Nell Gwyn by Peter Lely, 1675.

Nell Gwyn by Peter Lely, 1675.

Nell Gwyn (1650-1687) was an English actress and the most famous mistress of Charles II. She embodied the spirit of the restoration period in England.

She came from very humble beginnings: there are rumours her father died in a debtors prison when she was very young. She grew up with her mother, who ran a brothel, and it is believed Nell worked there, pouring drinks for customers. With her older sister she became an orange girl at the Drury Lane theatre. Here she caught the eye of Charles Hart and became his mistress, soon after she joined stage and began her career as an actress.

From 1666-1669 she was the leading comedienne of the Kings Company. She was a talented singer and dancer and a good public speaker with great comic timing. She became the mistress of Charles II in 1669 and by the following year had performed in her last theatrical production. She had two sons with Charles; Charles Beauclerk and James Beauclerk. While James died when he was young, she succeeded in getting great favours for Charles. He was made Earl of Burford, Duke of St Albans, and was given an allowance of £1000 a year from his father.

Of all Charles mistresses, Nell was most loved by the public. She lived extremely extravagantly, and when Charles died she was in so much debt, she was outlawed by creditors. However, on his deathbed Charles requested of his brother ‘Let not poor Nelly starve’ and James remained true to this deathbed promise. James paid off a significant amount her debt enabling her to get credit again, and he gave her a pension of £1,500 a year.

She died in 1687, 8 months after she suffered a stroke.

-Danielle Triggs
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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