Gwynn, Nell (1650–1687)

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Gwynn, Nell (1650–1687)

English comedy actress, mistress of Charles II, who was one of the most popular figures of Restoration England. Name variations: Gwyn or Gwynne. Born Eleanor Gwynn on February 2, 1650, in England (authorities are unsure whether in London, Oxford, or Hereford); died on November 14, 1687; daughter of Helena and Thomas or James Gwynn (a common soldier); children: (with Charles II) Charles Beauclerk (1670–1726, later duke of St. Albans); James Beau-clerk, earl of Plymouth (d. 1680).

As one of England's best-known royal mistresses, Nell Gwynn's remarkable popularity has endured into modern times. She arose from lowly origins to become a favorite of Charles II and held his affections from about 1669 until his death in 1685, bearing him two sons who were eventually raised to the English peerage.

She was born Eleanor Gwynn (in typical 17th-century fashion, her name is spelled with countless variations) and came from obscure origins. The cities of London, Oxford, and Hereford all claim to be her birthplace. Because Gwynn was a common surname, tracing her origins becomes an even more daunting task, but it is known that she was born on February 2, 1650, to Helena Gwynn . Her father Thomas Gwynn was a shadowy figure, reputedly a soldier who was said to have died in an Oxford prison when Nell was a young girl. She had one sister, Rose Gwynn , who was about two years her senior.

Left to her own devices, Gwynn's mother had a difficult time making ends meet. In a filthy tenement in Coal Yard Alley in London, she and her daughters eked out a marginal living selling vegetables, fish and oysters, and, as Gwynn later admitted, "serving strong waters to the gentlemen" at a brothel. At that time, the driving ambition of many girls brought up on the streets of London was to escape the drudgery of street selling and prostitution by attracting the attention of a man with wealth and status who would set them up with a home and a small income.

Gwynn's looks and personality worked in her favor. So did political circumstance: in 1660, when she was only ten years old, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell died leaving the protectorship to his son Richard. Richard was not the leader his father had been, and England had already begun to chafe under the somber yoke of Puritan rule. Within weeks, a group of Parliamentarians led by George Monck hatched a conspiracy to bring the son of Charles I back to the throne. (Charles I had been executed by Parliament in 1649.) Upon hearing of the scheme, Richard fled the country. Within weeks, Charles II was crowned king of England amidst great celebration.

The Restoration brought about a relaxation of public morality and new opportunities for young girls like Gwynn. Charles II immediately reopened the theaters and even decreed that women's parts would be played by women (instead of by men dressed as women, as in the earlier days of the 17th century). In 1663, one of the new theaters, the King's House, opened on Nell Gwynn's very doorstep. She was already becoming a lovely woman, with fair hair, large blue eyes, and a disarming smile. She soon secured her first theater job, as an "orange-girl," selling oranges and other fruit to playgoers.

And once Nell Gwynn, a frail young sprite, Look'd kindly when I met her; I shook my head perhaps—but quite Forgot to quite forget her.

—Fred Locker, London Lyrics

Gwynn quickly caught the eye of a merchant, John Duncan, who set her up in a small room at the Cock and Pie tavern and kept her as his mistress. In late 1663, her sister Rose was arrested for burglary and sent to Newgate prison, a filthy cesspool from which few emerged except aboard the executioner's tumbrel. In desperation, their mother sent Gwynn to plead with Thomas Killigrew, whose son Harry had been Rose's lover, to intercede on Rose's behalf. As chance would have it, Killigrew was manager of the King's House Theater. With his help, Rose was released from Newgate. Gwynn, who had impressed Killigrew with her looks and frank conversation, soon made her first appearance on stage.

As an actress, she excelled in comedy, and with her good voice and ready wit she quickly endeared herself to her London audiences. Her ascendancy to stardom, however, was temporarily halted in the summer of 1665 with the outbreak of the Great Plague of London. Everyone with the means to do so fled the city as death tolls rose to 1,000 per day. The taverns and the theaters were closed for a year. Soon after they reopened in August 1666, the city was ravaged by the Great Fire, which destroyed most of Old London, including St. Paul's Cathedral, and the theaters were closed once again. When the King's House finally put on a play called The English Monsieur in December, Gwynn stole the show, becoming one of the most popular actors in London before her 17th birthday.

