Oh, pretty witty Nell. That’s generally how Nell Gwynn, the long-time mistress of King Charles II of England is described. And, in addition to these flattering terms, weirdly, unlike French mistresses who are seen as hardcore seductresses bred from birth to be . . . mistresses (Madame Pompadour, Madame du Barry, I’m looking at you) . . . people generally spin Nell Gwynn’s tale to be some kind of Cinderella story.
The history you often hear says that Nell Gwynn was a charming orange seller at the theater. Orange selling was a big thing, back in the 16th century, and not because people loved to eat fruit. Because the stench of filth in the city of London was unbearable, especially when you were in close quarters with others, as you would be at the theater, the idea was that you would hold the orange up to your nose and inhale deeply and . . . You know there are a lot of reasons I wish I lived in a past era, but this is not one. Orange smelling and the plague ruin a lot of fantasies for me. More the plague, really, but filth is not good.
So, that was Nell’s job, which somehow seems like she was a sort of sassy 16th century cigarette girl, and then, supposedly, she caught the King’s eye while he was at the theater, and he fell immediately in love with her. And insert a joke about oranges. Bada-bum.
That’s a fine story for people who like boring stories (your least favorite Sunday School teacher) but it’s not really at all true. In England, England – a great book about a group of developers trying to create a theme park based around English history – Julian Barnes talks about the myths surrounding Nell Gwynn. I will copy that section down for you:
‘What we are looking for, if I may make so obvious a point, is a woman who gave sex a good name, a nice girl everybody’s heard of, goddammit, a cutie with big knockers – figuratively as it were.’
The committee found unprecedented interest in the grain of the table, the flock of the wallpaper, the glitter of the chandelier. Sir Jack suddenly bounced his palms off his forehead. ‘I have her. I have her. The very woman. Nell Gwynn. Of course. A cat may look at more than a king. Charming girl, I’m sure. Won the hearts of the nation. And a very democratic story, one for our times. Perhaps a little massaging to bring her into line with third millenium family values. Then there’s the orange franchise, of course. Well? Do I hear good? Do I hear more than good?’
‘More than good,’ said Mark.
‘Good,’ said Martha.
‘Dubious,’ said Dr. Max.
‘How?’ asked their employer grumpily. Did he really have to shoulder all the creative burden, only to find himself carped at by a pack of nay-sayers?
‘It’s not really my period,’ the official historian began, a disclaimer which rarely lead to a briefer lecture, ‘but as I recall, little Nell’s background was not exactly riddled with family values. She referred to herself as the “Protestant whore” – the King being a Catholic at the time, you understand. Two bastard child by him, shared the pleasures of his mattress with another favorite whose name temporarily escapes me -‘
‘You mean three in a bed stuff?” muttered Sir Jack, envisaging the headlines.
‘- and obviously I would have to check, but her career as a King’s mistress did start at a relatively tender age, so we might have to factor in a child sex angle…’
‘Disastrous,’ said Sir Jack. ‘I have always run family newspapers.’
‘We could make her older,’ suggested Martha brightly, ‘lose the children, lose the other mistresses, and lose the social and religious background. Then she could be a nice middle class girl who ends up marrying the King.’
A lot of modern depictions of Nell seem to go with Martha’s take.
Right. We’re going to go with Dr. Max’s version.
Nell Gwynn did sell oranges, but she was also an actress, which is a part of her bio that’s often skimmed over. She said she was born in 1560 in Hereford, a county near Wales, though it seems more likely that she was born around the coal yard on Drury Lane in the city of London. If Drury Lane sounds familiar it’s because of this:
I apparently included that because I thought that some children’s stick figure drawings would be a perfect accompaniment to a story about prostitution in the 16th century. That probably says more about me than it does about Nell, and certainly more than it reveals about the identity of the Muffin Man. (As a child I used to wonder if that was a coded drug song, like Horse With No Name, or Landslide. I still don’t know, but I have my suspicions).
Her father was a debtor. Her mother was an alcoholic (though at the time they did not use the term alcoholic) who sold beer at a brothel before she drowned in a pond. Nell began selling oranges in the local theater very early, but by 15 she was onstage, in large part because the actor Charles Hart was in love with her. He was a pretty big deal at the time – one poem about him ran:
Beauty to the eye, and music to the ear,
Such even the nicest critics must allow
Burbage was once and such Charles Hart is now.
