On this day in history : 2nd February 1650 – The birth of Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn – who from selling oranges goes on to become an actress and the mistress of King Charles II….

Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn – Image credit : Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

Born Eleanor Gwyn – the early details of Nell’s life are sketchy….but it is thought her father died in Debtor’s prison and her mother ran a bawdy house….

When Nell was around 14-years-old a friend of her mother’s, Mary Meggs – a former prostitute also known as ‘Orange Moll’ – was granted a licence to sell fruit and confectionery at Drury Lane Theatre…. She hired Nell and her older sister, Rose, to sell oranges….the scantily clad ‘orange-girls’ would sell sweet ‘china’ oranges at sixpence each….

The girls were also used to act as messengers between men in the audience and the actresses backstage…. Female actors were a relatively new phenomenon – until recent years the roles of women had been played by men and boys…. With her vivacious wit, high spirits and pretty heart-shaped face Nell soon came to the attention of Charles Hart, a leading actor of the time…. At the age of 15 Nell made her debut on the stage….and she also became Charles Hart’s mistress….

Plays were written for Nell to bring out her comic talents….but as well as having the ability to make audiences laugh she was an excellent singer and dancer. Nell Gwyn became the leading comedienne of The King’s Company….

Nell was popular amongst the gentlemen and was mistress to a fair few….including Charles Sackville (Lord Buckhurst). When her relationship with King Charles II began she referred to the King as her Charles the Third….

King Charles II of England by John Michael Wright – Public domain

Her love affair with the King began in April 1668, when she attended a performance of the play ‘She Wou’d if She Cou’d’ by George Etherege at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields…. The box alongside hers was occupied by King Charles II and they spent the entire evening flirting with each other….

Nell became the King’s mistress in 1669. She was actually one of many….the King was a busy boy…. As well as having a wife, the Portuguese Queen consort Catherine of Braganza, he liked to have several mistresses on the go at one time…. Frances Stuart, Lucy Walters, Louise de Kerouaille, Moll Davis and Lady Castlemaine were just a few Nell had to share him with….and other mistresses came and went….

The rivalry between the King’s women was great….all were needy and greedy – demanding houses, money and even titles….all except Nell. Perhaps this was a clever move on her part….she was given a house near to Pall Mall and an allowance of £4,000 per year – and then later a further £5,000 per year on top….

The King had 13 children that he acknowledged with his mistresses – and he provided for them all…. Nell gave birth to their first child, Charles, on the 8th of May 1670…. She herself had never received a title from the King – but managed to manipulate one for her child….by calling him a ‘little bastard’ in front of his father…. The King was shocked – but Nell responded by asking what else she should call him, for was it not true? The King immediately made his young son the Duke of St. Albans…. Nell gave birth to their second son, James, Lord Beauclerk in 1671….but he was to die in 1680….

Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans c.1690 – artist : Godfrey Knellor – Public domain
Nell Gwyn with her two sons. Image credit : Lisby via Flickr

King Charles II himself was to die 5 years later, on the 6th of February 1685…. On his deathbed he requested of his brother, James, who was to succeed him….“Let not poor Nelly starve”….

After the King’s death Nell found herself in considerable debt with the threat of Debtor’s prison hanging over her…. True to his word King James II settled her debts and gave her a pension of £1,500 per year….

However, just 2 years later Nell was to suffer a stroke – and 8 months later, on the 14th of November 1687, she died….she was just 37 years of age…. Nell Gwyn, favourite of the King, was to become a legend….out of all the King’s mistresses she was the only one who managed to win the affection of the people….

Nell Gwyn – artist Peter Lely c.1675 – Public domain

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