As she earned more leading roles, it was inevitable that she would catch the eye of Charles II who had developed a ferocious appetite for both theater and women during his long exile in France. Even before his marriage in 1662 to Catherine of Braganza , Charles had surrounded himself with beautiful mistresses. Within a few weeks of his marriage, he had resumed his passionate affair with Barbara Villiers (later Lady Castlemaine and duchess of Cleveland). Charles had acknowledged several of Barbara's children as his own and also had other illegitimate offspring from previous mistresses, Elizabeth Killigrew , Catherine Pegge, Moll Davies , and Lucy Walter . The king was known to occasionally indulge in dalliances with the actresses at the theaters, and by 1668 Gwynn's performance of a merry jig while attired in men's clothing induced Charles to add her to his retinue of occasional companions.

Her quick wit and lively personality endeared her to the inconstant monarch, and, as his ardor for Barbara Villiers began to cool, he spent an increasing amount of time with the spirited actress. They shared a love of gambling, horse racing, and country life, and often were together in the king's residence at Newmarket. By the autumn of 1669, she was quite obviously pregnant. Delighted at the newest proof of his virility, Charles openly acknowledged his paternity and moved Gwynn into a comfortable house while showering her with gifts. He ate at least one meal a day with her and whiled away the hours regaling her with gossip and playing card games.

Charles' solicitude did not blind him to the charm of others, however. While Gwynn was pregnant, he developed an interest in Louise de Kéroüalle , one of his sister's (Henrietta Anne ) ladies-in-waiting. The daughter of an old but impoverished French noble family, Louise was considered beautiful, although her face was called "simple and babyish." Though Gwynn quickly returned to the stage after the birth of a son, whom she named Charles Beauclerk, Charles continued to see her and gave her a larger house at 79 Pall Mall, closer to Whitehall. By 1671, she was pregnant again and gave birth to another son on Christmas Day. She named him James Beauclerk, in honor of Charles' brother James. By this time, Louise de Kéroüalle was also pregnant, and she gave birth to a son during the following summer.

Killigrew, Elizabeth (c. 1622–?)

Mistress of Charles II. Name variations: Betty Killigrew. Born around 1622; daughter of Sir Robert Killigrew; sister of the duke of York's chaplin (the duke of York later became James II, king of England); married Francis Boyle, later 1st Viscount Shannon; mistress of Charles II (1630–1685), king of England (r. 1661–1685); children: (with Charles II) Charlotte Jemima Henrietta Maria Fitzroy or Fitzcharles (1651–1684, who married James Howard, earl of Suffolk, and William Paston, 2nd earl of Yarmouth).

Pegge, Catherine (fl. 1657)

Mistress of Charles II. Name variations: Katherine Pegg. Daughter of Thomas Pegge, a Derbyshire squire; mistress of Charles II (1630–1685), king of England (r. 1661–1685); children: (with Charles II) Charles Fitzcharles, earl of Plymouth (b. 1657); Catherine Fitzcharles (1658–1759, a nun at Dunkirk); possibly had another daughter who died in infancy.

Davies, Moll (fl. 1673)

English actress and dancer. Name variations: Mary Davies; Moll Davis. Flourished around 1673; mistress of Charles II (1630–1685), king of England (r. 1661–1685); children: (with Charles) illegitimate daughter known as Mary Tudor (1673–1726, who married Edward Radclyffe, 2nd earl of Derwent-water, Henry Graham of Levens, and James Rooke).

Moll Davies was a member of Sir William Davenant's troupe at Lincoln's Inn, when she caught the eye of Charles II, king of England. In keeping with the fashion of comparing the king's mistresses, Samuel Pepys proclaimed her a better actress than Nell Gwynn . Davies' relationship with Charles was short lived, though they had one daughter together.

By 1672, Nell Gwynn and Louise de Kéroüalle had become firmly established as Charles II's primary mistresses. He divided his time fairly evenly between them, although de Kéroüalle's grasping nature guaranteed her the majority of the king's bounty. Gwynn, however, was unquestionably the most popular of all his mistresses. The public preferred Gwynn to her rival, whom they referred to as "Mrs. Carwell" or "Mrs. Cartwheel," in a simplified version of her French surname. In fact, Nell Gwynn was different from Charles' other mistresses in many ways. She was the only favorite without an aristocratic pedigree, and she took every opportunity to ridicule the noble pretensions of her rivals.

When Barbara Villiers acquired a luxurious coach-and-six, Gwynn rigged up an old wagon with six oxen and drove around outside Villiers' window cracking an enormous whip and yelling "Whores to market, Ho!" Mocking Louise de Kéroüalle's habit of dressing in mourning garb for the death of members of European royalty to whom she claimed kinship, Gwynn began to dress herself in mourning for an assortment of unlikely potentates; when asked why she was dressed in mourning for the recently deceased Cham of Tartary, she quickly claimed that she was related to him "in exactly the same way as is Louise de Kéroüalle [to] the Prince of Rohan," for whom Louise had recently donned mourning garb. When confronted by Louise for her disrespect, Gwynn jokingly proposed, "Let us agree to divide the world: you shall have the Kings of the North, and I the Kings of the South."

