First off, please know that this episode contains a very loud LITTLE EARS warning, so we do ask that adults preview it to decide if it’s appropriate for the kids in their life. Nell was a woman who grew up in poverty, learned how to charm people from a very young age, and found success in the culture in which she lived as an actress and a mistress to King Charles II of England. (There is a lot of sex and quotes have words in them that we don’t ordinarily use but it’s impossible to tell her story without these elements.)
Nell’s early history is a little fuzzy, she was most likely born on February 2, 1650, in Oxford, England. She was named Eleanor after her mother, but everyone called her “Nell.” She was definitely the second daughter of Eleanor Gwynn, and her father was Thomas Gwynn, perhaps a military man who fought for the King on the losing side of a war that ended with that king’s head…off, and his son and heir, Charles, on the run and in exile. There are a couple of theories as to who, exactly, this Thomas was but what really matters is that he was out of the picture, imprisoned, and dead when Nell was a tiny child.
Nell grew up in London, England, during a time of Puritanical rule but her community in the aptly named, Coal Yard Alley, was a seedy part of town where people didn’t care much for the “NO” laws. Nell’s school wasn’t academic- it was survival; it was street smarts and reading people. She was very good at her lessons.
When she was 10, King Charles II came back into power, Hello, Restoration Era! She worked her way from selling oysters to selling oranges at the newly opened theaters, and after women were allowed on stage (thanks, King Charles!) she stepped into the life of an actress…a very popular actress. Very.
King Charles II, like everyone who saw her, was drawn to and mesmerized by Nell. Yes, he was married and very devoted to his wife, and yes he had many other mistresses in his lifetime. Nell possessed qualities that the other women in Charles’ life didn’t, as a diarist of the time (Samuel Pepys) described her she was, “pretty and witty.” She gave birth to two of Charles’ sons and, most importantly, was loyal to him and unapologetically herself, for the rest of her life.
Don’t get us wrong, she was human and made some really poor Mean Girl decisions along the way. She had tragedy and loss and life setbacks. For the most part, though, she was happy and made others happy, too, with a big, good-natured, and playful personality.
Nell only outlived Charles by only two years and was survived by only one of her sons. She died on November 14, 1687, at the age of 37.
Time Travel With The History Chicks
To read the…colorful diary of Samuel Pepys (as well as other things related to the man) online: Diary of Samuel Pepys
Oliver Cromwell, hero or villain? (We don’t go into it too much in this episode, it’s not called History Dudes)
Here’s a list of the Nell statues in London (as well as other images of things we mentioned, it’s a good article) in THE LONDONIST
History of female actors at the theeeaaater. First Actresses by Deborah Friedell
Frock Flicks (also a podcast) has a rundown of all the Nell Gwynn movies here: Frock Flicks
And this is NOTHING like Susan’s version. She’s keeping her day job to the delight of theater goers everywhere.
Break music: Orange Sphere, by Future Former; End song: My Town by the Bell Hours used with permission from ilicense music