In my previous post on Nell, I spoke briefly about her career in the theatre and how she caught the eye of Charles II. Now I will concentrate on her years spent as Charles II’s mistress, her life at court and her relationship with the other mistresses.
“Pray good people, be civil! I am the protestant whore!” is the famous quote, as Nell climbed out of the coach loaned to her by Louise De Keroualle to face a mob surrounding it. They thought she was Louise, due to the fact that the coach had Louise’s device on the doors. Yet as Nell emerged the crowd quietened, and began to shout words of support to her. She was certainly popular, and not afraid to admit who she was and what she was.
Before we go into details on Nell’s life as mistress to Charles II, it’s important to put her into context with Charles II’s other women. In particular I want to mention Barbara Villiers and Louise De Kerouelle – both of these women have gone down in history as women who were power hungry, women who got their own way and knew how to wrap Charles around their little fingers. With Barbara I am certainly of the belief that she wanted power, money and status, and she knew how to get her own way. As the mother of many of Charles’ bastards, there came a point where she wanted status for them too and there is a wonderful story of her threatening to dash her son’s brains out on the floor in front of Charles unless he have the child a title. Nell also did something of the sort, jealous that both Barbara and Louise’s sons had been elevated. She hung her son – she hung little Charles Beauclerk (born in 1670) out of the window threatening to drop him unless the King granted her child a title. Charles, below was shocked and shouted out, “God save the Earl of Burford”. Barbara Villiers was also notoriously greedy, demanding land from Charles and then selling it off so she could pay off her gambling debts – Charles gave her Nonsuch Palace (the beautiful palace built by Henry VIII) and she sold the land and building materials off, destroying the palace in the process (The Friends of Whitehall 2007). Barbara never changed it seems, and remained controversial until her death. According to Hopkins she “grew old disgracefully” and married Major-General Robert Fielding who gambled away her fortune. She died on 9th October 1709.
Louise De Kerouelle was not quite so bad, however she still had that lust for power and status. Louise, french and Catholic, knew she had to rule the King as if she were his Queen and knew how to do so, knowing that his own Queen was no threat whatsoever. However Louise was the jealous type, and could not tolerate the other mistresses. She would outshine all others, knowing that Barbara Villiers was past it and she believed that Nell was just a passing fancy of the king – in her mind, class would outshine class and she would come out on top. But her way of getting things was to turn on the tears, and she had many, MANY bouts of public uncontrollable sobbing. It was this that made Charles take refuge with Nell, she was down to earth and could make him laugh. Not only that, she rarely asked for anything. With Nell, what you saw was what you got.
So what was so different about Nell? First and foremost, she could make the king laugh and there are many examples of her doing so (in particular when it came to her making fun of Louise!). One such example comes from December 1674 when Louise went into a great period of mourning for the Chevalier De Rohan (a man from an ancient and noble French family). Despite not being related, Louise believed she had the right to go into mourning for this man due to her own ancient nobility. The next day Nell entered the court dressed in black, crying and moaning. She was asked by a confused courtier in front of the King and Louise what was wrong and Louise answered, “Why, have you not heard of my loss in the death of the Cham of Tartary?”. The Courtier the asked what relation this man was to Nell and she replied, “Oh, exactly the same relation that the Chevalier de Rohan was to Cartwheel”. You can imagine a certain wicked twinkle in her eye as she said it. The comment made the King burst into laughter. And this was not the first time Nell would do things like this to Louise, whenever Louise went into mourning for a member of the nobility she had no relation to – for instance when Louise went into mourning over the death of the King of Sweden, Nelly arrived dressed in black again for the death of the king of Portugal. She then suggested that they should divide the world in two, and Louise could have the northern hemisphere whilst she would have the south. Of course the King found this particularly funny.
