Saturday, November 18, 2000

Michael Kesterton

The strumpet who stole a king's heart

Nell Gwyn, who died 313 years ago this week, was a good friend of Charles II. Although she was never the official mistress of the Merry Monarch, who found it necessary to have sex every day or so, she was his favourite for 18 years.

The Cockney scamp was also a gifted comic actress and one of the first generation of women on the country's stage. She had a large following that included diarist Samuel Pepys and playwright John Dryden. For the English public, Nelly had all the right qualities: rollicking good humour, perky breasts and a refusal to put on airs despite her climb from rags to riches.

Eleanor Gwyn (or Gwin, Gwynn or Gwynne) was born in 1650. Tradition says she was raised in a London slum called Coal Yard Alley, just east of Drury Lane.

Her mother, Helena, was a bartender with a drinking problem and her elder sister, Rose, would become a prostitute who married a highwayman.

When Nell was 8 or 9, she and her sister worked the streets, selling oysters and procuring. Nell established a reputation for mimicry and quick repartee. By 13, she was working in a brothel. Presumably, she was only serving the drinks.

When a theatre was built in Drury Lane, Nell and her sister got jobs selling oranges — a luxury in those days. They dressed provocatively and flirted with the audience. Nell used her orange tray as a shelf for her bosom.

When Nell got her chance at acting (the king didn't like cross-dressing men, so women were allowed on stage), she seemed to realize instinctively that Restoration audiences appreciated bare thighs and profane ad libs. She also worked hard. Never able to read or write, Nell had to learn her lines by having people read them to her, over and over.

The young Nell Gwyn was a gamine: a small, vivacious brunette with lovely small feet and hazel eyes. Although she couldn't really play dramatic roles, she could send her friends into hysterics with her demonstrations of how she had been taught to pout or languish. Nell enjoyed gambling, horse racing, cockfights and public executions. You could take her anywhere.

She looked after her family, bailing her brother-in-law out of jail and sending her alcoholic mother back to the "neat houses" (gin mills) of Chelsea.

Since her brothel days, Nell had been the mistress of several men, but only one at a time. "I was but one man's whore," she said, using a word that in those times also meant "kept woman" or "adulteress."

In 1667, she and fellow actress Moll Davis decided they should each find rich, aristocratic protectors. They went off to Tunbridge Wells in pursuit of the king, a man who was always looking for women.

Moll, a good dancer, scored first with the king, thanks to her provocative jigging. Nell got even by slipping her friend a laxative mixture before the next royal tryst.

Nell met the king and his brother, the Duke of York ("Dismal Jimmy" she called him), after one of her performances. They all repaired to a tavern for eating, drinking and badinage. After several hours, the king called for the bill. It was steep, the landlord pretended not to recognize him and Charles had to ask who was carrying cash. Apparently, no one in the royal party had a sufficiently large purse. "Oddsfish," said Nell, using the king's favourite epithet. "This is the poorest company I ever was in."

By the summer of 1668, people knew Nell was the king's No. 1 choice for a bed companion. At the theatre, she got a better dressing room and became known as "Mrs. Ellen Gwyn."

By 1669, Charles would eat with Nell at least once a day, then play cards and gossip with her. Diplomats and royal petitioners had to find their way to Nell's house to meet the king. In 1671, she moved to a grander house, on Pall Mall, where she lived for the rest of her short life.

She was the only woman who could make Charles jealous. For her part, Nell didn't mind the women who warmed his bed occasionally, but she battled with her main rivals. When Charles asked to bring one of them to his birthday party, she refused him: "One whore at a time is enough for you, sire."

Two other mistresses were made duchesses, which bothered Nell a little. She was more concerned about her two sons. In 1676, when the king came to visit his eldest boy, she called out: "Come here you little bastard, and say hello to your father." Charles protested that was hard language, but she replied: "Your majesty has given me no other name to call him by."

The monarch made his son the Duke of St. Albans.

In 1679, Nell's drunken mother fell into a ditch and drowned. Nell gave her a big send-off. In 1680, her younger son died. Charles tried to cheer her up, just as she had done with him many times.

By 1683-4, the aging monarch preferred a simple life. He found Nell was an ideal companion.

In 1685, on Nell's birthday, Charles had a stroke and died a few days later. One of the last things he said was: "Let not poor Nelly starve."

She didn't. "Dismal Jimmy," now James II, gave her an allowance, while cutting off many of his brother's "occasional whores."

Two years later, Nell herself had a stroke and suffered for eight months. She died on Nov. 14, 1687.

She had asked a young vicar, Dr. Thomas Tenison, to deliver her funeral sermon but worried that speaking at a whore's burial might compromise his career. However, he became Archbishop of Canterbury.

And, finally

"He was my friend and allowed me to tell him all my griefs and did like a friend advise me and told me who was my friend and who was not." — Nell Gwyn, about Charles II.

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Created: November 19, 2000
Last modified: January 19, 2001
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