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The royal European courts were unsurpassed for their glamour, wealth, fame, danger, treachery, and politics. The royal mistress was at the center of that world — admired for her beauty and sensuality; feared for the power she wielded; even vilified, envied, and resented. In times when women had very little power, the royal mistress had enormous influence, and yet she is seldom mentioned in official histories.
In Cupid and the King, Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent ...
The royal European courts were unsurpassed for their glamour, wealth, fame, danger, treachery, and politics. The royal mistress was at the center of that world — admired for her beauty and sensuality; feared for the power she wielded; even vilified, envied, and resented. In times when women had very little power, the royal mistress had enormous influence, and yet she is seldom mentioned in official histories.
In Cupid and the King, Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent recounts the stories of five very different women, each of whom became a celebrated — or notorious — courtesan:
Nell Gwyn, the bawdy, vivacious orange seller turned actress who endeared herself to Charles II — and the country — with her wit and down-to-earth manner
Madame de Pompadour, the extravagant, elegant maitresse-en-titre of Louis XV who became one of the great patrons of her time while enraging the people of France
Marie Walewska, who became Napoleon's mistress to save her country
Lola Montez, the flamboyant, scandalous Irish beauty who reinvented herself as a Spanish aristocrat to win the heart of Ludwig I of Bavaria
Lillie Langtry, the legendary beauty immortalized by the most famous artists of her day and the only woman to completely monopolize Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII
Written with an insider's keen understanding of court life and filled with delicious details born of impeccable research, Cupid and the King explores a little-known chapter of the history of women's roles in the royal bedrooms of Europe.
MISTRESS OF CHARLES II OF ENGLAND
"The amours of a good king are always deemed a pardonable weakness, providing they are not attended with injustice or violence."
"Permit me, Sir, to help you to a whore:
Kiss her but once, you'll ne'er want Cleveland more.
She's Buckhurst's whore at present, but you know —
When sovereign wants a whore, the subject must forgo."
Etherege (Dedicated to Charles II, about Nell Gwyn)
"He [Charles II] thought no man sincere, nor woman honest, out of principle; but that whenever they proved so, humour or vanity was at the bottom of it. No one, he fancied, served him out of love, and therefore he endeavoured to be quits with the world by loving others as little as he thought they loved him."
Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, 1643-1715
No one can be sure exactly where Nell Gwyn was born, but most of her biographers agree that her birth occurred in miserable circumstances in Hereford, on February 2, 1650. Her father may have come from a respectable Welsh family, and was rumored to have been a captain, most probably a Royalist.
Like so many others caught up in the army in those troubled times, Thomas Gwyn was broken by the Civil War. When he married Eleanor Smith of London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields at Oxford, the union was considered beneath him, and he could scarcely have married lower. Mrs. Gwyn, who had come to Royalist Oxford at the start of the Civil War, was an alcoholic who shared out her favors most liberally. After the war, Thomas Gwyn returned to his father's birthplace of Hereford and kept a tavern — and most probably a brothel as well. It is likely that both Nell and her older sister Rose were born here. After lying low for a few years, Gwyn returned to Oxford, where he was promptly put in prison for his Royalist sympathies. Mrs. Gwyn and her daughters fled to St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where they lived in a cellar in the squalid Coal Alley Yard, Drury Lane. Thomas Gwyn died in Oxford in prison before the Restoration, without ever seeing his family again.
While their mother worked ostensibly selling ale at Mrs. Ross' "house of ill repute," the barefooted Nell and Rose hawked fish and oysters in the filthy streets around their home. Both girls quickly learned to live on their wits and entice customers with their cheeky repartee. By the time pert little Nellie was nine, she had joined her mother and sister at Mrs. Ross's. But although Nell later maintained that her duties involved no more than filling the customers' cups with "strong waters," John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, had his doubts when he wrote that she was
By Madame Ross exposed to town, I mean to those who will give half-a-crown
— the going rate for her whores. But then Nell Gwyn's name was often coupled with that of Rochester, and she may even have been his mistress before she met the king.
Two districts of London were the main centers of activity at this time: the City and the Whitehall Palace area. Here the money was made and business was done, and inevitably the need for relaxation and entertainment, as well as blessed relief from Cromwell's Puritan restrictions, led to the rapid spread of taverns and brothels.
Nell Gwyn was ten years old in the summer of 1660 when Charles Stuart returned to England to be restored as the rightful king. No one in London on that bright May day, least of all an impressionable young girl, could forget the sight of the darkly handsome young monarch, riding at the head of a procession of twenty thousand cavalry and soldiers, smiling and waving to his cheering subjects. The sun shone, the streets were garlanded and the children ran in front of his prancing charger throwing petals in its path.
After years of austerity and the horror of civil war, England rejoiced and relaxed. Among the main factors in favor of the Restoration of Charles II had been the fear in the minds of thinking people that the country would be dominated by the army. Charles had endured exile and the knowledge that his father had lost his crown, and his head, as a result of his intolerance, inflexibility and apparent lack of charm. His son determined that he would lack none of the qualities needed "to regain his throne, retain his throne, and maintain the legitimate succession to that throne" (Imbert-Terry), and swore he would never go on his travels again.
Hypocrisy had characterized the Puritan domination of England during the Commonwealth years; with the Restoration, the people's reaction to the end of the enforced restriction of their pleasures was an orgy of immorality. For Charles, tolerance became the keyword of his reign, and the easygoing attitude of the monarch permeated all aspects of society.
In questions of behavior, tone or fashion, the people looked to the king and his court, an entourage dominated by wits and beauties. This was a court of youth — Charles was twenty-nine, his brother James, Duke of York, was twenty-seven. Of the king's closest companions, the Duke of Buckingham was thirty-two, the earls of Sunderland, Dorset and Arran were in their twenties, and the cleverest, wittiest and most debauched of them all, the Earl of Rochester, was still in his teens.* Inevitably, these young men, exiled for years and deprived of their homeland by joining their king abroad, made merry with their monarch on his triumphant return. They had all suffered hardship and danger, and the strain of an uncertain future. The restored Charles could now reward their constancy and loyalty by granting his friends titles and positions which would guarantee great prestige and yield them enormous incomes.
At the time of the Restoration, London's inns hung out their old signs again: The King's Head, The Duke's Head and The Crown. Their patrons spilled into the streets, overfed and usually drunk. Strict observance of the Sabbath was no longer enforced, and morals were extremely lax. The streets were filthy — muddy in wet weather and dust-filled when dry, unsafe to walk because of the likelihood of attack by footpads and rogues, and incredibly noisy, the cries of the hawkers, porters and watermen mixing with the myriad signs creaking over almost every doorway, and the crash and clatter of horses, carriages and carts over the uneven cobbles. Much traffic centered on the river, as it was the only swift, safe avenue of conveyance (except when shooting the rapids under London Bridge) through the capital. The old city was concentrated along the banks of the Thames.
Maypoles were re-erected on their former sites and traditional dances performed around them once more. The common folk and the gentry dressed in bright colors again, the fashionable covered in a profusion of ribbons, ruffles and lace, broad-brimmed feathered hats, short cloaks and square-toed high-heeled shoes. Ladies favored green silk stockings with diamond-buckled black velvet garters below the knee, though the French ambassador, le Comte de Comminges, reported to his sovereign that the English ladies often preferred to show "their white satin skins by wearing none." Gentlemen wore powdered periwigs and fringed, scented gloves, and carried special combs for their wigs and quizzing glasses with which to examine those of their neighbors. Pocket watches were worn, snuff was used, and both men and women carried muffs. Ladies dyed their hair in exotic colors, sported loose curls on their foreheads and stuck black beauty patches on their white-powdered faces.
The king was famous for his courtesy and courtly manners (just as he was for his amours), but the bad language adopted by his young courtiers while in exile was enthusiastically copied by all classes of society. The courtiers' table manners were appalling, and swearing was energetic and commonplace. When the Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany visited London, his secretary noted:
there are no forks, nor vessels to supply water for the hands, which are washed in a basin full of water that serves for all the company; or perhaps at the end of dinner, they dip the end of the napkin into the beaker of water set before each guest, and with this they clean their teeth, and wash their hands.
The gossip and scandals of the court and society were recorded with relish by the diarists of the day, such as Samuel Pepys (who, at the age of twenty-six, had come from Holland on the same ship as the king), John Evelyn, Aubrey and le Comte de Grammont, and dozens of lesser known and anonymous writers. The middle classes lived lives as dissolute as those of the courtiers they emulated.
One of the first decisions taken by King Charles was to restore the theatrical life of London, which had been banned for twenty-three years. Starved of entertainment during the lackluster years of the Commonwealth, the people looked to the revival of the theaters as the preminent source of amusement and social life. Two theaters were immediately commissioned: the King's House in Drury Lane, known simply as "The Theatre," and the Duke's House (known as "The Opera"), named in honor of the Duke of York.
The dashing young men of the court were matched by the talented, and equally young, writers of the day — Dryden, Etherege, Wycherley and Sedley — all in their twenties. The young king at the center of this high-spirited, brilliant society was himself charming, witty and generous. He encouraged a series of glittering entertainments to be staged so that he could meet and be seen by his people. The highways of the kingdom were choked with coachloads of subjects making their colorful way to London — a huge caravanserai, all anxious to catch a glimpse of the sovereign.
The king was a fine and worthy sight to see. Tall and slender and immensely fit, due to his constant pursuit of sport of all kinds, Charles Stuart always rose early and rode or walked briskly in St. James's Park before breakfast, exhausting his slower entourage. He played tennis or pall-mall (a kind of croquet) almost daily. He was dark, and his face was long and marked by deep lines of suffering, which made him look older than his years. He did not follow the current fashion and wear a wig, but allowed his fine black hair to fall to his shoulders in ringlets. His best feature was his eyes, alert, intelligent and as black as his hair. His mouth, sensual and sardonic, was quick to smile and reply to any witticism with one of his own, in a melodic, deep voice. His subjects, men and women, all agreed: their sovereign was most attractive to his people.
A carnival atmosphere permeated all classes of society throughout that glorious summer of 1660. When the queen mother and her daughter, Charles's adored sister Henrietta Anne (Minette), arrived from France in the autumn, the festivities began all over again. No sooner had the country finished celebrating the return of their king than it was time to celebrate his coronation. Charles II was crowned with all the pageantry of monarchy, and to the rejoicing of his people.
