”.
About 1664, a new playhouse was built in Covent Garden – later to be rebuilt and named the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Here, Mary Meggs, a former prostitute nicknamed "Orange Moll" and a friend of Nell's mother, had been granted a licence to "vend, utter and sell oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manner of fruiterers and confectioners wares" at the theatre.
Orange Moll hired Nell and her older sister Rose as scantily clad "orange-girls", selling her goods to the audience.
Small, slender, and shapely, with hazel eyes and chestnut-brown hair surrounding a heart-shaped face, Nell quickly caught the eye of the theatre’s leading actor, Charles Hart. She became not only his mistress but also his pupil, probably making her first appearance on stage in December 1665.
From 1666 to 1669 she was the leading actress at this, "the King's playhouse", where King Charles frequently attended performances.
From Hart, Nell was passed on as a mistress to Lord Buckhurst (Charles Sackville), and later to the King. She described them as Charles the First, Charles the Second and Charles the Third!
Though illiterate – her letters were written for her by others – Nell's charm, natural wit and complete lack of self-consciousness captivated almost everyone she met. She was called "pretty, witty Nell" by Pepys. The playwright John Dryden wrote plays to exploit her talents as a comic actress.
Nell gave birth to two sons by the King, the youngest dying at the age of nine. Unlike Charles’ other mistresses, Nell never received a title but by using clever tactics obtained one for her surviving son.
There are two stories about how she achieved this. The most popular is that when Charles was six years old the King came into the room and Nell said: "Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father."
Naturally, the King was shocked, but Nell protested: "Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him." So Charles immediately created the boy Earl of Burford.
The alternative (unlikely) story is that Nell grabbed young Charles and hung him out of a window, threatening to drop him unless he was granted a peerage. The King cried out, "God save the Earl of Burford!" and officially created the peerage, saving his son's life.
Either way, Charles, Earl of Burford, was later given the title Duke of St Albans with an allowance of £1,000 a year.
Established in a fine house and admitted to the inner circles of the Court, Nell spent the rest of her life living extravagantly, entertaining the King and his friends.
When Charles was on his deathbed in 1685 he begged his brother James: “Let not poor Nelly starve.”
She never did starve, but immediately faced the threat of being sent to a debtors' prison. She appealed to the new King James who honoured his brother's dying wish, settled her debts and gave her a pension of £1,500 a year.
1n 1687, Nell suffered two strokes and later died, officially of apoplexy. She was 37 – if born in 1650.
Published: November 7, 2018