Mistress to a Kingby Charles Beauclerk
“A lively portrait of his famous forebears, along with an account of the theater of the time and the surprisingly parallel worlds of prostitutes and royal mistresses.” –Publishers Weekly
Written by a direct descendant of the union between Nell Gwyn and King Charles II, Nell Gwyn tells the story of one of England’s great folk heroines. The tale of her incredible rise from an impoverished, abusive childhood to the wealth and connections that came with being King Charles II’s most cherished mistress is among the great love stories of royal history.
Born during a tumultuous period in England’s past, Nell Gwyn caught the eye of King Charles II, the newly restored, pleasure-seeking ‘merry monarch” of a nation in full hedonistic reaction to Puritan rule. Their seventeen-year love affair played out against the backdrop of the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague, court scandals, and the constant threat of political revolution. Despite his other lovers’ Machiavellian efforts to win the king’s favor and humiliate Nell, the selfproclaimed “Protestant whore” earned the devotion of her king and the love of her nation, becoming England’s first “people’s princess.” Magnificently recreating the heady and licentious, yet politically charged atmosphere of Restoration England, Nell Gwyn tells the true-life Cinderella story of a common orange salesgirl who became mistress to a king.
“Beauclerk views the Restoration era as one that prized the individual over the collective, and he ably demonstrates how the revival of theater opened opportunities for talented, venturesome women. . . . In bringing to life the complex, sometimes treacherous worlds in which she made her way, Beauclerk suggests the strength it must have taken to be cheerful, fun-loving Nell.” –The Boston Globe
“A lively portrait of his famous forebears, along with an account of the theater of the time and the surprisingly parallel worlds of prostitutes and royal mistresses.” –Publishers Weekly
“Thoroughly engaging . . . Beauclerk’s access to previously unpublished sources, including family documents, makes his the definitive biography of Nell Gwyn. . . . He displays wit and faithful adherence to historical detail. His analysis of Restoration England is superb, as is his ability to convey Nell’s sharp charm and wit.” –B. Allison Gray, Library Journal
“For those who love biographies, here’s one to wander through this winter with a cup of tea while tucked under the covers. Written by a direct descendant of the union between Nell Gwyn and King Charles II, it’s a rags-to-riches story you’ll be the richer for reading.” ––From House to Home
“His first aim, of “moving beyond the icon to the person”, is largely achieved. . . . Beauclerk’s appreciation of Restoration theatre both as a “subsidiary court” and “a crucible of the nation’s passions’ is pertinent, and his wide reading of contemporary play texts is put to good use. . . . The book also succeeds in capturing Nell Gwyn’s vivacity, originality and essential sweetness. . . . Of all Charles II’s mistresses, she remains the one everyone can name. This new and affectionate portrait reminds us that she is also the one we would most like to have known.” –Sarah Burton, Guardian (London)
“Mr. Beauclerk writes of a time when, if it was Good to be a King, it was good to be his mistress too. He does not fashionably cut his characters down to modern size–and is himself directly descended from the union of Charles I and Nell Gwynne, of which he writes with such humour, spirit and erudition.” –Fay Weldon
“Shining beauty and dazzling wit brought orange-seller Nell Gwyn to the attention of Charles II. For seventeen years, as lovers and loyal friends, the two shared the pleasures of the bed and the play, of falconry, fishing, and walking in the woods at night. Charles Beauclerk has the blood of Nell and Charles in his veins and, through his easy, erudite pen, Restoration England comes alive. A book to be savored, slowly.” –Gillian Gill, author of Nightingale: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale
This biography portrays the life of Nell Gwyn (1650–87), the most renowned and popular of the mistresses of Charles II, whose seventeen-year relationship with the King is one of the great love stories of our history.
Nell Gwyn was the embodiment of her age and, as such, has been described as the ‘real Queen of Restoration England”. Her experiences ran the social gamut and whereas her son was made a duke, her mother died in a ditch. She was one of the first professional actresses to appear in England and, if Pepys and Dryden are to be trusted, the finest comedienne of her day. She was the original “people’s princess” and the only royal mistress ever to increase her monarch’s popularity. The story of the King’s love for her symbolizes the union of the sovereign and his people.
