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Nell Gwyn
Eleanor Gwyn

2 February 1650
Hereford or St Martin in the Fields, London (disputed; see § Early life), England
Died14 November 1687(1687-11-14) (aged 37)
Other names
  • "Pretty, witty Nell"
  • William Nell
PartnerCharles II of England

Eleanor Gwyn (2 February 1650 – 14 November 1687; also spelled Gwynn, Gwynne) was an English stage actress and celebrity figure of the Restoration period. Praised by Samuel Pepys for her comic performances as one of the first actresses on the English stage, she became best known for being a long-time mistress of King Charles II of England (c. April 1668 – 6 February 1685).

Called "pretty, witty Nell" by Pepys, she has been regarded as a living embodiment of the spirit of Restoration England, and has come to be considered a folk heroine, with a story echoing the rags-to-royalty tale of Cinderella. Gwyn had two sons by King Charles: Charles Beauclerk (1670–1726) and James Beauclerk (1671–1680). Charles Beauclerk was created Earl of Burford and Duke of St. Albans; Murray de Vere Beauclerk, 14th Duke of St. Albans is her descendant, and the current holder of the duchy.

Early life

The details of Gwyn's background are somewhat obscure. A horoscope in the Ashmolean manuscripts gives her date of birth as 2 February 1650.[2] On the other hand, an account published in The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist in 1838 states that she was born about 1642. The earlier date of birth was asserted without documentation, but various scholars have supported both the earlier and later dates.[3] The eight-year difference between these two possible birth years can offer different readings of what Gwyn achieved during her lifetime.

The obscurity surrounding Gwyn's date of birth parallels numerous other obscurities that run through the course of her life. The information we have about Gwyn is collected from various sources, including the plays she starred in, satirical poetry and pictures, diaries, and letters. As such, much of this information is founded on hearsay, gossip, and rumour, and must therefore be handled with caution.

Her mother Ellen (or a variant, being referred to in her lifetime as "Old Madam", "Madam Gwyn" and "Old Ma Gwyn") was born, according to a monumental inscription, in the parish of St Martin in the Fields, which stretched from Soho and Covent Garden to beyond Mayfair, and is thought to have lived most of her life there in the West End. She is also believed, by most Gwyn biographers, to have been "low-born". Her descendant and biographer Charles Beauclerk calls this conjecture, based solely on what is known of her later life. Madam Gwyn is sometimes said to have had the maiden surname Smith. This appears to be derived from a fragmentary pedigree by Anthony Wood that shows signs of confusion between different Gwyn families and it has not been firmly established.[4] Nell's mother is said to have drowned when she fell into the water at her house near Chelsea. She was buried on 30 July 1679, in her 56th year, at St Martin in the Fields.[5]

Nell Gwyn is reported in a manuscript of 1688 to have been a daughter of "Thos [Thomas] Guine a Capt [captain] of ane antient fammilie in Wales", although the reliability of the statement is doubtful as its author does not seem to have hesitated to create or alter details where the facts were unknown or perhaps unremarkable. There is some suggestion, from a poem dated to 1681, again of doubtful accuracy, that Gwyn's father died at Oxford, perhaps in prison.[4] It has been suggested, based on the pedigree by Anthony Wood, that Gwyn was a granddaughter of Edward or Edmund Gwyn, Canon of Christ Church from 1615 to 1624.[6][7] However, administration records show that Edmund Gwyn died unmarried. Moreover, Wood did not give a forename for the supposed grandfather of Nell and there are reasons to think that the "Dr ... Gwyn" in the pedigree was intended to be not Edmund Gwyn but rather his brother Matthew. In either case, the available evidence indicates that Nell was not a member of their family.[8]

Gwyn was assigned arms similar to those of the Gwynnes of Llansannor.[9][1] However, her specific connection to that family, if any, is unknown.

Three cities make the claim to be Gwyn's birthplace: Hereford, London (specifically Covent Garden) and Oxford. Evidence for any one of the three is scarce.[10] The fact that "Gwyn" is a name of Welsh origin might support Hereford, as its county is on the border with Wales; The Dictionary of National Biography notes a traditional belief that she was born there in Pipe Well Lane, renamed to Gwynne Street in the 19th century. There is also the legend that Nell Gwyn chose red coats for the pensioners of Chelsea Hospital, which she allegedly influenced King Charles II to found, because she remembered that similar coats had been worn at Coningsby Hospital in Hereford.[11] London is the simplest choice, perhaps, since Gwyn's mother was born there and that is where she raised her children. Alexander Smith's 1715 Lives of the Court Beauties says she was born in Coal Yard Alley in Covent Garden and other biographies, including Wilson's, have followed suit. Her noble descendant Beauclerk pieces together circumstantial evidence to favour an Oxford birth.

One way or another, Gwyn's father seems to have been out of the picture by the time of her childhood in Covent Garden, and her "dipsomaniac mother, [and] notorious sister", Rose, were left in a low situation.[12] She experimented with cross-dressing between 1663 and 1667 going under the name "William Nell" and adopting a false beard; her observations informed a most successful and hilarious character interpretation acting as a man on the stage in March 1667. Old Madam Gwyn was by most accounts an alcoholic whose business was running a bawdy house (or brothel). There, or in the bawdy house of one Madam Ross, Nell would spend at least some time. It is possible that she herself was a child prostitute; Peter Thomson, in the Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, says it is "probable". A rare mention of her upbringing from the source herself might be seen to contradict the idea: A 1667 entry in Samuel Pepys's diary records, second-hand, that.