Gwynn's lack of pretension contributed to her popularity, as did her indifference to the melee of politics and the struggle for noble titles. Barbara Villiers had baited the king incessantly until he ennobled all of her children and made her duchess of Cleveland. Louise de Kéroüalle persuaded Charles to make her son duke of Richmond. Not satisfied when Charles made her duchess of Portsmouth, Louise pushed Charles to intervene with Louis XIV to secure for her a French title as well. Soon after her ennoblement, Louise remarked to Gwynn, "Why Nelly, you'ave such beautiful clothes. You could be queen." Nonplussed, Gwynn replied, "And you, Cartwheel, look whore enough to be a duchess."

Although she had many powerful and influential friends, Nell Gwynn never stooped to playing games of petty politics. Charles' other mistresses, by virtue of their proximity to the king's ear, built up large factions of ambitious office-seekers and badgered Charles constantly to give them preferment. Gwynn, by contrast, attended plays and horse races with the king and took him fishing. When Charles came to her after a particularly difficult day of struggling with the factions of Council and Parliament, he exclaimed, "Nelly, what shall I do to please the People of England? I am torn to pieces by their clamours." Without skipping a beat, Gwynn frankly replied, "If it please your Majesty, there is but one way left, which expedient I am afraid it will be difficult to persuade you to embrace.… Dismiss your ladies and mind your business, the People of England will soon be pleased." On another occasion, she was said to have advised the king to "lock up his codpiece."

By 1673, Gwynn had retired from the stage, although she attended performances frequently in the private box Charles had provided. Her house became a kind of political turf, where representatives of all the contending camps could meet to discuss their differences, and where Charles could often gain valuable information. Foreign dignitaries visited often, bringing expensive gifts for Nell and her children. During 1674 and 1675, Louise de Kéroüalle was often out of the picture, bedridden with the pox which she had contracted from Charles or some other suitor. Although Charles' lax sexual morality caused him to be plagued with a wide spectrum of venereal diseases, Gwynn seems to have been mercifully spared from ill health.

In Louise's absence, Nell encountered a new rival for the king's affections. In 1675, Hortense Mancini , Duchess Mazarin, rode into London on horseback dressed as a cavalier in boots and spurs. Following a brief marriage to a religious fanatic, Hortense had fled to a convent and petitioned for a separation. When the nuns tired of her antics, she fled to Savoy, where she began her existence as a famous courtesan. While her welcome in Savoy was beginning to wear thin, Hortense was persuaded by an outof-favor British ambassador to travel to London to try to oust de Kéroüalle and Gwynn from the king's favor. Hortense, already 30, was still strikingly beautiful. Her black hair and eyes, together with her creamy white skin, gave her an exotic loveliness that provided a stark contrast to Gwynn's fairer coloring.

Hortense Mancini's arrival wreaked havoc on the royal household. When the king showed every evidence of falling under Hortense's charm, de Kéroüalle beat her head against the bedpost and gave herself a black eye. Gwynn accepted the new arrival more philosophically. She even organized entertainments for both Louise and Hortense in her home, where the three spent many long afternoons playing cards, often losing thousands of pounds to each other and appealing to Charles to satisfy their debts. Despite Hortense's undeniable charms, Charles still seems to have enjoyed Gwynn's company above all. She traveled with him whenever he left town. During one of their absences to the country, Hortense took up with the prince of Monaco. Charles did not accept this public humiliation well; he revoked her allowance, and her star fell as quickly as it had risen.

As Gwynn reached her late 20s, she became more conscious of the need for security and responsibility for herself and her two sons. Although Charles expressed his intention to make her a countess, his ministers flatly refused to grant a noble title to a former orange-girl without a drop of noble blood in her veins. Her children, however, were half-royal, and so in 1676 Charles was able to procure for her older son the titles Baron Huddington and earl of Burford. In 1684, Charles also made him duke of St. Albans. Her younger son was raised to the peerage as Lord James Beauclerk.