By 1662, with England's king firmly established on his throne, it was thought time for the succession to be assured. Charles already had five illegitimate children, four boys and a girl. Some thought he might be willing to legitimize the eldest, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, when his mother, the much-maligned Lucy Walters, was dead, but under English law this would not allow Monmouth to become his father's heir. The queen mother also objected strongly; in 1659, Charles had forced his brother James to marry the commoner he had made pregnant. (Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, was to be the mother of the next two queens, Mary and Anne.) There has always been speculation that Charles had actually married Lucy Walters, but in his later years the king himself denied this.
The consort chosen for Charles was Catherine de Braganza, daughter of King John IV of Portugal. She was rich, though sadly deformed, plain, dull and in bad health. To make matters worse, according to the Spanish ambassador, it was common knowledge in both Spain and Portugal that she could not have children. However, as the king took exception to the ambassador's overbearing manner, he chose to ignore this piece of information. The union would certainly please France's Louis XIV, who had sided with Portugal in its long-drawn-out struggle against Spain for independence. Although France was at peace with Spain, this did not prevent Louis from coveting the Spanish Netherlands. The marriage would bring England firmly into the French network of European alliances. (Catherine's dowry included Tangiers and Calcutta, which marked the beginning of England's interference in India. She is probably best remembered for introducing tea to England. Drinking chocolate was also first imported at this time from Madrid, and vin pétillant, or champagne, from France became fashionable.)
Pious and good, the little queen devoted herself to her religious duties and to trying to please her husband, whom she was to adore all her life. Charles was always kind to her, but faithful he could not be. Although Catherine suffered terribly from jealousy at first, she reconciled herself to her husband's infidelities, and even came to quite like some of his mistresses. Her efforts to join in the gaieties of Charles' court endeared her to him, and gently eased her own pain.
During the previous year, 1661, the eleven-year-old Nell had witnessed the construction of the King's House theater in Drury Lane. Charles II had commissioned Tom Killigrew, dramatist and royal jester, the son of one of his most respected courtiers, to form a company of players. Killigrew had befriended Rose Gwyn and offered her and Nell jobs as "orange girls" in the new theater. A friend of Mrs. Gwyn known as "Orange Moll" had the license to sell oranges, lemons, fruits and sweetmeats to the thirsty theatergoers; "strong waters" were banned in case they should inflame the tempers of the patrons. Orange Moll supervised the girls, dressed them and trained them to sell her fruit for whatever they could get above her basic price. Competition was fierce to attract buyers in the audience, as "orange girls" were considered little better than prostitutes, and success depended as much on a girl's looks as on her line of patter.
London's theatrical life had lain dormant for so long that its revival brought a number of changes. Men had always played the female roles, but now, for the first time, at the express wish of the king, women were allowed to appear on the stage. All the scenery was new, and the queen, her ladies, and some of the richer courtiers gave their own clothes to be worn in productions. Formerly, sovereigns had only attended the court theaters attached to their palaces, and would never visit a public playhouse. Now that the king and his brother were each patrons of a company, they attended regularly, as did the queen, the Duchess of York, the courtiers and their ladies.
To make best use of the daylight streaming through the open roof, performances began at three in the afternoon. Ladies who joined the beaux in the pit audience wore vizards or masks to hide their identity or their blushes, and to spy unrecognized on their husbands. Prostitutes also wore black visors and plied their wares in the pit. The actresses were all given the courtesy title of "Mrs." or "Mistress" ("Miss" in those days had less respectful connotations — a "miss" was a whore!). Such courtesy did not extend to the orange girls, whose exchanges with the town beaux were ribald to the point of bawdiness and were considered part of the interval entertainment. Thomas Shadwell in The Sullen Lovers summed up the times: "Methinks it's as pretty an honest, drinking, whoring age as a man would wish to live in."
Pert little Nellie, with her red curls, cheeky turned-up nose and dimples, sold oranges in the pit for eighteen months. During that time "sweet Nell of old Drury" became, at twelve years old, the mistress of a Captain Duncan (who was said to be "Nell-sick" with love), and although kept by him at the Cock and Pie Inn next to the theater, she merrily "entertained" others.
Nell's sister Rose had become the mistress of "Lying" Harry, son of Thomas Killigrew. When he cast her off without the traditional gratuity on parting, she married a highwayman and indulged in a little whoring to make ends meet. Rose and her husband were caught burgling the house of one of her customers and thrown into Newgate Prison. Due to Nell's pleas, Thomas Killigrew used his influence to free his son's former mistress. This brought Nell to his attention, and eventually to the stage. Killigrew could not help being impressed and amused by Nell's ingenuous approach when she pointed out that " 'twas surely a pity and a waste to let a young whore scarred with neither the pox nor infected with the clap to languish in prison." Rose's pardon and release were duly arranged.
Like most of the young girls of London, Nellie thought of the king as her romantic ideal. His marriage, she said, had broken her heart, leaving her no reason (she added with a laugh) to hold on to her virginity.
Next in the Playhouse she took her degree
As men commence at University.
No doctors, till they've masters been before:
So she no player was till first a whore.
Stagestruck and very pretty, Nell soon caught the eye of the playwright John Lacy and Shakespeare's great-nephew Charles Hart. Lacy taught her to dance while Hart trained her for the stage (and, it was said, "all else beside"). She was totally illiterate (she could only form a crude E.G. for her signature all her life), and had to learn all her roles by rote, but she had a good memory and learned quickly. Her first appearance on the stage, aged fifteen, was in a play by Dryden, The Indian Emperor, and she acquitted herself well. An intelligent girl, Nell had an instinct for invention and impromptu lines. Pepys was a regular in the audience, and he claimed that she saved many a poor play with her ready wit and humor, and said her voice was good and carried well over the noise of the rowdiest audience. A born comedienne, she never succeeded in tragic parts. Her debut was an immediate success, and she was invited to join the company of the King's House.
Small and slim, with lovely legs and tiny feet, Nell was left remarkably unscarred by her years of running barefoot in London's filthy streets. She was justifiably proud of her thick hair — auburn with golden highlights — which hung in loose waves below her shoulders. Her eyes were a deep blue, framed by well-shaped brows and long, dark eyelashes, a striking contrast with her hair. Her skin was clear, with rosy cheeks, and her full, invariably laughing mouth (described by an admirer as "an out-mouth that makes mine water at it") showed perfect small teeth. The whole effect was of an enchanting, merry urchin. Besides her beauty, Nell's greatest assets were her sense of fun and her good humor. Laughter suffused her whole face, and she infected all around her with her vitality. Pepys thought her delightful, and described her at fifteen as "pretty, witty Nellie at The King's House."
Dryden was so taken with the young actress's fresh beauty and eagerness to learn that he offered to write for her as long as she was taught to act and given a wardrobe. The sponsorship of such an influential playwright was all-important, as actresses had to supply their own accessories — petticoats, collars, neckerchiefs, silk stockings, fans, garters and so on; the theater supplied only the basic costumes. As well as learning to act — which consisted of posturing, pouting and generally flinging her arms about — Nell had to be seen "on the town" in order to further her career and improve her station in life. Accompanying Charles Hart, Nellie was able to observe the courtiers, rakes and gallants on the rampage, whether drunk and disorderly at the Cock and Pie or dining with the members of King Charles' newly formed Royal Society. Fortunately for Nellie, Restoration manners were as uncouth as the language at Charles' court. Hundreds of broadsheets, bawdy songs and ballads were printed to entertain the masses, often ridiculing members of society. Nell had had few opportunities to hear fine English spoken, other than the occasional sermon at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and although the struggle for survival in Coal Alley Yard and in Mrs. Ross' brothel may have sharpened her wits, it had done little to dilute her dreadful swearing. In every way, Nell Gwyn could be said to have epitomized the true spirit of the people during the merry Restoration.
Fate now for her did its whole force engage,
And from the pit she's mounted to the stage,
There in full lustre did her glories shine,
And, long eclipsed, spread forth their light divine.
Still only fifteen, Nell moved from one stage success to the next and became officially, as a member of the theater's company, a King's Servant, with the attached privileges and social status, a salary of three pounds a week and her own dressing room. But the outbreak of the plague in 1665 forced the playhouses to close, and a frustrated and frightened Nell had to gather up her mother and her belongings and flee with the court to Oxford for more than a year. When the playhouses reopened, the Great Fire emptied London once again a year later.
However, it was not long before the theaters were rebuilt, and by the end of 1666 Nell's conquest of her public was assured — a public which included two of the most influential members of the king's inner circle: the brilliant young wit and writer the Earl of Rochester, and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, satirist and "lord of useless thousands." Pepys commented of the actresses in a new play at the King's House that they did "very well, but above all, little Nelly." The king, too, had seen Nell Gwyn in a number of performances, and had particularly admired her in roles for which she dressed as a boy. He even went so far as to pay for some of her costumes, especially some "Rhinegraves" — wide divided skirts which flew up, displaying a tantalising glimpse of lovely leg, when Nell twirled and danced on the stage. When Queen Catherine noticed her husband's penchant for shapely calves, she too adopted male attire to show off her own pretty legs, starting a fashion for trouser-suits for the ladies of the court.
A year later the theaters had to close again, this time as a result of the constant wars with the Dutch. Nell found herself on the dole, albeit the royal dole. In need of a protector, she turned to her new friends Buckingham and Rochester for a solution. With their help, by the summer of 1667 she was able to transfer her favors from Charles Hart (who had to give up Nellie, as he was very poor and needed to find a "Lady Wealthy" to keep him) to Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, a considerable move up the social ladder. Heir to the earldoms of Dorset and Middlesex, Buckhurst was known as one of the most cultured, witty and charming young rakes at court, as well as one of the wildest. Nell and Hart were both resourceful and practical, and came to an agreeable financial arrangement with the handsome, and very rich, Lord Buckhurst. The balladeers took full advantage:
"Take her, my lord," quoth Hart, "since you're so mean
To take a player's leavings for your quean,
For though I love her well, yet as she's poor,
I'm well contented to prefer the whore."
All that summer Nell dallied at Epsom with her new protector and his friend, the equally amusing poet and "rakehell" Sir Charles Sedley and his young daughter, riding on the Downs, laughing and drinking.* This is how Rochester described his two friends, Nell's summer companions:
For pointed satyrs I would Buckhurst choose,
The best good man, with the worst natur'd muse,
For songs and verses, mannerly obscene,
That can stir nature up by spring unseen,
And without forcing blushes please the queen.
Sedley has that prevailing, gentle art,
That can with a resistless charm impart
The loosest wishes of the chastest heart,
Raise such a conflict, kindle such a fire
Betwixt declining virtue and desire,
Till the poor vanquish'd mind dissolves away
In dreams all night, in sighs and tears all day.