Here Mrs. Pierce tells me [...] that Nelly and Beck Marshall, falling out the other day, the latter called the other my Lord Buckhurst's whore. Nell answered then, "I was but one man's whore, though I was brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong waters to the guests; and you are a whore to three or four, though a Presbyter's praying daughter!"[13]

It is not out of the question that Gwyn was merely echoing the satirists of the day, if she said this at all.

Various anonymous verses are the only other sources describing her childhood occupations: bawdyhouse servant, street hawker of herring, oysters, or turnips, and cinder-girl have all been put forth.[14] Tradition has her growing up in Coal Yard Alley, a poor slum off Drury Lane.

Around 1662, Nell is said to have taken a lover by the name of Duncan or Dungan. Their relationship lasted perhaps two years, and was reported with obscenity-laced acidity in several later satires; "For either with expense of purse or p---k, / At length the weary fool grew Nelly-sick".[15] Duncan provided Gwyn with rooms at a tavern in Maypole Alley,[16] and the satires also say he was involved in securing Nell a job at the theatre being built nearby.

During the English Commonwealth era, pastimes regarded as frivolous, including theatre, had been banned. King Charles II had been restored to the English throne in 1660, and he reinstated the theatre. One of Charles' early acts as king was to license the formation of two acting companies and to legalise acting as a profession for women. In 1663, the King's Company, led by Thomas Killigrew, opened a new playhouse, the Theatre in Bridges/Brydges Street, which was later rebuilt and renamed the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Mary Meggs, a former prostitute nicknamed "Orange Moll" and a friend of Madam Gwyn's, had been granted the licence to "vend, utter and sell oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manner of fruiterers and confectioners wares" within the theatre.[17] Orange Moll hired Nell and her elder sister Rose as scantily-clad 'orange-girls', selling the small, sweet "china" oranges to the audience inside the theatre for a sixpence each. The work exposed her to the theatre and to London's higher society: this was "the King's playhouse", and King Charles II frequently attended performances. The orange-girls would also serve as messengers between men in the audience and actresses backstage; they received tips for this role, and some of these messages would end in sexual assignations. Whether this activity rose to the level of pimping may be a matter of semantics.[18]


Portrait of Nell Gwyn by Simon Verelst, c. 1670

The new theatres were the first in England to feature actresses; earlier, women's parts had been played by boys or men. Gwyn joined the rank of actresses at Bridges Street when she was fourteen (if we take her birth year to be 1650), less than a year after becoming an orange-girl.

If her good looks, strong clear voice, and lively wit were responsible for catching the eye of Killigrew, she still had to prove herself clever enough to succeed as an actress. This was no easy task in the Restoration theatre; the limited pool of audience members meant that very short runs were the norm for plays and fifty different productions might be mounted in the nine-month season lasting from September to June.[19] She was reputed to have been illiterate.

Nell Gwyn's Lodging, Drury Lane, February 1881 by Philip Norman

She was taught her craft of performing at a school for young actors developed by Killigrew[9] and one of the fine male actors of the time, Charles Hart, and learned dancing from another, John Lacy; both were rumoured by satirists of the time to be her lovers, but if she had such a relationship with Lacy (Beauclerk thinks it unlikely), it was kept much more discreet than her well-known affair with Hart.

Much as in the dispute over her date of birth, it is unclear when Gwyn began to perform professionally on the Restoration stage. It is possible that she first appeared in smaller parts during the 1664–65 season. For example, The Bodleian Manuscript of The Siege of Urbin has the part of Pedro (Melina- a maid servant in breeches) played by a 'Mrs. Nell'. Additionally, 'Nelle' was intended to play the small role of Paulina, a courtesan, in Killigrew's Thomaso, or The Wanderer in November 1664, but the play seems to have been cancelled.[20] The use of 'Mrs' would imply that Gwyn was more likely born in 1642 than 1650 as it indicates an actress over the age of 21 (not her marital status) for which certain roles would be more suitable. Nonetheless, since players of less substantial parts are seldom mentioned in cast lists or playgoers' diaries of the period, an absolute date for Gywn's debut cannot be ascertained.[21]

Whatever her first role as an actress may have been, it is evident that she had become a more prominent actress by 1665. It is around this time when she is first mentioned in Pepys's diary, specifically on Monday 3 April 1665, while attending a play, where the description 'pretty, witty Nell' is first recorded.[22] This unusual use of only her first name would imply that Gwyn had made herself known both on the stage and off as her celebrity status started to emerge. Her first recorded appearance on-stage was in March 1665, in John Dryden's heroic drama The Indian Emperour, playing Cydaria, daughter of Moctezuma and love interest to Cortez, played by her real-life lover Charles Hart.

However, Pepys, whose diary usually has great things to say about Gwyn, was displeased with her performance in this same part two years later: " the King's playhouse, and there saw 'The Indian Emperour;' where I find Nell come again, which I am glad of; but was most infinitely displeased with her being put to act the Emperour's daughter; which is a great and serious part, which she do most basely."[23]

Gwyn herself seems to agree that drama did not suit her, to judge from the lines she was later made to say in the epilogue to a Robert Howard drama:

We have been all ill-us'd, by this day's poet.
'Tis our joint cause; I know you in your hearts
Hate serious plays, as I do serious parts.[24]

It was in the new form of restoration comedy that Gwyn would become a star. In May 1665, she appeared opposite Hart in James Howard's comedy All Mistaken, or the Mad Couple.[25]