In the words of playwright and author Clifford Bax, “to those born to speak English her name has more sunlight in it than the name of any other woman in history”.
1 “Eleanor”, “Ellen” and “Nell” are vari­ations of Helen, meaning “the bright or shining one”, a name that calls to mind Helen of Troy, the most captivating of women, and St Helena, the Celtic Christian mother of the Emperor Constantine and daughter of that merry old soul King Cole. The name “Gwyn” is the Welsh for “white”, so that Nell Gwyn is “shining white”, the perfect epithet for a woman whose remarkable innocence, humour and purity of soul have made her a folk heroine of English history.
According to biographer Jeanine Delpech, Nell with her “wittily vivid face” was endowed with the features of a fairy princess.2 And it is certainly noteworthy that so many commentators, both contemporary and historical, have remarked upon the spirit rather than the substance of her beauty. Samuel Pepys was the first when he declared, “A mighty pretty soul she is’; Aphra Behn, the Restoration playwright, referred to the “eternal sweetness’ of her face, and wrote, “you never appear but you glad the hearts of all that have the happy fortune to see you, as if you were made on purpose to put the whole world into good humour”;3 and Winston Churchill, not known for his gratuitous compliments, referred in volume II of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples to “the transcendently beautiful and good-natured Nell Gwynn”.
Anecdotes and stories about Nell Gwyn have been passed from generation to generation and have established her popularity among those who wouldn’t normally take an interest in seventeenth-century history. She is even known to a scamp like Huckleberry Finn, who tries to educate Jim in the complexities of English history as they float down the Mississippi on their raft: ‘my, you ought to have seen old Henry the Eight when he was in bloom. He was a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning. And he would do it just as indifferent as if he was ordering up eggs. “Fetch up Nell Gwynn,” he says. They fetch her up. Next morning, “Chop off her head!” And they chop it off.”
History and folklore have always been creative partners in telling her story. But there is another, deeper dimension to our perception of Nell: the mythic. The myth that most fully captures her story is that of Cinderella, the “ashes girl” who finds the prince of her dreams by remaining true to herself. It is the story of the triumph of spirit over baseness, and the revelation of inner beauty. In contrast to her proud, vainglorious stepsisters, Cinderella is true to her instincts and, by keeping close to the hearth, keeps alive the flame of her individuality. Out of this integrity spring supernatural powers to aid her in the form of a hazel tree and a dove – both images of the spirit. In the end, it is the prince who seeks out Cinderella rather than the other way round. And so it was for Nell, who could not have lasted a month as the King’s boon companion and lover, let alone seventeen years, had she not been true to herself.
Just as Cinderella draws on supernatural powers to attend the
prince’s ball, there is something almost miraculous in the way that Nell Gwyn was able to capture the heart of the King. How was it possible for an oyster wench brought up in the slums of London to form a lasting relationship with the most powerful man in the land and to make herself at home in his court? After all, she must have been more like a hurricane than a breath of fresh air in the corridors and drawing rooms of Whitehall. Bishop Burnet, the outspoken critic of Charles II, described Nell as “the indiscreetest and wildest creature that ever was in a Court”.
The answer lies to a large extent in the role she adopted, that of the fool, whose badge of innocence assured royal protection and a peculiarly intimate and inviolable place in the heart of the sovereign. In a sense Nell was merely continuing the comedic career she had begun in the theatre, but this time with the court as her stage. Mimic, prankster and general Lady of Misrule, she filled a very real gap at the post-medieval court of Charles II.
I write as a direct descendant of Nell Gwyn and King Charles II, and heir to the dukedom of St Albans, the title the King created for their son, which makes it as well to declare at the outset that this is very much a subjective portrait of my ancestress. By this I do not mean that my regard for the “facts’ is any less rigorous than that of my biographical predecessors, but rather that I intend to plug into that vital ancestral current which links me to my foremother. Ultimately, what I have attempted to present in this biography is an intimate portrait of Nell Gwyn, moving beyond the icon to the person and exploring the impact she had on the life of the court and the country at large.
