I am a whore. Find something else to fight about. – Nell Gwyn (to her coachman, who was fighting a man for calling her a whore)
Nell Gwyn (February 2nd, 1650 – November 14th, 1687) was literally a born whore; her mother, also named Nell Gwyn (née Smith) was a fat, alcoholic madam who ran a cheap brothel in Covent Garden. Nell’s putative father, Captain Thomas Gwyn, ran off soon after she was born and little Nell was employed serving “strong waters” (i.e. Nantes brandy) to the patrons of her mothers’ business. It is highly likely that her mother sold Nell’s virginity to the highest bidder as was common at that time, and that she thereafter worked as what we now call a “child prostitute”; she is known to have taken her first lover (i.e. exclusive customer), a man named Duncan, at the age of 12 and stayed with him until she was 14. But though the popular modern view teaches that young Nell should have been emotionally and psychologically destroyed by this rather unorthodox upbringing, the opposite was true; she soon learned to hold her own against the customers and developed the strong personality and ready wit upon which she made her fortune.
Duncan found Nell to be an expensive hobby and eventually decided she must earn at least some of her own upkeep. Luckily for them both, King Charles II had been restored to the throne in 1660 and lifted Cromwell’s ban on theaters; the brand-new King’s Theater opened in nearby Drury Lane three years later, and 13-year-old Nell went to work as an orange girl. This innocuous-sounding job deserves a bit of explanation: in Restoration times theaters allowed outside contractors to sell fruit, candy and other treats inside the theater in exchange for a percentage of the profits, and these contractors employed provocatively-dressed teenage girls to hawk their wares. When he lifted the theater ban King Charles had also legalized acting as a profession for women, and as in classical times most if not all actresses doubled as prostitutes. This provided another source of income for orange girls; since they were allowed backstage while members of the audience were not, gentlemen who found particular actresses attractive would tip the orange girls to carry messages to them. Nor did they limit themselves to facilitating business for the courtesans; ambitious orange girls (Nell among them) also solicited business for themselves. By the time she was 14 Nell’s beauty, charm and wit had made her popular with the actors, and she joined their number before her 15th birthday.
Nell learned her craft quickly, and though she never excelled at drama she soared to success in comedy. She became the mistress of leading man Charles Hart, and the two of them became very popular onstage as a comic couple. When the King’s court relocated to Oxford during the Great Plague of London (summer 1665 – autumn 1666) the King’s Players (including Nell) followed them, though His Majesty does not appear to have noticed her charms at this time. That did not occur until March of 1667, when she became a star due to her performance in John Dryden’s The Maiden Queene. Her character was the mad girl Florimell, who disguises herself as a boy; this was a common plot device in Restoration comedies because it allowed actresses to dress in tight pants which showed off their figures. By all accounts Nell had an exceptional pair of legs, and King Charles took sufficient notice that he ordered a royal command performance at the palace. Another of her fans was the diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote “…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…so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell doth this…” Shortly after this triumph she took a brief sabbatical to spend May, June and July with Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst; he paid her £100 for the contract at a time when the average workman made about £1/month. Soon after she returned to the stage the King began actively flirting with Nell whenever he saw her, and in April of 1668 (two months after her 18th birthday) she became his mistress. She continued to act, however, and her notoriety drew ever-larger crowds and encouraged playwrights to write roles especially for her. But as time went on her royal patron claimed more and more of her time, and her last appearance on the stage was in 1671.
Nell was by no means the first of Charles II’s mistresses (there had already been four in the previous eight years), nor was she the last, but she remained his favorite for the rest of his life; part of the reason for this was her ready wit, which set her above most of her beautiful but typical competition. Her favorite target was her chief rival Louise de Kérouaille, a French noblewoman who was created the Duchess of Portsmouth when she joined the King’s harem in 1673. Nell lampooned her haughty Versailles manners and called her “Weeping Willow” because of her tendency to cry when picked on. Unlike Nell (the “darling strumpet of the crowd” as the Earl of Rochester called her), Mademoiselle de Kérouaille was thoroughly disliked by the common people; once when Nell was passing through Oxford, a mob mistook her carriage for that of the Duchess and began shouting insults at her, among them “Catholic whore.” The unflappable courtesan stopped them by putting her head out the window, smiling at the hecklers and announcing, “Pray good people, be civil; I am the Protestant whore.”
Nor was the King himself spared her barbs; when his son by her, Charles Beauclerk, was six years old, she once summoned him for a paternal visit with “Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father.” The King of course protested, and Nell replied, “Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him.” She of course meant the boy had as yet received no title, and the King responded by creating him the Earl of Burford and granting him a house in Windsor. Nell herself owned the house at 79 Pall Mall; King Charles had given her the lease for her 21st birthday, but she complained that she should own it rather than lease it and in 1676 her request was granted. It was sold after her death, and until 1960 it was the only privately-owned house on the south side of Pall Mall.
Charles II died on February 6th, 1685; his dying wish to his younger brother, who became King James II, was “Let not poor Nelly starve.” Though the habitually dour James had no love for the former orange girl who had labeled him with the epithet “Dismal Jimmy”, he honored Charles’ wish by paying off Nell’s creditors, giving her a pension of £1500 a year and allowing her to retain all of the estates and incomes she had previously been granted. When she died of a series of strokes (probably due to complications of syphilis) less than three years later, her estate was valued at about £100,000. Her son had been created Duke of St. Albans shortly before his father’s death, and that title and line still exists today; all in all, not bad for a woman born in a brothel who was once described by Bishop Burnett as “the indiscreetest and wildest creature that ever was in court.”