Nell Gwyn was an X-Rated Cinderella. Born in abject poverty, she became a professional actress, the beloved mistress of King Charles II, and died as an icon of the Restoration. However, all Nell's legendary insults and remarkable beauty couldn't save her from drama, scandal, and sorrow. Take a bow to these fierce facts about Nell Gwyn, England’s Royal Mistress.
Charles II took many mistresses, and some of them returned their king’s infidelity. For example, he once caught one of Nell’s rivals, Lady Castlemaine, in a “not good” position with the Duke of Marlborough (understatement of the century). In contrast, Gwyn met Charles when she was just 17 and was faithful to him not just until his death, but afterward too.
According to lore, Gwyn used her signature wit to defend herself from an anti-Catholic mob in 1681. While she was passing through Oxford, a crowd besieged Gwyn, mistaking her for a Catholic rival in the king’s bed. As they screamed at "the Catholic whore," Gwyn popped her head out of the carriage window and assured the mob, “Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore!” The crowd cheered and allowed Nell to carry on her way.
Nell was a true beauty.
She had chestnut hair, light hazel eyes, and a dazzling smile. In contrast to the buxom bodies favored by Restoration beauty standards, however, Gwyn was petite, albeit “shapely". She became especially known for her curvaceous legs and daintily tiny feet. But that wasn't all that drew men to Nell. ..
Aside from her tiny feet and shiny tresses, Nell had a couple more, um, assets. Most portraits of the mistress/actress emphasize her perky chest, with some displaying Nell in all her double-barrelled glory. One particularly saucy portrait has Nell making sausages, AKA fondling some extremely phallic items.
The Restoration was not a subtle time, people.
However, Nell Gwyn didn't always live the good life. Her early days are surrounded by mystery, but what we do know about them is pretty dark. Young Nell was born in Coal Yard, a filthy back alley off of Drury Lane.
Her father, Thomas Gwyn, was probably an ex-soldier with Welsh heritage while her mother Helena Smith, or "Old Ma Gwyn," may have been descended from respectable folk like clergy and doctors. But boy oh boy, times changed. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for little Nell. ..
When Nell was still a baby, tragedy struck. Her father couldn't afford to pay his bills and was imprisoned in debtor's jail, where he perished. This left Nell, her mother, and her older sister Rose in a horrific situation. It wasn't easy for women to get respectable employment back in the 1600s so Helena turned to the oldest profession in the book.
She sold her body to feed her little girls.
Nell worked a lot of odd jobs as a young girl struggling in the pitiless London slums. From hawking fruits on the streets to serving booze at her mother's brothel, Nell worked hard. But some historians say that she kept a job so controversial that even bawdy Nell wouldn't admit it:
Nell and her sister Rose may have made ends meet by becoming sex workers.
Here's a great "Don't Mess With Nell Gwyn" story. When her rival mistress Barbara Palmer made a big show about her new fancy carriage, Nell came up with an ingenious plan to make fun of her newly-acquired airs. She rode up to the woman's estate in a rough little cart drawn by six oxen.
As she whizzed around the building, Nell yelled, "Whores to market, ho"! Her message was clear: Barbara could dress things up however she wanted, but at the end of the day, they were both mistresses. Palmer didn't bother Gwyn after that.
As children, Nell and her sister Rose worked as “orange-girls” at a theater, selling fruit to the patrons. While on the job, Nell quickly became the mistress of the theater’s leading man, Charles Hart. Cozying up with the head actor had its perks:
less than a year later, Gwyn joined the ranks of England’s very first public actresses in 1665.
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Out of all Charles II of England’s mistresses, Nell Gwyn was the most beloved by the common people. Her nickname of “pretty, witty Nell,” originates not from her time in Charles's life, but before, in her years as a popular comic performer. Londoners loved seeing Nell play sassy heroines in comedies and romances.
Nell may have gravitated towards comic characters because she was hilarious in real life. For example, when her beau King Charles II got stressed out by all his mistresses hounding him for more money, he went to Nell for advice. She had an absolutely legendary response for the King: "Lock up your codpiece" AKA "Keep it in your pants, my man".