By examining her role and significance in the life of the nation not only by means of the historical record but also through the myths and stories that informed her life, I hope I have been able to hint at Nell Gwyn’s significance for her time and even for ours. Here was a woman who brought the monarchy to the people and the people to the monarchy, indeed symbolized the union of King and subject, and what wouldn’t the present-day House of Windsor give for such a force to set to work in the nation’s psyche
Remarkably for one of her upbringing and lowly early station in life, we not only have an exact date of birth for Nell Gwyn, but a time too. We owe this piece of good fortune to the antiquarian and astrologer Elias Ashmole, who cast the horoscope bearing her name now preserved at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. According to Ashmole, who may have derived his information from the lady herself, Nell Gwyn was born on Saturday, 2 February 1650, at six o’clock in the morning. The place of her birth is left blank; nor do we know when or at whose behest the birth chart was calculated.
Astrologers, two of whom have been her biographers, seem agreed that the chart drawn up by Ashmole gives a true portrait of Nell Gwyn, which makes it more than likely that the birth data supplied were accurate. Unsurprisingly, Venus was on the horizon at the moment of her birth, bestowing beauty and charm as well as a love of pleasure and material comforts, while Jupiter at the top of the chart (in the charismatic sign of Scorpio) gave her star quality as well as protection from on high, ensuring that few obstacles would keep her from the limelight she craved. The chart is almost bereft of the earthy element that so many naturally associate with Nell; instead, wit and spontaneity emerge as her chief strengths.
Her birthday fell on the Celtic festival of Imbolc, which celebrated the return of the Sun. It was the feast day of the Celtic goddess Brigid, the light-bringer, whose temple at Kildare housed the eternal flame. Under the Catholic Church, Brigid became St Brigit and Imbolc was transformed into the Feast of Candlemas, or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at which candles are lit at midnight to attend the first stirrings of spring.
Despite the associations with light implicit in her name and birthday, Nell Gwyn was born at one of the darkest hours in her nation’s history. King Charles I had been executed almost exactly a year before, leaving the nation shocked and bewildered. The theatres were closed, the maypoles axed, public entertainments and holidays banned, dancing, singing and playing musical instruments proscribed. Even wrestling, leaping, running and “unnecessary” walking (i.e., walking for pleasure) were denied the common people. Adultery was now a capital offence. The great iron giant of Puritanism thundered through the land, threatening to rip up the entire fabric of society.
There was a strong feeling that the end of the world was approach­ing and that Christ would return to begin his 1,000-year reign on earth. The execution of the King had fuelled this millennarian fervour. Messiahs, prophets and ranters of both sexes and every conceivable sect flooded into London from the countryside, as England suffered something in the nature of a nervous breakdown. Predictions were rife and could be used by the government to create a climate of opinion conducive to their aims, as with those that foretold the execution of the King as a necessary precondition for the rule of Christ. The London of Nell Gwyn’s childhood was teeming with possessed souls.
Women of course were the main target of the Puritans’ blind projection of humankind’s darker nature, and their status in the new regime was little better than that of children. Gone were the days of Shakespeare’s witty heroines. The Puritans strove relentlessly for the light, their instincts bound like squirming devils and shoved into some dark corner of the soul. Instead, they looked outside themselves for the objects of their torment. Women were the obvious scapegoat, and those whose independent spirits did not allow them to submit either ran mad or became prostitutes. Indeed, it is no surprise that prostitution was more widespread under the Commonwealth than in Charles I’s reign. Such are the fruits of demonization.
Poetic justice, however, was served one famous morning in St Paul’s Cathedral. A Puritan divine was preaching on the Resurrection
when a lady in the congregation suddenly stripped herself naked in her pew and advanced on him with cries of “Welcome the Resurrection!” One can only hope, for the minister’s sake, that the members of the congregation that rose up in response did not include his own! Merry England may have gone underground, but it was certainly not dead.