There is some debate over the year The Mad Couple debuted, with earlier authorities believing it to be 1667. This was the first of many appearances in which Gwyn and Hart played the "gay couple", a form that would become a frequent theme in restoration comedies. The gay couple, broadly defined, is a pair of witty, antagonistic lovers, he generally a rake fearing the entrapment of marriage and she feigning to do the same in order to keep her lover at arm's length. Theatre historian Elizabeth Howe goes so far as to credit the enduring success of the gay couple on the Restoration stage entirely to "the talent and popularity of a single actress, Nell Gwyn".[25]

The Great Plague of London shut down the Bridges Street theatre, along with most of the city, from mid-1665 until late 1666. Gwyn and her mother spent some of this time in Oxford, following the King and his court.[9] The King's Company is presumed to have mounted some private theatrical entertainments for the court during this time away from the virulent capital. Gwyn and the other ten "women comedians in His Majesty's Theatre" were issued the right (and the cloth) to wear the King's livery at the start of this exile, proclaiming them official servants of the King.[26]

After the theatres reopened, Gwyn and Hart returned to play role after role that fit the mould of the gay couple, including in James Howard's The English Monsieur (December 1666), Richard Rhodes' Flora's Vagaries, an adaptation of John Fletcher's The Chances by George Villiers, and then in their greatest success, Secret Love, or The Maiden Queen.[27]

This play, a tragicomedy written by the theatre's house dramatist, John Dryden, was performed in March 1667. It was a great success: King Charles "graced it with the Title of His Play"[28] and Pepys's praise was effusive:

... to the King's house to see 'The Maiden Queen', a new play of Dryden's, mightily commended for the regularity of it, and the strain and wit; and the truth is, there is a comical part done by Nell, which is Florimell, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again, by man or woman. The King and the Duke of York were at the play. But so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girl, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the notions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her.[29]

After seeing the play for the third time, Pepys writes, "It is impossible to have Florimel’s part, which is the most comical that ever was made for woman, ever done better than it is by Nelly."[30] Killigrew must have agreed with Pepys's opinion. Once Gwyn left the acting profession, it would be at least ten years before his company revived The Maiden Queen and even the less favoured The Indian Emperour because "the management evidently felt that it would be useless to present these plays without her."[31]

The Maiden Queen featured breeches roles, where the actress appeared in men's clothes under one pretence or another, and as Bax supposes "was one of the first occasions upon which a woman appeared in the disguise of a man";[32] if nothing else this could draw an audience eager to see the women show off their figures in the more form-fitting male attire. The attraction had another dynamic: the theatres sometimes had a hard time holding onto their actresses, as they were swept up to become the kept mistresses of the aristocracy. In 1667, Gwyn made such a match with Charles Sackville, titled Lord Buckhurst at that time. She supposedly caught his eye during an April performance of All Mistaken, or The Mad Couple, especially in one scene in which, to escape a hugely fat suitor able to move only by rolling, she rolls across the stage herself, her feet toward the audience and her petticoats flying about. A satire of the time describes this and also Hart's position now, in the face of competition from the upper echelons of society:

Yet Hart more manners had, then not to tender
When noble Buckhurst beg'd him to surrender.
He saw her roll the stage from side to side
And, through her drawers the powerful charm descry'd.[33]

Beauclerk describes Buckhurst: "Cultured, witty, satirical, dissolute, and utterly charming".[34] He was one of a handful of court wits, the "Merry Gang" as named by Andrew Marvell. Sometime after the end of April and her last recorded role that season (in Robert Howard's The Surprisal), Gwyn and Buckhurst left London for a country holiday in Epsom, accompanied by Charles Sedley, another wit in the merry gang. Pepys reports the news on 13 July: "[Mr. Pierce tells us] Lord Buckhurst hath got Nell away from the King's house, lies with her, and gives her £100 a year, so she hath sent her parts to the house, and will act no more."[35] Gwyn was acting once more in late August, and her brief affair with Buckhurst had ended.[36] Pepys reports that by 22 August 1667, Gwyn had returned to the King's Playhouse in The Indian Emperour. On 26 August, Pepys learns from Moll Davis that, 'Nell is already left by my Lord Buckhurst, and that he makes sport of her, and swears she hath had all she could get of him; and Hart, her great admirer, now hates her; and that she is very poor, and hath lost my Lady Castlemayne, who was her great friend also but she is come to the House, but is neglected by them all'.[37]

Relationship with King Charles II

Nell Gwyn as Cupid, c. 1672; engraving by Richard Thomson, of a painting by Peter Cross.[38] Pepys owned a copy of this engraving and displayed it over his desk at the Admiralty[39]

Late in 1667, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, took on the role of unofficial manager for Gwyn's love affairs. He aimed to provide King Charles II with someone who would supplant Barbara Palmer, his principal current mistress and Buckingham's cousin, moving Buckingham closer to the King's ear. The plan failed; reportedly, Gwyn asked £500 a year to be kept and this was rejected as it was regarded as too expensive. Buckingham had an alternative plan, which was to set the King up with Moll Davis, an actress with the rival Duke's Company.[40] Davis would be Gwyn's first rival for the King. Several anonymous satires from the time relate a tale of Gwyn, with the help of her friend Aphra Behn, slipping a powerful laxative into Davis's tea-time cakes before an evening when she was expected in the King's bed.[41]

The love affair between the King and Gwyn allegedly began in April 1668. Gwyn was attending a performance of George Etherege's She Wou'd if She Cou'd at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In the next box was the King, who from accounts was more interested in flirting with Gwyn than watching the play. Charles invited Gwyn and her escort, Mr. Villiers, a cousin of Buckingham's, to supper along with his brother the Duke of York. The anecdote turns charming if perhaps apocryphal at this point: the King, after supper, discovered that he had no money on him; nor did his brother, and Gwyn had to foot the bill. "Od's fish!" she exclaimed, in an imitation of the King's manner of speaking, "but this is the poorest company I ever was in!"[42]