In addition to her many charms, Gwynn's religious preference also contributed to her popularity. She was a good Anglican. De Kéroüalle and Queen Catherine of Braganza were openly Catholic. In that age, Roman Catholics were notoriously unpopular in England and usually considered to be less than patriotic. Louise, as a French noblewoman who kept up a close correspondence with Louis XIV, was universally believed to be a foreign spy. When Gwynn's coach was mistaken for de Kéroüalle's, a crowd of detractors gathered to shout insults. Gwynn bravely stuck her head out of the window and called out: "Be still, friends; I am the Protestant whore," whereupon she left amidst universal cheers.

Until age 30, Gwynn enjoyed impeccable health, but in 1680 she fell ill and was confined through the spring. In a worse turn of events, in June her younger son James died of a "bad leg" while visiting Paris. She blamed herself for allowing him to go abroad and for not being with him when he was on his deathbed. She shut herself up in her house until Charles was finally able to persuade her to reemerge in the fall.

Widely praised by contemporaries for her generosity, Gwynn was actually a poor manager of her own money but was willing to give what she had to those in distress. Sincerely moved by the plight of Civil War veterans, many of whom had been injured or maimed and then left without a cent, she persuaded Charles in 1682 to build a Royal Hospital.

As the king neared middle age, he spent increasingly more time in her company, and several encounters with the pox and the clap put a damper on his sexual exploits. Charles yearned for refuge from the never-ending squabbles of court. With each passing year, de Kéroüalle became more politically minded and finally grew too fat to engage in any strenuous activity. Meanwhile, Catherine of Braganza, always the retiring type, was easily satisfied with an occasional game of cards with her husband. Gwynn, however, continued to accompany the king on his travels, hunting, hawking and riding together whenever he could escape the duties of state.

By the end of 1684, Charles' health was noticeably in decline. He developed a painful ulcer in his left leg which prevented him from taking exercise outdoors. On the morning of Gwynn's 35th birthday, February 2, 1685, the king rose early with the intention of acquiring a proper gift for her. While being dressed, he suffered a severe seizure, was immediately put to bed, and a cadre of doctors was called to his bedside. Gwynn and the other mistresses were barred from his rooms, and only the queen was allowed to attend him. Charles lingered for several days, but it was clear that his end was near. His brother James procured for him a Roman Catholic priest, who gave Charles absolution and extreme unction. After calling all his sons to him, including Gwynn's son Charles, and apologizing to his doctors for "being such an unconscionable time dying," Charles passed away on February 5th. His last words to his brother were "to be kind to the Duchess of Cleveland and especially Portsmouth, and that Nelly might not starve."

Nell Gwynn did not long outlive her royal paramour. She fell on economic hard times, as did all of Charles' mistresses. Since Charles and Catherine of Braganza never produced a legitimate heir, the throne passed to Charles' brother James II. As a Roman Catholic, James was very unpopular (he would be deposed in 1688), but despite his personal struggles with Parliament he found enough money to help Gwynn pay her debts. By March 1687, she fell ill with apoplexy, which was blamed by some of her doctors on syphilis transferred to her by Charles II. By June, she was told she was dying. Her first concern was for her son. Charles Beauclerk, duke of St. Albans, had been well provided for by his father. He had a modest income from several houses and a few annuities; more important, as a child he had been betrothed to Lady Diana de Vere , the only child of the earl of Oxford. She eventually married him, bringing with her a substantial fortune, and they had five children, through whom Gwynn's line was continued into the 20th century.

During the fall of 1687, Gwynn revised her will, leaving gifts to all her servants and making generous bequests to be used to aid the poor. She died on November 14, 1687. The Anglican minister Dr. Thomas Tenison preached her funeral sermon before a crowded church. Tenison praised Gwynn for her charity, her goodness of heart, and her pious and repentant end. Her popularity in life did not dim with her death. In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, several biographies of her were produced, all of which attempted to describe her giving spirit and lively personality. Nell Gwynn's fame has followed her into modern times, and she remains the most beloved mistress of the English Royal Family.


Cunningham, Peter. Nell Gwyn. London: The Grolier Society, 1892.

MacGregor-Hastie, Roy. Nell Gwyn. London: Robert Hale, 1987.

Melville, Lewis. Nell Gwyn. NY: George H. Doran, 1926.

suggested reading:

Bevan, B. Nell Gwyn. London: 1969.

Fraser, Antonia. Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration. NY: Alfqed A. Knopf, 1979.

Gramont, Count de. Memoirs of the Court of Charles II. NY: P.F. Collier & Son, 1910.

Wilson, John H. Nell Gwyn: Royal Mistress. Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1952.

Kimberly Estep Spangler , Assistant Professor of History and Chair of the Division of Religion and Humanities at Friends University, Wichita, Kansas