The hardest task for a royal mistress was getting the public to actually like them. Nell Gwyn made that seem almost too easy. She started as an actress and somehow became the popular mistress of the king.
Eleanor (Nell) Gwyn was probably born on February 2nd, 1650 (it’s also possible that she was born in 1642), and was the daughter of Thomas Gwyn and his wife, Ellen Gwyn. Her father was a soldier of Welsh descent. Soon, her father got thrown into debtor’s prison and died there, leaving Nell, her mother, and her older sister Rose. It’s important to know that since Nell was a poor girl in the 17th century, we can’t be sure of that much when it comes to her early life. Nell lived near Drury Lane growing up (I can’t be the only one thinking of the muffin man).
Nell’s mother, known as ‘Madame Gwyn’, ran a brothel to make a little money. Nell and Rose had to work many jobs to help make ends meet, and they may have even worked in their mother’s brothel as a servant, but it is possible that the extremely young Nell may have had to become a sex worker. It’s also possible that, when she was just twelve (if we believed she was born in 1650), she took a lover named Robert Duncan.
One of Nell’s most important jobs that she got when she was a bit older was “orange-girl”. So, basically, Nell and her sister, Rose, would sell oranges in a theatre near where she lived (which is now Theatre Royal, Drury Lane). There were many important people who came to this theatre, so Nell would’ve been able to meet them while selling them oranges.
It was in this job that Nell met Charles Hart, an actor, and became his mistress in her early teens. Around when she was fourteen, he helped her become one of the actresses as well. Nell was one of the first actresses in England since women only began appearing on stage after the restoration of the monarchy. While acting, Nell would wear men’s clothes, and would even be known as William Nell. Also, Nell may have been illiterate.
Most people enjoyed watching Nell, and Samuel Pepys wrote that he enjoyed the performance of “pretty, witty Nell”. She performed best in comedies, and once you hear some of her comebacks, you’ll see she was absolutely perfect for comedic roles. Nell was—only a few years after selling oranges in the theatre—a celebrity. People wanted to see Nell specifically.
In 1667, Nell had an affair with another Charles, named Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. Nell liked him very much, and he also gave her enough money so that she wouldn’t have to act anymore. The affair with Sackville didn’t last forever, and Nell had to go back to acting after only a few months, not that she didn’t enjoy acting. Sackville had left her, and her other lover, Charles Hart, hated her because she’d run off with Sackville, so it must have been awkward working at the theatre again.
But there was also a very nice job opportunity for Nell: George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, wasn’t fond of King Charles II’s (son of Henrietta Maria and brother of Minette, by the way) current mistress, Barbara Palmer, and really wanted her out of the way. So he offered the position to Nell, which is a bit weird, but it happened.
Nell wanted £500 yearly to be his mistress, and Buckingham was so shocked by her price that he just went and asked Nell’s rival, Moll Davis, instead. Nell was not having that, so she just did what any sensible woman who wanted to get rid of her rival would do: she put laxatives in Moll’s drink (with the help of her friend, writer Aphra Behn) just before she was supposed to go see Charles. Moll was officially out of the way.
Nell then had a wonderful plan to meet Charles. She attended a play that Charles was also going to, and Charles literally stared at her the whole time. Everything was going just the way Nell had planned, and Charles even invited her to have dinner with him and his brother, James, the Duke of York. When they had to pay, Charles and his brother, despite being royals, didn’t have money on them, so Nell had to pay for it. She reportedly cried, “Od’s fish! But this is the poorest company I ever was in!” And her tone was mocking the king’s.
That little insult didn’t stop Nell from becoming Charles’s mistress. She called him Charles III since she’d been the mistress of Charles Hart and Charles Sackville before. Another thing: she didn’t quit acting. Now that she was the king’s mistress—and one of very few royal mistresses in history to actually be liked by the people—plays were being written just for Nell to perform in them.
Remember how Nell had asked for £500 yearly from Buckingham to become Charles’s mistress? Well, Charles’s other mistresses had asked for way more, and having Nell just asking for that little was quite refreshing for Charles, so he gave her £4000, and that number later rose to £9000.
One story from this time was that Nell found a servant of hers fighting with someone. When she asked what was going on, her servant said that the other guy had called her a whore, and Nell replied, “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.”
