- (Eleanor Gwynn, Gwyn, or Gwynne; 1650 - 87) The beautifulEnglish actress whose brief stage career ended when she became themistress of Charles II and bore him two sons. The English public,starved by years of Puritanism, adored 'Pretty witty Nell' with heropen indiscretions, high spirits, lovely heart-shaped face, and delicatebut shapely figure.
Nell was also renowned for her profanity and bawdy humour.Samuel Pepys visited her dressing room after one ill-attended performanceand recorded, "But to see how Nell cursed for having so fewpeople in the pit, was pretty."
Her father died in a debtors' prison and her mother kept abrothel. Nell began her working life serving brandy to customers inCovent Garden and selling oranges in the King's Theatre. She subsequentlybecame the mistress of the well-known actor Charles Hart, who trainedher for the stage. After making her debut in 1664 as the courtesanPaulina in Thomas Killigrew's Thomaso, she became the leadingcomedienne of the King's Company, during which time she was mistressto Lord Buckhurst (later the 6th earl of Dorset). She also won praiseas Cydaria in Dryden's Secret Love (1667) and Jacinta in hisAn Evening's Love (1668).
She became the king's mistress in 1669, and bore the firstof his sons before giving her last performance, as Almahide in Dryden'sAlmanzor and Almahide. The king gave her a house in Pall Mall,where Nell, still the illiterate street girl, mixed with court society,gave extravagant parties and lobbied successfully to have her sonmade duke of St Albans. She was in serious debt when Charles II diedin 1685 but his deathbed wish to "Let not poor Nelly starve"was honoured by James II.Hard by the Mall lives a wench call'd Nell,King Charles the Second he kept her.She hath got a trick to handle his pr---,But never lays hands on his sceptre.All matters of state from her soul does she haste,And leave to the politic bitches.The whore's in the right, for 'tis her delightTo be scratching just where it itches.Anon