Nell Gwynne: A Beloved Actress and Mistress of King Charles II

Nell Gwynne, also known as Eleanor Gwyn, was a prominent figure during the Restoration period. Praised for her comedic performances and hailed as one of the first actresses on the English stage, she gained widespread fame as the long-time mistress of King Charles II of England. In this article, we delve into the life of Nell Gwynne, exploring her early years, her rise to stardom as an actress, and her enduring relationship with the King.

Early Life: A Woman Shrouded in Mystery

The details of Nell Gwynne’s background remain somewhat obscure. While a horoscope in the Ashmolean manuscripts suggests her date of birth as 2 February 1650, other accounts claim she was born around 1642. The ambiguity surrounding her birthdate mirrors the many uncertainties that surround her life. Much of the information about Nell Gwynne is pieced together from various sources, including plays she performed in, satirical poetry, diaries, and letters. However, it’s important to approach this information with caution, as it often relies on hearsay, gossip, and rumours.

Nell Gwynne’s mother, Ellen, was commonly referred to as “Old Madam,” “Madam Gwyn,” or “Old Ma Gwyn.” She was believed to have been born in the parish of St Martin in the Fields, London, and was considered of “low-born” status. While some sources suggest her maiden surname was Smith, it remains uncertain. Tragically, Nell’s mother met her demise when she accidentally drowned in the water near her house in Chelsea. She was laid to rest in St Martin in the Fields in July 1679 at the age of 56.

The identity of Nell’s father has been subject to speculation. A manuscript from 1688 mentions a Captain Thomas Guine as her father, but the credibility of this claim is uncertain. Other sources suggest connections to various Gwyn families, but the evidence does not conclusively establish Nell’s lineage.

Birthplace Controversy: Hereford, London, or Oxford?

Three locations vie for the distinction of being Nell Gwynne’s birthplace: Hereford, London (specifically Covent Garden), and Oxford. However, evidence supporting any one of these claims is scarce. The fact that “Gwyn” is of Welsh origin has led some to consider Hereford, given its proximity to the Welsh border.

In support of this theory, it is believed that Nell chose red coats for the pensioners of Chelsea Hospital because they resembled those worn at Coningsby Hospital in Hereford. On the other hand, London is a plausible option since Nell’s mother was born there and raised her children in the city. Some researchers lean towards an Oxford birth, citing circumstantial evidence, while others maintain that the true birthplace remains unknown.

From Rags to the Stage: Nell Gwynne’s Acting Career

Nell Gwynne joined the ranks of actresses at the Theatre in Bridges Street (later renamed Theatre Royal, Drury Lane) when she was just fourteen years old. Her good looks, clear voice, and wit caught the eye of Thomas Killigrew, the leading figure at the King’s Company. Despite being illiterate, Nell proved herself as a talented performer. She received training from Charles Hart and John Lacy, prominent actors of the time, and quickly became a prominent actress in the Restoration theatre.

It is uncertain when exactly Nell Gwynne made her professional stage debut, but she likely began with smaller roles during the 1664-65 season. Her breakthrough came in March 1665 when she played Cydaria in John Dryden‘s heroic drama, “The Indian Emperour,” opposite Charles Hart. Her captivating performances and growing popularity led to larger crowds and more roles tailored specifically for her.

Nell’s theatrical career spanned seven years, during which she performed in numerous productions. Notably, she played the role of Valeria in Dryden’s successful tragedy, “Tyrannick Love,” in June 1669. However, by 1671, her acting career began to slow down as her commitment to King Charles II increased.

A Royal Affair: Nell Gwynne and King Charles II

In late 1667, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, took on the role of managing Nell Gwynne’s love affairs, hoping to position himself as a favoured confidant of the King. Buckingham’s plan was to introduce Moll Davis, an actress from the rival Duke’s Company, as a new mistress to Charles II, thereby diminishing the influence of Barbara Palmer, his principal mistress and Buckingham’s cousin. However, the plan failed, and Nell’s relationship with the King blossomed.

The love affair between Nell Gwynne and King Charles II is said to have begun in April 1668. While attending a play together, the King, more interested in flirting with Nell than watching the performance, invited her and her escort to supper. Legend has it that after the meal, when the King realized he had no money, Nell exclaimed, “But this is the poorest company I ever was in!”—a witty remark mimicking the King’s manner of speaking.

As the King’s mistress, Nell Gwynne faced competition from other women, including Louise de Kérouaille. Louise, a French noblewoman, became another mistress of Charles II and a rival to Nell. Despite their differences, Nell and Louise occasionally met for tea and cards. However, they also engaged in verbal sparring and traded insults.

Nell Gwynne gave birth to two sons, Charles and James, fathered by King Charles II. Charles, the elder son, was made Earl of Burford and later Duke of St Albans. James, unfortunately, passed away in 1681 while studying in Paris. Nell’s sons were acknowledged by the King, and he granted her a house known as Burford House in Windsor, where she resided when the King was at Windsor Castle.

Nell Gwynne: A Beloved Actress and Mistress of King Charles II
Image: Portrait of Nell Gwyn (1650-1687), mistress of Charles II of England | Simon Pietersz Verelst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Life After Charles II: Legacy and Tragic End

Upon King Charles II’s death in 1685, Nell Gwynne found herself in a difficult position. However, James II, in obedience to his brother’s final wish, provided financial assistance to Nell and her son Charles. He paid off her debts, granted her an annual pension of £1,500, and released the mortgage on her Nottinghamshire lodge at Bestwood.

In March 1687, Nell suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. A second stroke in May further debilitated her, confining her to her bed at her Pall Mall residence. Sensing her impending mortality, Nell made her will and a codicil, ensuring provisions for her son and leaving charitable contributions to the poor and debtors.

On 14 November 1687, at the age of 37, Nell Gwynne passed away, likely due to complications arising from syphilis. She was buried at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, as she had requested. Nell left behind an estate that, despite her fame and success, did not reflect her rumoured wealth. The majority of her estate went to her son, and her charitable nature was evident in her bequests.

Nell Gwynne’s legacy endures as a celebrated actress and the mistress of King Charles II. Her wit, charm, and talent on the stage captivated audiences and established her as a prominent figure of the Restoration period. Though her life was not without hardships, Nell Gwynne remains a folk heroine, embodying the spirit of Restoration England—a rags-to-royalty tale akin to Cinderella.

*Feature Image: Simon Pietersz Verelst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons