Three cities make the claim to be Nell Gwyn's birthplace: Hereford, London (specifically Covent Garden), and Oxford. Evidence for any one of the three is scarce. That "Gwyn" is a name of Welsh origin might support Hereford, as its county is on the border with Wales; The Dictionary of National Biography notes a traditional belief that she was born there in Pipe Well Lane, renamed to Gwynne Street in the 19th century. London is the simplest choice, perhaps, since Nell's mother was born there and that is where she raised her children. Alexander Smith's 1715 Lives of the Court Beauties says she was born in Coal Yard Alley in Covent Garden and other biographies, including Wilson's, have followed suit. Beauclerk pieces together circumstantial evidence to favor an Oxford birth. The location may remain a mystery, but the time does not: a horoscope cast for Nell Gwyn pinpoints it as Saturday 2 February 1650, at six o'clock in the morning.
One way or another, Nell's father seems to have been out of the picture by the time of her childhood in Covent Garden, and her mother was left in a low situation. Old Madam Gwyn was by most accounts an obese brandy-swigging alcoholic whose business was running a bawdy house (a brothel). There, or in the bawdy house of one Madam Ross, Nell would spend at least some time. It is possible she worked herself as a child prostitute; Peter Thomson, in the Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, says it is "probable". A rare mention of her upbringing from the source herself might be seen to contradict the idea: A 1667 entry in Samuel Pepys' diary records, second-hand,
Here Mrs. Pierce tells me [...] that Nelly and Beck Marshall, falling out the other day, the latter called the other my Lord Buckhurst's whore. Nell answered then, "I was but one man's whore, though I was brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong waters to the guests; and you are a whore to three or four, though a Presbyter's praying daughter!" which was very pretty.
It is not out of the question that Gwyn was merely echoing the satirists of the day, if she said this at all. Various anonymous verses are the only other sources describing her childhood occupations: bawdyhouse servant, street hawker of herring, oysters or turnips, and cinder-girl have all been put forth. Tradition has her growing up in Coal Yard Alley, a poor slum off Drury Lane. Around 1662, Nell is said to have taken a lover by the name of Duncan or Dungan. Their relationship lasted perhaps two years and was reported with obscenity-laced acidity in several later satires. ("For either with expense of purse or p---k, / At length the weary fool grew Nelly-sick".) Duncan provided Gwyn with rooms at a tavern in Maypole Alley, and the satires also say he was involved in securing Nell a job at the theatre being built nearby.
Charles II had been restored to the English throne in 1660, after a decade of protectorate rule by the Cromwells, when pastimes regarded as frivolous, including theatre, had been banned. One of Charles' early acts as King was to license the formation of two acting companies, and in 1663 the King's Company, led by Thomas Killigrew, opened a new playhouse, the Theatre in Bridges Street (later rebuilt and renamed the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane). Mary Meggs, a former prostitute nicknamed "Orange Moll" and a friend of Madam Gwyn's, had been granted the licence to "vend, utter and sell oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manner of fruiterers and confectioners wares" within the theatre. Orange Moll hired Nell and her older sister Rose as "orange-girls", selling the small, sweet "china" oranges to the audience inside the theatre for a sixpence each.
The work exposed her to multiple aspects of theatre life and to London's higher society: this was after all the "King's playhouse" and Charles frequently enough attended the performances. The orange-girls would also serve as messengers between men in the audience and actresses backstage; they received monetary tips for this role and certainly some of these messages would end in sexual assignations. Whether this activity rose to the level of pimping may be a matter of semantics. Some sources think it also likely that Gwyn prostituted herself during her time as an orange-girl.
The new theatres were the first in England to feature actresses; earlier, women's parts were played by boys or men. Gwyn joined the rank of actresses at Bridges Street when she was fourteen, less than a year after becoming an orange-girl. If her good looks, strong clear voice, and lively wit were responsible for catching the eye of Killigrew, she still had to prove herself clever enough to succeed as an actress. This was no mean task in the Restoration theatre; the limited pool of audience members meant that very short runs were the norm for plays and fifty different productions might be mounted in the nine-month season lasting from September to June. Gwyn was illiterate her entire life (signing her initials "E.G." would be the extent of her ability to read or write), adding an extra complication to the memorisation of her lines.
She was taught her craft by one of the fine male actors of the time, Charles Hart, and learned dancing from another, John Lacy; both were rumored by satirists of the time to be her lovers, but if she had such a relationship with Lacy (Beauclerk thinks it unlikely), it was kept much more discreet than her well-known affair with Hart.