Portrait of Nell Gwyn as Venus with her son, Charles Beauclerk, as Cupid, by Peter Lely. Charles II had this hung behind a landscape, which he swung back to allow favoured guests to peer at.[43]

Having previously been the mistress of Charles Hart and Charles Sackville, Gwyn jokingly called the King "her Charles the Third". By mid-1668, Gwyn's affair with the King was well-known, though there was little reason to believe it would last for long. She continued to act at the King's House, her new notoriety drawing larger crowds and encouraging the playwrights to craft more roles specifically for her. June 1668 found her in Dryden's An Evening's Love, or The Mock Astrologer, and in July she played in Lacy's The Old Troop, a farce about a company of Cavalier soldiers during the English Civil War, based on Lacy's own experiences. Possibly, Gwyn's father had served in the same company, and Gwyn's part—the company whore—was based on her own mother.[44] As her commitment to the King increased, though, her acting career slowed, and she had no recorded parts between January and June 1669, when she played Valeria in Dryden's very successful tragedy Tyrannick Love.[45]

King Charles II had a considerable number of mistresses through his life, both short affairs and committed arrangements. He also had a wife, Portuguese Queen consort Catherine of Braganza, whose pregnancies all ended in miscarriages, and she had little or no say over Charles's choice to have mistresses. This had come to a head shortly after their marriage in 1662, in a confrontation between Catherine and Barbara Palmer, which became known as the "Bedchamber crisis". Ostracised at Court and with most of her retinue sent back to Portugal, Catherine had been left with little choice but to acquiesce to Charles's mistresses being granted semi-official standing.

During Gwyn's first years with Charles, there was little competition in the way of other mistresses: Barbara Palmer was on her way out, while others, such as Moll Davis, kept quietly away from the spotlight of public appearances or Whitehall. Gwyn gave birth to her first son fathered by Charles II, Charles Beauclerk, on 8 May 1670. He was the King's seventh son by five separate mistresses.

Several months later, Louise de Kérouaille came to England from France, ostensibly to serve as a maid of honour to Queen Catherine, but also to become another mistress to King Charles, probably by design on both the French and English sides. She and Gwyn would prove rivals for many years to come. They were opposites in personality and mannerism; Louise a proud woman of noble birth used to the sophistication of Versailles, Gwyn a spirited and pranking ex-orange-wench. Gwyn nicknamed Louise "Squintabella" for her looks and the "Weeping Willow" for her tendencies to sob. In one instance, recorded in a letter from George Legge to Lord Preston, Gwyn characteristically jabbed at the Duchess's "great lineage," dressing in black at Court, the same mourning attire as Louise when a prince of France died. Someone there asked, "What the deuce was the Cham of Tartary to you?" to which Gwyn responded, "Oh, exactly the same relation that the French Prince was to Mademoiselle de Kérouaille."[46] The Duchess of Portsmouth's only recorded riposte was, "anybody may know she has been an orange-wench by her swearing".[47] Their relationship was not strictly adversarial; they were known to get together for tea and cards, for example. Basset was the popular game at the time, and Gwyn was a frequent—and high-stakes—gambler.[48]

Gwyn returned to the stage again in late 1670, something Beauclerk calls an "extraordinary thing to do" for a mistress with a royal child. Her return was in Dryden's The Conquest of Granada, a two-part epic produced in December 1670 and January 1671. This may have been her last play; 1671 was almost certainly her last season.[49] Gwyn's theatrical career spanned seven years and ended at the age of 21 (if we take 1650 to be her birth year).

In the cast list of Aphra Behn's The Rover, produced at Dorset Garden in March 1677, the part of Angelica Bianca, "a famous Curtezan" is played by a Mrs. Gwin. This has sparked some confusion. The spelling of 'Gwin' does not refer to Nell Gwyn, but to Mrs. Anne Quin. Nell Gwyn had left the stage by this point.[50]

In February 1671, Gwyn moved into a brick townhouse at 79 Pall Mall.[51] The property was owned by the crown and its current resident was instructed to transfer the lease to Gwyn. It would be her main residence for the rest of her life. Gwyn seemed unsatisfied with being a lessee only—in 1673, a letter written by that of Joseph Williamson stated that "Madam Gwinn complains she has no house yet." Gwyn is said to have complained that "she had always conveyed free under the Crown, and always would; and would not accept [the house] till it was conveyed free to her by an Act of Parliament." In 1676, Gwyn was granted the freehold of the property, which remained in her family until 1693; as of 1960 the property was still the only one on the south side of Pall Mall not owned by the Crown.

Gwyn gave birth to her second child by the King, christened James Beauclerk, on 25 December 1671, or Christmas Day.

