West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
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
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
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.
Peter Dewar, on the left, in cheerful
with our Chairman, John Baker, and members Martin and Maggie Powell