A newly fashionable spa, Epsom was patronized by the court and society for the cure of every kind of overindulgence. The three made merry throughout the summer until, inevitably, they fell out over one of their silly pranks which went too far. Nell and Buckhurst parted, and to the relief of her audience as well as her friends, she came back to London and the stage.
Finding herself temporarily without a sponsor, Nell befriended Mary (Moll) Davis, a rival actress from the Duke's House whom she had often wickedly mimicked, to the delight of her audience. Moll was a blacksmith's daughter who claimed an illegitimate descent from the first Earl of Berkshire, but despite this tenuous connection with nobility, she was as vulgar and coarse as Nell. Moll was an excellent dancer, though Nell was perhaps the better actress; both declared they would never make real money on the stage, so they teamed up to find a rich patron. The court had moved to Tunbridge Wells, where Queen Catherine was taking the waters in a last attempt to conceive, though the spa's reputation for helping conception might have had more to do with the ample opportunities it offered for amorous digressions than the beneficial qualities of the water. Nell and Moll, prompted by the queen's request for theater, packed their prettiest dresses and headed for the spa.
Fashionable Tunbridge Wells was a center for society, especially for those hoping to enter it through a useful liaison. One who had was the king's long-established mistress, Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine. A harridan and a nymphomaniac (she happily consoled, and kept, Charles Hart after Nell's transfer to Buckhurst), she was visibly losing her hold on Charles. Barbara was one of those women whom men love despite themselves. She exerted a magnetic fascination over Charles, and this proud and intelligent man had been reduced by her to a condition approaching slavery. Her power had been such that there was nothing she could not extract from him — money, land, privileges and titles. Nor was her avarice confined to the king. Barbara Villiers exchanged her favors for money wherever it was offered, but was equally prepared to pay for anyone she desired and could not get for free. Though Rochester's kinswoman, she did not escape his "profane wit"* or acid pen. He recorded all her infidelities: Monmouth and Cavendish, Henningham and Scrope, "scabby Ned," "sturdy Frank" and many more.
When she has jaded quite,
Her almost boundless appetite...
She'll still drudge on in tasteless vice,
As if she sinn'd for exercise.
Once an unusually acrobatic rope dancer called Jacob Hall attracted her perverted fancy at a fair, and tales of their sexual diversions shocked even this licentious court.
Barbara Villiers' poor but handsome young cousin, John Churchill, the future warrior Duke of Marlborough, founded his fortune and position on what Barbara paid him for his services. One day when the king came to visit their children, he spied young Churchill hurriedly leaving Barbara's bedroom by the window, and called out to him, almost in sympathy: "I forgive you sir, for I know you do it only for the money." When Barbara felt her hold over the king slipping, she resorted to the age-old technique of procuring lovely young girls stupid enough for her to manage in order to entice her royal lover back to her own boudoir.
For some time King Charles had been engaged in a fruitless pursuit of one such protégée of Barbara's, "La Belle" Frances Stewart,Ý but his complete lack of success tempted him toward new conquests.
It was during Nell and Moll Davis' first sojourn at Tunbridge Wells that Rochester and Buckingham encouraged the two young actresses to aim for the most influential patron of all in order to oust Barbara Villiers as official mistress. For, despite her assurances to her cousin and lover Buckingham, Barbara had not kept her promises to advance his interests with the king, and the ambitious duke wanted to replace her with a more malleable mistress.
It was Moll's provocative song-and-dance routine "My Lodging Is on the Cold Ground" which prompted the queen to leave the room and the king to take Moll to his bed. The contemporary wit John Downes remarked that the performance had been so effective it had "raised the fair songstress from the cold ground to the bed royal." Moll was soon pregnant and installed by the monarch in a fine house in Suffolk Street, London. But while she was castigated by Mrs. Pepys as being "the most impertinent slut in the world," publicly flaunting her condition as well as Charles' gift of a valuable ring, rumors were circulating that the king's interest had already moved on. There was also a story that Moll and Nell had fallen out after Nell had laced Moll's sweetmeats with julap, a strong purgative, when she was due to dine with the king. The result must have been dramatic, as Moll never forgave her rival. Rochester summed up the king's amorous predilections with an irreverent ditty:
Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.
Nor are his high desires above his strength;
His sceptre and his — — are of a length.
In any other reign Rochester would have been sent to the Tower for such treasonable libel, but Charles II was ever lenient with wit, even when directed against himself.
In April 1668, within a year of Moll's conquest of the king at Tunbridge, Nell, accompanied by a distant cousin of Buckingham's, attended the first night of Etherege's She Would If She Could at the Duke's House. In the next box sat the duke himself with his brother the king, who immediately struck up a conversation with Nell, inviting her and her companion to supper. Leaving his brother to distract her escort, Charles bantered with Nell, but when he was presented with the bill, as usual he had no money. Nor had James, and Nell was left to pay for the party. Delighting in the king's discomfort, she exclaimed: "Oddsfish!" mimicking his favorite expression, "This is the poorest company I ever was in!" From that moment, Nell Gwyn would enchant, delight and amuse her sovereign for the rest of his life. This was one of the last occasions on which the Duke of York would visit "his" theater, as he announced his conversion to Catholicism within the year and lost interest in his playhouse.
As spring came, Nell's success on the stage continued in a series of new plays and revivals. She was now famous, and the best-loved comedienne of her day. Her success with the monarch kept pace, and all the town knew that the king "had sent for Nellie."
When Barbara Villiers discovered that Charles had established a new mistress, the scenes at court were terrible. But the more Barbara raged and terrorized everyone within her orbit, the more Nell mimicked her tantrums, to the delight of the courtiers.
Charles II had tolerated Barbara Villiers' greed and infidelities for long enough and, although he continued to treat her generously, he had her put out of her rooms in Whitehall Palace, though somehow they remained on good terms. Moll Davis' impertinence had matched her avarice, and she and her daughter by Charles, Lady Mary Tudor, had been pensioned off with a thousand pounds a year. The timing was right for Nell Gwyn's conquest of Charles II.
Word soon reached Nellie's adoring fans that she had become a regular visitor to the king's private apartments in Whitehall. If approval could have been measured by her success at the theater, it would appear that this time most Londoners agreed with their sovereign's choice. Nell seemed to fit the lines Dryden wrote for her:
Sweet ladies! be not frighted, I'll be civil.
I'm what I was, a harmless little devil.
When Charles made Barbara Villiers his mistress, he compensated her husband with an earldom. When he took on Nellie, he did not forget her previous attachment to Lord Buckhurst, and appointed him, most appropriately, a groom of the bedchamber, with a salary of a thousand pounds a year. This august position involved waiting on the king when he ate in private, and sleeping on a pallet-bed in the king's bedroom all night. The office was a great honor, given only to the highest nobility, including Buckingham, Rochester and others of the king's "merry gang."
Naturally, Charles wanted Nell to himself, but despite his pleading she would not leave the stage. At eighteen, Nell Gwyn was at the height of her beauty and popularity. London was at her feet, and this had enabled her to win the attention and affection of the highest in the land. Her situation at the theater had also changed with her social status; she was allocated a new dressing room, new costumes and new lodgings. She became known as "Mrs. Ellen Gwyn," and only her closest friends and her "public" could call her "Nellie." She called the king her "Charles III," as he followed Charles Hart and Charles Buckhurst in her affections. Inevitably, it all went a little to Nellie's head. She became more particular about the company she kept, insisted her costumes had to be remade, and generally lorded it over her rivals on the stage.
Often Charles would come to watch Nellie perform at his theater and then leave with her, but when affairs of state kept him away, a suitable escort would be found for her, usually the ubiquitous Buckingham. Strangely enough, Charles was rarely jealous and, although Nell was considered "a bold merry slut who lay laughing there upon people" (Pepys Diary, January 7, 1669), once she became his mistress she never took another lover. Despite rumor, and a poem attributed to Rochester (but not worthy of him), describing Nell's body in thoroughly indecent detail, her constancy to the king was genuine. Rochester did write about Nell:
Much did she suffer, first on bulk and stage,
From the blackguards and bullies of the age;
Much more her growing virtue did sustain
While dear Charles Hart and Buckhurst su'd in vain.
In vain they su'd; curs'd be the envious tongue
That in her undoubted chastity would wrong;
For should we fame believe, we then might say
That thousands lay with her as well as they.
Among the first gifts Nell received from Charles were stables at Epsom, as he complained that she rode badly. Not that her lack of skill deterred her from backing the horses. Nellie loved to gamble, and as Newmarket had eclipsed Epsom as the great center of English racing by this time, she often accompanied the king there, where his stables were said to be "all wainscotted and sculptured and the horses fed with new-laid eggs and Spanish wine." Charles greatly enjoyed these visits to the country, where he could relax in a simpler way of life, away from the intrigues of the court and the pressures of parliament. His visits to Newmarket became an annual routine, always accompanied by Nell. Sometimes he brought the court, and occasionally even the queen. Christopher Wren was commissioned to build Nell a house at Newmarket, and the king enlarged his own stables. Like all the Stuarts, Charles was a superb rider with a passion for horse racing, often taking part in races himself as well as hunting to hounds in the neighborhood.
In London, Nell was first installed in a small house in what is now Aldwych. Here her royal protector would visit her daily, delighting in a newfound domesticity. If ministers or ambassadors needed to see the king they would find him at Nell's house. Petitions and state matters were all discussed in the congenial atmosphere Nellie provided there, and Charles discovered the value of a discreet confidante and the advantage of doing business away from the spies in his palace. By the summer of 1669, Nell Gwyn was expecting the king's child, and she moved to a small house in Pall Mall.
Her quick wit and humor, which had saved many a play from disaster, also endeared Nell to Charles. Time and again the king forgave courtiers whom he could, and possibly should, have sent to the Tower, because of the quality and sharpness of their wit — in particular Rochester. Wit was the secret of Nell's success with Charles; she made the king laugh, and her company would guarantee his good humor. He adored her "buffooneries" and, for the first time in his life, Charles had fun with a woman. He could have had his pick of beautiful and aristocratic ladies for his mistresses, and he did, but this cheeky, common redhead with the infectious laugh had the natural confidence to talk to his ministers, entertain his friends and brazenly treat her rivals at court as her equals.
