Sunday, January 15, 2012

Nell Gwyn's Jewelry

By on Sunday, January 15, 2012 11 Comments

Nell Gwyn (1650 -1687) was King Charles II (1630-1685) of England's best loved and renowned mistress. A lovely and talented comic actress, she was also generous and famously witty. Unlike the other mistresses, Nell loved Charles for himself and not because he was king.

Raised in the gutters of London, hers was a rags-to-riches life. Her alcoholic "mother may have died in a ditch but her son became a duke".

While her birthplace is unknown, her name "Gwyn" suggests Welsh roots. Her red-gold hair, green eyes and lovely singing voice certainly supports the Celtic connection. Her father was thought to have served as a Cavalier (Royalist) during the English Civil war and died in a debtor's prison.

Her destitute mother raised Nell and her older sister Rose in the slums of London. Old Ma Gwyn as she was sometimes called, ran a brothel or bawdy house. A staggering 1 in 10 London women in that era were prostitutes. Both little girls grew up serving leery men drinks.

Later on they became street vendors and pretty "orange girls" who sold fruit and other sweetmeats to theater patrons. As orange girls were also fair game for young bucks who were after actresses, Nell honed her legendary ability for one-liners and quick retorts by cleverly deflecting their attentions with impudent wit. It says much for Nell's strength of character that she survived such grim beginnings and retained her innate sense of humor.

Nell was born towards the end of the English Civil War (1642-1651), a terrible period of unrest when the Parliamentarians were locked in battle against the Royalists who supported Charles' father, King Charles I. This weak king believed his royal prerogative and revenue were divinely ordained whereas his people and the Parliament of England vehemently opposed his views.

Charles II c 1660-1665
Charles' father was executed the year before Nell was born. The then 19-year old Charles II spent the next 11 years as a king in exile. Impoverished, he knew what it was like to be scorned, hungry, ill-clothed and dependent on the charity of others. This early experience marked him for life. He never again took simple pleasures for granted and identified strongly with the common man.

Charles II was finally invited back as monarch in 1660, following the death of Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarians and a 2 year period of political crisis. He went on to spend much of his reign, in a period known as the Restoration, consolidating the monarchy.

What was Charles like as a king? A contemporary described Charles as "a prince of many virtues and many great imperfections, debonair, easy of access, not bloody or cruel".

He was brave, athletic as well as intelligent and witty. He was also incredibly over-sexed. So much so, his subjects dubbed him the Merry Monarch as much for his hedonistic ways as well as expressing their general relief at the return to normality after Cromwell's strict Puritan rule.

Catherine of Braganza c. 1665
 Charles married the tiny, doll-like Catherine of Braganza (Portugal). Even though she was infertile, Charles never put her aside as many wanted him to. While Charles loved her and valued her loyalty, he was not faithful to her either.

Apart from her initial objection to accepting the notorious Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine (see my past mini-bio Jewels for a King's Harlot) as one of her Ladies of the Bedchamber, Catherine was not jealous of his mistresses. She indulged Charles a great deal and was kind to his large brood (14) of illegitimate children.

Not content with a "harem" at court, Charles was also fond of "putting off the King" i.e. going to London brothels incognito although with his distinct dark looks and great height (over 6' ), he probably fooled no one.

Their affair began after Nell became an actress who excelled in comedic roles. Her good looks as well as her talent for ad-libbing served her well. Soon she was invited to do court performances. Very heady successes for a mere 17 year-old girl from the slums.

Barbara Palmer, Countess Castlemaine
While his other low-born mistresses kept a low profile and stayed away from hostile courtiers, Nell was different. She took the court by storm and rapidly eclipsed  Barbara Palmer, the reigning chief mistress.

Nell may have had to prostitute herself to live but she was in her own words, "only one man's whore" (at a time) and never whore to 3 or 4, whereas the aristocratic Barbara was a raging nymphomaniac who liked slumming it.

Nell could take care of herself. When Barbara snubbed her, Nell retorted by clapping "her on the shoulder and said she presumed that persons of one trade loved not one another!"

Then Barbara drove her luxurious new 6-horse coach back and forth in front of Nell's house to show her that Nell never got anything valuable from Charles unlike herself.  The next day, Nell drove a old cart drawn by 6 oxen in front of Barbara's house calling out, "Whores to market, ho!"

Nell never ever pretended to be anyone other than herself. She once broke up a fight between her coachman and another man who had called her a whore. Nell said, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about."

She wittily told Charles, that despite his royal title, he was Charles III to her as she had been mistress to two previous Charles before him. Their relationship might have begun in lust but it grew to something much more. Nell could sense the loneliness of his position and he himself really understood how hard her early life must have been. She eased his days with lively informal lunches where the worries of kingship were cast aside. She preferred funny and practical jokes to politics and declared tongue-in-cheek, she was "a sleeping partner in the ship of state."

