Inspirations from History: Nell Gwynne (Part 1 – Birth and Early Life)

Originally I intended to write one long post on Nell and why she is so amazing. However I realised after starting this that it would have to be split up into multiple parts. Her life is so interesting and so full of controversy. Therefore I decided that this first post would be all about Nell’s early life and the arguments surrounding her date and place of birth as well as information on her family and early career. Not surprisingly, decent sources on Nell are very few and far between but I have done my best with what I have to hand – the sources get better the further into her life and career at court you go and so as of the next part you will see a far larger list of sources.

Everyone has heard of Nell Gwynne, even if people don’t know who exactly she was they mostly know she was an orange seller and an actress. In fact, Nell Gwynne was much much more than that, she was one of the first actresses in England and one of the finest Comediennes, and she caught the eye of King Charles II. Nell was so well known by the people, they loved her and according to various stories (which may or may not be apocryphal but more on that later) she was heavily involved in charity work also. She was, in the words of Samuel Pepys, “pretty, witty Nell” and she was certainly a woman who could make not only King laugh, but the entire court as well.

But who was Nell, and why did she catch the eye of the King, and why did she stay by his side until his death? The first time I ever heard of Nell, or Nelly as she is so often known, was when I watched Charles II: The Power & The Passion for the first time some years ago. I loved her character – this cockney girl who caught the Kings Eye whilst he was watching one of her plays, a girl who won people over and who could make anyone smile. Recently I have been doing quite a bit of reading in and around Nell, and I have come to admire her more and more. She certainly had a remarkable life, and her story really is one of “rags to riches”. This is her story.
Nell’s date of birth is widely believed to be 2nd February 1650 at a time of 6 o’clock in the morning. This is based on an astrological chart attributed to Elias Ashmole. Whilst Nell’s place of birth is left blank many of Nell’s previous biographer’s seem to agree that the horoscope gives a true portrait of Nell’s character – beautiful, charming, witty (Beauclerk 2006, 5). However, in “Nell Gwynne: A Passionate Life” by Graham Hopkins (2000, 5) it is stated that this date of birth is based purely on that one source and the likelihood of someone from such humble beginnings knowing their exact time and date of birth with such precision is rather odd – these things did not tend to be recorded. Hopkin’s study of Ashmole’s horoscope brings to light some problems – firstly Ashmole was a contemporary of Nell and certainly would have known she was mistress to the King and the most famous lady of the time, and he was a name dropper, and in his diaries there is no mention of Nell or her horoscope. Secondly the horoscope itself does not contain the persons name rather was added as an afterthought and in different handwriting. According to Hopkins, the fact that the place of birth is left blank also causes concern as these horoscopes had to be based somewhere, and why is it that someone would know the time and date of their birth but not the place? The only other date that has been suggested for Nell’s date of birth is “about 1642” and based on “The Managers Notebook” published in 1838 – although Hopkins states that there is no evidence cited for this, and most of the information provided in the article is wrong anyway (Hopkins 2000, 5-7). Regarding her place of birth, there are 3 cities which have been argued thanks to tradition rather than any historic proof – London, Oxford and Hereford. The claim held by Oxford is based entirely on the basis that Nell’s son Charles Beauclerk was granted the title of Earl of Burford and Baron Headington in 1676 – both towns being close to Oxford. However could this be due to other reasons than respect of his mothers birthplace? Indeed Charles may have respected Burford due to the town being the site of a Levellers mutiny against Cromwell in 1649 (Hopkins 2000, 7). Another connection is that Nell’s father may well have died there in a debtors prison, which may well be why Nell was argued to be so charitable in memory of her father. According to Beauclerk (2006, 11) Nell’s father may well have been a man named Thomas Gwynne, a man who fought with the Royalists during the English Civil War, and Oxford became the base of Charles I’s during this time. London can also be argued against despite the fact that Nell spent the majority of her life there and the fact that she is often portrayed as a fun loving girl with a cheeky, cockney accent. Hopkins shows us that both suggested sites of Nell’s birth come from hugely unreliable theories written by Captain Alexander Smith. Hereford really seems like the most likely and the town goes to huge lengths to promote Nelly as their own and the town is hugely awash with evidence. Albeit circumstantial in many respects it certainly speaks volumes – for example Pipewell Street