Long before they ever met, Gwyn’s future royal lover King Charles paved the way for her career. Upon being restored to the throne in 1660, Charles II undertook a huge patronage of the dramatic arts and even legalized female actors on the stage.
This movement allowed quirky gals like Nell to thrive in public life.
But Charles II was not Gwyn’s first aristocratic “keeper”. In 1667, Gwyn embarked on an affair with Charles Sackville, also known as suave Lord Buckhurst. Sackville was a major catch: he was “cultured, witty, satirical, dissolute, and utterly charming”. His arguably most attractive feature, however, was that he housed Gwyn and gave her an allowance of £100 so she could leave acting. For now, at least…
By the summer of 1667, Gwyn's good times were officially over and she was back in the dumps.
Her first “sugar daddy” Lord Buckhurst had dumped her, her boss (and ex-lover) Charles Hart was ticked at her for running away, and worst of all, she was broke. It would take a royal Godsend to lift her spirits. Little did she know, a royal bailout was just around the corner.
In late 1667, the Duke of Buckingham was fed up with how Charles II's preferred mistress, Barbara Palmer, kept persuading the King to follow her political agenda. Determined to oust her from power, Buckingham began looking for a hot new rival for the King's affections. Then as now, It-Girl actresses were the most eligible bachelorettes.
Buckingham approached Nell, but her words left him speechless.
Nell stunned Buckingham when she promptly demanded £500 a year in exchange for her "services" as the King's new mistress. Aghast at Nell's high price, Buckingham said he'd think about it and quickly offered the job to Moll Davis—who just happened to be Gwyn’s rival in acting. Ooh, I smell a scandal.
According to satires from the era, Gwyn overcame her rival with an ingenious, if childish, plan. She simply slipped some laxatives into Moll Davis' drink just before she was scheduled to “attend” to King Charles. This tale is more lore than history, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining.
Gwyn was close friends with one of the first professional female writers in English history, Aphra Behn. In fact, tales from the time say that it was Behn who helped Gwyn slip those handy-dandy laxatives to Moll Davis.
According to lore, Gwyn footed the bill on her first “date” with King Charles II. The two met in adjacent boxes at the theater, where Charles was more interested in pretty Nell than the show.
The King invited Nell to dinner afterwards with his brother, the Duke of York. When it came time to get the check, his Majesty and his royal brother discovered they had no cash on them! Nell covered the expense and exclaimed (in an affectation of the king’s voice and catchphrase) “Od’s fish! But this is the poorest company I ever was in”! Burn.
The diarist Samuel Pepys famously called Gwyn "Pretty witty Nell" but he also had a more risqué nickname for his dear friend. He called her "that bold, merry slut".
Nell would have agreed with Samuel Pepy's description of her character. In an absolutely iconic moment, Nell was out shopping with her carriage and horse-master.
As she pranced out of a store, she saw her servant in an all-out brawl. Nell ordered the men to stop fighting and asked her servant what all the fuss was about. He replied that the men had dared to call Nell a whore.
Nell tartly replied, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about". As Nell's naysayers gaped at her words, she gave them a wink, got into her carriage, and rode back to the palace.
Charles II was a notorious womanizer, despite coming from a long line of repressed men with homoerotic urges. But maybe he inherited their preferences in his own way: In some accounts, Charles fell for Nell Gwyn when he saw her perform not as a woman, but in a kinky twist, when she was playing a man.
Nell's cross-dressing wasn't a one-time occasion. In her younger years, she often experimented with wearing male clothing. Between 1663-1667, little Nell donned a beard and breeches, and even took the name “William Nell" both on and off stage.
Nell may not have received the cushy £500 from Buckingham, but Charles II felt differently. Compared to the high demands of all his other mistresses, £500 was chump change. He promptly gave Nell an enormous income of £4000 a year. That number later rose to an astonishing £9000. Nell was raking it in, but the good times wouldn't last forever.