Nothing perhaps gives a better flavour of the dreary theocracy that was Puritan England than the names with which devout Puritans saddled their children, names such as Abstinence, Forsaken, Tribula­tion, Ashes, Lamentation, Fear-not, Weep-not, Kill-sin and Flyfornication. How delightfully bright and simple “Nell Gwyn” sounds beside a name like “Perseverance Middleton”. No wonder the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes her as “the living antithesis of Puritanism”. Art too was forced underground, as were all expressions of joy, beauty, and panache. In the words of the poet, the lovers and the dancers were beaten into the clay.1
At the exact date of Nell Gwyn’s birth, 2 February 1650, Cromwell was marching through rain-sodden Tipperary in the heat of his campaign of butchery in Ireland. The judgement of God was upon those “barbarous wretches’ and the privilege of wielding his righteous sword fell to the future Lord Protector of England. Cromwell’s fierce star was in the ascendant. Meanwhile the nineteen-year-old King Charles II was in Jersey with his ragged ad hoc court, where he enjoyed sailing and long walks as distractions from the constant bickering of his followers and the sheer boredom of his permanently makeshift life. Money was scarce. The King himself ate sparingly; his clothes were conspicuously threadbare. Restoration seemed an imposs­ible dream.
Appropriately enough, the royal seal designed for the accession of King Charles in Jersey showed St George on the obverse, for the King in exile was to endure another ten years as the wandering knight, though the dragons that he would vanquish were those reared in the bowels of his own being. Over the next decade he would learn to live as a man among men. Enduring frustrations and humiliations that would have broken others, he came to know himself as few monarchs ever have or ever could. The depth of Charles’s self-transformation in exile has rarely been noted, possibly because he hugged this new man to
himself in defiant secrecy. Having learnt to conceal himself for survival’s sake, he later turned this necessity into an art.
Of all the misfits of Puritan England that took to the roads, Charles Stuart had the furthest to go. It was as if fate had prescribed that the future King of England should know the sorrows and afflictions of ordinary men, for he could have no better tutors for the life of kingship that awaited him. Nothing tested him more ferociously than the forty days and nights after the Battle of Worcester. Charles was disguised as a woodsman and given the name “Will Jones’, his long black locks lopped with a pair of shears, his face smeared with soot. In addition to his coarse peasant shirt and breeches, he wore a greasy, grey steeple-crowned hat and shoes so ill-fitting that his feet bled horribly. Some accounts say he carried a thorn-stick, others a bill­hook. If Nell Gwyn was ever baptized, it would most likely have been in the aftermath of Worcester, while her future lover was enduring his own second baptism, that of fire.
This teenage vagabond King had already become a father before Nell Gwyn was born. He had sired a son upon his first great love, another beauty of Welsh ancestry, Lucy Walter, who was quickly shunted out of the way by exiled courtiers loyal to the King. The boy, who was later to become the Duke of Monmouth, was only prised from his mother in 1658. Later that year, the same year that Cromwell passed away, Lucy lost her life to syphilis.
In a very real sense, Charles’s experiences as an exile were an apprenticeship for his relationship with Nell Gwyn, for it was during his years of wandering that he came to identify with the underdog and the common man. Living off charity and in social limbo, despised by those in power, he knew what it was to wear dirty clothes and survive on one meal a day. Through hardship he came to appreciate the ordi­nary pleasures of life with an almost ritualistic enjoyment.
The parliamentary posters calling for Charles’s capture referred to the King as “a long dark man, above two yards tall”. (His great height, coming as he did from two such tiny parents, was as unexpected as his dark looks.) The language used is telling, for psychologically speaking Charles was indeed the shadow not only of Cromwell personally but of Puritan England itself. Here was a dark, shadowy figure moving across the country, hiding himself in trees and dark places like an
animal, living off instinct and the land, dependent on the loyalty of the people. When Charles was finally restored, the oak tree in which he had hidden at Boscobel wood became the emblem of his kingship.2 This was not to be the dogmatic crown of his father, but a living crown that could grow with the ages. Diarist John Evelyn in his dedication to Charles of Sylva (1664) wrote, “You are our God of the forest-trees, King of the grove, as having once your Temple, and Court too under that Holy Oak which you consecrated with your Presence . . .”
The primary psychological task of Restoration England would be to reconnect the nation with the life of the instincts and spirit. In other words, to restore Merry England (in the Spenserian sense of “high-hearted”), and so foster a society in which the nation’s genius could flourish. And there could be no better catalyst for this restoration than that quintessentially merry soul, Nell Gwyn.
