"Pretty, witty" Nell Gwyn (1650-1687), was the nick-name given her by Samuel Pepys. She was a former orange seller and actress, in 1668 caught the attention of the king and managed to hold it for seventeen years.
Thought by many to be the wittiest of the King Charles's mistresses, Nell was always finding new ways to amuse the king (for instance, tying a fried fish to his line when he complained of not catching anything), and always outfoxing her key competition - the baby-faced but empty-headed aristocrat known as Louise de Querouaille, created duchess of Portsmouth by Charles II.
Nell, never created duchess of anything because of her exceedingly low birth, was pitiless with Louise. She mimicked Louise's French accent to perfection. Once, when Louise acidly remarked that Nell was dressed richly enough to be a queen, Nell retorted, "You are entirely right, Madam. And I am whore enough to be a duchess!"
On one occasion, the king invited Nell and Louise to dinner, and Louise was determined to prove her own wit. She pointed to the two chickens adorning the table and claimed that she could make them into three. "There's one," said the French mistress, "and there's two, and one and two makes three!"
Nell lifted one cooked bird onto her own plate and the other onto Charles's plate, and suggested that Louise eat the third.
The two women would eventually make a kind of peace. With the arrival of a new competitor - the devilishly lovely Hortense Mancini - Louise descended into a fit of melodramatic despair, and Nell expressed sympathy for her "weeping willow."
Before Charles II died in 1685, on his deathbed he begged his brother and successor, James II, to "let not poor Nelly starve." James obliged by paying off most of Nell's debts and allowing her a pension.
Nell suffered two strokes in the spring of 1687 and died in the fall, only two years after the death of her royal lover. She was 37 years old.
With the English public, Nell had been the most popular of the king's feminine menagerie; the people loved her as King Charles's vulgar, spunky, and Protestant whore (the hated Louise was Catholic).
During her tenure, Nell had displayed a number of admirable qualities besides her wit. She had an irrepressibly good nature. She put on no airs. In a harem full of women eager to deck themselves with diamonds, gowns, and pensioned titles at the expense of the state, Nell had showed neither greed nor presumption with her generous-to-a-fault lover.
Moreover, whereas the Lady Castlemaine was infamous for her infidelities, Nell remained loyal to Charles. After the king's death in 1685, a hopeful suitor approached Nell - her sad rebuff was that she would not "lay a dog where the deer had laid."
She left behind one surviving son: Charles Beauclerk, the Duke of St. Albans.
Eleanor "Nell" was born February 2, 1650 in Hereford, England. She was a daughter of Captain Thomas Gwyn and Eleanor Smith. Nell's father, from a wealthy Welsh family, may have married for love to Eleanor; she was not of his social class. The family fell apart during the English Civil War. Thomas was imprisoned as a royalist, and Eleanor took the two young girls with her to London where she ended up an alcoholic prostitute.
At the age of ten, Nell was already experienced selling oysters and fish in the streets of London. When in 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne, all of London celebrated. The theaters reopened, and Nell worked as an orange girl, selling fruit to theater-goers. She was pretty and quick-witted, a natural comedienne, and popular with the customers and actors alike; Nell had charisma. She was noticed by the playwright, Charles Hart, and he gave her a role in The Indian Emperor. She was fifteen. Although illiterate all her life, Nell was bright; she could memorize lines and was great at ad-libbing. She soon became one of the most popular actresses in London.
Nell was incredibly attractive and entertaining. Despite her rough back-ground, she could make her way in the highest circles of society, largely because of her playful manner. Always funny, her irreverent sense of humor must have been a breath of fresh air to the stuffy aristocrats. She was linked with a sea captain as a lover at the age of twelve and paired with Lord Buckhurst at sixteen. Certainly there were others as well; it is suspected that she was also a lover to Charles Hart.
In fact, when Nell became the mistress to King Charles II, she joked with him that he was her "Charles the Third" because she had lived with two Charles before him (Charles Hart and Charles Sackville).
Nell's mother, Eleanor, died when she fell drunk in a ditch and drowned (no date given).
Beginning in 1671, Nell's primary residence was the brick townhouse at 79 Pall Mall, provided for her by the king, and in 1676 she was given freehold. The king commissioned the famed architect Christopher Wren to build a special house just for Nell, Burford House at Windsor, Berkshire. In addition, she had a summer house at what is now 61-63 King's Cross Road. Nell's oldest, Charles, inherited the Burford house and raised his large family there. She also had £5,000 a year, a paltry sum compared to the other mistresses of Charles II (£40,000 and £43,000 a year).
As the king lay on his deathbed, his thoughts were of his loves, as observed by John Evelyn and written as a Diary entry for 6th of February, 1685:
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