Gwyn was slated to play a part in Killigrew's Thomaso, or The Wanderer in November 1664, but the play seems to have been cancelled. Instead, she made her first recorded appearance on-stage in March 1665, in John Dryden's heroic drama The Indian Emperour, playing Cydaria, daughter of Montezuma and love interest to Cortez, played by her real-life lover Charles Hart. Pepys, whose diary usually has great things to say about Gwyn, was displeased with her performance in this same part two years later: "...to the King's playhouse, and there saw 'The Indian Emperour;' where I find Nell come again, which I am glad of; but was most infinitely displeased with her being put to act the Emperour's daughter; which is a great and serious part, which she do most basely.
Gwyn herself seems to agree that drama did not suit her, to judge from the lines she was later made to say in the epilogue to a Robert Howard drama:
We have been all ill-us'd, by this day's poet.
'Tis our joint cause; I know you in your hearts
Hate serious plays, as I do serious parts.
It was in the new form of restoration comedy that Nell Gwyn would become a star. In May 1665, she appeared opposite Hart in James Howard's comedy All Mistaken, or the Mad Couple. This was the first of many appearances in which Gwyn and Hart played the "gay couple", a form that would become a frequent theme in restoration comedies. The gay couple, broadly defined, is a pair of witty, antagonistic lovers, he generally a rake fearing the entrapment of marriage and she feigning to do the same in order to keep her lover at arm's length. Theatre historian Elizabeth Howe goes so far as to credit the enduring success of the gay couple on the Restoration stage entirely to "the talent and popularity of a single actress, Nell Gwyn".
The Great Plague of London shut down the Bridges Street theatre, along with most of the city, from the summer of 1665 through the autumn of 1666. Gwyn and her mother spent some of this time in Oxford, following the King and his court. The King's Company is presumed to have mounted some private theatrical entertainments for the court during this time away from the virulent capital. Gwyn and the other ten "women comedians in His Majesty's Theatre" were issued the right (and the cloth) to wear the King's livery at the start of this exile, proclaiming them official servants of the King.
After the theatres reopened, Gwyn and Hart returned to play role after role that fit the mold of the gay couple, including in James Howard's The English Monsieur (December 1666), Richard Rhodes' Flora's Vagaries, an adaptation of John Fletcher's The Chances by George Villiers, and then in their greatest success, Secret Love, or The Maiden Queen. This play, a tragicomedy written by the theatre's house dramatist, John Dryden, was performed in March 1667. It was a great success: King Charles "graced it with the Title of His Play and Pepys' praise was effusive:
... to the King's house to see 'The Maiden Queen', a new play of Dryden's, mightily commended for the regularity of it, and the strain and wit; and the truth is, there is a comical part done by Nell, which is Florimell, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again, by man or woman. The King and Duke of York were at the play. But so great performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell do this, both as a mad girl, then most and best of all when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the notions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have. It makes me, I confess, admire her.
Many comedies of the day, like The Maiden Queen, featured breeches roles, where the actresses appeared in men's clothes under one pretense or another; if nothing else this could draw an audience eager to see the women show off their figures in the more form-fitting male attire. The attraction had another dynamic: the theatres sometimes had a hard time holding onto their actresses, as they were swept up to become the kept mistresses of the aristocracy. In 1667, Nell Gwyn made such a match with Charles Sackville, titled Lord Buckhurst at that time. She supposedly caught his eye during an April performance of All Mistaken, or The Mad Couple, especially in one scene in which, to escape a hugely fat suitor able to move only by rolling, she rolls across the stage herself, her feet toward the audience and her petticoats flying about. A satire of the time describes this and also Hart's position now, in the face of competition from the upper echelons of society:
Yet Hart more manners had, then not to tender
When noble Buckhurst beg'd him to surrender.
He saw her roll the stage from side to side
And, through her drawers the powerful charm descry'd.
Beauclerk describes Buckhurst: "Cultured, witty, satirical, dissolute, and utterly charming". He was one of a handful of court wits, the "merry gang" as named by Andrew Marvell. Sometime after the end of April and her last recorded role that season (in Robert Howard's The Surprisal), Gwyn and Buckhurst left London for a country holiday in Epsom, accompanied by Charles Sedley, another wit in the merry gang. Pepys reports the news on 13 July: "[Mr. Pierce tells us] Lord Buckhurst hath got Nell away from the King's house, lies with her, and gives her £100 a year, so she hath sent her parts to the house, and will act no more. However, Nell Gwyn was acting once more in late August, and her brief affair with Buckhurst had ended.