By creating this deep friendship, Charles was perhaps the first monarch to truly embrace a social outcast as his equal and thereby reached out to his subjects. The historian Brenda James, pointed out that "Nell's little hand in the King's was the hand of his people." No wonder Nell is considered the living embodiment of the spirit of Restoration England. Through Nell, Charles got to know the state of the nation. His people also adored her because they appreciated her good fortune and her generosity to those in need.

While the greedy Barbara demanded and got jewels, titles and money galore, Nell by virtue of her low birth got very little in comparison. She went back to the theater for a while in protest because the support she got from Charles was so meager. She did eventually persuade Charles to grant her a freehold not leasehold townhouse by jesting that it must be "free under the Crown" because she gave her services for free to the King!

A proper surname for the two boys she bore him was also not forthcoming for a while. Nell was not grasping by nature but she wanted a much better future for their sons. Unlike Barbara who once threatened to dash the brains of her last child out before him if Charles did not accept paternity (he didn't think the child was his), Nell used her wit instead.

During one of Charles' visit, she called out to their 6 year-old also named Charles, "Come hither, you little bastard!" Charles was shocked but Nell pointed out "I have no better name to call him by". Charles laughingly agreed and then granted the boy the title Earl of Burford. It took another 8 years of begging before Charles made him Duke of Albans. To this day, the family name of of the Dukes of Albans is Beauclerk.

Nell Gwyn c.1680
Nell's portraits often show her wearing pearls around her neck or in her hair. It's likely the expensive string of pearls she bought from a prince's estate. But she did receive several pieces of jewelry from Charles himself which included a cushion shaped diamond ring, a pave-set diamond hairpin and a blue enamel and pearl watch set with rose diamonds. The watch chain also had a polished carnelian heart - a simple but affecting love token.

Charles was determined not to be dominated by women even though they played a huge part in his life. While he was never too concerned about the wages of his soldiers and sailors, he worried constantly about how to pay his mistresses' expenses and meet their demands. He also had to deal with the fallout from his varied choices of women.

Louise de Kérouaille
The court favored noble mistresses like the French born Louise de Kérouaille and snubbed Nell for being a mere commoner.  But his mainly Protestant subjects abhorred the Catholic lady and preferred him to take on Protestant Englishwomen - only 120 years before, in the reign of "Bloody" Mary I, Protestant heretics were burned at the stake. They also rightly suspected that Louise was planted by the French king to influence Charles' political views in favor of France.

So when a mob stopped Nell's carriage thinking it was Louise's and started to overturn it, she poked her head out and shouted good-naturedly, " Pray, good people, be civil, I am the Protestant whore!" They laughed, cheered, cleared a path and sent her on her merry way.

Their affair lasted for 17 years until he died of uremia due to kidney dysfunction. On his deathbed, Charles, a closet Catholic all his life, converted.

He also asked his heir and younger brother, the Catholic James "not to let poor Nelly starve." Unlike those of his other highborn mistresses, Nell's pensions ended with his death. James ignored the request to provide for Nell, putting her in dire financial straits. So Nell had to mortgage some property and borrowed against her jewels and plates to pay creditors.

Finally the dour James (or "Dismal Jimmy" as Nell called him) did come through with some money with which she could live modestly on for the remaining two years of her life. She stayed faithful to Charles and refused to take on another lover. She took to wearing a gold mourning ring with a miniature of Charles under crystal.

Nell suffered a couple of strokes - probably the result of a complication of syphilis, the venereal disease she likely caught from Charles. Paralyzed, she lingered on for a couple of months before dying at 37. Her funeral was well attended by people from all walks of life, such was her universal appeal. Her many heartfelt gifts to the poor included several charitable legacies. As historian Cecil Chesterton said, "Nell was not only sorry for people whose shoes pinched them, she knew where the shoes pinched."

At her request, the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon at her funeral came from the text of Luke 15:7 "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of Albans
Nell did not live to see her older son, Charles Beauclerk, distinguish himself on the battlefield, become an ambassador, marry an heiress nor her 12 grandchildren. (Her younger son died in childhood.)

She was the only mistress and ironically the only non-Catholic one of the lot whom the Dowager Queen Catherine genuinely liked.

Catherine knew Nell truly loved the King for himself. It says much of her affection for Nell that Catherine bestowed a generous pension on her son so he wouldn't be forced to become a Catholic as the new King James wanted.

Interesting Footnote :
Two of Diana, Princess of Wales' ancestors were the Duke of Grafton (Charles' son with Barbara Palmer) and the Duke of Richmond (son with Louise de Kérouaille).

So Prince William, Diana's son, is going to be the first British monarch descended from Charles II.

Other Royal Mistresses:
Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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  1. Quite a fascinating account of history

  2. Always love your historical pieces! Another great read!

  3. I love the history lessons we get along with seeing the beautiful jewels in passed history. Thanks!

  4. Interesting story, I like the connection to modern day (Prince William).

  5. That article was so interesting. I love history, and that was history from a different aspect, and not at all "dry" or "boring".I am so glad I found your site.

  6. What a wonderful post. Nell sounds like someone I would have enjoyed knowing.

  7. I too would have liked her had I lived in her time.

  8. Another interesting read Pearl!