There’s so much to find exciting about Nell Gwyn, especially if you’re theatrically inclined or love a good rags-to-riches story. This woman of the Restoration stage started out practically penniless and passed away having secured her son an aristocratic title and herself a reputation as one of the wittiest and most successful actresses of the age. Just smashing.
Histories paint several stories of Nell Gwyn’s upbringing. Written by intrigued and highly smitten writers, their variations depended on the amount of angst and drama that they wanted to infuse into her past. What is know is that she was born somewhere around London (three different parts of the city try to claim her birth) in 1850, and that her father was a captain in the English Civil War (don’t worry if you never knew they had their own civil war — we weren’t quite experts on it either). At some point he either passed away or simply left his family, leaving his wife and daughters to fend for themselves financially.
To fill this need Nell’s mother became Madam Gwyn, running a brothel in a seedy part of Londontown, a mother to many prostitutes. Historians from this point on debate as to whether Madam Gwyn employed her own daughters from their early ages, and as to whether young Gwyn was a prostitute, a “bawdyhouse servant” or a cinder-girl. Whichever the story, it is laced with a bit of distraught drama — the dirty-cheeked thirteen year-old that would later win the hearts of the British.
Which she did, largely in thanks to the man who recently ascended to the throne.
During the Civil War, in which her father fought, Charles I was killed by the army lead by Oliver Cromwell. His son, Charles II, was exiled from England and the monarchy basically toppled in favor of a temporary republic, led by Cromwell as dictator. But when Cromwell died in 1658 a period of chaos followed basically led to the direct restoration of the monarchy, with Charles II at its head (history would be rewritten for a while making it look like Charles II directly succeeded his father).
With his crowning Charles II revolutionized many aspects of English social society: most importantly for our heroine, the theatre.
During the reign of Cromwell the theatres were closed, partially because they were a common place for illness to spread (including the plague, which traveled easily when people were in close quarters, shutting churches as well) and also because they were considered dens of sin during this highly Puritanical period. Charles II reopened the theatres and allowed women to perform onstage for the first time. This change opened doors not only for women, but for forms of drama that hadn’t been seen before.
At age 13 Nell became an “orange-girl”, literally selling oranges to the crowd during the shows and occasionally running messages back and forth between men in the audience to the actresses backstage, some of which used their extra time in an escort fashion, hanging on the arm of a drooling man, enamored by the woman of the stage.
A year later Nell found herself in training for the stage, studying dance and drama with the newly formed school for young actors by Thomas Killigrew, a writer and theatre manager that had joined Charles II in exile and returned with him with much prestige. She had already been engaged in several romantic trysts — sometimes joining the actresses by selling her time as an escort — and her wit, sense of fun and adventure drew artists in. Her first several performances on stage were flops — she was admired for her lively presence and booming voice, but as a dramatic character she fell flat.
But with the creation of the “gay couple”, Nell found her groove. It was a new stereotype — the funny, happy, witty lovers that bantered and wooed and rolled around onstage — that Nell made infamous, performing so well in James Howard’s The Mad Couple that no one dare stage it without her for over a decade. She was hailed for her incredible talent, and became one of the most admired and famous actresses of her day.
A return of the plague in 1665 brought the shuttering of the theatres again, and the troupe joined the King’s court, where they were permitted to stage private productions for the aristocracy. It was there that Nell made the acquaintance of the young, progressive King. Though they were not to be matched for several more years.
When the theatres reopened Nell once again took to the stage, this time playing Florimel in The Maiden Queen. In this role she played both a fawning maiden and a youth clad in fitted pants and breeches. Such dress for women was practically scandalous at the time, so form-fitting that her figure was in clear display.
Oh, yeah, it’s important to note that Nell had incredibly luxurious curly red hair, a beautiful figured and facial features that men fawned over, another reason it was easy for her to play with a variety of delicious lovers from a young age.
If you’ve ever seen “The Other Boleyn Girl” or any similar piece, you may remember that becoming the king’s mistress during this period was an extremely calculated thing: different families who vied to be closer to the throne were cutthroat in having their daughters bed royalty. If children were created from the arrangement, they were guaranteeing their progeny lands and titles that could eventually work themselves into royalty. Because of this, women could be almost prostituted out by those closest to them.
This position was usually filled by women of the higher classes, rarely by one so low as Nell, an illiterate woman of the stage. But her infamy in the theatre and her beloved combination of wit and beauty elevated her in the eyes closest to the king. So when, after an official attempt to get her closer to the throne failed, she found herself in a theatre box next to the King’s, she found wit and beauty were all she needed: Charles was much more interested in talking to her than what other actors were doing onstage below.
After the illuminating night at the theatre, Nell joined the ranks as one of Charles alleged 13 mistresses, though she came to be one of his closest and most favored female escorts. Concubines were not uncommon for a King at the time, and Charles provided well for his them and the children they bore him. While Nell would never receive as much financially as his other, more nobly born mistresses, she was well taken care of, given a yearly allowance and a townhouse that would remain in her family until 1693.
Also unlike his other mistresses, Nell became to be loved by the mob, those who detested the accepted practices of the king and the position of power these women had in their own small ways. While in a carriage going through a busy part of London, the mob surrounded her, mistaking her for a rival mistress, shouting that she was nothing but a prostitute; specifically, a Catholic whore. Ever cool and comedic, she calmly leaned out of the carriage and told them, sweetly, that they were quite mistaken; she was the King’s Protestant whore. This won them over.
She was so beloved by the King that she also succeeded in encouraging him to approve the construction of a hospital for veterans, which further put her in favor of the people and the crown.
Nell had two children with Charles. Sadly the second died while in school at a young age. And while Charles had given her an allowance almost three times of what she humbly asked of him, their surviving child had yet to be given a title — something he had granted to many of his other offspring.
Rather than demand or pout at the King to get what she wanted, Nell once again used her incredible wit. When the young one tottered over to her once in Charles’ presence, she opened her arms and said something along the lines of “come to mama you little bastard”. Shocked at Nell’s words, the King was taken aback, upon which she said, (obviously paraphrasing) “well, you’ve given me nothing else to call him”. He was then named the Earl of Burford. There’s also a theory that she dangled her six-year old son out the window until Charles hailed him the Earl. Both are quite comical and quintessentially Nell, and obviously whichever one was true was quite effective.
After the birth of Charles, Nell returned to the stage briefly, retiring after only 7 years of work at age 21. She resided in the river house for the rest of her life, occasionally spending time at her country cottage in Nottinghamshire. She remained a beloved theatrical character amongst the leading playwrights and poets of the time, as well as a favored mistress of the King and people. She never married, or hired herself out as an escort again, but lived in the King’s favor and under his purse.
When he died in 1685, Charles made his brother James promise to take care of “Nelly”. Honoring brother’s wishes so that she would not turn immediately destitute, James gave Nell an allowance of 1500 pounds a year and paid off the mortgage on the Nottinghamshire house, which remained in her family until the 1940s.
Nell died only two years after Charles after a string of illnesses — possibly caused by the relations Charles shared with so many women. But her family was well provided for, and her place in the hearts of British history was incredibly secure for a woman who only lived 37 years.
There’s even a high-end, luxury apartment building in London’s trendy Chelsea neighborhood that bears her name still. As well as several histories, stage dramas, novels and films.
A Cinderella story if there ever was one, Nell Gwyn was one incredibly witty escort.