Three cities have been put forward as the birthplace of Nell Gwyn – London, Oxford and Hereford – but in each case the evidence is weak. There is no doubt that the Gwyns were of Welsh origin and that there were Gwyns or Gwynnes living in the Welsh Marches in the seventeenth century. The family, reputed to descend from the Welsh princes, came originally from Llansanor in the Vale of Glamor­gan. And, indeed, when Nell came to have a coat of arms designed, towards the end of her life, the blue lion on a gold and silver shield was modelled closely on the armorial bearings of the Gwyns of Llansanor. With her red hair, greenish eyes and beautiful singing voice, it’s not hard to discern the strong Celtic element coursing through Nell’s veins.
Nevertheless the ancient origins of Nell’s family have little bearing on her birthplace, and contemporary evidence for Hereford is lacking. It’s true that one of her grandsons, Lord James Beauclerk, became Bishop of Hereford and that Charles II had the cathedral organ
repaired, but what of that? The Dictionary of National Biography claims
that there is a tradition among Hereford historians that she was born there in Pipe Well Lane, which was renamed Gwyn Street in the nineteenth century. The house itself was pulled down in 1859 to provide space for the enlargement of the Bishop’s Palace gardens, and a memorial plaque on the outside face of the garden wall marks the
spot today. Sadly, the seventeenth-century baptismal registers for the city are sketchy and offer no answers.
It may well be that Nell’s father was born and brought up in Hereford, we simply don’t know. But it is unlikely that Helena Smith (the future Mrs Gwyn), who was born in the parish of St Martin-in­the-Fields in London and seems to have lived most of her life there, should have found herself in Hereford in 1650. Indeed, London’s claim rests largely on the fact that Nell’s mother was born there and that she and her sister Rose were almost certainly brought up in one of the streets off Drury Lane. In his Lives of the Court Beauties (1715), Captain Alexander Smith gives Coal Yard Alley as her place of birth, and subsequent biographers have tended to follow his lead. Professor John Harold Wilson confidently opens his 1952 biography with a chapter entitled “The Gwyns of Covent Garden” and states without demur, “Nell Gwyn was born somewhere in or near the Covent Garden district”. But this is conjecture.
The reason why London’s claim remains compelling in the face of very weak evidence has much to do with the demands of the romantic imagination, for the public seems determined to think of Nell Gwyn as the feisty little cockney girl who became mistress to a king. If one thinks in terms of accents, however, it is virtually inconceivable that Nell Gwyn could have survived and flourished at the court of Charles II with a cockney accent, which in those days was the tradesman’s accent par excellence. According to H. C. Wyld in A Short History of English, “To speak with the accent of a rural district, even at Court, was not derogatory to the character and prestige of a Gentleman – what was not tolerated was to speak like a tradesman . . .” In Shaw’s Pygmalion, when Professor Higgins first hears the cockney Eliza Doo­little speak, he refers to “this creature with her kerbstone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days’, and that was in 1916. Even with her actor’s training a cockney accent would have been one obstacle too far for Nell Gwyn, rendering her well nigh incomprehensible. Nor do contemporary accounts of her from snobbish courtiers satirize such an impediment.
Oxford, which has traditionally been the least valued of the three birthplaces, seems to me to hold the strongest claim. Whether or not he was born in Hereford, Nell’s father, who by most accounts was a
Captain Thomas Gwyn in the Royalist army, certainly lived in Oxford and may well have ended his days there in a debtors’ jail. And if Dr Edward Gwyn, a canon of Christ Church, Oxford, was – as the Oxford antiquary Anthony a` Wood, among others, claimed – this Thomas’s father, then we have a very strong connection.
After his marginal victory at Edgehill in October 1642 Charles I had made Oxford his military and political headquarters, and thus it remained until the summer of 1646. Space was at a premium as Royalists from all over the country flocked to the city and the sick and wounded from Edgehill were brought there. Supplies were short and tempers soon frayed. Despite the King’s own sobriety and his efforts to maintain a dignified court, Oxford during the Civil War was like most garrison towns in wartime a wild and distinctly cavalier place, rife with dancing, duelling, drunkenness and debauchery. Men and women came together impulsively in the hectic shadow of war, not always caring to consecrate their union before the altar.
Interestingly, the playwright George Etherege in one of his lam­poons, entitled “The Lady of Pleasure: a Satyr”, seems to refer to the idea that Nell was at least conceived in a garrison town. He writes,
No man alive could ever call her daughter, For a battalion of arm’d men begot her.
