English actress, and mistress of Charles II
Born 1650 Died 1687
Eleanor 'Nell' Gwyn was born on the 2nd of February 1650/1, probably in an alley off Drury Lane, London, although Hereford also claims to have been her birthplace. Her father, Thomas Gwyn, appears to have been a broken-down soldier of a family of Welsh origin. Of her mother little is known save that she lived for some time with her daughter, and that in 1679 she was drowned, apparently when intoxicated, in a pond at Chelsea.
Nell Gwyn, who sold oranges in the precincts of Drury Lane Theatre, passed, at the age of fifteen, to the boards, through the influence of the actor Charles Hart and of Robert Duncan or Dungan, an officer of the guards who had interest with the management. Her first recorded appearance on the stage was in 1665 as Cydaria, Montezuma's daughter, in Dryden's Indian Emperor, a serious part ill-suited to her. In the following year she was Lady Wealthy in the Hon. James Howard's comedy The English Monsieur. Pepys was delighted with the playing of pretty, witty Nell, but when he saw her as Florimel in Dryden's Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen, he wrote "so great a performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before and, so done by Nell her merry part as cannot be better done in nature" (Diary, 25 March, 1667)
Her success brought her other leading roles Bellario, in Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster; Flora, in Rhodes's Floras Vagaries; Samira, in Sir Robert Howard's Surprisal; and she remained a member of the Drury Lane company until 1669, playing continuously save for a brief absence in the summer of 1667 when she lived at Epsom as the mistress of Lord Buckhurst, afterwards 6th Earl of Dorset. Her last appearance was as Almahide to the Almanzor of Hart, in Dryden's The Conquest of Granada (1670), the production of which had been postponed some months for her return to the stage after the birth of her first son by the king.
As an actress Nell Gwyn was largely indebted to Dryden, who seems to have made a special study of her airy, irresponsible personality, and who kept her supplied with parts which suited her. She excelled in the delivery of the risky prologues and epilogues which were the fashion, and the poet wrote for her some specially daring examples. It was, however, as the mistress of Charles II that she endeared herself to the public. Partly, no doubt, her popularity was due to the disgust inspired by her rival, Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, and to the fact that, while the Frenchwoman was a Catholic, she was a Protestant. But very largely it was the result of exactly those personal qualities that appealed to the monarch himself.
She was piquante rather than pretty, short of stature, and her chief beauty was her reddish-brown hair. She was illiterate, and with difficulty scrawled an awkward E.G. at the bottom of her letters, written for her by others. But her frank recklessness, her generosity, her invariable good temper, her ready wit, her infectious high spirits and amazing indiscretions appealed irresistibly to a generation which welcomed in her the living antithesis of Puritanism. A true child of the London streets, she never pretended to be superior to what she was, nor to interfere in matters outside the special sphere assigned her; she made no ministers, she appointed to no bishoprics, and for the high issues of international politics she had no concern. She never forgot her old friends, and, as far as is known, remained faithful to her royal lover from the beginning of their intimacy to his death, and, after his death, to his memory.
Of her two sons by the king, the elder was created Baron Hedington and Earl of Burford and subsequently Duke of St Albans; the younger, James, Lord Beauclerk, died in 1680, while still a boy. The king's death-bed request to his brother, "Let not poor Nelly starve", was faithfully carried out by James II, who paid her debts from the Secret Service fund, provided her with other moneys, and settled on her an estate with reversion to the Duke of St Albans. But she did not long survive her lover's death. She died in November 1687, and was buried on the 17th, according to her own request, in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, her funeral sermon being preached by the vicar, Thomas Tenison, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, who said much to her praise. Tradition credits the foundation of Chelsea Hospital to her influence over the king.
See Peter Cunningham, The Story of Nell Gwyn, edited by Gordon Goodwin (1903); Waldron's edition of John Downes's Roscius Anglicanus (1789); Osmund Airy, Charles II. (904); Pepys, Diary; Evelyn, Diary and Correspondence; Origin and Early History of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, edited by Major-General G. Hutt (1872); Memoirs of the Life of Eleanor Gwinn (1752); Burnet, History of My Own Time, part 1, edited by Osmund Airy (Oxford, 1897); Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, by H. Forneron, translated by Mrs Crawford (1887).
Being the entry for GWYN, NELL ELEANOR in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.