On May 8, 1670, Nell gave birth to her first son, Charles Beauclerk, the illegitimate child of King Charles II.
Of course, for Charles, this wasn't such a big deal. Little Charles was his seventh son from over five different women.
Even in the cutthroat world of London theater, Nell was a superstar. As a sign of her power, after she gave birth to little Charles, a stage company waited for months until she was finally ready to appear in their show.
She was worth the wait: Her performance in The Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards would be her last play ever. After that, Gwyn left the stage for the court, but she didn't switch for a happy reason...
By 1671, Nell was back at court on a full time basis for a dark reason.
After years of being Charles II's favorite mistress, she finally had some competition. It came in the form of young, busty Louise de Kérouaille, Charles II's new, raven-tressed French mistress. Highborn and sophisticated, Kérouaille was the exact opposite of eccentric, good-time Gwyn. The vicious French court should have prepared Louise for some back-stabbing antics, but Gwyn took it to the next level. Nell was not going to give up her man (and her meal ticket) without a fight.
Nell Gwyn grew up the streets and she wasn't one to suffer fools. Unlike the King's hoity-toity, high-born mistresses, Nell could drink, swear, and effortlessly take down her well-bred rivals. When the King fell for Kérouaille, Nell butchered her last name into "Cartwheel". The insult caught on so much that all over England, Kérouaille's haters referred to her with Nell's iconic burn.
After a hard life full of grimy work and seedy men, Nell Gwyn’s mother didn't get a happy ending. She became notorious bawd and a helpless alcoholic, even after her daughter ascended to near royalty.
Nell tried to help her mother recover, even placing her in a fine estate, but it was too late. After getting incredibly drunk, she drowned to death near her house in 1679.
Nell never stopped trying to help her beloved mother Helena, even after she passed away. At Helena's funeral, Nell is said to have spared no expense.
She opted for an elaborate velvet-lined coffin and even bade farewell to her mother with Helena's favorite activity...AKA drinking. Nell supplied the mourners with a butt-ton of whiskey so they could toast Helena into the next world.
Gwyn liked to get her enemies where it would hurt the most.
She brutally referred to her competition and co-mistress Louise de Kérouaille as “Squintabella” because of her small eyes. If Kérouaille started to cry, Nell would icily switch gears and call her “Weeping Willow". Apparently, Kérouaille cried to get her way a lot.
Nell's royal apartments in Pall Mall were the stuff of Christian Grey's dreams.
She and the King slept in a bed of solid silver, which would have cost about $300,000 today and came engraved with the King's own visage. Even saucier, Nell's sleeping quarters included a suggestive warming tray for her bedroom activities. It was inscribed with "Fear God and serve the King”. Kinky.
That elaborate silver bed sounds pretty romantic, but its backstory is more "petty in-fighting" than "erotic gesture". Nell commissioned the bed when she heard that her rival, good old Louise, received an extravagant set of silver dinnerware from the King. What's better than a silver table set?
A whole freaking bed. But Nell didn't stop there. She made sure to order an even more expensive silver table set along with her new furniture.
English citizens, always loyal to Nell over the French-born Louise, were appalled that the King's foreign mistress was getting more expensive gifts than their beloved Nell.
There was even a campaign to get the King to melt down Louise's new silver dishes and "pour them down her throat".
When she wanted, however, Louise de Kérouaille could give it as good as she got, adding more than a little French sass to her comebacks. When Gwynn once offended her, Kerouaille turned up her nose and snapped, "anybody may know she has been an orange-wench by her swearing".
Louise de Kérouaille may have dragged Nell for having a dirty mouth, but she wasn't wrong. Nell Gwyn was notorious was cussing like a pirate.
Legend has it that if Nell ever forgot a line while she was onstage, she'd ad-lib some filthy curses until she jogged her memory. To be honest, this only makes me love her more.
Charles II was one thirsty king. He owned multiple topless paintings of Nell that he kept hidden behind serene-looking landscapes.