There are two stories about how the eldest of her two children by Charles was given the Earldom of Burford, both of which are unverifiable. The first, and most popular, is that when Charles was six years old, on the arrival of the King, Gwyn said, "Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father." When the King protested against her calling Charles that, she replied, "Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him." In response, Charles created him Earl of Burford. Another is that Gwyn grabbed young Charles and hung him out of a window of Lauderdale House in Highgate, where she briefly resided, and threatened to drop him unless he was granted a peerage. The King cried out "God save the Earl of Burford!" and subsequently officially created the peerage, saving his son's life. On 21 December 1676, a warrant was passed for "a grant to Charles Beauclerc, the King's natural son, and to the heirs male of his body, of the dignities of Baron of Heddington, co. Oxford, and Earl of Burford in the same county, with remainder to his brother, James Beauclerc, and the heirs male of his body."[52] A few weeks later, James was given "the title of Lord Beauclerc, with the place and precedence of the eldest son of an earl."[52]

Shortly afterwards, the King granted Gwyn and their son a house, which was renamed Burford House, on the edge of the Home Park in Windsor. She lived there when the King was in residence at Windsor Castle. In addition to the properties mentioned above, Gwyn had a summer residence on the site of what is now 61–63 King's Cross Road, London, which enjoyed later popularity as the Bagnigge Wells Spa. According to the London Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1983) she "entertained Charles II here with little concerts and breakfasts". An inscribed stone of 1680, saved and reinserted in the front wall of the present building, shows a carved mask which is probably a reference to her stage career.

Just after the death of Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans on 5 January 1684, King Charles granted his son Charles the title of Duke of St Albans, gave him an allowance of £1,000 a year, and also granted him the offices of Chief Ranger of Enfield Chase and Master of the Hawks in reversion; i.e., after the death of the current incumbents.[53]

King Charles died on 6 February 1685. James II, obeying his brother's deathbed wish, "Let not poor Nelly starve," eventually paid most of Gwyn's debts and gave her an annual pension of £1,500. He also paid off the mortgage on Gwyn's Nottinghamshire lodge at Bestwood, which remained in the Beauclerk family until 1940.[54] At the same time, James applied pressure on Gwyn and her son Charles to convert to Roman Catholicism, something she resisted.


In March 1687, Gwyn suffered a stroke that left her paralysed on one side. In May, a second stroke left her confined to the bed in her Pall Mall house; she made out her will on 9 July and a codicil on 18 October with her executors, Laurence Hyde (the Earl of Rochester), Thomas Earl of Pembroke, Sir Robert Sawyer the Attorney General, and Henry Sidney each receiving £100. Gwyn died from apoplexy "almost certainly due to the acquired variety of syphilis"[55] on 14 November 1687, at ten in the evening, less than three years after the King's death. She was 37 years old (if she was born in 1650). Her balance at Child's Bank was reported to be well over four figures, and she possessed almost 15,000 ounces of plate.[21] The Oxford Dictionary of Actors therefore suggests that 'perhaps most of her wealth was in trust or not in liquid assets' which might explain why the rich woman was so poor. A letter from Wigmore to Etherege, the day after Gwyn's burial, reports that Gwyn left about £1,000,000, "a great many say more, few less".[21] The majority of her estate went to her son. Gwyn's will also conveys her charitable side with her leaving £100 to be distributed to the poor of the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields and Westminster and £50 to release debtors from prison every Christmas.[21]

She was buried in the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on 17 November 1687. In compliance with one of Gwyn's final requests, Thomas Tenison, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, preached a sermon on 17 December from the text of Luke 15:7 "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."[56] Her will and codicil were proved on 7 December 1687.


Nell Gwynn House, Chelsea

Though Gwyn was often caricatured as an empty-headed woman, John Dryden said that her greatest attribute was her native wit, and she certainly became a hostess who was able to keep the friendship of Dryden, the playwright Aphra Behn, William Ley, 4th Earl of Marlborough (a lover of hers), John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, and the King's other mistresses. She is especially remembered for one particularly apt witticism, which was recounted in the memoirs of the Comte de Gramont, remembering the events of 1681:

Nell Gwynn was one day passing through the streets of Oxford, in her coach, when the mob mistaking her for her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth, commenced hooting and loading her with every opprobrious epithet. Putting her head out of the coach window, "Good people", she said, smiling, "you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore."[57]

The Catholic whore was still the Frenchwoman Louise de Kérouaille, who had been created Duchess of Portsmouth in 1673.

The author of her 1752 biography relates a conversation (more than likely fabricated) between Gwyn and Charles II in which he, feeling at a loss, said, "O, Nell! What shall I do to please the People of England? I am torn to pieces by their clamours."

"If it please your Majesty," she replied, "there is but one way left, which expedient I am afraid it will be difficult to persuade you to embrace. Dismiss your ladies, may it please your Majesty, and mind your business; the People of England will soon be pleased."[58]

She is noted for another remark made to her coachman, who was fighting with another man who had called her a whore. She broke up the fight, saying, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about."[59]

In 1937, a new ten-storey block of 437 flats in Sloane Avenue, Chelsea, was given the name Nell Gwynn House, and in a high alcove above the main entrance is a statue of Gwyn, with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel at her feet. Mostly unnoticed by passers-by, this is believed to be the only statue of a royal mistress in the capital city.[60]

Arms and lineage

According to Paul A. Fox, "[The coat of arms of Nell Gwyn] are clearly based on the arms attributed to Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, Prince of Powys: or, a lion rampant azure. Only one family of Gwyn or Wyn ever used these arms, and they were a little-known clan from Trelydan in Guilsfield, near Welshpool. This family were somewhat distant kinsmen of Nell's own ancestors. One of its members was Captain John Gwyn, who taught King Charles II of England military exercises when he was Prince of Wales, and served throughout the English Civil War and afterwards in the Royal Regiment of Guards, later commanded by the king's son, the Duke of Monmouth. He can be placed in some of the same campaigns as Captain Thomas Gwyn, and the two men had probably met. John [Gwyn] has left a famous account of his exploits during the war, which include his pedigree and arms. It is likely that he would have sought out Nell and claimed kinship with her, as a means of furthering his own military career. It is hard to imagine how otherwise Nell would have come to bear the arms that she did."[1] It is unknown if Nell's arms were officially granted by the College of Arms during the reign of King Charles II, or were self-assumed.

