London's Own Cinderella: The Story Of Nell Gwynn

By Zoe Craig Last edited 86 months ago

Last Updated 17 March 2017

London's Own Cinderella: The Story Of Nell Gwynn
Nell Gwyn by Simon Verelst circa 1680 © NPG, London

Eleanor 'Nell' Gwynn (or Gwyn or Gwynne)  is a London heroine with a rags-to-riches story to rival both Cinderella and Eliza Doolittle.

The embodiment of the bawdy Restoration era, the orange seller-turned-actress enjoyed a position as a favourite mistress to the king for nearly 20 years.

Her short but significant life has inspired several films, plays and novels: here we look at the London settings of Nell's extraordinary story.

Covent Garden

Nell's birthplace is disputed. While some claim she was born in Hereford, we prefer the idea she sprang to life in Coal Yard Alley off Drury Lane.

Her dad was supposed to be Captain Thomas Guine; her mother was more definitely Madame Ellen Gwynn, keeper of a brothel in Covent Garden.

Little is known of Nell's early life: while she probably helped her mother in the 'bawdy house' it's unclear if she was a child prostitute. It's possible she worked as a street hawker of oysters, or a cinder-girl. Samuel Pepys reports that Nell said she 'was brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong waters to the guests...'

Covent Garden as it was in 1660, looking west with St Paul’s church on the far side of the piazza.

Bringing brandy to Covent Garden brothel visitors does not seem an auspicious start for a girl who would go on to influence the king.

Perhaps Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress, 1732 gives a flavour of Nell's life growing up in Covent Garden? Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Theatre Royal Drury Lane

After being banned by Cromwell, theatres were reinstated by Charles II, in the early 1660s.

The so-called 'Merry Monarch' not only licensed two acting companies, he legalised the profession for women; bringing England up to speed with its European counterparts in allowing women on the stage.

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1775. The first theatre on this site seated just 650 people.

Around 1664, a former prostitute called Mary Meggs or 'Orange Moll' hired Nell and her older sister Rose to help her sell oranges in the king's playhouse, called The Theatre, in Bridges Street; now the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

The Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 2012.

While working, Nell caught the attention of someone at the theatre: maybe Thomas Killigrew, the leader of the King's Company; possibly one of the actors, Charles Hart.

Buy A Bill Of The Play: a plate taken from Modern London, an 1804 guide to the city published by Richard Phillips. For more, see the excellent Romantic London website.

Aged around 14, she became one of the actresses in the troupe, and Hart's mistress. Nell's first recorded appearance on stage was in 1665 in Dryden's Indian Emperor.

Her later performance in Howard's The English Monsieur won her Samuel Pepys's famous epithet, "pretty, witty Nell".

Her comedic talent brought Nell leading roles and widespread fame. Our heroine was on the up.

She became mistress to Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst in 1667; the next year she was introduced to the king and became his lover. Nell is said to have nicknamed the king 'her Charles the Third' in a nod to her previous relationships.

King Charles II by John Michael Wright, circa 1660-1665 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Pretty, witty Nell

There are plenty of great Nell quotes to persuade anyone unsure of her intelligence and quick wit.

Nell Gwyn by Gerard Valck, after Sir Peter Lely, line engraving © National Portrait Gallery, London

Our favourite, reported by Comte de Gramont, recalls an event in 1681: Nell Gwynn was passing through the streets in her coach, when the mob mistook her for her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth, and began hooting and calling her all kinds of names.

Putting her head out of the coach window, she addressed the crowd: "Good people," she said, smiling, "you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore".

(The Catholic whore was the Duchess of Portsmouth, the sophisticated Frenchwoman Louise de Kerouaille, another of the king's many mistresses, but Nell's opposite in almost all other respects.)

Nell Gwynn by Simon Verelst, 1860.

Royal Chelsea Hospital

Did Nell Gwynn inspire Charles to create the Royal Hospital Chelsea for retired and injured soldiers?