During Nell’s time at court she also spent a lot less than the others. Her annual expenditure was about £60,000 whereas both Barbara and Louise’s was much more (forgive me for I do not have figures for Barbara or Louise). Indeed, Nelly’s annual pension was less than the other two also – she was paid approximately £6000 per year, and along side which she also received wine licences for around £8000 per year, along side other such licenses Hopkins reckons she brought in around £30,000 per year. Alongside Barbara’s £2.25 million and over £4 million by Louise, it was certainly a very modest amount. Indeed unlike Barbara and Louise, Nell certainly seemed unphased by jewellery – her only known vice was a necklace known as the Ruperta Necklace, a present from Prince Rupert of the Rhine to Elizabeth of Bohemia (his cousin). Another piece of work she allowed herself was a rather extravagant bedstead costing over £1000, the decorations of which included the kings head, eagles, crowns and cupids as well as (rather morbidly) Louise lying in a grave with an unnamed Eastern pomegranate. An estimate in today’s prices has come up with an amount of £250,000, if a bedstead of the same extravagance were to be commissioned. It seems she also had a taste for silver and commissioned many items to have her initials on them, particularly her silver plate.
During the 1680’s, Nell had a rough time. She learned in particular that her youngest son, James, had died. He was just eight years old, and had died in Paris where he was being tutored. So little is known about him that we are unsure of when exactly he died, but in a letter filed between 27 May and 2 June, Sir John Verney write’s to Sir Raph Verney that “Nell Gwynne;s second son is dead in France”. According to Hopkins, Nell was a broken woman following this news, as can be expected. There is very little mentioned of her for the rest of 1680 which suggests she went into a deep mourning.
Nell was certainly very kind to her friends. In 1679, it has been suggested that she aided Samuel Pepys in his release from the Tower, where he was imprisoned on the charge of selling secrets to the French.
There is also a very strong tradition that during her time as mistress, Nell helped found the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, after she listened to the story of a disabled soldier begging for money in the street. According to the tale, taking pity on the man and remembering her own father, she appealed to Charles to provide something for them, thus resulting in the hospital. Whilst we cannot be sure whether this is true or not (there are other versions), it certainly seems like Nelly despite it being of doubtful authenticity. The legend still rings true today however (Please see http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=98497).
Come 1680, it seems that Charles II began to calm down somewhat. By 6th February 1685 he was dead – he had the ports closed to a message could be prevented from getting to his eldest son Monmouth and his brother James was close at hand. Charles converted to Catholicism on his death bed – he also blessed each of his sons (except for Monmouth) and is famously quoted as saying:
“”Let not poor Nelly starve”
The evidence is conclusive, both Evelyn and Bishop Burnet, Bartillon and the Dutch Ambassador of the time confirm it.
Following Charles II’s death, and his brother’s accession Nell found things more and more difficult. Credot’s chased her for money and she feared that she would end up in a debtors prison like her father. James II, thankfully, sorted everything for her, and emphasised that she always held the love of the people above positions at court.
By March 1687, Nell was seriously ill and contemporary letters tell us that she was paralysed down one side of her body. By 14th November 1687 the most outspoken woman of her time, the most famous, was dead. Nell Gwynne had her final breath.
In my opinion, Nell Gwynne had the most remarkable life of any woman in history. Her story was that which is seen in modern day fairy tales; that of rags to riches. She went from orange seller, to actress to royal mistress and held the love of a King. She didn’t hold his love through her ambition or her greed, but because she was down to earth and could make him laugh. She truly is an inspiration.
Beauclerk, C, 2005, Nell Gwynn: A Biography: Pan Macmillon: London
Fraser, A, 1979. King Charles II, Weidenfeld & Nicholson: London
Fraser, A, 1984, The Weaker Wessel, Phoenix Press: London
Friends of Whitehall, 2007, Nonsuch Palace, available at: http://www.friendsofwhitehallcheam.co.uk/Whitehall_Nonsuch_Palace.htm (accessed 09 March 2012)
Hopkins, G, 2000, Nell Gwynne: A Passionate Life, Robson Books: London
Barbara Villiers, http://www.artsunlight.com/artist-NL/N-L0021-Sir-Peter-Lely/N-L0021-0004-barbara-villiers.html (accessed 09 March 2012)
Nell Gwynne (believed), 2012, http://www.christies.com/lotfinderimages/d49427/d4942789r.jpg (accessed 09 March 2012) Many sources believe this to be Nell Gwynne rather than Barbara Villiers
louise de keroualle http://royalsplendourinhistory.blogspot.com/2010/07/louise-de-keroualle-mistress-to-king.html (accessed 09 March 2012)