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Pretty, Witty Nell

an overview of
the life of Nell Gwyn

From the lecture given by
Peter Beauclerk-Dewar RD JP FHG FCMI
her seven times grandson
on July 24th 2013

The cities of Oxford, Hereford and London all claim to have been Nell Gwyn’s birthplace but there exists no concrete evidence - no birth certificate, no record of baptism, thus no certainty of parentage or even of the year in which she was born, said to have been either 1642 or 1650.  We know her first name was Eleanor, because being illiterate, she was only ever able to sign herself as E.G.  Wherever and whenever she was born, and London 1642 seem likely, she was born to survive – and thrive!  She could never have imagined that in her lifetime she would co-found a dynasty with the King of England!

Nothing is known of Nell’s early years except that they were spent amidst squalor in and around Covent Garden.  She lived, some sources say in a coal yard, with her mother Ellen [Helena] and her sister Rose, and one can visualise her playing in the courts and alleys of the neighbourhood with other dirty and ragged children.  These early experiences had an enduring influence on Nell’s character, and her wild spirits, quickness of repartee, impudence and disregard of the conventions of the day all armed her with a confidence which would serve her well.

In time she would work as a cinder wench and an oyster wench, eventually coming to the notice of a woman named Ross who would seek out young girls and employ them to serve liquor in her brothel or as orange sellers in the theatres until they were old enough to work for her as prostitutes.  Such was Nell’s fate and she found herself in the newly established King’s House in nearby Drury Lane, the only other theatre at this time being the Duke of York’s.  Playhouses had been closed under Cromwell in 1642 but after the Restoration, the ban was lifted although Charles II, in order to ensure that theatrical freedom was controlled, appointed a Master of the Revels.

By now, Nell was about fifteen – confident, witty and above all, beautiful.  She was described as small but exquisitely graceful, with reddish brown hair and sparkling blue eyes, very white teeth and perfect, tiny feet.  Her attractiveness saved her from the life she might otherwise have led, and she entered the acting profession at the time when it became acceptable for female roles, hitherto played by men, to be portrayed by women.  Nell’s acting teacher, whose mistress she would become, was Charles Hart, manager of the theatre.  She proved to be an excellent pupil, performing prologues and epilogues and ultimately lead roles.  She was a born comedienne, lively and quick – perfectly suited to Restoration Comedy.  For tragic roles she would prove to be much less successful and Nell soon learned her limitations.  Her success on the stage raised her above the squalid surroundings of her early years.  She remained living in Drury Lane but at the fashionable end.  The playwright John Dryden wrote parts especially for her and would delay his productions rather than see them put on without her.  She was a massive box office draw, adored by everyone who saw her and was now known as Madame Nellie or Mistress Nellie.

When Lord Buckhurst paid her court, she was flattered but also knew enough to take her chances where she could.  She left the theatre and moved with him to Epsom, receiving an allowance of 100 a year.  Buckhurst was well bred and a fine gentleman but was pursuing a reckless life of pleasure.  Nell was faithful to him as she was to all her lovers but after just six weeks, her tastes having proved too expensive for his depleted funds, she returned to London though they were to remain lifelong friends.  She went back to Drury Lane and was reinstated, despite having abandoned the Company.  That she was resuming her old life could not have been further from the truth for it was at this time that Nell was introduced to Charles II at his request.  She was just nineteen.

So began a lifelong association between king and subject.  After about a year, in 1670, their liaison produced a son, Charles Beauclerk, who was later given the titles Earl of Burford and Duke of St. Albans.  After Charles’ birth, Nell gave up acting and the King acknowledged their relationship.  The baby had been born in Lincoln’s Inn Fields but Nell now moved to Pall Mall.  On learning that the house was leasehold, she returned the lease to the King with a suitable retort, the gist of which was that she herself came freehold!  This so amused him that the freehold was immediately forthcoming!  Her garden now adjoined his own.  Nell loved her house and was very happy.  Nothing troubled her.  She was more than capable of mocking Charles’ other mistresses if provoked but she was never jealous of them as some of them were of her.  She was financially secure.

Nell’s mother lived with her in Pall Mall for a while but at the time of her death in 1679 was living in Chelsea where it is said that she fell into the water and drowned, being under the influence of drink.  She was buried in St Martin-in-the-Fields where Nell erected a monument to her memory.  Sadly, this monument and Nell’s own disappeared when the church was rebuilt.  In 1671 a second son James was born.  After a few years Nell sent him to Paris to be educated and it was here that he died, aged 8, before the King could bestow on him his own title.  Nell was broken hearted and went into seclusion for a while.  She had not been with him when he died, neither did she attend the funeral or visit his grave.  The exact cause of his death and his burial place remain unknown.  If the 1670’s had sparkled for Nell, the 1680’s were to prove very dark.  She had already lost her mother, now her son and in 1685 she would lose her protector.

Charles continued to send for Nell or to visit her until he died.  He had given her several properties and the means to run them, bestowing on her for life, Burford House at Windsor, the site of which is now the Queen’s Mews.  He had had her portrait painted on several occasions, bought her jewellery, given her all she could need or want.  After Charles’ death, and at his request – ‘Let not poor Nellie starve’ - the new king, James II helped her financially but would not meet her.  She received a pension, had her debts paid but life had changed irrevocably.  Two years later, Nell herself died.  She made gifts to her sister and servants and left all her estates to her son.

So what was it about this little actress which had so appealed to her monarch?  With Nell, the King could put off majesty and be himself.  She appealed to his dislike of constraint and ceremony.  She was Bohemian – reckless, fearless, irrepressible, spontaneous and with an unfailing good humour.  She was too honest to give herself airs and graces.  She was loyal and faithful and above all, kind.  She raised his spirits as no other, and made him laugh.  She was his friend.

That Nell Gwyn never assumed to be anything other than she was is perhaps what has secured for her a lasting affection in our eyes today.

Maggie Powell

Peter Dewar, on the left, in cheerful conversation
with our Chairman, John Baker, and members Martin and Maggie Powell