Nell's value as Charles Stuart's pretty mistress was greatly enhanced by her shrewdness as a judge of character, her total reliability concerning his business, and her loyalty. She was a good listener and a good friend, and her discretion as a political hostess compensated for her lack of education. With Nell, Charles found the freedom to relax with his friends and put off for a time the heavy burden of ruling and his ever-increasing financial worries. She alone of his mistresses never accepted any of the many bribes she was offered or traded in titles and privileges, and aptly described herself as "a sleeping partner in the ship of state." James, Duke of York, also had his mistresses, but when Charles considered them he would shake his head and declare them so ugly that they must have been chosen by James' confessor as a penance.
As the wars between France, the Netherlands and the Austrian Empire continued their steady destruction of the Continent, the question of the religion of Charles' successor troubled many at home — as well as King Louis XIV at Versailles, and the Pope in the Vatican.
For some time the French had tried to use Barbara Villiers (who was always amenable to bribery) to influence Charles in matters of religion as well as in affairs of state. Now that she was out of favor — though Charles would give her the lovely palace of Nonsuch and create her Duchess of Cleveland in 1670 in recognition of her long "service," as well as awarding her a most handsome pension — a new opportunity arose for Louis XIV to influence the Protestant King of England to support the Vatican. Charles' brother was Catholic, as was his queen, and his dearly beloved sister Minette, wife of the homosexual Duc d'Orléans, Louis XIV's brother "Monsieur," was so miserable in her marriage that she had buried her unhappiness in devout Catholicism. In December 1668, Minette conceived a secret treaty between England and France which she hoped would help her brother out of his financial difficulties, cast him as France's ally against Holland, and make England Catholic once again.
Unlike his father, Charles repeatedly succeeded in charming Parliament into acceding to his wishes, often in spite of its most ardent resolutions. Nevertheless, both people and Parliament criticized the amounts he spent, especially on his mistresses. The wars with the Dutch were depleting the treasury, and the army and navy badly needed to be re-equipped and refitted. The king did not relish his habitual role as petitioner before Parliament for funds both private and public.
It is not surprising that Charles was pleased by Louis' offer of 2 million livres a year, which would solve many of his more immediate problems and give him his independence. In return for this largesse, Charles II was to agree to be Louis XIV's "perpetual ally," supplying troops and ships in support of France; to become Catholic himself; to repeal all anti-Catholic legislation and, in the long term, to bring England and Scotland back into the Catholic fold. Charles' brother James was not alone in his concern regarding the validity of the Church of England. Even so, bearing in mind the king's relaxed attitude toward religious matters, it is hard to believe James' account in his memoirs of Charles tearfully announcing his belief in Catholicism at a secret meeting in January 1669. Sanguine and cynical as he was, it is far more probable that the king proposed suggesting to Louis XIV he might consider his own conversion and that of England if the King of France were to meet specific, primarily financial, conditions.
The king's ministers were fairly evenly divided in their sympathies between Catholics and Protestants, and Charles himself appears to have been ambivalent, disliking discrimination yet refusing to be drawn. The French terms were discussed and debated at length by Charles and his few trusted ministers in the greatest secrecy at Nell's house. By May 1670, more than a year later, all was agreed.
Charles II's "dear, dear sister" Minette, Duchesse d'Orléans, accompanied by a huge French suite, sailed to Dover where, under the pretext of a happy family reunion, Charles signed the secret Treaty of Dover, or Traité de Madame. Surrounded by the court, brother and sister exchanged fond embraces and presents: silver, paintings, jewelry and spaniels for Minette, and among her gifts for Charles, many charming little items for the lovely young actress who was about to give birth (on May 12) to his latest child. For the rest of his life, the King of England would be in the pay of the King of France.
During his long exile, however, Charles had learned the hard lessons of survival and perfected the art of dissimulation. Other than being France's political ally, fighting the Dutch and lessening the discrimination against Catholics, England's king did little to comply with the terms of the treaty. For his part, Louis XIV rarely paid on time or in full.
The secret agreement may appear to have favored French interests, but England ultimately gained more, for despite his outward nonchalance and genuine tolerance, Charles II was probably the most astute politician of his time. Both England and France wanted to reduce the power of the Dutch — France on land and England on the high seas. France failed on land, whereas England, helped by French financing of its fleet, succeeded in establishing its superiority on the water, which led to the extension of the British Empire.
Although the king willingly returned to London to be with Nell and his new son following Minette's departure, his attentiveness to one of his sister's maids of honor, the young and beautiful Louise-Renée de Penancoet de Kéroualle, had not gone unnoticed by the observant of the English and French courts. But despite her brother's interest, Minette insisted that as the girl had been entrusted to her by her parents she would have to return with her to France.
Charles Stuart loved his children, not least as proofs of his virility, and granted Nellie's wish to name the boy after himself. Following her son's birth, Nell was eager to return to the stage and bask once again in the adulation of her audience, but the king needed her. On June 30, 1670, just three weeks after Minette's return to France, news had come of her sudden death. The suspicion that she had been poisoned by the lover of her dreadful husband so distressed Charles that Nell took him and her baby to Newmarket for the distractions of racing and hunting, and the country life he loved.
The summer of 1670 must have been the happiest of Nell's life. Her chief rivals for the king's affection, Barbara Villiers and Moll Davis, were no longer resident in the "royal stable"; her lover depended on her; she had his undivided attention in a place he loved and where he could relax; and she had his son. It would also seem that the "pitiful strolling player," as Barbara Villiers called Nell, pleased King Charles' "Greate Engine"; it was always said that Nell Gwyn was the only woman who could make Charles II jealous, even though she was never unfaithful to him. But he took no chances. During the king's first years with Nellie, Charles Buckhurst was sent abroad on spurious diplomatic missions to keep him away from his former mistress.
In view of the king's persistent interest in "trulls" (though the beauties shown up the back stairs of Whitehall Palace were never professional prostitutes), the people affectionately referred to their king as "Old Rowley" — an irreverent reference to his famously lusty old stallion. Rochester summed it all up with this lampoon:
So well, alas! the fatal bait is known,
Which Rowley does so greedily take down;
And howe'er weak and slender be the string,
Bait it with whore and it will hold a king.
When Nell finally returned to London she immediately began rehearsing in a new play, The Conquest of Granada, which appeared in December 1670. It contained wonderful parodies of the French and their fashions, and when tiny Nell appeared on stage wearing a huge cartwheel of a hat, enormous top boots and wide belt, the audience was hysterical, and the king cried laughing. The queen so approved of the play that there were two command performances at court.
Added to the satisfaction of being the capital's darling again, Nell had a new project. Her little house near Trafalgar Square, though comfortable, was small, and perhaps to get her off the stage, Charles offered her the lease of a much grander establishment, 79 Pall Mall. The house had four floors, splendid reception rooms, including a salle des miroirs, and backed on to the king's private gardens next to St. James's Park. Nell indulged her love of silver in her new mansion, and with her usual irreverent sense of fun she had a warming pan made in silver to slide between the sheets, inscribed: "Fear God, Serve the King." The king whom she "served" so well had already settled £4,000 a year on Nell, and now willingly met the bills for furniture and the decorations of the new house. Nellie was pregnant again.
Our good King Charles the Second,
Too flippant of treasure and moisture,
Stoop'd from the Queen infecund
To a wench of Orange and Oyster.
Consulting his Catzo, he found it expedient
To waste time in revels with Nell the Comediant.
While "Mrs. Gwynne" was busying herself with her grand new residence and enjoying her conquest of the monarch and the London stage, Louis XIV and the Duke of Buckingham, each for his own ends, conspired in France to promote a suitable replacement for Barbara Villiers in Charles' affections. Neither realized how strong an influence the king's little actress had on him, and they decided to reacquaint Charles with the enchanting Louise de Kéroualle.
Louise was an impoverished young noblewoman whose innocent beauty disguised her checkered past. As she had no dowry, her parents had trained her to be a courtesan, and brought her to Versailles with the express intention of making her Louis XIV's mistress. But as the Sun King's attention had recently been captured by another lovely young maid of honor, Louise failed, though it seems she gave herself readily to a number of other gallants at court. Appointed by Louis XIV to Minette's household, after her death the French king had other plans for Madame de Kéroualle. Her brief was to spy on the English court, but in order to get close to Charles, Louise was urged to show restraint; as a Frenchwoman and a Catholic, she would be instantly suspect, and would only succeed in winning the confidence of the King of England if he believed in her virtue.
Charles was immediately attracted to Louise's childlike beauty and air of fragile innocence — she was dubbed the "baby-faced Bretonne" — and he determined to conquer her. To make the task easier, he instantly appointed his beloved Minette's former maid of honor to the same post with his queen, and gave her a suite of splendid rooms in Whitehall. He visited her each morning, wooed her with gifts and concentrated all his charm on winning her. Charles was so smitten by her feigned virtue and false modesty that in order to possess her he agreed to all her conditions of surrender — her own establishment, household, servants, a generous income, titles for any children she might have with him, and a promise that her own family would be made welcome at the English court. Still Louise continued to play her little game and tease the king.
In September 1671, Charles left with Nellie on his annual visit for the autumn season's racing at Newmarket. But before he could renew his contented domestic routine with Nell and forget the sweet-natured, aristocratic and refined Louise, the French faction hurriedly accomodated la Belle Bretonne nearby in the home of Lord and Lady Arlington, who professed that she was far more suitable for their sovereign than his red-headed "lewd and bouncing orange-girl." It was at the Arlingtons' that Louise de Kéroualle finally capitulated and all but publicly gave herself to the king. Thereafter Charles divided his time at Newmarket equally between his new mistress and Nellie, who was heavily pregnant. One can only suppose the king's fiery little actress presumed she would regain her supremacy over Charles once her child was born.
The shared season at Newmarket over, Nell returned to London, and on Christmas Day gave birth to her second son, whom she named James for the Duke of York. Both the king and his brother visited the new royal bastard at once, and delighted in a child born on such an important day.
Charles and James came more and more to Nell's house in Pall Mall, as much for her company as for the knowledge that there no spies could listen. They had good reason to mistrust the corridors of Whitehall. England, in alliance with France, had again declared war on the Dutch, and the palace was riddled with informers. With Louis XIV's money, Charles II had been able to cut himself off from Parliament, but he still needed its consent to move his armies, and secrecy was paramount.
While his victorious navy was being refitted, Charles spent his time with Nell in the country at her house near the Fleet, or at Newmarket or Windsor. She taught the king to fish, but in the beginning he had little patience and despaired when he caught nothing. Once, at the end of an unsuccessful day on the river, Nell had a friend distract the king while she tied several fried smelt to his hook. He laughed uproariously when he pulled in his catch, his good humor restored once again by his Nellie, and for years afterward he would tell the story against himself.