Even though her daughter was now the king’s mistress, and had a lot of money, Nell’s mother became an alcoholic, and even though Nell tried to help her mother, she drowned after becoming drunk. Nell held a grand funeral for her beloved mother.
Nell gave birth to a son named Charles, and she somehow got him a peerage by never asking or trying. This story may not be true, but it’s still a funny one. Apparently, when the younger Charles was about six years old and his father, King Charles, arrived, Nell said to him, “Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father.” King Charles didn’t want his son to be called a bastard, so he told Nell not to say that, to which she replied, “Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him.” The king quickly created the title Earl of Buford (he later became Duke of St. Albans) for his son. The other story (which I don’t really believe) is that Nell dangled her son out the window and threatened to let him fall if he didn’t get a peerage.
Even after the younger Charles’s birth, Nell continued acting. And then Louise de Kerouaille came along from the French court, which Nell did not like at all. Louise quickly became Charles’s mistress, so Nell rushed back to court to get Charles back. She was only twenty-one, and she was not going to let Louise get away with this.
Nell called Louise “Squintabella”, because she had small eyes, and also “Weeping Willow” since Louise cried a lot. Nobody could’ve prepared poor Louise for Nell. When Nell learned that King Charles had given Louise a set of silver dinnerware, Nell had to outdo that somehow and had a silver bed made for her. The English had loved Nell, but they were not at all fond of Louise, so you can guess who everyone wanted to win this silver-object fight.
Nell also had a son named James, after King Charles’s younger brother, around this time. Nell sent him off to Paris, where he died at the age of ten. She blamed Louise at first, but then started blaming herself for sending him away. She was truly heartbroken at the loss of her second son. But once she recovered from the loss, she had more insults for Louise.
Once, Nell was just doing her usual stuff and insulting Louise, to which Louise said, “anybody may know she has been an orange-wench by her swearing.” It was literally impossible for Nell to be affected by any insults, especially when it was true that Nell swore all the time, so she just laughed and walked away.
Louise was Catholic, while Nell was Protestant, so yes, there’s a really good story concerning that. Once, Nell was just traveling around in her carriage, and a mob thought that she was Louise, so they started screaming at the “Catholic whore”. Nell knew exactly what to do, so she yelled back to them, “Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore!” Everyone loved Nell, so they just started cheering for her as she continued her journey. Nell is the most amazing person I have ever written about.
Nell and Louise had yet another falling out, according to only one source I found so far. One day, Louise was just mourning some random prince she barely even knew, and that made Nell frustrated, so she dressed all in black and said that she was in mourning for the “Cham of Tartary”, and when she was asked how she knew the Cham of Tartary, she said she knew him just the way Louise knew the prince she was mourning. By that she meant that she didn’t have the faintest idea who the Cham of Tartary was.
Charles still really liked Nell, though, and he let his favorite guests see Portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus, which shows Nell nude. Nell also owned nude portraits of herself, and oddly, Samuel Pepys owned a copy of one, which he displayed.
Hortense Mancini then arrived at the English court with the goal of becoming Charles’s mistress. She quickly got rid of Louise, so maybe Nell respected her for a moment, but then they became rivals. Nell didn’t have to do that much, since Hortense made the king quite angry. She had an affair with Anne Lennard, the king’s illegitimate daughter, and once Anne’s husband sent her to a convent, Hortense had an affair with the Prince of Monaco. Charles was fed up with Hortense, and Nell had always been faithful to him, so Hortense was no longer his mistress, and Nell was back.
On Nell’s 35th birthday (it’s literally been eighteen years since she and Charles first started their affair, of course, he’ll do something special for her), Charles decided to go give Nell a gift, but it was on that day that Charles began to, well, start showing signs of dying. A few days later, Charles died on February 5th, 1685. Before dying, Charles had told his brother James, “Let not poor Nelly starve.” Even though it wasn’t as much as Charles had given her, James still gave Nell a pension. Nell never received a noble title, unlike many of Charles’s mistresses (including Louise, who became Duchess of Portsmouth).
Nell continued trying to make James II (Charles’s brother) like her for the next two years so that she’d have some money, until, in 1687, she had a stroke, which paralyzed her on one side, followed by another, which left her bedridden. Nell probably contracted syphilis from Charles, and she died on November 14th, 1687. Since everyone had loved Nell, many people showed up at her funeral, and Nell even has a monument in London. It just shows how amazing everyone thought she was.