And Wood tells us that Mrs Gwyn “lived some time in Oxford” in the parish of St Thomas, so Nell and her sister may have been born there. Unfortunately, no seventeenth-century baptismal registers survive for St Thomas’s.
Whether Nell’s father was already living in Oxford at the outbreak of war, or whether he arrived from Hereford, we shall probably never know. Nor are we likely to discover what prompted Helena Smith to make her way to the King’s new capital from her native London, though Royalist sympathies and the hope of catching some dashing cavalier on the hip are reasons enough. Nevertheless, there is some­thing satisfying in the thought of Nell’s parents making their separate ways, one from the east the other from the west of the country, to the heart of Royalist England to produce the child who would in due course come to symbolize a new, more integrated society.
Whether Captain Gwyn actually married Nell’s mother is also a
matter for conjecture, nor do we know how soon after the war he fell into debt, though the contemporary tradition that he died in prison, having lost his livelihood in the King’s service, seems authentic enough. The anonymous author of A Panegyrick (1681) wrote,
From Oxford Prisons many she [i.e., Nell] did free Their dy’d her Father and there glory’d shee In giving others Life and Libertye So pious a remembrance still she bore Ev”n to the Fetters which her Father wore . . .
Also, Nell’s elder sister, Rose, in a petition for bail written from prison in 1663, mentioned that her father had “lost all he had in service of the late king.” If we accept her word, then it’s unlikely that Thomas Gwyn ever went to London with his wife and two young daughters. Rather it was probably his death in the early 1650s that prompted Madam Gwyn, as she came to be known, to return to her old stamping ground of Covent Garden with Rose and Nell in tow. It’s easy to see too how as a single mother with two young daughters to support she quickly fell (back) into that most ancient of professions: prostitution.
All paths, then, seem to lead to Oxford. Maybe Ashmole left the place of birth blank on the horoscope because he was casting it in his home town of Oxford. We shall probably never know. What is certain, however, is that when Nell’s eldest son, Charles, first came to be ennobled in 1676, the titles he was granted – Burford and Headington – were both in Oxfordshire. It’s interesting too that Nell’s future daughter-in-law would turn out to be the heiress of the last Earl of Oxford, Lady Diana de Vere, while her putative uncle Henry Gwyn was secretary to this same Earl.
Nell herself doesn’t seem to have been forthcoming about her back­ground and may have found it advantageous to cultivate a certain mystique. Many, though, must have wondered about her origins and even today a certain mystery surrounds her identity. There is a refer­ence to her as ‘mrs. Margaret Symcott (i.e. Eleanor Gwyn)” in a list of charitable bequests to the Prisoners on the Common Side of King’s Bench Prison, while Fairburn claims that she made many charitable donations “as Lady Simcock” after the King’s death.3 More recently Arnold Hawker, a genealogist, came to the conclusion that Nell was
born Elizabeth Fawconer, the daughter of a Wiltshire squire. No doubt her confident manner at court as well as her success in playing well-bred ladies on the stage encouraged the notion that she was well­born.
We know nothing of Mrs Gwyn’s life before she arrived in (or returned to) London. Most biographers of Nell Gwyn have assumed that her mother was low-born, but this is conjecture derived from later reports of her squalid circumstances and degrading profession during the years of Nell’s girlhood. Given that her husband died in a debtors’ jail, misfortune and poverty, rather than low birth and depravity, are just as likely to have been the causes of her descent into London’s bawdy underworld. There is no reason to suppose that she was not at one time the social equal of her husband, who if he wasn’t a gentleman seems to have teetered on the brink of gentility.
The monument that Nell erected for her mother at St Martin-in­the-Fields placed her birth in 1624, the final year of King James I’s reign. If this is accurate, then Madam Gwyn’s coming of age would have coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War. Even taking into account the exaggerations of the satirists, it is clear from contemporary records that Nell’s mother was a Falstaffian figure with the sort of mythic status acquired by her fellow heroines of the underworld, the notorious procuresses Madams Ross, Bennett and Cresswell, Mother Mosely, and Orange Moll.4
The picture the lampoons give us of Nell’s mother is of a gargan­tuan brandy-swigging, pipe-smoking bawd, who drowned in a stream or ditch after an almighty binge. Sadly, there is no description of her character, yet certain recurring images used by the satirists unwittingly illuminate an important facet of her emotional life – her buried rage. As a young woman she may well have had much of the beauty, wit and sparkle of her younger daughter, enough at least to attract a cap­tain’s love. But the war intervened and after several difficult years in Oxford she found herself back in London, a single mother with two young daughters and, with the theatres closed, no outlet for her talents. A life of prostitution followed, and before long she was running her own bawdy house. One can easily imagine the resentment of this lively woman.