Coat of arms of Nell Gwyn
Per pale Argent and Or a lion rampant Azure on a Lozenge[9][1]


Nell Gwyn never received any official titles from King Charles II of England while serving as his mistress. Some accounts state that Charles II planned to ennoble Gwyn by making her the "Countess of Greenwich", following the bestowing of the titles of Duchess of Cleveland, Countess of Castlemaine, Baroness Limerick, and Baroness Nonsuch upon his other mistress, Barbara Palmer; the title of Viscountess Shannon upon his first mistress, Elizabeth Killigrew; and the titles of Duchess of Portsmouth, Duchess of Aubigny, Countess of Fareham, and Baroness Petersfield to yet another mistress, Louise de Kérouaille. However, Charles II died on 6 February 1685 before he could formally ennoble Gwyn.[61]

While Fox speculated that Gwyn was descended in the male line from Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, Prince of Powys, William Herbert, 1st Marquess of Powis (1626 – 2 June 1696), one of Charles II's courtiers, had already been elevated by Charles II to Earl of Powis in 1674. Herbert was further reaffirmed as Marquess of Powis in 1687 by King James II.[62]

Charles' younger brother and successor, King James II, paid off Gwyn's debts at the request of Charles II, and gave her an estate with reversion to her son, Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans. However, James II refrained from ennobling Gwyn, likely due to doubts over Gwyn converting to Roman Catholicism, and her loyalty to the Crown.[63] James II was not far off the mark; the Duke of St. Albans travelled to the Dutch Republic to support King William III and Queen Mary II deposing James II in the Glorious Revolution in November 1688. The Duke of St. Albans would go on to become a court favorite of William and Mary, fighting on the Crown's behalf on military campaigns in Flanders.[64]

By the time William and Mary came to power, Nell Gwyn had already died on 14 November 1687, a full year prior. In 1705, John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll was created Baron Chatham and Earl of Greenwich by Anne, Queen of Great Britain as a reward for his support for the Acts of Union 1707, and further elevated to the title Duke of Greenwich in 1719. Upon his death, his Scottish titles passed to his brother, and the English titles became extinct. The next title creation was in Peerage of Great Britain in 1767, when Lady Caroline Townshend was made Baroness Greenwich, in the County of Kent, with remainder to the male issue by her second husband, Charles Townshend. She was the daughter of John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll, who had been created Earl of Greenwich in 1715 and Duke of Greenwich in 1719, titles which became extinct on his death in 1743.

As Caroline's two sons by her second husband predeceased her, the title became extinct upon her death in 1794, and reverted back to the Crown.

The second creation came in the Peerage of the United Kingdom in 1947, when Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, on the morning of his wedding to Princess Elizabeth (who became Queen Elizabeth II), was made Baron Greenwich, of Greenwich in the County of London. He was made Duke of Edinburgh and Earl of Merioneth at the same time.[65] Prince Philip died on 9 April 2021, and the title passed to his son Charles, Prince of Wales, until it merged with the Crown when he became King Charles III on 8 September 2022.


Charles and James Beauclerk, the two sons of King Charles II of England and Nell Gwyn, in a 1679 engraving. Charles is depicted holding a coronet.

By King Charles II of England, Nell Gwyn had two sons:

James Beauclerk was sent to school in Paris, France when he was 6, where he died there in either September 1680 or 1681. The circumstances of the child's life in Paris and the cause of his death are both unknown, one of the few clues being that he died "of a sore leg", which Beauclerk speculates could mean anything from an accident to poison.[66] It is also unknown if James Beauclerk's body was buried in France or England. The family's history has been published in the authoritative book The House of Nell Gwyn (1974).

Charles Beauclerk, however, survived to adulthood. On 17 April 1694, at the age of 23, he married Lady Diana de Vere, daughter and sole heiress[67] of Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford. She was a well-known beauty, who became a Lady of the Bedchamber to Caroline of Ansbach, Princess of Wales. By his wife, Charles Beauclerk gave Nell Gwyn twelve grandchildren:


Charles Beauclerk died on 10 May 1726 at the age of 56, and was buried at Westminster Abbey on 20 May 1726, but has no monument or marker.[68] His direct male-line descendant, and current holder of the Duchy of St. Albans, is Murray Beauclerk, 14th Duke of St. Albans (b. 19 January 1939), Governor-General of the Royal Stuart Society.

In stage works and literature

Gwyn has appeared as the principal, or a leading character, in numerous stage works and novels, including:

In film and television

See also


  1. ^ According to Debrett's Peerage (c. 1769) on courtesy titles, "The son and heir apparent of a duke, marquess or earl may use one of his father's peerage titles by courtesy, providing it is of a lesser grade than that used by his father." In this particular case, the Rt. Hon. Lord James Beauclerk was to be considered as "the son and heir of his elder brother, Charles Beauclerk, Earl of Burford" by royal decree on 21 December 1676, and was thus entitled to use "Baron Heddington" as a courtesy title.