where she was supposedly born was renamed Gwynne Street in 1855; and Nell’s Grandson Dr James Beauclerk was bishop of Hereford for 40 years during which he did not dismiss the claims and surely had he not believed it then he would have said something? However the Bishop mentions nothing of it in any of his writings so perhaps this may be a step too far. It is also said that James brought the house where Nell was born and had it pulled down to make more space in ground owned by the church. However whilst the records show this land was owned by the church, the house was demolished at some point between 1858 and 1859, a good few years after the death of Nell’s grandson! A plaque was fixed on the outer face of the garden wall surrounding the grounds commemorating the birthplace of Nell Gwynne, and Hopkin’s makes a remark that certainly rings true; “it would still appear to be a brave move by any member of the clergy, let alone a bishop, to promote the birthplace of such a notorious courtesan. Unless of course, there was a convincing historical reason to do so” (Hopkins 2000, 10). Maybe this is why the plaque mentioned her role in the founding of Chelsea Hospital, although in the original plaque her date of death was incorrect, showing 1691 instead of 1687 – and indeed her role in founding the hospital is questionable. The original plaque was vandalised and replaced with the circular plaque that can be seen today.
Whether Nell was born in 1642 or 1650 and whether she was born in London, Oxford or Hereford she was certainly born into an uncertain time, into a country that was split apart by Civil War. Surviving records of the time have not survived well and certainly parish records were often not kept well enough to survive the years. Of course, if a record of Nell’s birth could be found it would settle the debate once and for all. I have to say that I agree more with Hopkins’ argument that Hereford is the more likely, despite still being clouded by doubt and circumstantial evidence. The argument put forward by Beauclerk just does not ring true and is based much more on conjecture than the arguments given by Hopkins. Beauclerk argues that Oxford is the more likely birth place due to its links with Nell’s supposed father being held in the debtors prison in the town and his links to the royalist army, as well as Nell’s sister Rose stating in a petition for bail that her father had “lost all he had in service to the late king”, and that it is likely following his death that Nell’s mother took the girls back to London (Beauclerk 2006, 12)
What of Nell’s early life? It seems according to both works by Hopkins and Beauclerk that not too much can be said about it as we have very little to go on. Indeed Beauclerk seems intents with making wild guesses about a little girl who would have run around causing trouble in the slums of London, seeming to know exactly what she would have thought and what she would have dreamed about. In fact, there is a whole chapter which seemed dedicated to young Nelly dreaming about her future with the King including lines such as “Nell would have been in her element” and “she would have had little difficulty procuring a pair of stilts on which to tilter out onto The Strand…and the little girl on stilts would have rejoiced to stand level with the man who would one day share the secrets of her soul(Beauclerk 2006, 12). We cannot make assumptions like this on Nell’s early life, instead we must look at the evidence and Hopkins does this much more convincingly. For instance his chapters on Nell’s family and early life give good discussion into how Nell fit into the historical world around her rather than making assumptions. For instance, Hopkins tells us that Nell’s mother Helena worked in various brothels and taverns, and that she died after having drowned whilst drunk and that we can get a good idea of Nell’s early career thanks to plays written (possibly) by John Lacey, who knew Nell well, in 1677:

“To whose employment was with open throat
To cry fresh herrings, even at ten a groat”

Children were often employed to sell merchants wares in the streets, and Nell has also had work attributed to her including that of an “oyster wench” and “cinder-wench” (someone who raked up cinders, burnt coal and wood to resell as cheap fuel. We also know, reliably coming from Nell herself regarding her early career in which she mentions she was “brought up in a brothel to fill strong waters to the gentlemen” following a falling out with a fellow actress. It is likely that the brothel in which she worked for the notorious Madame Ross (Hopkins 2000, 14-21). However, it was being given work as an orange seller in the new theatre built by Killigrew in the Drury Lane area that Nell really began to make her mark and it opened doors for her to step into the shoes of an actress and eventually catch the eye of a King.

Beauclerk, C, 2006, Nell Gwyn: A Biography, Pan Macmillian: London
Hopkins, G, 2000, Nell Gwynne: A Passionate Life, Robson Books: London

Image credits:

Portrait of Nell Gwynne by Sir Peter Lely: (accessed 01 March 2012)
Nell Gwynne and Charles II from Charles II: The Power and the Passion: (accessed 01 March 2012)

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