Indeed, one senses that she was all but engulfed by the frustrations
of her unlived life. In one mock elegy on “that never to be forgotten Matron, Old Madamm Gwinn”, Nell’s mother is compared with the monstrous dragon Typhon, which Zeus killed by dropping Mount Etna on it, yet whose wrath found expression, even after death, in the eruptions of the volcano. This is a good image for Mrs Gwyn’s seething rage, which was fuelled by alcohol and would have strongly influenced the emotional life of her daughters.
In terms of Nell’s early life, then, the absent father and the devouring mother are key archetypes, as, indeed, they were for her future lover, the young Charles Stuart. Her search for the gentlemanly father she lost in infancy would end with Charles himself (who was twenty years her senior), while the rage she inherited from her mother would find a creative outlet in her trenchant humour both at the theatre and at court, where she played the bittersweet fool.
Whatever the devices Nell found to convert her gyves to graces, growing up under the volcano cannot have been easy. Both she and her sister were completely uneducated – Nell never even learnt to sign her name – and they were set to work in their mother’s establishment from a very early age. According to Samuel Pepys, Nell told fellow actress Beck Marshall that she was “brought up in a bawdy house to fill strong waters to the gentlemen”.
A bawdy house in the seventeenth century wasn’t a brothel; though it offered the same service it was a little more discreet. The heart of the establishment was more often than not simply a cellar or an upstairs room in someone’s house, where drinks were served and which was presided over by a bawd who kept a stable of young girls to entertain male clients. The girls didn’t live at the establishment, but were called in as and when they were required. There were separate rooms in the house to which they could retire with their “guests’, who might be any­thing from courtiers to pickpockets.
Nell’s phrase “brought up in a bawdy house” could mean that her mother worked from home or that she leased an establishment somewhere else, the latter being the more likely. It could also mean that she worked in another establishment altogether, such as Madam Ross’s. Either way, the underworld was Nell’s early home, and it’s not difficult to imagine her serving “Nantz” or brandy to the leery guests
and cultivating the lightning repartee that would one day startle the court of Charles II. Just as she was to have three Charleses in her life, so she would have three stages: the bawdy house, the theatre and the court.
Even at the tender age of nine or ten, Nell would have found herself fending off the attentions of her mother’s more lecherous clients. Nor is it inconceivable that she became a child prostitute along the way; we shall never know for sure. But with only an alcoholic mother for protection she would have been vulnerable to such exploitation and could easily have found a surrogate warmth in the attentions that her charm and quick wit won from the punters. The sketchy evidence suggests, too, that Nell’s elder sister, Rose, became a prostitute in her early teens, making it harder for the younger girl to steer a different course. That said, it would be wrong to imagine that the bawdy house was a wholly unpleasant place for a little girl to grow up in. Alive with convivial humanity, it did at least provide fertile ground for Nell’s budding humour and insight, as well as keeping the chill winds of Puritanism at bay.
The Covent Garden district of London was an area of lively contrasts. At its heart was the piazza itself, dominated by the Church of St Paul’s and surrounded by fashionable town houses. Behind these were a maze of small streets and alleys with their more cramped lodging houses, shops and taverns, as well as the notorious bawdy houses and slum tenements. This was home territory for Nell, a dense city forest and she its brightest nymph. To the north lay open fields, to the south the palaces of the nobility, with their rich gardens sloping down to the river. The theatre that would make Nell Gwyn famous throughout the capital had yet to be built.