Fun bit of trivia – he was Shakespeare’s great-nephew! And, if you care about such things, he was also around age 40. When Nell was supposedly 15. It was a little bit weird even in the mid 1600s.
In any event, Charles Hart pushed very hard for Nell to have a role on the stage, but, as you might expect, her acting did not initially go well. This didn’t really surprise anyone as she was illiterate, which made learning her lines difficult. (She never learned to read; even later at court, when asked to sign letters she dictated, she was only able to clumsily write her initials). And the first show she performed in was a tragedy.
Remarkably, however, as soon as she started acting in comedies, she was a hit.
A huge hit.
Samuel Pepys in his diary wrote of her first comedic performance that she was “pretty, witty Nell” – a description which stuck with her long afterwards.
“To the King’s house to see ‘The Maiden Queen’, a new play of Dryden’s, mightily commended for the regularity of it, and the strain and wit; and the truth is, there is a comical part done by Nell, which is Florimell, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again, by man or woman. The King and the Duke of York were at the play. But so great a performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girl, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the notions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her.”
Nell knew her strengths. She later recited an extremely fitting epilogue to one play, which ran:
We have been all ill-us’d, by this day’s poet.
‘Tis our joint cause; I know you in your hearts
Hate serious plays, as I do serious parts.
No wonder King Charles loved her. Even though he was known as the Merrie Monarch, his life and reign had been marked by a great many difficulties. His father was executed and he spent years as a fugitive in Europe. Family members died of smallpox. He ruled during the bubonic plague outbreak of 1664 to 1666, the Great Fire of London in 1666, and the Anglo-Dutch War of 1665 to 1667, which England lost in a series of humiliating defeats.
His marriage was also said to be unhappy; he was especially troubled by the fact that his wife could not seem to bear him sons – though his mistresses certainly made up for that failing. (Of today’s 26 English dukes, five are said to be direct descendents of Charles’ bastards.)
When he wasn’t cavorting with his many mistresses, Charles spent a lot of time attending comedies at the theatre. He once said that “God will never damn a man for allowing himself a little pleasure.”
And Nell was soon to become that pleasure.
When Nell met Charles in 1667, he already had an actress as a mistress. Her name was Moll Davis, and she was said to have been a rival of Nell’s, though the two were ostensibly on friendly terms. The concept of frenemies is not a new thing.
Moll was very proud of being the King’s mistress, and often bragged to Nell regarding the “mighty pretty fine coach” and jewelry given to her by Charles. This made Nell absolutely irate. So when she heard that Moll was planning to see Charles one night in 1668, she invited Moll to dine with her first, and laced all her food with the laxative jalap. Moll did not make it to Charles that evening.
Another time, Nell took Charles out to dinner with her current lover. At the end of the meal, Charles attempted to pay and found he had no money, so Nell’s lover was forced to pay for all of them.
Perhaps in an attempt to make up to her, Charles made Nell one of his mistresses. Of which he did have many. Charles suggested that she might have other lovers as well, but she replied, “I am but one man’s whore.” When he suggested inviting another one of his mistresses to her birthday party, Nell replied, “One whore at a time is enough for you, sir.”
Charles apparently loved this sort of wit.
Nell’s most notable rival was said to be Louise de Keroualle. While her beauty was described as very similar to Nell’s . . .
. . . her background was not. She was from the Court of Versailles and exceedingly proud of her breeding, while Nell, hugely to her credit, was always up front about the fact that she was just an orange wench. She may have actually played up the orange wench part and skimmed over the fact that she was a very successful actress. That seems obvious now – the orange wench part is a cooler, more scandalous thing – but this was an age where everyone wanted to be better born than they were and often acted accordingly.
I really like the The Stuart Kings’ take on this, which explains:
Gwynn nicknamed Louise “Squintabella” for her looks and the “Weeping Willow” for her tendencies to sob. In one instance, recorded in a letter from George Legge to Lord Preston, Nell characteristically poked fun at the Duchess’s “great lineage,” dressing in black at Court, the same mourning attire as Louise, when a prince of France died. Someone there asked, “What the deuce was the Cham of Tartary to you?” to which Nell responded, “Oh, exactly the same relation that the French Prince was to Mademoiselle de Kérouaille.”
