Today is the 363rd birthday of Nell Gwyn.
It is only fitting we tell her tale of love today. She was one of the many mistresses of King Charles II of England. He was the Restoration King, and his mistress, Nell, is considered the most symbolic figure of his reign.
Charles II had been run out of the country during the English Civil War. Several years of Cromwell’s Iron Rule made the country ready for frivolity, gaiety, and fun.
Charles was a fun guy. In many ways, the Charlie Sheen of his day. Booze, broads, bust-outs, booty, and brouhahas were the norm.
If TV had been around, he’d have had a reality show!
He had many, many mistresses, and many, many bastards.
Nell Gwyn, sometimes spelled Gwynn or Gwynne, was one of his favorites.
She was an actress.
The great diarist, Samuel Pepys called her “pretty, witty, Nell.”
Her origins were sketchy. No one really knows a great deal about her family, and you’re certainly not going to find her in Burke’s Peerage.
The theatre had been banned under Cromwell, and Nell was a stage sensation. Between roles, instead of waiting tables, Nell took lovers – for cash.
The George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham decided to take over her love affairs; translation became her pimp. His plan was to find a woman who could oust the current mistress of the King, Barbara Palmer, Buckingham’s cousin. Apparently it was a family feud of some degree. His plan failed, as Gwyn’s demand of 500 pounds a year was deemed too expensive by the cash strapped King.
As luck would have it, the King and Nell were seated in boxes next to one another at a play. Rumor had it that the King watched Nelly more than he watched the play. He invited Nell and her escort, Buckingham, to dinner along with his brother, James, the Duke of York, and future King James II. Since Royals never carry money, poor Nell was stuck with the bill.
Her affair with the King was a poorly kept secret, and most thought it would last but a little time. She continued her career, and her new found fame as the mistress of the King brought larger and more curious crowds.
It’s not what one knows, but whom one knows.
She bore the King two sons, Charles and James. Both were made Earls, and one later on, a Duke.
But, Nell, a simple woman, knew that it would one day end. She returned to the stage, which was considered odd as she had royal children.
She was an earthy woman, crude, some say low-born, and often vulgar. When the King came to visit, she called her son Charles, and said, “Come here you bastard, and meet your father!”
Her liaison with the King kept her in the public eye for most of her life. The King’s dalliance with Catholicism and Catholic mistresses caused much alarm and dismay. During one riot, Nell’s coach was stopped by a mob in Oxford. The crowd thinking it was the coach of Nell’s rival, the Catholic Duchess of Portsmouth, began pelting her carriage with rocks and garbage and calling her the Catholic Whore.
She bravely stuck her head from the window and cried, “Good people, you are mistaken, I’m the Protestant Whore.”
The mob disbursed.
But, the King, though moving on to others, never forgot her. On his death bed, he begged of his brother, “Let not poor Nelly starve.”
James, being the good brother, paid her debts, her mortgage, and gave her a pension of 1500 pounds a year.
Nell died of apoplexy brought on from syphilis another gift from the King.