Written by Megan Crutchley
Restoration London: a place of excess, hope, freedom, exploration, and science. The monarchy had returned to England, a day that much of the aristocracy, since being exiled to France or living under the Republican regime, had been longing for. Order seemed to have returned with a clear head of state back on the throne. However, not everything was as it once was.
The theatre was a major part of society before the restoration – hence why we still study the works of Shakespeare. But the theatre after the restoration was but a dream to the actors at the Globe. There were now more elements to the stage than ever – trap doors, elaborate set design, scene changes, more seating, music. The theatre had turned into the experience that we today can recognise. But it needed these additions, as the way the theatre was used politically and by the public was not the way we would use it. The show was a secondary thought: it was the people who went and the opportunities this presented for political gains that attracted most people to the theatre. If the King were to go, this meant that one may even have the opportunity to be seen and noticed by him, to get one’s political opinions heard.
It is in this new wave of theatre that Nell Gwynn got her opportunity. Her life had begun during the rule of Cromwell, in 1650. Her father had been a military Captain, Captain Gwynn, however, he had not had the money to flee to France with the rest of the aristocracy after the execution of Charles I. There has been no marriage contract found between him and Nell’s mother, and all we know is that after Cromwell’s death, when Nell was seven years old, she fled to London and made a living pulling pints. She lost her job for being a drunk, and it was Nell and her sister who had to go out and work to make ends meet. They began by selling seafood on the streets. Once Charles II was crowned, Nell and her sister joined one of the most prolific brothels in London, owned by Madam Ross. Her sex-workers were known to be expensive and they were enjoyed by the highest ranks in society. However, Nell denied ever being a sex-worker there, only claiming to have served drinks. It is here where Harry Killigrew, son of Thomas Killigrew who wrote many plays and was one of two men who controlled the restoration theatre, met Nell’s sister, Rose, in 1661. While her sister continued her relations with Harry, Nell managed to get a job selling oranges at the new King’s House, where she first encountered the stage. It is at this time also that the patent was given to allow women to play female parts.
Rose was then suddenly dropped by Harry Killigrew, and in her heartbreak married a petty criminal, committed an act of theft, and wound up in prison. Nell, in an attempt to save her sister, went to Thomas Killigrew, pleading her sister’s case wittily and he was instantly impressed. He not only released her sister, but set her up with the theatre company Hart and Lacy. She was taught how to dance by Lacy, and she began a sort of love affair with Hart, all the while working on her acting. She was put into some of Thomas Killigrew’s plays, but they all did quite poorly. It was not until she starred in one of William Killigrew’s plays that she was properly initiated into the life of the theatre. It was when she starred in a new playwright, Dryden’s, play that she was revered as a great comic actress, and she stopped trying to play tragic roles. Nell was fifteen, a regular actress in the King’s House and on the rise as a comic actress, when all of this was halted by the arrival of the plague in London.
Once they reopened in the summer of the following year, the Great Fire of London occurred. It seemed that London was suffering a string of tragedies. Another scandal of the time was the Queen’s inability to produce heirs. With all these factors culminating, it was said that the King was travelling to Tunbridge Wells as a final attempt to produce an heir and was looking for someone to satisfy him while there. Hearing this news and wanting stability and assurance after her career was threatened by these events, Nell packed her bags along with some other young actresses and travelled to Tunbridge Wells. There was competition between Nell and her friend Moll Davis, and it was Davis who managed to win the King’s affections first, receiving gifts and being called to his bed chamber often. To win the upper hand, it is said that Nell played an awful trick on Davis, putting laxatives in her supper before she went to see the King for the night. Needless to say, Davis embarrassed herself and quickly after, the King was seen publicly and privately with Nell.
Nell seemed to have something that other women did not. She was known for her wit, and it is possible Charles may have seen her as more of an intellectual equal. He spent the most time with her and stopped seeing other women as he was satisfied with Nell it seems. She was rewarded with a house in Newmarket – suited to the both of them as Nell was fond of gambling and being close to the races, and Charles was said to enjoy the country life infinitely more than the city. The King would spend entire summers there with Gwynn and would frequent her house throughout the year. It is said that he would discuss matters of state with her frequently, something he was criticised for in the rest of the court as it was seen as being easily swayed by women.
After meeting Charles, Nell had all but given up on the stage, and had given birth to two of the King’s children, however the second died in infancy. Other bastard children that Charles had, most of the time, were given titles by him. He was criticised for this by the court, having too many bastard children and giving titles out like they were going out of fashion, and giving each of their mothers thousands in a pension every year, creating a drain on the Crown’s funds. Nell had never asked for a pension or a title for her son outright, which is possibly another reason that Charles stayed with her for so long, but she had a cleverer way of getting what she wanted. One day, in the house in Newmarket, Charles, Nell and their son were playing on the lawn and she playfully called their son over as a ‘little bastard’. Charles was mortified; however, Nell makes the point that that is what their son is. Quickly afterwards, he was given the title of Duke of St Albans.
They continued their relationship until the King’s death in 1685, and on his deathbed the King asked James, his heir, to look after ‘poor Nelly’. Due to her gambling problems, Nell got put into debtors’ prison after the King’s death. She appealed to the new King James II and he bailed her out and had her pension arranged for £1,500 a year. Nell died only two years after the King at the age of thirty seven, apparently from syphilis related disease but there is a lot of speculation as to whether this was truly the cause of death, as she had only had one sexual partner since meeting Charles and that was Charles himself. It was likely this may have been false, inspired by rumours that came from the court, who had tried to devalue Nell for her entire involvement with Charles.
She was one of few people, especially at this time, who had been able to transcend pure fame to celebrity status. The difference is the way she interacted with people and who she interacted with. She was a seventeenth century ‘it girl’, similar to Marilyn Monroe or Kate Moss. She had an elusive quality and was recognised not just for her talents, but her politics and lack of self-consciousness. She was a threat to the social order – a living contradiction of what people considered a woman to be. Women, typically, were seen to thrive in a private setting, and an actress did everything publicly. Not only was Gwynn a threat to the usual role of a woman, but she had an influence in politics because she had sway with the King. To the court she was a double edged sword and they would do anything they could to discredit her – write degrading pamphlets, discredit her background, spread rumours of her being a prostitute and associating her with the values of the characters she played. She was a threat and they tried all they could to minimise her public appearance.
Gwynn is like the seventeenth-century version of the girl we all want to be – witty, glamorous, associating with the highest in society, powerful, and rich. She was a pioneer of what a woman could achieve in politics, an original rags to riches story. She probably was not advocating for the rights of women, rather than her own rights and what she herself could gain, and definitely trod on a few skirts to get to the top, but she continues to be an inspiration and icon to this day. The name of the girl who sold oranges still echoes through the history books.
Johnson, B. (n.d.). Nell Gwyn (Gwynne). Retrieved from Historic UK: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Nell-Gwyn-Gwynne/
MacGregor-Hastie, R. (1987). Nell Gwyn. London: Hale.
Martinez-Garcia, L. (2020). Restoration Celebrity Culture: Twenty-First Century Renderings and Rewritings of Charles II, the Merry Monarch, and His Mistress ‘Pretty, Witty’ Nell Gwyn. Anglia, 118-143.
Featured image credit: Portrait of Nell Gwynn (1650-87). Simon Verlest. Oil on Canvas. Accessed via Sotheby’s: https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2022/british-art-the-jubilee-auction/portrait-of-nell-gwyn-1650-1687.