Late in 1667, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham took on the role of unofficial manager for Gwyn's love life. He aimed to provide King Charles II someone who would move aside Barbara Palmer, his principal current mistress (and Buckingham's cousin), moving Buckingham closer to King's ear. The plan failed; reportedly, Gwyn asked £500 a year to be kept and this was rejected as too dear a price. Buckingham had a backup, though: he was also involved in successful maneuvers to match the King with Moll Davis, an actress with the rival Duke's Company. Davis would be Nell's first rival for the King. Several anonymous satires from the time relate a tale of Gwyn, with the help of her friend Aphra Behn, slipping a powerful laxative into Davis' tea-time cakes before an evening when she was expected in the king's bed.
Romance between the King and Gwyn began in April of 1668, if the stories are correct: Gwyn was attending a performance of George Etherege's She Wou'd if She Cou'd at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In the next box was the King, who from accounts was more interested in flirting with Nell than watching the play. Charles invited Nell and her date (a Mr. Villiers, a cousin of Buckingham's) to supper, along with his brother James, the Duke of York. The anecdote turns charming if perhaps apocryphal at this point: the King, after supper, discovered that he had no money on him; nor did his brother. Gwyn had to foot the bill. "Od's fish!" she exclaimed, in an imitation of the King's manner of speaking, "but this is the poorest company I ever was in!
Previously having been the mistress of Charles Hart and Charles Sackville, she jokingly titled the King "her Charles the Third". By the summer of 1668, Gwyn's affair with the King was well-known, though there was little reason to believe it would last for long. She continued to act at the King's House, her new notoriety drawing larger crowds and encouraging the playwrights to craft more roles specifically for her. June 1668 found her in Dryden's An Evening's Love, or The Mock Astrologer, and in July she played in Lacy's The Old Troop. This was a farce about a company of Cavalier soldiers during the English Civil War, based on Lacy's own experiences. Possibly, Nell Gwyn's father had served in the same company, and Gwyn's part — the company whore — was based on her own mother. As her commitment to the king increased, though, her acting career slowed, and she had no recorded parts between January and June of 1669, when she played Valeria in Dryden's very successful tragedy Tyrannick Love.
King Charles II had a considerable number of mistresses through his life, both short affairs and committed arrangements. He also had a wife, the Queen consort Catherine of Braganza, who was in an awkward position in several ways: made pregnant, she consistently miscarried, and she had little or no say over Charles' choice to have mistresses. This had come to a head shortly after their 1662 marriage, in a confrontation between Catherine and Barbara Palmer that became known as the "Bedchamber crisis". Ostracised at court and with most of her retinue sent back to her home nation of Portugal, Catherine had been left with little choice but to acquiesce to Charles' mistresses being granted semi-official standing.
During Gwyn's first years with Charles, there was little competition in the way of other mistresses: Barbara Palmer was on her way out in most respects certainly in terms of age and looks and others, such as Moll Davis, kept quietly away from the spotlight of public appearances or Whitehall. Nell gave birth to her first son, Charles, on 8 May 1670. This was the King's seventh son — by five separate mistresses.
Several months later, Louise de Kérouaille came to England from France, ostensibly to serve as a maid of honour to Queen Catherine, but also to become another mistress to King Charles, probably by design on both the French and English sides. She and Gwyn would prove rivals for many years to come. They were opposites in personality and mannerism; Louise a proud woman of noble birth used to the sophistication of Versailles, Nell a spirited and pranking ex-orange-wench. Gwyn nicknamed Louise "Squintabella" for her looks and the "Weeping Willow" for her tendencies to sob. Their relationship was not strictly adversarial; they were known to get together for tea and cards, for example. Basset was the popular game at the time, and Gwyn was a frequent — and high-stakes — gambler.
Gwyn returned to the stage again in late 1670, something Beauclerk calls an "extraordinary thing to do" for a mistress with a royal child. Her return was in Dryden's The Conquest of Granada, a two-part epic produced in December 1670 and January 1671. This may have been her last play; 1671 was almost certainly her last season. Nell Gwyn's theatrical career spanned seven years and ended at the age of 21.