As Louise hated the country, there at least Nell had the king all to herself. At court Madame de Kéroualle did rather better. Ten months after becoming Charles II's mistress, Louise gave birth to a son. As Charles had made Barbara Villiers a duchess, the mother of the latest royal bastard felt she should become one too. In his usual easygoing way, Charles agreed, on condition that the King of France did so as well — after all, had she not also rendered him a great service? An indignant Louis XIV refused, Louise sulked, and Charles good-naturedly created her Duchess of Portsmouth anyway, and a lady of the queen's bedchamber.
Not only Louise, but all the queen's ladies were, in fact, more in service to the king than to his wife. Catherine's Portuguese women had been sent home long ago, after enraging the king by refusing to use any bed previously slept in by a man. Charles replaced them with ladies of his choice who were less particular and more accommodating. They all had apartments nearer his than the queen's, and he could visit them without the court's knowledge. Catherine suffered her husband's constant infidelities stoically, and even with a certain humor. Once, hearing Charles was ill with a cold, she anxiously went to his bedroom unannounced. Nellie, who was also comforting the king, just had time to hop out of his bed and hide under it. The queen's anxiety over her husband disappeared when she spotted Nellie's slipper, and she withdrew in haste lest "the pretty fool" who owned the slipper catch a worse chill wherever she was hiding than the one from which Charles was suffering.
Nell's famous wit often extended to satire. She loathed any form of pretentiousness, and loved to ridicule her enemies, especially her rivals. When Barbara Villiers, having mocked Nell as a "pitiful strolling player," drove in a new coach and six to show what a great lady she was, Nell hired a rough farmer's cart and six oxen and drove past Barbara's grand house, cracking her whip and shouting: "Whores to market, Ho!"
Andrew Marvell echoed the people's opinion of this preferment of Louise and Barbara:
The Misses take place, and advanc'd to be Duchess
With pomp great as Queens and their Coach and six horses:
Their bastards made Dukes, Earls, Viscounts and Lords,
And all the high Titles that Honour affords.
As Barbara Villiers faded from the royal scene, Louise Portsmouth became Nell Gwyn's greatest rival for the monarch's affection and attention, and her pretensions were a constant source of inspiration for Nell's wicked wit. When Louise appeared at court in mourning for her relative the Chevalier de Rohan, Nell also wore black. Asked, in Louise's hearing, for whom she was in mourning, Nell replied, "The Cham of Tartary," as "He was the precise same relation to me as the Prince de Rohan was to Madame de Kéroualle!" In fact, Louise was very much a cousin of the Prince de Rohan, but as few of the aristocratic ladies of the court were sufficiently literate to read the almanacs, and the mischievous actress was too ignorant to know or care any better, the joke was a huge success.
Although she had won the king's heart, a grand title and status, the English people mocked Louise. Unable to pronounce de Kéroualle, they called her "Miss Carwell" or "Cartwheel," and lampooned her mercilessly. Nell referred to her as "Weeping Willow" (she knew Charles could never resist a beautiful woman's tears) and "Squintabella" due to her slightly myopic (and very attractive) gaze. The rivalry between Nellie and Louise was public knowledge. To Londoners Nell Gwyn was one of them, someone with whom they could identify, an English girl of humble origins, a popular actress, beautiful, witty and Protestant. Louise de Kéroualle was a foreigner, an aristocrat and, worst of all, a Catholic. As such, she was automatically (and accurately) suspected of spying for the French.
The balladeers were in no doubt about the people's sentiments:
Portsmouth, the incestuous Punk,
Made our most gracious sovereign drunk,
And drunk she made him give that Buss
That all the Kingdom's bound to curse.
And yet, it bothered Nell that she was still untitled. When Louise implied that Nell gave herself airs, and mocked that her clothes were so fine and beautiful she could be a queen, Nellie retaliated with: "And you, Carwell, look whore enough to be a duchess." Nell's taunts almost landed her in trouble when, rumor had it, the duchesses of Cleveland and Portsmouth joined forces. During a supper party at Barbara's home, Berkshire House, to which they had invited Nell, they tried to get her drunk and then choke her with a scarf. However, as she was seen the next day in the park, the damage could not have been as great as the tale that grew around the "incident."
Nellie used every opportunity to ridicule Louise, but Charles, although amused by the sparring between his mistresses, was clearly very fond of her. Louise was gentle and feminine, cultured, well read and civilized, quite the opposite of the earthy, vulgar actress. Knowing this, Nellie must have been greatly peeved by the favors the king lavished on Louise; the records show that the Duchess of Portsmouth received twice the amount from the Secret Service account as Nell during the period when the king was said to be dividing his time (and favors) equally between them. (However, Nell was also receiving an additional £10,000 a year from the same source as payment for helping to reduce criticism of the king in the Green Ribbon Clubs.) Much of Louise's extra income came from her judicious friendship with the king's premier ministers Danby and Lauderdale, who had control over the treasury. Nell loathed the Scottish Lauderdale, and once when the king asked her how to appease his Cavalier Parliament, she replied testily: "Hang the Scotch dog and the French bitch!"
Barbara Cleveland had also extracted incredible privileges and incomes for herself and for her children by Charles. In 1674, Charles gave his third son with Barbara the title of Earl of Northumberland, and the following year he created her first two sons dukes of Southampton and Grafton respectively. In the same year he gave Louise's son the title of Duke of Richmond, establishing Barbara's and Louise's sons as equal in rank with his eldest bastard, the Duke of Monmouth.
As Nell was a common actress, neither she nor her sons had received any titles (though the elder, Charles, had been granted a pension of £4,000 a year), and she minded dreadfully. This attitude was not just due to snobbishness on Nell's part. As well as immense financial rewards, a title offered patronage and protection: Sir Charles Sedley, a friend of Nell's, had an actor cudgelled in the park for no greater offense than imitating his dress. The great and highly respected playwright and poet Dryden was set upon and badly beaten by three rogues thought to be in the pay of the Earl of Rochester or the Duchess of Portsmouth, or both, as they felt Dryden had insulted them in verse. Neither the earl nor the duchess was called to account. If Rochester did join forces with Louise to punish Dryden, he himself repeatedly criticized the duchesses of Portsmouth and Cleveland most harshly, and both were his avowed enemies. Only Nell remained his friend and escaped his cruellest jibes.
Rochester felt certain that Dryden was responsible for such lines about him as:
Mean in each action, lewd in every limb,
Manners themselves are mischievous in him
— words hardly worth almost killing a man for: but peers were above ordinary mortals, and Nell wanted the same privileges for her sons as those the other royal bastards had received.
One day in 1676, when the king came to visit her at 79 Pall Mall, he heard Nell calling out to her eldest boy: "Come here, you little bastard!" When Charles reproached her, she asked tartly by what other name she could call him. The king took the hint and created the boy Earl of Burford, while his younger brother became Lord James Beauclerk. Another contemporary story has Nell threatening to throw the neglected little boy out of a top window in Pall Mall, and the king shouting up, "God save the Earl of Burford!"
As the mother of an earl, Nell Gwyn officially became "a lady." She received her own coat of arms, and promptly covered all her plate with her monogram. Nell commissioned some exceptional pieces of silver, including a huge silver bedstead made by John Coques to her own design which weighed more than 2,000 ounces and cost over £1,000. This bedstead, which became quite famous, highly amused the king (though its cost did not), and made both of his duchesses furious. Jacob Hall (the rope dancer) was depicted on it climbing up Barbara Villiers, and Louise Portsmouth was portrayed lying in a tomb with a dusky Eastern potentate. Nell's silver bedstead was the talk of London and considered a wonder of the age.
John Mulgrave, Earl of Sheffield, another literary peer, wrote of the king's two duchesses:
Was ever Prince by two at once misled?
False, foolish, old, ill-natur'd and ill-bred.
If the rivalry between Charles II's mistresses was fierce, the competition between Catholics and Protestants for important posts was just as intense. After the death of Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, James decided to marry the seventeen-year-old Maria of Modena, a Catholic. The king had been forced by Parliament to withdraw his Declaration of Indulgence for Catholics, and now a Catholic bride had arrived in England for his brother. Everyone was concerned about the succession and, to make matters worse, Queen Catherine was seriously ill. Again, Parliament's main complaint against Charles was the cost of his many mistresses. Louise Portsmouth's apartments in Whitehall were said to be so richly furnished they were far grander than the queen's — which prompted another of Rochester's acid couplets guaranteed to delight the populace:
Within this place a bed's appointed
For a French bitch and God's anointed.
The Duchess of Portsmouth further annoyed the Protestant faction by adopting the airs and graces of the queen's imminent successor, though Nell confided in her secretary that she was not unduly concerned as "the nation will never have her." Louise went so far as to have her own medal struck with the image of a Cupid bearing the legendary motto: "Omnium Victorem Vici" — I conquered him who conquered all. When Charles had a magnificent service of plate made for Louise by an eminent London goldsmith, members of the public who saw it on display in his shop protested that it should have been made for Nell Gwyn.
Hatred of the Popish favorite enhanced Nell's popularity, as did public knowledge, and disapproval, of the huge amounts the monarch spent on Louise. But Charles really loved his clever French mistress, and she managed to stand firm against the cries for deportation in Parliament, as well as holding on to her influence at court. Much as Charles enjoyed Nell's company and valued her friendship, Louise was his unofficial maîtresse en titre, and generally considered as the alternative queen.
Daniel Defoe made an interesting observation on the rivalry between Louise and Nell:
I remember that the late Duchess of Portsmouth in the time of Charles the Second, gave a severe retort to one who was praising Nell Gwynn, whom she hated. They were talking of her wit and beauty, and how she always diverted the King with her extraordinary repartees, how she had a fine mien, and appeared as much the lady of quality as anybody. "Yes, madam," said the Duchess (who had just heard the King had given Nell 17,000 pounds), "but anybody may know she has been an orange wench by her swearing."
When Nellie observed that she really should have the freehold of 79 Pall Mall as she had always "offered her services free under the Crown," the Speaker of the House agreed to help as she was Charles' strongest Protestant influence.
Of all Charles II's mistresses, Nell Gwyn was the one least resented by the queen and, after her death, Catherine gave Nell's son Charles an allowance of £2,000 a year. Although Nell acquired a number of houses from the king during her life, as well as an income from an Irish estate and various sinecures and privileges, her acquisitions were relatively modest when compared with the rapacity of the other royal favorites.