Afterwards she told Louise, “Let us divide the world. You shall have all the kings of the north, but leave me the kings of the South.” Louise was not amused.
Nell’s squabbles with Louise did nothing to lessen the Frenchwoman’s favor with Charles. While Nell was given an allowance of 7,938 pounds, Louise received one of 36,073 pounds. Both of those were very, very generous, but only one of them would still be considered a reasonable salary 400 years later.
Nell was also, unlike some of Charles’ other mistresses (Louise was named the Duchess of Portsmouth) never granted a noble title, though he did make their son the Duke of St. Albans after their other son died, partly to comfort Nell. Still, Nell stayed upbeat and witty. When Charles once complimented her new gown by telling her she looked fine enough to be a queen, she replied “and whore enough to be a duchess!”
The actual Queen – Catherine of Braganza – was very fond of Nell, and thought her funny and good humored. That’s surprising, given that Catherine generally tried to oust Charles’ mistresses, but she seemed to like the fact that Nell was extremely unpretentious. Nell never forgot her past, nor, really was she ever allowed to. A poem about her by Andrew Marvell ran:
“Our good King Charles the Second,
Too flippant of treasure and moisture,
Stoop’d from the Queen infecund
To a wench of Orange and Oyster.
Consulting his Catzo, he found it expedient
To waste time in revels with Nell the Comediant.”
Despite the notoriety at the time, Nell might be more or less forgotten today – just another Moll Davis or Louise de Keroualle – if not for one instance where she won the heart of the people as well as the royals.
In 1681 Charles was trying to have England recognize the legitimacy of Roman Catholicism in England. This was a huge political and religious issue, beyond the scope of Shelved Dolls; I can only say his effort was in part, perhaps, because Louise was a Catholic. The people were outraged, and anti-Catholic gangs were roaming the streets chanting “No Popery!” Go with it, bearing in mind that in their lifetime thousands had died of the bubonic plague and people felt really close to God.
When the mob saw a carriage drawing towards the palace, they advanced upon it, seeming to plan to attack, until Nell leaned out, and cried “Pray, good people, be civil! It is the Protestant whore!” The people loved her for this common touch, and, in a strange way, her pronouncement actually diffused some of the tensions in the crowd. It would be Nell’s only, rather inadvertent, foray into national politics. But she pulled it off brilliantly.
As the yeas went on, in spite of his seemingly great affection for her, Charles made few plans to provide for Nell. They had been together for 17 years. Yet all Charles said as he was dying was, “Don’t let Nell starve.”
Which wouldn’t have been a worry if he had remembered her in his will.
Nell might have been furious, but she . . . wasn’t. Provided for by her son, she left court, and withdrew to a house in the country. She had her carriage draped in black, and planned to carry out all the formal observances of mourning but the court forbade her from doing so.
She always remained loyal to her King. Later she recalled “[Charles] 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.”
She died of syphilis, most likely acquired from Charles, at the age of 37. Though she had little money she left a sum to the Newgate prisoners in London.
At her funeral, she requested that the following passage be read, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
The thing is, the only evil I think Nell really committed – though her story is by no means as lily white as some modern tellings of it would have you believe – was that transgression with the laxatives, and I mean, that was more in the realm of “practical joke” than “sin.” Throughout her life she was, yes, pretty and witty and, while she would be the first to remind you that she was a “whore” (you may have noticed that really all of her jokes involved referring to herself as such), more importantly she knew herself and was in touch with the people of England.
One of my favorite stories about her is that, when her coachman and a man on the street who had called her a whore began fighting, she broke up the fight immediately, shrugged and said, “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.”
If she didn’t cause rejoicing in heaven, her brand of wit certainly brought joy in one England’s bleakest periods. And that is much better than just being a nice middle class girl who ended up with the King.
Pictures via Nell Gwynn, Wikipedia
Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King, by Charles Beauclerk
England, England by Julian Barnes