  1. ^ a b c d Fox, Paul (March 2009). "The Ancestors of Nell Gwyn". Genealogists' Magazine. 29 (9): 319-324. Retrieved 16 October 2023.
  2. ^ Peter Cunningham, The Story of Nell Gwyn, ed. Gordon Goodwin (London, 1903), pp. 3–4.
  3. ^ Edward J. Davies, "Nell Gwyn and 'Dr Gwyn of Ch. Ch.'", The Bodleian Library Record, 24(2011):121–28, at 124–27.
  4. ^ a b Edward J. Davies, "Nell Gwyn and 'Dr Gwyn of Ch. Ch.'", The Bodleian Library Record, 24(2011):121–28, at 124.
  5. ^ Peter Cunningham, The Story of Nell Gwyn, ed. Gordon Goodwin (London, 1903), p. 125.
  6. ^ MacGregor-Hastie 1987, p. 16.
  7. ^ "Canons of Christ Church: Fourth prebend | British History Online".
  8. ^ Edward J. Davies, "Nell Gwyn and 'Dr Gwyn of Ch. Ch.'", The Bodleian Library Record, 24(2011):121–28, at 121–23.
  9. ^ a b c d Dasent, Arthur Irwin (1 January 1924). Nell Gwynne, 1650-1687: Her Life Story from St. Giles's to St. James's with Some Account of Whitehall and Windsor in the Reign of Charles II. Macmillan and Co., limited. p. 31-60.
  10. ^ Beauclerk 2005, p. 9.
  11. ^ Weaver, Phillip (2015). A Dictionary of Herefordshire Biography. Almeley, Herefordshire: Logaston Press. p. 185.
  12. ^ Wilson 1952, p. 13.
  13. ^ Pepys's diary for 26 October 1667 Archived 16 August 2006 at the Wayback Machine at
  14. ^ Beauclerk 2005, pp. 37–38.
  15. ^ From The Lady of Pleasure, quoted in Beauclerk, p. 40
  16. ^ "St Mary-le-Strand and the Maypole | British History Online".
  17. ^ Beauclerk 2005, p. 56.
  18. ^ Howe 1992, p. 67: "She began, as has become legendary, selling oranges (and probably herself as well)...".
  19. ^ Beauclerk 2005, p. 74.
  20. ^ Beauclerk 2005, p. 73.
  21. ^ a b c d Highfill, Philip H.; Langhans, Edward A.; Burnim, Kalman A. (1978). A biographical dictionary of actors, actresses, musicians, dancers, managers & other stage personnel in London, 1660–1800. Vol. 6 Garrick to Gyngell. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 9780585031507. OCLC 906217330.
  22. ^ "Diary entries from April 1665 (The Diary of Samuel Pepys)". The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Retrieved 19 October 2018.
  23. ^ Pepys's diary, 22 August 1667 Archived 7 March 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  24. ^ Quoted in Beauclerk, p. 78 from the epilogue to Robert Howard's Duke of Lerma.
  25. ^ a b Howe 1992, p. 66.
  26. ^ Beauclerk 2005, p. 85.
  27. ^ Howe 1992, pp. 67–70.
  28. ^ According to Dryden's preface to the first printed edition, 1668. (Beauclerk, p. 97.)
  29. ^ Pepys diary for 2 March 1667; spelling and punctuation from Beauclerk, p. 97.
  30. ^ Melville 1926, p. 74.
  31. ^ Bax 1969, p. 141.
  32. ^ Bax 1969, p. 89.
  33. ^ Anonymous, The Lady of Pleasure. Quoted in Beauclerk, p. 105.
  34. ^ Beaclerk, p. 103.
  35. ^ Beauclerk 2005, Quoted from Beauclerk, p. 106.
  36. ^ Beauclerk 2005, pp. 108–09.
  37. ^ "Nell Gwyn (The Diary of Samuel Pepys)". The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Retrieved 19 October 2018.
  38. ^
  39. ^ Beaclerk, p. 62
  40. ^ Beauclerk 2005, pp. 121–22.
  41. ^ Beauclerk 2005, pp. 126–27.
  42. ^ Beauclerk 2005, p. 128.
  43. ^ Hamilton, Adrian (16 April 2012). "Carry on, your majesty: Charles II and his court ladies". The Independent. Archived from the original on 18 June 2022. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
  44. ^ Beauclerk 2005, pp. 131–37.
  45. ^ Beauclerk 2005, p. 148.
  46. ^ Melville 1926, p. 268.
  47. ^ Melville 1926, p. 270.
  48. ^ Beauclerk 2005, p. 249.
  49. ^ Beauclerk, pp. 182–83, dismisses reported appearances in the late 1670s and early 1680s as non-credible, noting "the publicity that would have attended such a comeback is absent".
  50. ^ Oxford English Drama – Oxford World Classics: Aphra Behn: The Rover and Other Plays, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press: 1995, Notes. p. 336
  51. ^ Details and quotes about the house from Sheppard
  52. ^ a b Wilson 1952, p. 158.
  53. ^ Wilson 1952, p. 209.
  54. ^ Beauclerk 2005, pp. 317, 358.
  55. ^ Bax 1969, p. 232.
  56. ^ MacGregor-Hastie 1987, p. 190.
  57. ^ Beauclerk, p. 307, gives a slightly different quote.
  58. ^ Melville 1926, p. 273.
  59. ^ Fedwa Malti-Douglas (2007). Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: A-C. Macmillan Reference. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-02-865961-9.
  60. ^ Rooftop statues at, accessed 13 January 2018
  61. ^ Hilliam, David (1 November 2009). Monarchs, Murders & Mistresses: A Book of Royal Days. The History Press. ISBN 978-0752452357.
  62. ^ Rawson, Andrew (28 February 2017). Treachery and Retribution: England's Dukes, Marquesses & Earls, 1066–1707. Casemate Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4738-7626-2. Retrieved 22 June 2022.
  63. ^ Nash Ford, David. "Nell Gwynne (1650-1687)". Royal Berkshire History. Retrieved 16 October 2023.
  64. ^ Holder, Samantha. "House of Beauclerk: Children of Nell Gwyn". The Wrong Side of the Blanket. Retrieved 16 October 2023.
  65. ^ "No. 38128". The London Gazette. 21 November 1947. pp. 5495–5496.
  66. ^ Beauclerk 2005, p. 300.
  67. ^ Her other sisters died unmarried
  68. ^ "Beauclerk family". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 16 October 2023.
  69. ^ Sutherland, John (2013). The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (2nd ed.). Routledge. p. 217. ISBN 978-1-4082-0390-3.
  70. ^ The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, OUP 2004, p. 437
  71. ^ The overture and incidental music are available on YouTube
  72. ^ Woolf, Virginia (1928). Orlando: A Biography. New York, New York: Harcout. p. 118. ISBN 0-15-670160-X.
  73. ^ Jean Plaidy (2012). Here Lies Our Sovereign Lord: (The Stuarts). Random House. ISBN 978-1-4481-5034-2.
  74. ^ "Online resumé". Archived from the original on 25 September 2015. Retrieved 25 September 2015.
  75. ^ "Historical Novels Society".
  76. ^ "Book review: Susan Holloway Scott's *The King's Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn and King Charles II*".
  77. ^ "Or,". Liz Duffy Adams. Retrieved 29 March 2022.
  78. ^ "The Darling Strumpet".
  79. ^ Online review Archived 26 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  80. ^ "Fringe Spotlight: Nell Gwynne: A Dramatick Essaye on Acting and Prostitution". 13 May 2015.


