Making a Monarch Merry
While many mistresses in history have risen to popularity and fame, especially amongst their noble peers, Nell Gwyn stands out as a mistress who was beloved not just by her king, but by her country as well. As an historic figure, Nell was perfectly reflective of the time in which she lived and her popularity as a comedic actress was reflective of national sentiments and evolving arts culture. Nell was born in 1651 (probably) and grew up in a lower-class family. At some point, her father was imprisoned for his outstanding debts and sadly died in that prison, while her mother ran a brothel called “The Bawdy House” and nursed her worries away with alcohol. It is very likely Nell was a child prostitute under her mother’s watch, and by the time Nell’s professional acting career began at the age of 14 (1665), she had already lived a whirlwind life.
Though some mistresses are only as good as their love affairs, Nell’s story is very much intertwined with her professional career. At 12, Nell got a job selling exotic oranges to theatre goers, which often included the noble class. An orange was a delicacy and Nell’s barely-there costume attracted the attention of many older men. As a side hustle, Nell would act as a liaison between noble men and the actresses they wanted to take as lovers. It turns out that Nell had a natural ability to attract an audience with her wit and soon, she was offered a chance to retire her oranges and actually perform on stage.
In her first few years as an actress, Nell fell in love with a fellow actor Charles Hart. The two of them became synonymous with on stage chemistry and great comedy. They were the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz of their time. Their romantic and professional success lasted several years, but Nell would soon find herself very much in love with someone new, King Charles II.
The story goes that Charles and Nell attended the same theatre performance and had neighboring box seats. The king spent most of his time flirting with now 18-year-old Nell and invited her out to dinner after the show. Since both parties had attended the show with companions, dinner turned out to be a small friendly gathering. At the end of the meal, the king and his companions couldn’t seem to find their wallets and Nell, with her usual wit, remarked “…But this is the poorest company I ever was in,” before paying the whole bill herself—like a boss. The king was smitten.
So began a love affair that would last until Charles II’s death. Known as the “Merry Monarch,” Charles found in Nell a partner who could play and joke just as well as she sparked his desire. Nell was never anything but herself and that truly showed in her choice to continue her illustrious acting career despite her status as a royal mistress. After the birth of her first son with Charles in 1670, Nell continued to work. It wasn’t until the arrival of their second son in 1671 that she decided to retire. Now, with a royal pension of nearly 9,000 pounds a year and a home of her own, Nell shifted her attention to redecorating, throwing big parties for her friends, and spending staggering amounts of money on booze- a woman after my own heart!
In 1671 Charles II took another mistress, Louise de Kérouaille, a French woman who couldn’t have been any more different than Nell. While Nell was happy to bound across a stage with her underwear showing or even cross-dress as man, Louise was poised, proper, and worst of all, Catholic. The people of England hated her. In contrast, Nell’s neighbors began leaving flowers on her front lawn on a daily basis to show they loved her. On one occasion, believing that a carriage passing through Oxford was the Catholic Louise, a crowd began to throw food and scream obscenities as the carriage. Much to their surprise, Nell emerged from the carriage and said, “Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore!” which was met with cheers and laughter.
Eventually Louise faded away from the spotlight and as Nell and Charles began to grow older, they spent more and more time together at Nell’s residence Pall Mall. They were known to host smaller dinner parties with close friends, and they enjoyed a more quiet, private life. In a final dig at her sworn enemy, Louise, Nell’s secured a title for her eldest son, Charles. After a particularly clever comment that Nell made where she referred to her son a “bastard,” King Charles was so struck by that nickname that he bestowed the title Earl of Buford upon his son.
Sadly, in February 1685 Charles suffered a seizure while staying with Nell and he was rushed back to his palace where he died an excruciating death. In his final days he asked his brother (and successor) James II, to take care of both Nell and Louise. Charles’ untimely death was a breaking point for Nell who had already suffered the tragic loss of her youngest son and her mother. In 1687, Nell herself suffered two strokes, which ultimately weakened her. She died in November 1687 at the age of 37 and left her fortune to her son, Charles with explicit instructions to donate money to women and children, as well as to those who suffered in debtor’s prison, like her own father had.
Nell Gwyn was truly a bright light to those who knew and loved her. The beauty of this mistress is that she never had to scheme against or manipulate anyone to earn love and respect. Her motivations were for love and personal fulfillment, not political power, which all make her story so refreshing! She earned nicknames worthy of her personal brand such as “pretty, witty Nell” and “that bold, merry slut.” On many occasions she referred to herself with such terms as well, showing her happy acknowledgement of who and what she was! I can’t help but smile to think of a nation emerging out of the Puritan laws of Cromwell and into the artistic, comedic, glamorous Restoration period supported by Charles II and Nell Gwyn. Perhaps I’m a bit biased, but what a time that would’ve been to be alive!
Christine Morgan for History Lair