Peter Lely's Portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus displays the actress in the buff, but Charles only let the most favored eyes have a glance. Nell, meanwhile, was a little prouder of her assets. She displayed a nude portrait of herself right in her hallway for all her guests to see.
Hey, if you've got it, flaunt it.
The English court was a breeding ground for pettiness, but few exchanges rival the vicious sparring between Kérouaille and Gwyn. For example, when Kérouaille became an official Duchess, she rubbed Gwyn's face in her achievement. She constantly insulted Nell by passive aggressively bringing up Nell's low-born background, and this day was no different.
Louise simpered that Nell had "such pretty clothes" that she "could be queen". Nell replied with her usual directness. She said "And you, Cartwheel, look whore enough to be a duchess".
Nell's older sister Rose proved that the trouble-making gene was strong in the Gwyn family. Rose married a professional thief and even went to jail for stealing herself.
Even so, Nell never forgot where she came from. She always kept an eye out for her sister, making sure the King gave Rose an income so she wouldn't have to steal ever again.
You did not want to be Nell's enemy because she would go all-out to humiliate you.
She especially hated how Louise de Kérouaille would pretend to be connected with European nobles by claiming incredibly distant links to some duke or duchess. So one day, when Louise strode into the court wearing head to toe black in mourning for the French Prince, who she barely knew, Nell finally had enough.
The next day, Nell dragged Louise for being showy and insincere.
She sauntered into the main courtroom clad entirely in black, claiming that she was mourning the Cham of Tartary. When a courtier asked Nell how she knew the "Cham," her reply was utterly brutal. She said she knew him about as well as Louise knew the French Prince, or in other words, not at all.
Louise was livid with Nell, but all I feel is respect.
For Kérouaille, this was the last straw. She confronted Nell about her extravagant pettiness, but Nell was absolutely unrepentant. She looked Louise straight in the eyes and quipped that they should just divide the European nobles between them.
Louise could ostentatiously mourn the aristocrats in the north if she let Nell pretend to grieve all the ones in the south.
On December 21, 1676, Gwyn’s first son, Charles, finally got a title befitting his status as a king’s (illegitimate) son. One day, King Charles II came to visit Gwyn when she called over their offspring with “Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father”. Aghast, the King asked Gwyn why she would call her own baby such a word.
She saucily replied, "Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him". And thus, Charles gave his son a proper title: the Earl of Buford.
Nell was kind of known as the cool girl in Charles II's harem of mistresses. While her high-born rivals would demand Charles pay them more money and buy them fancier houses, Nell wasn't bothered.
She just wanted a good time. So why was she so gung-ho about getting her son a title? The reason is simple: old-school jealousy. The son of Gwyn's main rival, pretentious Louise de Kérouaille, had received a title and Gwyn was ticked.
Gwyn affectionately called Charles II her sweet “Charles the Third”. This “pet name” referred to her bedroom history. Nell had previously been a kept woman to Charles Hart and then Charles Sackville.
Nell was the definition of a Restoration Good Time Girl. When she and the King spent time together, they'd go fishing, see plays, watch horse races, and of course, gamble. Gwyn adored the card game of the nobles, Bassets, and usually went for the high-stakes bets. In other words, she was the life of the party or, as one hater put it, “the indiscreetest and wildest creature that ever was in a court”.
In February 1671, the king moved Gwyn into a luxurious brick townhouse in the fashionable district of Pall Mall.
But by this point, renting wasn’t good enough for Nell Gwyn. Although she had free rein of the house, Gwyn insisted she needed to own it to feel truly free. Charles was so whipped that he gave into her demands. In 1676, Nell moved in for good.
I bow down.
When a distraught King Charles II asked Nell what he could do to please parliament, she had the perfect quip up her puffed sleeve. She said “Hang up the French bitch,” referring to her arch-nemesis Louise de Kérouaille. If this isn't the definition of "I'm kidding! ...Unless"? then I don't know what is.