If Nell was brought up in Coal Yard Alley in the Parish of St Giles, then simply to have survived the slums of London was an achievement. Disease and vermin were rife, sanitation poor or non-existent, and even in the healthier sections of the city one out of two children died before their second birthday. The stench of refuse and decay on a hot summer’s day must have been well nigh unbearable. And if Nell really did live in one of the slum tenements, then all there would have been downstairs were a couple of dingy, smoky rooms – no windows –
with dirt floors covered in straw and a cinder fire to cook over. She would have been lucky to retire upstairs at night to a wooden box bed with straw mattress. Baths and privy closets were out of the question.
Nevertheless, the street life of Drury Lane and its neighbourhood must have provided an exciting release from the wearisome duties of child labour. With its strong bohemian spirit it was one of the most colourful and entertaining districts in London. Street performers of every description and nationality drew crowds with their bizarre and daring acts. In the absence of toys or other games, the ragged street children had to invent their own amusements and were often respon­sible for making sure they got enough to eat, in which case filching from the market stalls was the order of the day. There were few restrictions on their movements or behaviour, but the price they paid for such freedoms was insecurity. They danced in the shadow of death, and slept “among tygers wild”.5 Little wonder then that strong bonds of camaraderie bound the urchins of a London street.
Nell relished having such a willing and appreciative audience among her fellow strays. Setting up her eager little court in one of the deserted dead-end alleys of St Giles, she could at least be a “Queen in Imagination”, as an anonymous biography of 1752 has it. And, remem­bering the tales of old King Charles’s court that she’d heard from the customers in the bawdy house, the incorrigible imp would step forth, an old blanket serving as her jewelled train, and put on that royal look that so delighted her half-starving subjects that they dropped instantly to their knees with shouts of “God save good Queen Nell!”. Like poor Tom Canty in Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, she filled her days with such imaginings; and, as with Tom, it seems likely that her ‘speech and manners became curiously ceremonious and courtly, to the vast admiration and amusement of [her] intimates’.
One anecdote related in a note in John Downes’s Roscius Anglicanus (1708) gives a vivid insight into the strong network of loyalties at work among the waifs of Drury Lane. We are told that Nell’s first love was a link-boy (or torch-bearer) by the name of Poor Dick, a homeless lad who was convinced that Nell was the daughter of a lord, for that was the only way he could explain her uncommon beauty. Cut to the heart by the sight of her bare chilblained feet, he set aside his meagre wages to buy her a pair of worsted stockings. According to Nell, he
put them on her feet himself, and as his tears fell on her chilblains he said that he would be the happiest creature on earth if the stockings did her some good.
Aprocryphal though the story may be, it is valuable in demonstrat­ing that even as a young girl Nell’s beauty and depth of character were thought to have inspired deep loyalty. We will find, too, as we progress with our story that much was made throughout her life of Nell’s delicate and delightfully pretty feet. It’s interesting to note that in China, where the story of Cinderella originated, a small, prettily shaped foot was seen as a mark of extraordinary virtue and beauty.
There are many references in the lampoons of the time to the young Nell Gwyn as “Cinder Nell”, no doubt because it was thought that raking the cinders was one of her duties in her mother’s bawdy house. True or not, it shows that unconsciously her detractors associ­ated her with the figure of Cinderella. In A Panegyrick, the author wrote,
Ev’n while she cinders rak’d her swelling breast
With thoughts of glorious whoredom was possess’d . . .
And the author of “The Lady of Pleasure”, thought to be Etherege, gives us a vivid picture of Nell, the street urchin:
He that had seen her mudling in the street
With face of potlid black, unshoo’d her feet And in a cloud of dust her cinders shaking
Cou’d he have thought her fit for Monarch’s taking . . . ?
Probably not. What is certain, however, is that young Nell had heard stories of the King over the water (London was abuzz with rumours of his adventurous life) and even now harboured certain wild thoughts against the day of his return.
And although an unnatural calm settled on England after the death of Cromwell in September 1658, it would not be long before the prince of Cinder Nell’s dreams arrived back in his kingdom. The Republican movement had lost much of its zeal under the quasi­monarchic rule of the Lord Protector, and though it still wasn’t safe to mention the King over the water in public, more and more people began to nurse a secret desire for his return. Thus when in May 1659 Oliver’s son Richard let slip the reins of power and vanished across the Channel, the time-honoured formula of the King in Parliament reasserted its irresistible logic.
©2005 by Charles Beauclerk. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.