Charles II signaled the Restoration was going to be different when he declared, 'All Women's Parts to be Acted by Women' in one of the earliest Acts of his reign.
Following the Interregnum, 1660 saw the Restoration of the Monarchy which ushered in a new, liberal era after the Puritan years - and amongst many changes Charles II enacted was the appearance of the first actresses on the English stage. Prior to that, all female roles had been taken by men and boys.
Soon after his return, Charles gave two of his supporters, Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant, royal patents to run theaters in London, their patrons being, respectively, the King himself and his brother James, Duke of York.
Killigrew founded the King’s Company, based at first in a converted tennis court. Here, on 8 December 1660, the first actress to perform publicly stepped out: Margaret (‘Peg’) Hughes, taking the role of Desdemona in Othello.
Soon afterwards, the keen theater-goer, Samuel Pepys, wrote: ‘I to the Theatre, where was acted Beggars Bush… and here the first time that ever I saw women come upon the stage’ (3 January 1661).
Within a few years Pepys could write: ‘Tomorrow, they told us, should be acted … a new play called The Parson’s Dream, acted all by women’ (4 October 1664).
In 1663, Thomas Killigrew moved the King's Company to a new theater adapted from a former riding school in Brydges Street, off Drury Lane in Covent Garden.
Sir William Davenant (who fostered the rumor he was an illegitimate son of Shakespeare) founded the Duke’s Company, also in a former tennis court at Lisle’s, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Davenant opened in 1661 with one of his own plays, The Siege of Rhodes, featuring Mary Saunderson.
Davenant, who had produced plays and court masques before the Civil War, was the guiding spirit of this first wave of English actresses: eight young women he tutored and boarded at his house. Soon they were an expected sight on the stage.
So began ‘Restoration Theater’, featuring alluring costumes (sometimes supplied by the King and Duke of York) and witty ‘Comedies of Manners’ in which the pursuit of women was a common theme. But instead of cross-dressing young boys, there were real females to play the roles.
Their wages were excellent: up to 15 shillings a week for a regular female player (well above the wage of the average workman) which gave them a degree of independence. This was offset by the insecurity of the profession, since theaters could be closed at any time for a wide variety of reasons.
To find out who some of these daring ladies were, and what became of them (both Margaret Hughes and Mary Saunderson did rather well for themselves), see: