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Nell Gwynn was born Eleanor Gwynn in 1650, in London and lived a meteoric thirty-seven years. Her mother ran a brothel, where young Nell tended bar until she was fourteen. Then she began selling oranges at the Drury Lane Theatre. Influential attention began before long; the leading actor there, Charles Hart, took the impish nymphet as his mistress and arranged for her to appear as an actress. She probably made her debut at 15. Despite illiteracy, she developed her talents as a thespian, singer, and dancer; she became the theatre’s leading comedienne and fulfilled that role to high acclaim until 1669. During this interval, she also enjoyed a liaison with the sixth earl of Dorset.

She left the stage in 1669 to devote all her energies to her famous romantic liaison with King Charles II. By all accounts, she enjoyed court life immensely, entertaining the king and his inner circle in the most luxurious surroundings, bearing his children, and taking an enthusiastic part in the intrigues that kept the royals and their social network amused. The king gave Nell’s royal bastards fine titles; their surviving son grew up as the first Baron Heddington, Earl of Burford, and Duke of St. Albans.

Nell was not her king’s only mistress, but Britons admired her in a way that they normally did not admire royals’ concubines. Her fidelity to their king may have been one reason. Was she a great beauty? Certainly her portrait was painted by the famous Peter Lely and Simon Verelst, as well as by others. The anonymous “Portrait of a Courtesan” may portray her best. This is the luscious image of a girl with heavy, curling dark hair, immense eyes, the tender complexion of a young teenager, and an expression of delighted carnal knowledge. This artist probably saw what the king saw.

Once, in her carriage, Nell was assailed by an angry mob of people who had mistaken her for the king’s Catholic mistress, apparently an unpopular lady. “Pray, good people, be civil!” Nell called. “I am the Protestant whore!” The gaps in her early education never interfered with her wit. Financial management, though, was not among Nell’s talents. Born in working-class poverty, she never quite learned the trick of managing generous sums. She was sufficiently respected that James II, after Charles II’s death, paid off her considerable debts and saw to her comfort and safety for the rest of her short life. She recently enjoyed a postmodern curtain call in the form of Jessica Swale’s fabulous play, “Nell Gwynn,” in which the acclaimed Gemma Atherton portrayed her.

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Shady Ladies Women's History

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