To complement her new status, the actress-turned-lady bought a coach and four as well as a sedan chair emblazoned with her arms. Alone of the royal mistresses, Nell took pride in settling her bills promptly — recalling perhaps her own early poverty — thereby endearing herself even more to the common tradespeople, whom she cultivated shamelessly. In terms of avarice, she may have gained less overall than others, but one could not call Nell Gwyn "disinterested," and the distinctions made between her and the more bien née of the king's mistresses always rankled with her, and became a recurring theme.
After another fire, the King's Theatre reopened in 1674, and Nell massaged her wounded pride with the approbation of her public, taking every opportunity to mock her rivals for the king's affection with her bantering repartee. After Nell's last stage appearance, she was given her own box at the theatre, and King Charles was often to be seen there in her company.
While the foreign Louise Portsmouth concentrated on acquiring riches, mostly portable (Barbara Cleveland generally preferred land), Nellie cultivated well-placed and influential friends to help further her ambitions. As a result, anyone who wished to reach the king was well advised to approach "Mrs. Neslie" (as she was often called), and ambassadors and foreign dignitaries intent on circumventing the spies of Whitehall soon learned to visit the pretty actress at 79 Pall Mall. During her eighteen years' "service to the Crown," no less than five French ambassadors chronicled their fascination with Nell Gwyn and described her positive influence on King Charles. The Venetian and Florentine state archives give the same impression, and Cosimo III de' Medici remarked how impressed he was by Nell's "sound" opinions after meeting her on a visit to London.
Nell (as well as Louise) entertained for Charles, and it was generally agreed that she was an excellent hostess, with the best food and wine in town. Her friends from the theater were regularly called on to perform for her guests, and in this neutral arena in agreeable surroundings the king could meet those he could not be seen with in public. The "orange girl" was said to be "in politics up to her elbows," but only she of all the king's "misses" did not involve herself in political factions. Instead, when Charles asked her for advice on how to solve his problems, Nell encouraged him to "dismiss his ladies and mind his business." Another chronicler claims she "told his Majestie to lock up his codpiece"!
By 1675 Barbara Cleveland, looking middle-aged at thirty, her beauty faded, was finding she was having to pay more for her young admirers. As she had fallen in love with England's ambassador to France, she had decided to forsake London and live in Paris. She was further encouraged to leave England by the fact that threats were being made in Parliament to reduce the income of all the king's mistresses. Louise Portsmouth had the pox, and although Charles gave her a pearl necklace and a large diamond to cheer her up, it was not actually certain that she had caught it from the king — there were a number of contenders. Most of her time was spent taking cures and loudly complaining to Charles that her illness was due to his consorting with "trulls."
At twenty-six, Nell was at the peak of her beauty, and felt secure once again in the affection of her king and her public. Charles commissioned the Dutch artist Sir Peter Lely to paint her — one sultry portrait with soft, sleepy eyes, Nell pouting prettily in an open-necked blouse with her breasts exposed, her hand caressing a pet lamb, and another full-length portrait as Venus, for which the lovely actress posed reclining naked. Not surprisingly, the king came often to watch the sittings. Lely became a friend and a frequent visitor to Nell's house, and she was flattered that he had made her appear "vertuose" (even naked), whereas his portraits of Louise made her look distinctly sulky.
Nell Gwyn had good reason to be pleased with her achievements: her sons had been ennobled and given the privileges and incomes attached to their titles. She had houses in London, Newmarket and Windsor, and although her income was small by the standards of other royal mistresses, she was still able to pay £4,000 for Peg Hughes' pearls, which she had to sell after Prince Rupert's death.
By 1675, Nell enjoyed so much of the monarch's favor that she paid scant attention to Louise. La Belle Bretonne had grown extremely fat (as well as poxed), and the king teased her by dubbing her "Fubbs" and "Fubbsy" (chubby) and her boat "Fubbs' Yacht." Nell and Louise had more or less settled their differences when a new threat arrived at court.
Hortense Mancini, niece of the late Cardinal Mazarin, came to England in November 1675, intent on challenging Nell and Louise for King Charles's love and bounty. She was the fourth of five ravishing sisters, one of whom, Marie, had failed to marry Louis XIV although she had been his first (innocent) love. At fifteen, Hortense was married to a French marquis, and the couple, heirs to Cardinal Mazarin's wealth, were created Duc and Duchesse de Mazarin.
Five years after her marriage, the beautiful, spirited and very bored duchess ran away, fetchingly dressed as a young man. A short spell in a convent was not a success and she moved on to Savoy and consolation in the arms of the ruling Duke Charles Emmanuel II. After his death in 1675, Hortense was strongly encouraged to leave Savoy by her patron's widow. A former English ambassador (in disgrace at the time and hoping to line his pockets with the help of a rival to supplant Nell and Louise) advised Hortense to seek her fortune at the English court of Charles II. Hortense was related to her fellow Italian Mary of Modena, the new young Duchess of York, and arrived in London under her protection and as her guest at St. James's Palace. The reputation of this alluring, dark Roman beauty with a Junoesque figure and sparkling eyes of indefinite color had travelled before her, and gentlemen who met her at once professed to have fallen in love.
At thirty, Hortense was still extraordinarily beautiful, cultured, well read, sophisticated and captivating. It seemed there was nothing this passionate woman could not, or would not, do. She could sing, dance, play the guitar (even while dancing), swim, gamble and shoot. Once established in society through the Yorks, Hortense moved into a charming house of theirs in St. James's Park, where she presided over a totally international salon. The Duchesse de Mazarin spoke three languages fluently, entertained exquisitely, and surrounded herself with intellectuals, the beau monde and the literati, patronizing the arts and promoting artists. Although society vied for her invitations, the ladies were consumed with jealousy (she invariably dressed in trousers, and looked superb), while the gentlemen of the court found her frankly irresistible. Her many excesses had left no traces on her, and the French ambassador said he "never saw anyone who so well defies the power of time and vice to disfigure." Hortense de Mazarin, it was whispered, found women quite as attractive as men, and she continued to fascinate both sexes in society and in the arts long after the other court beauties had been forgotten.
Neither Nell nor Louise realized their predicament until it was the talk of the town that King Charles had stood gazing up at the windows of Madame de Mazarin's house, apparently dying of love. Louise ranted and raved, made embarrassing scenes and lost another measure of the king's regard (though never his affection). Nellie wore black, and said she was in mourning for Louise's dead aspirations. More practical than Louise, she accepted the situation, expecting the infatuation to be short-lived. Charles had enjoyed so many brief diversions that there was no reason to think this one would last. The Yorks were also too late in seeing the danger. When they reclaimed their house in St. James's Park, Hortense promptly received another in Chelsea from Charles, plus £4,000 a year. She had befriended the king's natural daughter the Countess of Sussex, who let her use her suite in Whitehall Palace whenever Charles desired to be with his "Roman whore," as the court called her. Thereafter the king divided his time between Hortense, Louise and Nellie, and the balladeers had a new victim:
Since Cleveland is fled till she's brought to bed,
And Nelly is quite forgotten,
And Mazarine is as old as the Queen,
And Portsmouth, the young whore, is rotten.
With little choice but to accept Hortense as she had Louise, Nell could still enjoy her greatest advantage over her rivals — sharing her love of the countryside and country pursuits with the king. When autumn came and the court moved to Newmarket, Charles belonged to Nell alone. They were there when the news spread that his new love Hortense was sharing her favors in Chelsea with the Prince of Monaco (among others), and a furious king retaliated by cancelling her income. But, as usual, when faced with a pretty woman in tears, Charles relented. He reinstated the annuity, and expelled the Monegasque prince instead. The king's afternoons with Hortense were reestablished, though he spent most evenings in Nell's company. After the summer of 1676, Louise was no longer Charles' actual mistress, but he clearly remained very fond of her, and continued to attend her supper and card parties.
Gambling was one of the main occupations of the court's ladies, and as there were no banknotes as yet, the stakes were in gold. Lucky in most things, Nell was not lucky at cards, and often lost heavily. At times she even entertained Louise and Hortense at her house; offering them chocolates, she told both how she had despatched Moll Davis with her julap-flavored ones. All three were compulsive gamblers, though Hortense was by far the best cardplayer. In a single afternoon she is reputed to have won £8,000 from Louise and £5,000 from Nell! There is a famous story about Nell at this time discussing Frenchwomen and their amorous skills, as well as the quality and cleanliness of their underwear, with the French ambassador. Comparing her own with that of Louise and Hortense, Nell, who was fastidiously clean, complained that Louise wore dirty petticoats, and that Hortense, usually in trousers, wore none. Then with great pride, she lifted her skirts to enable His Excellency to carry out an inspection. The ambassador reported the sight to his foreign secretary, adding, "I would speak of other things which were also shown." But, in view of his superior's high station, he felt it more prudent not to continue.
In 1677, Nell told the king that she had definitely decided not to return to the stage, despite tempting offers and the urgings of Dryden (who had a new play), Wycherley (who was in disgrace and needed a new play), Etherege (who needed the money), and the brilliant female playwright, Aphra Behn. Reports that Nell appeared on stage after 1677 are incorrect, though she often entertained her guests at home with prologues and scenes from her past successes. As she was no longer an actress, was there any reason why Charles could not make her a duchess like his other mistresses? The king asked his chief minister Lord Danby whether Nellie might perhaps be made not a duchess, but a countess, when Greenwich fell vacant. Danby, a friend and ally of Louise's, was aghast at the idea of "an orange wench" obtaining a title, and strongly advised against it. Nell was furious, which amused the king, who suggested that she be patient, as Danby would not be chief minister forever. For the meantime, he appointed her a lady of the queen's privy chamber. Perhaps at Louise's instigation, Danby had cleverly planted a spy in Nell's household as nurse to her sons, and his negative attitude toward her was hardly encouraged to change when he heard reports of how the cheeky actress mimicked him and his half-mad wife to the amusement of the king and his cronies.