External links

10 Annotations

First Reading

Richard Holden  •  Link

My Pepys also mentions Nell as living on Drury Lane.
I was in the Nell Gwyn Pub Friday just off the Strand, nice Ales.

CGS  •  Link

another lead on her story put together later:

" There lies intomb'd with this marble pile,
The wonder of her sex, who for a while
Fate durst not venture on, but taking breath
He has refin'd her to the arms of Death.
Readers, lament ! for seldom shall you find
The weaker sex to bear so strong a mind.
Strengthened with all the virtues France or th' Rhine,
England and Spain could infuse from wine.
But Bacchus, unkind, did tempt her to ingage,
Where she expired by subtle Neptune's rage.
The fate was cruel, yet the fame remains ;
For drinking, none like her the world contains.
So after-ages then, a stattue raise,
That we may eternalize her praise."

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

Mrs. Ellen Guyn's Character.

Mrs. Guyn, tho' Mistress to a Monarch, was the Daughter ot a Fruiterer in Covent Garden.

This shews that Sultans, Emperors and Kings, When Blood boils high will stoop to meanest Things.

Nelly, for by that Name she was universally known, came into the Theatre in the way of her Business, to sell Fruit,

The Orange-basket her fair Arms did suit,
Laden with Pippins and Hesperian Fruit,
This first step rais'd, to th' wond'ring Pit she sold
The lovely Fruit smiling with streaks of Gold.
Fate now for her did its whole force engage,
And from the Pit she's mounted to the Stage,
There in full Lustre did her Glories shine,
And long eclips'd, spread forth her Light divine;
There Hart's and Rowley's Soul she did ensnare,
And made a King the Rival to a Play'r.

This is Lord Rochester's account.
---The History of the Stage. C. Cibber, 1742

Bill  •  Link

All our favorite actors from this time period have roles in the film: Stage Beauty (2004). And Hugh Bonneville (of Dalton Abbey fame) plays our own SP.…

Bill  •  Link

Eleanor Gwynn, better known by the familiar name of Nell, was, at her first setting out in the world, a plebeian of the lowest rank, and sold oranges in the playhouse. Nature seems to have qualified her for the theatre. Her person, though below the middle size, was well turned; she had a good natural air, and a sprightliness that promised every thing in comedy. She was instructed by Hart and Lacy who were both actors of eminence; and, in a short time, she became eminent herself in the same profession. She acted the most spirited and fantastic parts, and spoke a prologue or epilogue with admirable address. The pert and vivacious prattle of the orange-wench, was, by degrees, refined into such wit as could please Charles II. Indeed it was sometimes carried to extravagance: but even her highest flights were so natural, that they rather provoked laughter than excited disgust. She is said to have been kept by lord Dorset, before she was retained by the king, and to have been introduced to the latter, by the duke of Buckingham, with a view of supplanting the dutchess of Cleveland. Nell ,who knew how to mimic every thing ridiculous about the court, presently ingratiated herself with her merry sovereign, and retained a considerable place in his affection to the time of his death.—She continued to hang on her cloaths with her usual negligence when she was the king's mistress: but whatever she did became her. Ob. 1687.
---A Biographical History of England. J. Granger, 1775.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

I'm recovering from surgery, and took the opportunity to read "The Darling Strumpet: A Novel of Nell Gwynn" by Gillian Bagwell. You'll be pleased to hear that Sam and Elizabeth appear almost throughout the book as friends of Nellie.

The book is excellent post-op reading ... I felt compassion for every character. However, they are portrayed as people you could recognize, as we "recognize" characteristics in Pepys' Diary: people trying to get ahead, putting dinner on the table for their children -- in contrast to the vivid and polarized ways we have learned about them from history books and films. I almost found The Darling Strumpet a let-down, but I think Bagwell has it right. I was disappointed there wasn't more about the court at Oxford, the plague, and the great fire -- but that's the problem with knowing too much about the period to start with. I wanted the book to be twice as long with more detail given about everything. Bagwell has left me questioning details and wanting more, which must be the job of a good historical fiction author.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.


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  • Jan