Inspirations From History: Nell Qwynne (Part 2 – From Actress to Mistress)

In my previous post I talked about Nell Gwynne’s birth, the arguments over which town she was born in and her early career. In this post I will talk about how Nell became one of the most famous Comediennes of her day and how she ended up catching the eye of King Charles II.

Nell became an “Orange Wench” in the new theatre built by Thomas Killigrew, located between Bridges Street and Drury Lane, which opened on 7th May 1663. This new theatre was a gateway for Nell to escape her old life, and she was one of the first orange girls in this theatre. According to Beauclerk, Killigrews Company – which later became known as the King’s Company – has given a license to a Mary Meggs stating that she had:

full, free and sole liberty, license, power and authority to vend, utter and sell oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manner of fruiterers and confectioners wares” (Beauclerk 2006, pp54)

It seems that Meggs, now known as Orange Moll due to her work as an orange seller, was an old friend of Nell’s mother and two of the three places that Moll had available for orange sellers were given to Nell and her sister Rose.

Evidence that Nell was indeed an orange girl is strong. One incident certainly stands out, and that is a remark made by Louise de Keroualle (Nell’s rival mistress), “Anyone might have known she had been an orange wench by her swearing”. Rather than being the put down that Louise intended it just confirmed the confidence, charm and ability to talk that made Nell who she was. And to be an orange seller you certainly had to be able to talk the talk and resort to hard sell tactics; and the girls indulged in banter, flirting, promises to carry messages from the audience to the actors and embarrassing or charming people into buying their ways. The job needed confidence and wit, something that Nell had in bucket loads and would stand her in good stead for her career in the theatre (Hopkins 2000, pp24-25).

Nell’s confidence made her perfect for the stage and joined the Company in 1664, and was trained by Charles Hart (her drama teacher) and John Lacey (her dance teacher). Hart in particular is an interesting character as he is often referred to as the “great-nephew of Shakespeare” and was seen as one of the best actors of the age. Even King Charles II stated that Hart “might teach any King on earth how to comport himself”. Nell made her debut certainly by 1664 when her name is mentioned on a manuscript of Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso or The Wanderer. According to the manuscript a Nelle played the part of Paulina, a courtesan (Beauclerk 2006, pp73; Hopkins 2000, pp40-41). According to many sources, Nell would have been 14 when she first walked the boards of the stage, all of these sources seem to take Nell’s birth date definitely being 1650 and seem convinced that the astrological chart is clear evidence of Nell’s date of birth (Bax 1932, pp44; History Today, 2011; Powell 2010, 5). However if we take the other date of birth suggested then she would have been 22. But due to a lack of evidence all we can say is that Nell could have been an age anywhere between 14 and 22 when she first starred in her play.

During her short theatre career Nell starred in many productions but her main strength was comedy. So much so that Samuel Pepys, who was a regular visitor to Nell’s theatre, commented on the fact that she was much better in comedy than tragedy. In his diaries, he says about The Maiden Queen (a play about two mad lovers which became a huge hit):

Which indeed the more I see, the more I like, and is an excellent play, and so done by Nell, her merry part, as cannot be better done in nature” (Hopkins 2000, 62)

Indeed, King Charles was also a big fan of the play and “graced it with the title of his play”. Was this when Nelly first caught his eye?

It was after Nell briefly left the Company and moved to Epsom with her lover Buckhurst that things really started picking up for her. She left for Epsom in July 1667 but was back in London 6 weeks later and back on the stage. And by the time Nelly was starting to perform The Great Favourite at the end of 1667 she had certainly caught the Kings eye. Pepys was informed on 11th January 1668 that “the king did send several times for Nelly, and she was with him” (Hopkins 2000, 86).

And even in those early stages Nell was proving to be one of Charles’ favourite mistresses. She was not power hungry like his other mistresses were or would be, and she knew how to make him laugh. For instance she came up with a nickname for Charles – she called him Charles III due to the fact that she had already had two previous lovers by the name of Charles. In fact Nell never asked for anything from the King, unlike the others such as Barbara Castlemaine or Louise de Keroualle and in return she got nothing from the King other than his attention, and she was fine with this.

Her life at court was just beginning and soon she would leave the theatre behind. Her wit would make her popular at court and she would find herself locking heads with Charles’ other mistresses.

Bax, C, 1932, Pretty Witty Nell: An Account of Nell Gwyn and her Environment, available through google books ( PR9&dq=nell+gwynne&ots=cyAIZk_J7e&sig=
8tka9CtAAyR1SmDJwWXKEWjRUjo#v=onepage&q=14&f=false) accessed 03 March 2012

Beauclerk, C, 2006, Nell Gwyn: A Biography, Pan Macmillian: London

Crow, C, 2011, The First Actresses: Nell Gwynne to Sarah Siddons, History Today (online) available at ( accessed 03 March 2012

Hopkins, G, 2000, Nell Gwynne: A Passionate Life, Robson Books: London

Powell, S, 2010, The Life of Nell Gwynne: Staging A Legacy, Meredith College (online) available at ( accessed 02 March 2012

Picture Source

Brown, M, 2011, Portrait of Nell Gwynne Uncovered, The Guardian (online) available at ( accessed 02 March 2012

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s