Nell Gwyn may well have cost the country a fortune, as her rivals claimed, but she spent much of it on others. Her house in Pall Mall was the social center of London, and there she entertained lavishly for the king — inviting not only the court, but also politicians, ambassadors and important foreign visitors. Her old friends from the theater were often included, and whenever any of them claimed to be in financial difficulties, she helped them with money. She gave generously to the poor, never forgetting her own early poverty. There is no doubt that Charles II valued Nell's constancy. Perhaps it was because she did not dare, but she was the only one of all his "misses" who was never unfaithful to him, and he knew he could count on her complete loyalty. So, indeed, could her friends. Without ever openly taking his side, Nell championed Charles' eldest son the Duke of Monmouth time and again, and tried to reconcile his father to him after their numerous disagreements. (Astutely judging his character as a mixture of royalty and impudence, she dubbed Monmouth "Prince Perkin," to his fury.) Charles felt his son's character was flawed, and blamed his lack of judgment on his choice of companions. The king loved all his children, but perhaps none as much as this eldest, about whom Dryden wrote:
Of all this numerous progeny was none
So beautiful, so brave as Absalom.
Buckingham observed wryly that it was a monarch's role to be the father of his people, and that Charles II could certainly claim to be the father of a great many, while Defoe wrote: "Six bastard Dukes survive his luscious Reign." But it could be argued that Charles was merely following the procedure originally established in England and Scotland that dukedoms were intended only for the sons of the king, and he refused to discriminate against them in this regard on account of their illegitimacy. Consistently outrageous, Buckingham had dared try to "fumble Mrs. Neslie," and when a slap did not deter him she had complained to the king. But when Buckingham was later disgraced and sent to the Tower in 1677, Nellie forgot their personal quarrel and petitioned Charles to forgive his old friend.
There are many examples of Nell's generous concern and active help for her friends. In 1673, the conspirator Titus Oates claimed that the Catholics were plotting to rise and massacre the Protestants, burn London, assassinate the king and replace him with his brother James. Panic seized London. Even Pepys and his secretary were thrown into prison in the indiscriminate roundup of Catholics. It was Nell who prevailed on Charles' good nature and persuaded him to strike off the list of possible assassins all those previously known to be loyal. After the Titus Oates plot it was thought prudent for the Catholic Duke of York to leave England until the feelings and tempers of the various religious factions had cooled. James consoled himself in France with his foxhounds, but longed to come home. Through Nell's intercession, Charles transferred him to Scotland, where he was far happier shooting grouse and hunting to hounds. Monmouth, miserable in exile in Holland, bombarded Nell with frantic letters to mediate on his behalf for him to be allowed to come home.
She also helped Dryden, whose parents had been on the side of Parliament during the Civil War. As he had been instrumental in Nell's meteoric rise on the stage, she repaid him later by using her influence at court to have him appointed laureate and historiographer royal.
It was during the period of rabid anti-Catholic feeling that the famous incident occurred when Nell's coach, bearing the royal arms, was mobbed by a crowd at Oxford who mistook it for Louise Portsmouth's. Showing great courage, and with the panache of an accomplished actress, Nell put her head out of the window and, opening her arms as if to her Drury Lane audience, called out: "Pray, good people, be civil. I am the Protestant whore."
Nell's lack of a title of her own still made her rather touchy on the subject of her rank. On one occasion, when she found her coachman had been badly beaten for defending her name and honor, Nell protested to the unfortunate man that, in truth, his attackers had been justified in their slander and that she was indeed a whore. "That you may be, madam," answered her loyal servant, "but I'll not be called a whore's coachman."
Nell could not help liking the debauched but brilliant Rochester, and genuinely missed him during his many absences from court. Henry Saville, Rochester's fat, disreputable friend, wrote to him that he should warn Nellie of her folly in good-naturedly including the lovely Jenny Middleton, a potential rival, in her circle. Nell's false friend Lady Hervey, having failed herself to win the king's affection, had promoted Mrs. Middleton into Nell's company "to pimp against herself."
Rochester replied to Saville that his own advice to Nell
has ever been this, take your measures just contrary to your rivals, live in peace with the world, and easily with the king: Never be so ill natur'd to stir up his anger against others, but let him forget the use of a passion, which is never to do you good.... Please him with body, head and heart.
Neither Sackville nor Rochester need have worried on Nell's account. Mrs. Middleton, though considered the most beautiful woman in England (and the most expensive), was not to the king's liking.
Another who sang Nell Gwyn's praises in the theater was Aphra Behn, who dedicated The Feign'd Courtezans to her in 1679. The same year, Robert Whitcomb, in Janna Divorum, a study of gods and goddesses, somewhat generously claimed that Nell possessed "the primitive wisdom of Apollo, the pristine wit of Venus, and the God-like courage and brave spirit of Hercules." This fulsome praise went some way toward mitigating the effect of those who described Nell as "puddle Nell," the "hare-brained whore."
Nellie did not forget her family. Her jolly, fat mother lived at her expense until she drowned after falling drunkenly into a ditch in July 1679. Far from being ashamed of this and trying to hush it up, Nell, typically, gave her a splendid funeral. Her sister Rose repeatedly turned to her for help, once obtaining a pardon for her convicted criminal of a husband through Nell's intercession. Even the inmates of Oxford Prison, where her father had died, benefited from Nell's kind heart. Rochester wrote:
From Oxford prison many did she free,
There dy'd her father, and there glory'd she
In giving others life and liberty,
So pious a remembrance still she bore
Ev'n to the fetters that her father wore.
Nor was her mother's funeral less her care,
No cost, no velvet did the daughter spare:
Fine gilded scutcheons did the hearse enrich,
To celebrate this martyr of the ditch;
Burnt brandy did in flaming brimmers flow,
Drunk at her funeral; while her well-pleas'd shade
Rejoic'd ev'n in the sober fields below
At all the drunkenness her death had made.
In this same year of 1679, Nellie nearly lost the king when he caught such a serious chill that there was genuine fear for his life. With the queen's permission, she banished his doctors and called in two sensible women who had cured Charles of an infection once before. With their help and Nell's nursing, Charles recovered. During this illness, Monmouth had again tried to establish himself as England's legitimate heir, and his furious father sent him back to Holland.
Nell's generosity to her friends was matched by the king's appreciation of his common little flame-haired mistress. As well as the house he had Wren build for her at Newmarket, her stables at Epsom, 79 Pall Mall, and the Irish estates, he had given her some five other houses around London and land in Chelsea. A new warship had just been named the Burford after her elder son, and at the annual birthday party she gave for her younger son Lord James Beauclerk at Christmas, Charles announced he would give Nellie a house at Windsor. Burford House was built just inside the grounds of Windsor Castle, and lavishly decorated at the king's expense, by the same team who had recently completed the work there. A tunnel was built connecting the house to Charles' private apartments in the castle.
Charles II, like all Stuarts, loved hawking, fishing and the chase — all of which he could pursue to perfection at Windsor, as well as holding horse races in the Home Park. Renowned for his extraordinary energy, he loved nothing better than to hunt the wild red deer, and once had a famous run of seventy miles. The king kept otter hounds, and his brother James had what may have been the first pack of foxhounds in England. No wonder the most important court post at Windsor was Master of Buckhounds.
The king and Nell planted a great many trees in and around Windsor. Charles built a new indoor tennis court near Nell's house — he loved the game, and always weighed himself before and after playing; following one exhausting match he recorded a loss of four and a half pounds. Nell built herself an orangery and bowling alleys. She so loved her garden that Charles could not bring himself to finish the Long Walk, as this would have interfered with his Nellie's extensive pleasure grounds. It was not until Queen Victoria's reign that the Long Walk was finally completed.
So that Nell could also have some sport, the king appointed her son Charles Grand Falconer of England, thereby allowing his mother to go "a-birding" in every royal park, chase or warren in the country. She was particularly knowledgeable about hawking and, to please her, Charles made young Burford Master of the Hawks, with a pension of £965 a year.
Domestic dogs also played an important part in Charles' life. His spaniels were always with him, at the council table, and invariably on his bed. To the consternation of his household (and his mistresses), the king even allowed his bitches to whelp in his bedroom. Inevitably, Charles' love of dogs encouraged the lampoonists to liken his mistresses to bitches (or mares in the royal stable), and the wicked wit of Rochester was said to have been responsible for "A Pleasant Battle Between Two Lapdogs of the Utopian Court":
The English lap-dog here does first begin
The vindication of his lady, Gwynn:
The other, much more Frenchified, alas,
Shows what his lady is, not what she was.
A dogfight ensues amid heavy betting, and although Nell's dog has less quality than Louise's, Rochester, as always the good friend to Nell, so persecuted Louise in his verse that most of it is unrepeatable. Nor did the wicked earl allow Barbara Cleveland to escape the dog analogy:
[Cleveland] I say is much to be admir'd,
Although she ne'er was satisfied or tired.
Full forty men a day provided for this whore,
Yet like a bitch, she wags her tail for more.
By the time she was thirty, Nell Gwyn vied with Louise Ports-mouth as the most important political hostess of the day, adored by the common people as well as by society, politicians and the literati. At the height of her fame, she fell ill for the first time, possibly with a venereal disease caught from her royal lover. Her illness forced her to miss the spring meeting at Newmarket and, too sick to see her new house at Windsor, Nell lay recovering at 79 Pall Mall when she heard of the death of her younger son James in Paris. The cause of death was given as a "bad leg," but Nell was convinced that Louise had somehow arranged to have him poisoned. She was consumed with grief, refused to see anyone, and blamed herself for sending little James abroad for his education, albeit to dear friends. To add to her sadness, the following month she heard that her friend Rochester had died. Very slowly the king, who loved all his children and shared her sadness, coaxed Nell out of her mourning to join him in the autumn at Newmarket.
The following summer, Charles gave Nell a woodland estate in Sherwood Forest. He loved to tease her for being an indifferent rider, and offered her as much of the forest as she could ride around before breakfast. She chose Bestwood Park on the advice of Buckingham, but was forced to mortgage the estate some years later when short of money. Nell was frequently without funds. She was a bad manager, and the income from the Irish estates given her by the king was often blocked or slow in coming. The Duke of York, who had always been very fond of Nellie, redeemed Bestwood for her after his brother's death.
It was during the following Christmas holiday of 1681 that Nell saw Christopher Wren's plans for the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, the king's infirmary for old soldiers. Traditionally, Nell Gwyn has always been credited with encouraging Charles II to enlarge his proposed hospital, and with adding some land of her own to the site in Chelsea. The foundation stone was laid the following spring, and for many years the veterans of the Civil War and the later wars with the Dutch would stand and toast "Good King Charles and our Nellie."
At the beginning of 1682, a charming new ambassador from Morocco arrived in London charged with the delicate mission of prising Tangiers, part of the Portuguese queen Catherine's marriage settlement, from the King of England. The diarist John Evelyn, who had ingratiated himself with the Duchess of Portsmouth, was invited to her apartments in Whitehall as a guest at the magnificent and extraordinary banquet she gave for the ambassador, seating the Moorish suite alternately between the king's concubines and his natural daughters. Louise was so taken with the "civil heathen" (as Evelyn called him) that she promptly took him to her bed. It seems the Moor did not disappoint the duchess, for she encouraged Charles to agree to the withdrawal of the French garrison in Tangiers.
