“Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore” was Nell Gwyn’s cheeky retort to the masses pushing around her coach in the mistaken belief that it was that of the Duchess of Portsmouth, the Catholic Louise de Keroualle.
‘Pretty, witty Nell’ was perhaps the best known and remembered mistress of King Charles II.
She was one of many (there were 13 in all during his lifetime), but she was the least ‘greedy’ of them all. When he lay dying he begged his heir, the Duke of York, “not to let poor Nellie starve”.
In her early teens, Nell Gwyn was engaged to sell oranges at the King’s Theatre. Her natural wit and complete lack of self-consciousness caught the eye of the actor Charles Hart and others, and Dryden wrote plays to exploit her talents as a comic actress.
She became Charles Hart’s mistress, she called him Charles the First, and was then passed to Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, whom she dubbed Charles the Second, and later the King, calling him her Charles the Third.
Lady Castlemaine (Barbara Palmer) had been King Charles’ mistress for many years when he became enamoured of Nell.
The rivalry between Nell, Lady Castlemaine, Frances Stuart, Louise de Keroualle, Lucy Walters, Moll Davis and sundry others made the King’s life difficult at times!
Charles had 13 children by these ‘ladies’ and agreed to support the children he believed were his. He had doubts about some of Lady Castlemaine’s children as he had caught her in a compromising position with John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough. Lady Castlemaine’s last child, born 1672 was acknowledged to be Churchill’s.
Other ladies came and went – one Winifred Wells was a Maid of Honour. She was described as having the ‘carriage of a goddess but the physiognomy of a dreamy sheep’ !
Moll Davies, also an actress, had a child by the King. The child was known as Lady Mary Tudor. Moll was given a house in Suffolk Street and a ring worth £600 by the King before she fell from favour.
Nell was not greedy and grasping like her rivals, but did receive a house near Pall Mall and when she first knew the King, she asked for just £500 a year!
King Charles gave her a pension of £4000 a year from rents in Ireland and later another £5000 a year out of the Secret Service Fund.
Towards the end of 1669 Nell withdrew from the stage because she was pregnant. The child was a boy: however her other son, born two years later, died.
Unlike Charles’ other mistresses, Nell never received a title herself, but by using clever tactics she obtained a title for her son.
“Come here you little bastard” she is reputed to have said to her small son in the Kings presence. The King was horrified, but as Nell asked, “what should she call him, was not bastard true?” The King immediately made him Duke of St. Albans!
When the King died in 1685 Nell’s creditors descended upon her – she never did starve, but was in grave danger of being sent to a Debtors prison. She appealed to King James and to his credit, he settled her immediate debts and gave her a pension of £1500 a year.
James asked in return that her son should become a Catholic but James was to be disappointed.
Nell survived Charles by only two years and was only in her thirties when she died. She became a legend, the only royal mistress in English history to provoke popular affection.
“She would not”, she told a hopeful suitor in her colourful language that was part of her charm, “lay a dog where a deer laid”!