Nell Gwynn

September 20

November 4, 2018

CST’s Courtyard Theater

by Jessica Swale
directed by Christopher Luscombe

Who was Nell Gwynn?

Nell Gwynn was one of the first, and most famous, actresses to set foot on the Restoration stage. Much of what we know about Nell’s early life is based on popular conjecture, conflicting reports, and speculation. Many historical accounts agree she was born Eleanor Gwynn on February 2, 1650, yet due to the ubiquity of her surname, her birthplace is unknown—London, Oxford, and Hereford are among the cities that claim to be Nell’s place of origin. Her father, Thomas Gwynn, is said to have been a soldier who died in debtors’ prison when Nell was a small child. According to some biographies, Nell lived with her mother, Helena, and her older sister Rose in Coal Yard Alley in Convent Garden, London, where they sold food in the streets and served alcohol at the brothel run by her mother.

To transcend a life of hawking food in the streets and drinks in the brothel, Nell looked to the newly constructed theater in Drury Lane, where she became an “orange girl,” selling fruit to the theater’s audience. The Restoration of the English crown marked a turning point for London’s theaters. When the playhouses opened again in 1660, the new king repealed the pre-Civil War ban prohibiting women from performing professionally. Audiences, drawn to the novelty of women on stage, flocked to the theaters.

Nell allegedly caught the eye of Drury Lane’s manager Sir Thomas Killigrew and lead actor Charles Hart, though accounts vary as to whom she met first. One story suggests she first impressed Killigrew when she pleaded for his help getting her sister Rose (who was lover to Killigrew’s son Harry), out of prison. Most accounts agree that Nell and Charles Hart became lovers during her time at Drury Lane.

Under the tutelage of the King’s Company, Nell cultivated her comedic talents and, by age 17, became one of the most beloved actresses on the Restoration stage. She worked alongside John Dryden, dramatist of the King’s Company, who wrote his plays to accentuate Nell’s talents. During a performance at Drury Lane, she allegedly attracted the eye of Charles II, and soon along with Lady Castlemaine and Louise de Keroualle, became one of the king’s many mistresses. Many claim Nell was the King’s favorite, and the three women clashed when it came to matters of Charles II’s affections.

Nell’s personable nature also contributed to her popularity among Londoners. Some accounts of her relationship with the king demonstrate his willingness to consult Nell on political matters. Her blunt and truthful responses are the stuff of legend: according to one report, Charles II once asked her, “What shall I do to please the People of England?” to which Nell responded, “Dismiss your ladies and mind your business, [and] the people of England will soon be pleased.”[1]

Nell gave birth to two of the king’s children—Charles Beauclerk and James Beauclerk, who died as a young boy. She retired from the stage in 1671 at age 21. When Charles II died in 1685, he sought to ensure Nell’s comfort by telling his brother and successor, James II, “Let not poor Nelly starve.” James II kept true to his brother’s wishes.  Nell died, however, just two years later, on November 14, 1687, after a diagnosis of apoplexy earlier that year. Her popularity has transcended her lifetime. Nell’s story remains a source of historical fascination, her talents, charm, and grace securing her place as a beloved figure of the Restoration era.

[1] Kimberly Estep Spangler, "Gwynn, Nell (1650–1687)," (Detroit: Gale, 2005), 660.

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