Happy Birthday Nell Gwynn!
Today marks the 369th birthday of our namesake, Nell Gwynn. Notorious in the Restoration period for her rags to riches story, there is so much more to Nell than her being one of King Charles II’s mistresses!
Nell came from a poor background in St-Martin’s-in-the-Fields – the Covent Garden area now, and it is believed that she lived in a brothel run by her alcoholic mother. At the age of 13 she had a job selling oranges to theatre-goers King’s Theatre in Drury Lane (forerunner of the Theatre Royal), where she developed her gift for quickfire repartee.
A year later, she took to the stage and began acting in earnest. Previously, female roles had only been played by men so Nell was a trail-blazer for the multi-award winning female actors that that we enjoy watching on the stage and screen today. She even experimented with cross-dressing between 1663 and 1667 going under the name “William Nell”, and adopting a false beard and a comedy persona. Her beauty, wit and sense of comedy was recognised by Dryden who began writing plays specifically for her to showcase her talent and, catching the eye of the diarist Samuel Pepys, she was referred to as “pretty, witty Nell”.
Nell became famous and a London socialite enjoying parties and entertaining members of society with her witty stories and beauty – a far cry from her humble origins. At the age of 17 she caught the eye of Charles II and became one of his mistresses eventually living in a house gifted to her from him at 79 Pall Mall. Nell had a magnificent silver bed in her bedroom, adorned with the king’s head and figures of cupids and slaves, as well as crowns and eagles. Other delights included a warming pan inscribed ‘Fear God and serve the King’. It is also said that the Kings Road, just a 2-minute walk from Nell Gwynn House, was named as such as it was a private Road built by the King to facilitate his rendezvous with Nell from St James’s Palace to her home.
The public took to Nell and particularly the story that she was credited for encouraging the King to build The Royal Chelsea Hospital for injured soldiers.
A favourite story reported by Comte de Gramont, recalls an event in 1681 – Nell Gwynn was travelling through the streets of London in her coach, when a mob mistook her for her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth, and began shouting and hurling insults at her.
Putting her head out of the coach window, she replied to the crowd: “Good people,” she said, smiling, “you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore!”.
Nell bore the King two sons, Charles and James. Sadly, James died in Paris at the age of six and, after a battle with the King where Nell fought for his recognition as the King’s son, Charles was later given the title Earl of Burford. King Charles II died on 6 February 1685. Amongst his last wishes was the request “Let not poor Nelly starve,” and his brother James paid most of Nell’s debts and gave her an annual pension of £1,500. Nell died in March 1687 at the age of 37 and was buried in the same grave as her mother and sister in the churchyard of St-Martins-In-The-Fields.
Nell left most of her wealth to her son but with requests for £100 to be distributed to the poor of the parish of St Martins-in-the-field and Westminster and £50 to release debtors from prison every Christmas.
If you are a guest staying with one of our serviced apartments in Nell Gwynn House, look above the art-deco entrance to the building and you will see our very own statue of Nell Gwynn with a King Charles Spaniel at her feet. It is thought to be one of the few statues of her in London. If you would like to book your next stay in the building bearing her name please visit our bookings page at www.nellgwynnchelsea.london