The Royal Hospital from the north in 1694, with Ranelagh House in distance (top left). Image from British History online

While there's little concrete evidence to suggest she did, it surely says something about the public's attitude to our heroine that the story, true or false, gained traction.

'Legend of Chelsea Hospital' with King Charles II & Nell Gwyn. Published by Joseph Hogarth, after Unknown artist stipple engraving, published 1845 © National Portrait Gallery, London

After 11 years' puritanical rule, Nell was the generous, reckless, infectiously charismatic character the populace (and the pamphleteers) were looking for.

Figure Court of Royal Hospital Chelsea. Photo by Michael Reeve, 10 June 2004, used under Creative Commons licence.

79 Pall Mall

In February 1671, Nell moved into a townhouse owned by the King at 79 Pall Mall. Five years later, she was granted the lease on the property. Of all Charles's various mistresses (there were at least a dozen over the years), Nell was seen as being the least greedy for royal favours.

Nell Gwynn lived here: blue plaque by Diane Griffiths.

However, she was, apparently, disappointed about only being a leasee. (The problem of London property ownership is hardly a modern phenomenon.)

Nell is said to have complained, "she had always conveyed free under the Crown, and always would; and would not accept [the house] till it was conveyed free to her by an Act of Parliament". In 1676, her pleas were answered, and she was granted freehold of the property.

79 Pall Mall is a Grade II listed building.

79 Pall Mall remained in Gwynn's family until 1693; as of 1960, the property was still the only one on the south side of Pall Mall not owned by the Crown.

Let not poor Nelly starve

King Charles's deathbed request ('Let not poor Nelly starve') meant in 1685, Nell was left with a £1,500-a-year pension (about £150,000 in today's money). All her debts were paid by James II, Charles's younger brother and heir.

Nell's two sons by Charles, James Beauclerk and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St Albans; by Richard Tompson, after Sir Peter Lely, mezzotint, before 1693 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Three years later, in March 1687, Gwynn suffered a stroke that left her paralysed on one side.

In May 1687, a second stroke left her confined to the bed in her Pall Mall house. Nell Gwynn died from apoplexy (possibly due to a strain of syphilis) on 14 November 1687.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

Burial inside churches had become fashionable in the mid-17th century. Because of the expense, it was seen as the mark of a successful career. Vicars were often buried beneath their altars.

Nell became friends with Thomas Tenison, the vicar of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields (and later Archbishop of Canterbury), late in her life: he conducted her funeral and allowed Nell's body to be interred in his space below the altar when she was buried on 17 November 1687.

West View of the Old Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, pulled down in 1721. (From a print published by J T Smith in 1808).

In accordance with one of her final wishes, Tenison preached a sermon from Luke 15:7: "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance".

The geographical distance between Nell's (possible) birthplace and burial isn't far: about half a mile. Yet the difference in her social status is the stuff of fairy tale.

St Martin-in-the-Fields today. Photo by Paul via the Londonist flickrpool.

Nell Gywnn in London today

Today, Nell gives her name to a tiny, traditional old-man's pub near the Strand.

The Nell Gywnne Tavern. Photo by Matt Brown

Then there's a rather smart art deco building in Chelsea called Nell Gywnn House Apartments, with a statue of our heroine over the door.

Nell Gwynn House, photo from the London Remembers website.

Note the spaniel at Nell's feet. As the London Remembers site explains, "As Corgies are to Elizabeth so these spaniels were to Charles II."

Down the road in Sloane Square, Nell's relationship with the king is immortalised in the Venus Fountain from 1953.

The Grade II-listed Venus Fountain in Sloane Square, 1953, designed by sculptor Gilbert Ledward.
Charles II and Nell on the base of the Venus Fountain. Picture fragment from the excellent Jane's London website.

And there's a Nell Gywnn nursery school in Southwark.

None of these locations have any direct connections to this most famous of king's mistresses: indeed, we wonder what the illiterate orange seller would think of the rather charming-looking pre-school bearing her name.