Nell thought she could rest easy now that she'd owned her rival Louise, but just when she caught her breath, another competitor entered the courts. Hortense Mancini was a Roman beauty, runaway duchess, and all-around BAMF. If anyone could unseat Nell, it was her. Let the games begin.
If Nell was intimidated by Hortense, just imagine how Louise de Kérouaille felt. Poor girl was so freaked out that she resorted to actual violence, bashing Hortense's head on a bed post until she had a black eye. Nell, meanwhile, used a softer approach. She got to know her enemy, hosting card games where she, Louise, and Hortense would wager extravagant sums of money.
..and leave their shared sugar daddy King Charles II to foot the bill, of course.
But all Nell's careful plotting was for nothing. Hortense was wild and could not be tamed. Get this: Not only did she start an affair with the dashing Prince of Monaco, Hortense also slept with Anne Lennard.
..Charles II's illegitimate daughter. Yup, she was boinking both the father and the daughter, and then another royal on the side. Incredible. When Charles II found out about all Hortense's indiscretions, he "requested" that Hortense get the heck out of his palace. And with that, Nell was back at the top of the King's list.
Unlike Hortense, Nell only had eyes for Charles II. When a would-be suitor tried to hit on her, Gwyn took him down with a brutal insult. Appalled, she said she was way out of his league by comparing herself to a beautiful deer and her wooer as an ugly dog. The two just don't go together, or in her words, "I would not lay a dog where a deer laid".
In 1671, Gwyn gave birth to her second illegitimate royal son, James.
He was named after Charles II's younger brother, but don't think that means that Nell liked him. She was a proud Protestant who liked to have fun, while James was a die-hard Catholic, obsessed with doom and gloom. Behind closed doors, Nell called him "Dour Jimmy".
Despite his royal namesake, Nell's son James wasn't protected from tragedy.
While he was away in Paris, James tragically died from unknown causes related to a "bad leg" at just 10 years old. Distraught, Nell raved that Louise de Kérouaille had somehow poisoned her son. And that's not the only dark aspect of his passing...
When Nell heard that her little boy had passed away, she fell into deep grief, but over time her sadness transformed into a profound sense of guilt.
Because Nell had allowed James to go abroad, she blamed herself for her young son's death. The one-time party girl was heartbroken, retreating to her castle and refusing to see visitors for months on end.
People grew up fast in Restoration England, and Gywn was no exception.
At just 12, she hooked up with an officer named Robert Duncan and quickly moved into his home. Always one to help an old friend, after she became a successful mistress, she got her ex a position in the army. A poem of the time reads, "For mounting me well first, he now mounts the guard". Stay classy, Restoration England.
Gwyn’s popularity with the commoners wasn’t just for her wit. She was famously generous and merciful to her less fortunate friends. When her good friend Samuel Pepys was arrested for spying on behalf of the French, she persuaded Charles II to let him go. She also used her sway to get high rollers to see plays by her struggling friends.
One day, Nell was riding through London in her carriage, when she noticed a desperate beggar on the side of the road. Nell hopped out and chatted with the poor man and learned that he had fought on behalf of Charles II. Appalled that an ex soldier was living in homelessness, Nell leapt into action.
She insisted that the King took responsibility for injured veterans. In 1682, she got her wish. The Chelsea Hospital opened and provided care for men like the soldier who tugged at Nell's heartstrings.
On February 3, 1685, also known as Nell’s 35th birthday, she woke to a chilling sight. Her beloved King had gotten out of bed early to get his number one mistress a gift, but while getting dressed, he suffered a terrible seizure.
This was the beginning of the end for King Charles II. He dwindled for a few more days, but by February 5, he was gone.
Although Charles took other mistresses, he remained fond of Gwyn for the rest of her life. On his deathbed in 1685, his last words were devoted to Nell.
With his final breaths, Charles begged his brother and heir, the future James II, to “Let not poor Nelly starve”. As Nell's creditors began to demand money, James II stepped in to honor his brother's wishes. He settled her debts and gave her a pension of £1,500 per year.
