Portrait of Nell Gwyn by Simon Verelst, circa 1680, showing a stylish, pretty, young woman with decolletage

“Pretty, witty Nell”

A Belated Happy Birthday to Nell Gwynn! After making a comedic comeback in 2016 with Laurence Olivier, she may yet make it into film stardom, again. And that’s not bad for a comic actress and favorite mistress of the King of England – from the seventeenth century. This time around, she will return to star (barring development hell) for Working Title Films in a script written by Jessica Swale from her own play Nell Gwynn that won the Olivier Award in London for Best New Comedy in 2016.

Gugu Embatha-Raw created the role of Nell in 2015 in Swale’s play at Shakespeare’s Globe, and was followed by Gemma Arterton the next year in the West End production. Before that Mistress Gwynn had starred in movies played by Anna Neagle, Dorothy Gish, and Mary Pickford, among others, and appeared in a musical by Ivor Novello and a play by George Bernard Shaw. Not a bad resume.

Eleanor “Nell” Gwynn (or Gwyn) was born on 2 February 1650, in London in Covent Garden’s Coal Yard Alley off Drury Lane – possibly. Her mother, Madam Gwynn, ran a brothel, employing her daughters Rose and Nell as servants, not attractions – probably. Her father may have been a Captain Thomas Guine from “ane antient fammilie in Wales.” When famous, Nell herself used a coat of arms similar to those of Gwyn of Llansanwyr. It makes a good story. Definitive records don’t exist.

According to diarist Samuel Pepys, who nicknamed her “pretty, witty Nell,” she was “brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong waters for the guests.” Mary “Orange Moll” Meggs, a retired prostitute, lured her away to work as an “orange-girl” or vendor for a new theatre in 1663, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

The sinful theatres, closed since 1642 during civil war, reopened during the Restoration of King Charles II after the Puritanical rule of Cromwell and son was overthrown. To the erotic delight of audiences, women first appeared on stage for the new comedies of manners. Leading players became stars and Nell Gwynn was one of the first actress celebrities. She was noticed royally.

Her first recorded stage appearance was in 1665, playing the ingénue to Charles Hart’s romantic leading man and her real-life lover at the time. They made up the first, popular “gay couple” of Restoration comedy, the bantering duo that feigns antagonism until the inevitable marriage in the final act. Hart was – possibly – the illegitimate son of actor William Hart, a nephew of William Shakespeare.

To Nell, Charles Hart was Charles the first. Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, one of the court’s “merry gang,” briefly became her Charles the second. The actual king, Charles Stuart took her to dinner after the theatre but, apocryphally – as he didn’t carry cash – she paid. Her response: “This is the poorest company I was ever in!” Shortly afterward Charles II became “her Charles the third.”

Already popular on the London stage, Gwynn became even better known as the king’s mistress. Her royal son, Charles, was surnamed Beauclerk. According to legend, when little Charley misbehaved before the king, his mother said, “Come here, you little bastard, and greet your father. Your majesty has given me no other name to call him by.” The king then later granted his natural son the title of Earl of Burford.

Perhaps her most famous riposte came in 1681 to the unruly crowd rocking her coach and swearing at another royal mistress, “the Catholic whore” Louise de Kérouaille. “Pray good people, be civil,” cried Nell. “You are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore.” As a professional, she was good at improvisation.

On his deathbed in 1685, King Charles reminded his brother, later James II, “let not poor Nelly starve.” She didn’t. But she flourished only two more years, dying at 37 on 14 November 1687. Playwright John Dryden, also Poet Laureate, called her native wit her greatest attribute. Today another Charles Beauclerk lives in London, a direct descendant of “pretty, witty Nell.”