At fifty, Charles II appeared to be aging fast. Following a fire which destroyed his palace at Newmarket, the court was forced to leave for London a few days earlier than planned, and another plot to assassinate the sovereign and his brother was fortuitously uncovered. Charles was deeply shocked, not least because the conspirators implicated Monmouth, and for the next year he more or less withdrew from public life to Windsor. The queen and Louise joined Nell and the king there, playing cards together (Louise was by now too fat to take exercise) and sharing Charles' company in apparent harmony, although Louise's peremptory behavior reduced the poor queen to tears in public on several occasions. Charles no longer rode in races, but he still relished the life of a country gentleman, mixing with the people at cockfights, riding, hunting and hawking with Nell, and most of all, the racing. Politics, however, he left more and more in the hands of his ministers, Lord Halifax and the Duke of York.
At Windsor, Nell busied herself with enlarging Burford House. In an effort to amuse Charles, she invited the Fellows of the Royal Society to stay, as well as their president designate Pepys, who had always remained her friend and admirer. She also had a number of actors and actresses come to Windsor to read to the king, which he much preferred to reading alone. Together there he and Nell heard of the deaths of Charles Hart and Tom Killigrew, and mourned them both.
As new projects usually succeeded in distracting Charles from his troubles or sadness, Christopher Wren was summoned to discuss the building of a new palace at Winchester and a row of houses for the court, including one for Nell. The idea was to move there instead of Newmarket in the autumn for "field diversions." Building began in May 1682, and when Charles came to inspect its progress, he lodged with the bishop, who, to the king's amusement and Nell's chagrin, refused to admit Nell, as "a woman of ill-repute ought not to be endured in the house of a clergyman." Nell solved the problem by finding rooms at the deanery.
Throughout this time of making new plans for buildings and avenues, Charles continued to find Nell's company peaceful and calming. Her constancy to the king had given her a measure of respectability in society, and as her rivals were as usual less in evidence in the country, she felt secure in the monarch's affection. Barbara Cleveland lived in France. Louise Portsmouth had shamed the king by rashly falling for Hortense de Mazarin's nephew, the handsome twenty-eight-year-old Philippe de Vendôme, Grand Prior of France. He needed money, and rightly judged that, at thirty-five and fading, the duchess would make easy pickings. Louise made a complete fool of herself, which enraged Charles sufficiently to expel Vendôme from the kingdom. When Louis XIV heard about his grand prior's behavior direct from an irate Charles, he became most anxious about Louise's preferential status — with good reason. A number of those close to Charles II felt that the episode with Vendôme may have been the swan song of Louis XIV's star informer at the English court. But she prevailed, and by the following year she was sufficiently in favor to dare invade the queen's privacy dressed as a maid, mockingly waiting upon Catherine at dinner.
Bored with king and court, the lovely Duchesse de Mazarin continued to live in bohemian splendor in Chelsea. When one of her lovers was killed in a duel, Hortense was so distraught she threatened to become a nun — a prospect which hugely amused Charles.
The winter of 1683 was unusually cold. The Thames froze solid, and Charles and Nell had a colorful pavilion built on the ice in which to entertain. The king would skate with the Duke of Grafton and Nell's son Charles, returning to devour gargantuan meals which she had prepared herself. When the old Earl of St. Albans died, Charles bestowed the vacant title on Nell's son (with an upgrading to duke) on January 19, 1684, granting him in addition lodgings in Whitehall and fifteen hundred pounds a year. The king was very fond of this handsome, agreeable boy and kept him near, especially now that his own health was giving cause for concern. With an open ulcer on his leg, he took to rising late, and limited his exercise to short walks in the park. He liked to have his sons around him more often, and once again pardoned and recalled the Duke of Monmouth.
At Nell's Christmas party in London that year, the king appeared cheerful, but could not dance. Five weeks later, on February 2, as he was dressing in Whitehall to attend Nell Gwyn's thirty-fifth birthday party, Charles had a stroke and fell. Despite, or perhaps because of, the bleeding, blistering and other primitive remedies practiced on him by the doctors, Charles II could only linger on for five more days, remaining lucid to the end. Neither Louise, Hortense nor Nell were permitted to visit him, but he did ask to see all his sons. Quietly he asked his brother and heir James to see to the financial needs of his remaining mistresses and children, adding to a list of bequests, "...and let not poor Nellie starve." After begging his gentle queen's forgiveness, and expressing his devotion to her and to his brother, he agreed that James should bring him a Catholic priest. There are many accounts of and theories about the way in which Charles II was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. Had political considerations restrained him from following an inner conviction until the end of his life? Or did this most agreeable of monarchs simply wish to please his family and acquiesce to the dearest wish of his Catholic mother, wife, sister and brother?
All England descended into deep mourning at the passing of King Charles II, although the stark simplicity of his funeral was totally unexpected for so extraordinarily popular a monarch. It was made known that a Catholic priest had been present at his deathbed at the king's personal request, which so displeased the Church of England that this most beloved of English sovereigns was buried with a minimum of ceremony. Few of his critics had appreciated that for more than twenty years, despite maintaining an image of licentious loose living, Charles Stuart had succeeded in pitting the forces of Parliament, France and Holland against one another to his advantage, and had gained considerable financial support from Louis XIV without bringing about the promised reversion of England to Catholicism. And yet, he passed on his crown to his Catholic brother.
Although Louise and Nell were not permitted to put their houses in mourning like the members of the royal family, the new King James honored his dying brother's request to care for the Duchess of Portsmouth and his friend Nell Gwyn. He immediately settled Nell's debts, and gave her £500 "bounty" in addition. Nell must have been a very bad manager, as the following year she was again short of money. To satisfy her bankers she sold some of her jewels, including Prince Rupert's fabulous pearl necklace with the ruby clasp, and pawned her plate. Again James came to the rescue, arranging a new, larger pension for her; a year later he repaid her mortgage on Bestwood Park.
Despite James' consideration for her — she was treated much more kindly by the new king than were her former rivals — when Charles II died, Nell lost her own zest for living. She took on his cook but entertained very little, and only occasionally visited the theater. Then Buckingham, her old friend and the cousin of Barbara Villiers, also died. Fewer and fewer friends were left with whom to share the old life and the happy memories.
A loving and caring father, Charles II had arranged the marriages of all his natural children, and Nell's son the Duke of St. Albans had been betrothed as a child to Lady Diana de Vere, a considerable heiress. Their marriage, like most of those planned by the late king, proved to be a great success.
Nell only survived her "Charles III" by two years, becoming seriously ill after a stroke which left her partly paralyzed. One of the king's favorite doctors attended her regularly, and they shared her last months happily reminiscing about her time in the theater and at court. His notes give no clue as to the nature of her illness, but it was most probably cancer or venereal disease.
Nell Gwyn died on November 13, 1687. She was thirty-seven. (Louise Portsmouth was to outlive her by forty-seven years to the day.)
In her will Nellie forgot no one — it was full of charitable bequests to friends and servants, and to her sister Rose. All her property went to her son, but she requested that money go to Catholic and Protestant poor and prisoners alike. On the day of her funeral, mourners gathered from all over London and from all walks of life to pay a final tribute to this outspoken girl from the simplest of backgrounds, who had won the heart of a king and of the people of London.
Nell Gwyn did little to affect the important events of her time; she is not remembered for any great deed or service to her country. She rose from the lowest ranks of society to share in the life of the highest in the land. The love between her and the king was based on friendship and understanding, confidence in each other, and the willingness to share one another's troubles. Unlike so many others, she was not driven by a craving for power, nor by an overwhelming greed for riches. She did not use her influence with the king for political intrigue. It was Nell's zest for life, her warmhearted merriment and her joy in living, which spread to everyone who saw her or knew her, that attracted the king to the spirited redhead. Not least, she gave encouragement to those who took comfort from her meteoric rise, and, like Cinderella, gave hope to any who aspired to the same giddy heights.
Her love for Charles II was honest and genuine, and she brought him joy and laughter.
Coming from her background, perhaps it was inevitable that Nellie would become a whore like her mother, but she pulled herself up out of the gutter for which she was destined by using her wits, her looks and her irrepressible humor to reach out and grasp another world. Any roof over her head must have seemed paradise, and it is difficult to condemn her for exchanging each protector for a more influential one when the opportunity arose. Nell Gwyn was both proud and ashamed of her origins — proud to be one of the people, who acknowledged her as a queen among them, at the very least a queen of the theater. But her shame about her background was also always apparent, and was the cause of the distinction made between her and the king's other mistresses — even her fellow actress Moll Davis. This infuriated Nellie, who felt justified in considering herself as good — or bad — as the other royal "whores," and her lack of a title always distressed her.
No real malice accompanied her move from bed to bed, and once she had gained the king's she never again looked at another man — admittedly not such a difficult decision when she considered, like so many others, that the king was the most handsome, kind and charming man in the country. But the fact that these attributes did not keep Charles II's other mistresses faithful in those days of lazy morality gives a certain added quality to Nell's constancy.
Unlike other royal mistresses featured in this book, Nell Gwyn was not honoured as the king's maîtresse en titre. Louise de Kéroualle and Hortense Mancini were both well-bred and cultured, and Barbara Villiers was a member of the nobility. Nell had none of these assets, but she had spunk, wit and loyalty, and was rightly valued by Charles II for these virtues.
When Nell Gwyn died, no voices were raised to condemn her immorality. Her funeral oration was delivered by the famous Dr. Tenison, vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and a future Archbishop of Canterbury, who was not afraid to speak for this best loved of English royal courtesans.
It seems extraordinary, with hindsight, that the court and the people of England were quite willing to accept, and love as the mistress of their most beloved king, an illiterate actress, born in squalor and educated at "Mrs. Ross's house of ill repute." One hundred years later, at the court of Versailles and in Paris, the French still could not countenance Louis XV taking as his mistress one of the most accomplished women of the eighteenth century, the cultured and rich Madame de Pompadour, because she was born a member of the bourgeoisie and not an aristocrat.
Copyright © 1991, 2005 by HRH Princess Michael of Kent
1 Nell Gwyn
2 La Marquise de Pompadour
3 Marie Walewska
4 Lola Montez
5 Lillie Langtry
List of Illustrations