In February 1671, Nell moved into a brick townhouse at 79 Pall Mall. The property was owned by the crown and its current resident was instructed to transfer the lease to Gwyn. It would be her main residence for the rest of her life. Gwyn seemed unsatisfied with being a leasee only – in 1673 we are told in a letter of Joseph Williamson that "Madam Gwinn complains she has no house yett." Gwyn is said to have complained that "she had always conveyed free under the Crown, and always would; and would not accept [the house] till it was conveyed free to her by an Act of Parliament." In 1676, Gwyn would in fact be granted the freehold to the property, which would remain in her family until 1693; as of 1960 the property was still the only one on the south side of Pall Mall not owned by the Crown.
Nell Gwyn gave birth to her second child by the King, James, on 25 December 1671. Sent to school in Paris when he was six, he would die there in 1681. The circumstances of the child's life in Paris and the cause of his death are both unknown, one of the few clues being that he died "of a sore leg", which Beauclerk (p. 300) speculates could mean anything from an accident to poison.
There are two variations about how the elder of her two children by Charles was given the Earldom of Burford, both of which are unverifiable: The first (and most popular) is that when Charles was six years old, on the arrival of the King, Nell said, "Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father." When the King protested her calling Charles that, she replied, "Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him." In response, Charles made him the Earl of Burford. Another is that Nell grabbed Charles and hung him out of a window (or over a river) and threatened to drop him unless Charles was granted a peerage. The King cried out "God save the Earl of Burford!" and subsequently officially created the peerage, saving his son's life. On 21 December 1676, a warrant was passed for "a grant to Charles Beauclerc, the King's natural son, and to the heirs male of his body, of the dignities of Baron of Heddington, co.Oxford, and Earl of Burford in the same county, with remainder to his brother, James Beauclerc, and the heirs male of his body." A few weeks later, James was given "the title of Lord Beauclerc, with the place and precedence of the eldest son of an earl."
Shortly afterwards, the King granted Burford House, on the edge of the Home Park in Windsor, to Nell and their son. She lived there when the King was in residence at the Castle. In addition to the properties mentioned above, Nell had a summer residence on the site of what is now 61-63 King's Cross Road, which enjoyed later popularity as the Bagnigge Wells Spa. According to the London Encyclopedia (Macmillan, 1983) she "entertained Charles II here with little concerts and breakfasts". An inscribed stone of 1680, saved and reinserted in the front wall of the present building, shows a carved mask which is probably a reference to her stage career.
Just after the death of Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans at the turn of the year, on 5 January 1684, King Charles granted his son Charles, Earl of Burford, the title of Duke of St Albans, gave him an allowance of £1,000 a year, and granted him the offices of Chief Ranger of Enfield Chace and Master of the Hawks in reversion (i. e. after the death of the current incumbents).
King Charles died on 6 February 1685. James II, obeying his brother's deathbed wish, "Let not poor Nelly starve," eventually paid most of Gwyn's debts off and gave her a pension of 1500 pounds a year. He also paid off the mortgage on Gwyn's Nottinghamshire lodge in Bestwood, which would remain in the Beauclerk family until 1940. At the same time, James applied pressure to Nell and her son Charles to convert to Roman Catholicism, something she resisted.
In March of 1687, Gwyn suffered a stroke that left her paralysed on one side. In May, a second stroke left her confined to the bed in her Pall Mall house; she made out her will on 9 July. Nell Gwyn died on 14 November 1687, at ten in the evening, less than three years after the King's death. She was 37 years old. Although she left considerable debts, she left a legacy to the Newgate prisoners in London.
She was buried in the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, after a funeral in which Thomas Tenison, the Archbishop of Canterbury, preached a sermon on the text of Luke 15:7 "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."
Nell Gwynn was one day passing through the streets of Oxford, in her coach, when the mob mistaking her for her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth, commenced hooting and loading her with every opprobrious epithet. Putting her head out of the coach window, "Good people", she said, smiling, "you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore.
Nell is also famous for another remark made to her coachman, who was fighting with another man who had called her a whore. She broke up the fight, saying, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about."
Nell was the only one of Charles II's many mistresses to be genuinely popular with the English public. It is thought to have been Nell who persuaded the king to build the Royal Hospital, Chelsea in London for ex-servicemen.
Zoe Tapper played the part of Nell Gwyn in the 2004 film Stage Beauty. Gwyn is a supporting character but some of her history and her current (at the time the movie portrays) role as the King's mistress is mentioned.
Jeanette Winterson's novel 'Oranges are not the only fruit' opens with a Nell Gwynn quote, that gives the title of the novel: Oranges are not the only fruit.