After Charles II's death, Nell could have been sent to Debtor's Prison, like her impoverished father.
Thankfully, that didn't happen—but with the King's death, Nell lost more than a lover. Before his passing, she was going to be made "Countess of Greenwich" and finally receive a noble title. After Charles died, that opportunity evaporated. She would remain plain old Nell Gwyn for the rest of her days.
King Charles’s successor, King James II, pressured Gwyn and her son to convert to Roman Catholicism. As a hardcore Protestant herself, Gwyn deeply resented his royal influence, but knew she had to play nice to survive in James' court. And so Nell went back to her theatrical roots:
She'd dress up and attend church, giving every indication that she was considering conversion...while knowing full well that it would never happen. After she placated James, Nell promptly accepted a bunch of his money, retired from court, and lived at her palatial estate in Pall Mall.
And that's how it's done, people.
Gwyn suffered a brutal stroke in March 1687, paralyzing her spirited self on one side of her body. Just months later, she suffered another stroke that left her completely bedridden.
At the age of just 37, Gwyn passed away on November 14, 1687. Scholars believe that the man who defined her life also caused her death, even from beyond the grave.
Throughout all her time as Charles II's mistress, Nell somehow avoided catching any of his numerous STDs. But when she suffered her violent strokes, doctors placed the blame directly at Charles II's philandering feet. Nell probably had late-stage syphilis, contracted from her one and only beau.
Even though she had a less-than-respectable job, the people of England adored Nell Gwyn.
There was an enormous crowd at her funeral and the nation mourned their beloved rags-to-riches mistress. Sure, she was a courtesan, but Nell was always kind to the poor, faithful to King Charles II, and she never forgot where she came from. She was the people's champion and they loved her for it.
Charles's dying wish to “Let not poor Nelly starve” came true—and then some. At the time of her death, Gwyn was obscenely wealthy, considering her low station at birth. Her bank account was “just” over four figures (which remains much more after more than 300 years of inflation).
Nell's will proved that she had a heart of gold.
She left gifts for all her staff and servants, gave hefty sums to aid the poor, and even left money for Roman Catholics to prove that she would never discriminate against anyone. But her most heartbreaking gesture was this: She made arrangements so that each year, on Christmas Day, her funds would secure debtors from Debtor's Prison.
It was her tribute to her dearly departed father.
Nell's ascent to fame and fortune is even more impressive when you remember that she did it all without any formal education. Not only did she learn all her lines by ear, Nell couldn't read or write. The most she could do was sign a shaky "EG" at the bottom of formal documents which, natch, she could afford to get other people to write.
After growing up in poverty, Nell wasn't used to the luxuries of the court.
She was notoriously awful at managing her finances and would gamble away massive sums at the drop of the hat. Once, when Nell owed a gentleman an enormous amount after a disastrous night at the card table, he pressured her to pay him back with her body.
Nell called him a dog and refused.
Nell’s Monument in Tring Park is considered to be the only official monument to a royal mistress in all of London.
London, Hereford, and Oxford all claim to be Nell's birthplace. She's a popular lady!
Nell has a diverse set of fans.
In the 17th century, the British public loved her comic acting. Then, in the 18th century, writers praised her charity and wit. By the 19th century, frisky Victorians made her the de facto patron saint of the adult entertainment industry. And in the 20th century, Winston Churchill called her "transcendently beautiful".
Nell Gwyn died about half a mile from her reported birthplace.
What an ironic distance for a woman who rose so high in life.
While Nell was pulling double duty as Charles II's mistress and an A-list actress, she was so famous that playwrights would develop roles specifically for her. Gwyn appeared in a play about the real-life troop that her father had served during the English Civil War.
In another, she played a version of her bawdy mother.
Remember how Gwyn secured a noble title for her son by calling him a bastard? Well there's another version of that story and it's much more violent. In this tale, she holds the baby Charles out a window and threatens to drop him unless King Charles elevates their son to the peerage.
Instinctually, King Charles cried, “God save the Earl of Buford”! and I guess they went with that.
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