She was the ‘indiscreetest and wildest creature that ever was in a court’, someone wrote.*
But she had that something. Something which kept a wild king coming back for more, year after year, and she outlived him.
They called her mad. And wild. But I’d hazard that Nellie Gwyn was just plain funny. A funny girl in a court of sycophants. What could be more refreshing?
An orange seller turned comedienne turned royal mistress, at one royal gathering she bumped into the Duchess of Cleveland who was a former mistress of King Charles II. The Duchess was frosty indeed; Nell’s manners were fresh from the street and the stage. But the young pretender was unabashed. She slapped the Duchess heartily on the back and observed loudly “that persons of one trade loved not one another’.
She was great at comic roles on the stage, Pepys wrote. Serious roles, not so much. “‘Nell’s … mad parts are most excellently done … which makes it a miracle to me to think how ill she do any serious part … just like a fool or changeling; and in a mad part doth beyond imitation almost.”
Mad to the core, Nell Gwyn. From the dungheap raised, she swore like a trooper. What a hoot, a breath of fresh air wafting across St James’s Park from the house the king had bought her at the smart West End of Pall Mall, backing onto the park, and handy if one wanted to nip across.
She had rivals. The French mistress, for example, Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth. But she was always the most loved, by the people who mattered. When an angry mob tried to storm Nell’s carriage in Oxford because they thought it was the unpopular French mistress, she bellowed out of the carriage window: ‘Pray good people be silent, I am the Protestant whore’.
And she was allowed on her way.
As always it is the little shreds, the moments crystallised by a diarist which tell us so much. Pepys was on his way somewhere in 1667, when he saw her just standing at the door of her lodgings in Drury Lane. “ In her smock sleeves and bodice , wrote Pepys, “she seemed a mighty pretty creature.”
Slight, blonde. Pretty and witty.
Let’s let the BIshop of Salisbury have the last word today. Gilbert Burnet, highly respected cleric, theologian, and historian, wrote a history of his own time. And he knew of Nell.
“She acted all persons, ” Burnet relates, ”in so lively a manner, and was such a diversion to the king, that not even a new mistress could drive her away.
“But, after all, he never treated her with the decencies of a mistress, but rather with the lewdness of a prostitute – as she had been, indeed, to a great many. And therefore she called the king her Charles the Third, since she had been formerly kept by two of that name.”
Just think. A century earlier and she might have entertained a Henry IX.
Pretty, witty Nell. I would have loved to see her, just once.