Ward's Book of Days.
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On this day in history in 1687, died Nell Gwyn.
Nell Gwyn was a street trader, and the first British actress, who became the favourite mistress of King Charles II.
Eleanor Gwyn was born in London on 2nd February 1650, the daughter of a brothel keeper. She was, according to Samuel Pepys, brought up ‘to fill strong waters (gin and brandy) to the guests.’ In 1664, Nell became an orange-girl, a purveyor of exotic fruits, in the streets surrounding the theatres, where she caught the attention of Charles Hart, a great nephew of William Shakespeare, and a leading actor of the day. Hart gave Nell a chance on the stage where she made her first appearance in 1665.
Nell played several stage parts in John Dryden’s plays, notably Florimel in Secret Love and Jacinta in Evening’s Love. ‘Pretty witty Nell’, as she became known, was always cast in romantic roles, being considered unsuited to serious drams. Before Nell’s time, female parts had always been played by boys, so Nell was the first actress on the English stage.
In 1669, Nell was introduced to king Charles II, who was captivated by the young woman, making her one of his mistresses, and setting her up in a fine city house. Nell continued to work on the stage while having her affair with the king, only taking time off for maternity leave, when bearing two of the king’s sons. She was probably the king’s favourite mistress and certainly the most popular with the public. On one occasion, a mob besieged and attacked her coach, believing her to be the king’s other mistress at the time, the Duchess of Portsmouth. Nell quickly placated the crowd by appearing at the coach window saying ‘Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore!”
When Charles II died in 1985, Nell was deeply in debt. Charles pleaded on his deathbed “Let not poor Nelly starve”. Charles’ successor, James II, paid off all Nell’s debts and gave her a pension, upon which she lived, taking no more lovers in tribute to the king’s memory, until she died on 14th November 1687.
At her funeral, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached a sermon based on Luke 15:7. ‘There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance’. Nell is buried in the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. [St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N]
Howe, Elizabeth. The First English Actresses: Women and Drama, 1660-1700.
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