Skip Navigation
NPR News

A Family Take in 'Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King'

Dec 21, 2005 (Morning Edition)

Hear this

This text will be replaced
Launch in player

Share this


England's Restoration did more than simply restore a king to his throne. The return of Charles II in 1660 upended the cramped, rigidly controlled world of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans.

Theaters — long closed — reopened. Bright colors replaced sober black. Licentiousness triumphed over repression, and freethinking and cynicism over faith.

Charles Beauclerk is a direct descendent of Charles II — and one of history's most famous mistresses, Nell Gwyn. Beauclerk has written the story of their 17-year affair, and how it came to be that their son became the duke of St. Albans, when Gwyn started out as a child of the streets and the daughter of a madame.

In Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King, Beauclerk explains how Gwyn's upbringing — learning how to entertain and charm the men around her while serving rum to customers — helped her later woo the king.

Read an Excerpt, from Chapter 1:

Remarkably for one of her upbringing and lowly early station in life, we not only have an exact date of birth for Nell Gwyn, but a time too. We owe this piece of good fortune to the antiquarian and astrologer Elias Ashmole, who cast the horoscope bearing her name now preserved at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. According to Ashmole, who may have derived his information from the lady herself, Nell Gwyn was born on Saturday, 2 February 1650, at six o'clock in the morning. The place of her birth is left blank; nor do we know when or at whose behest the birth chart was calculated.

Astrologers, two of whom have been her biographers, seem agreed that the chart drawn up by Ashmole gives a true portrait of Nell Gwyn, which makes it more than likely that the birth data supplied were accurate. Unsurprisingly, Venus was on the horizon at the moment of her birth, bestowing beauty and charm as well as a love of pleasure and material comforts, while Jupiter at the top of the chart (in the charismatic sign of Scorpio) gave her star quality as well as protection from on high, ensuring that few obstacles would keep her from the limelight she craved. The chart is almost bereft of the earthy element that so many naturally associate with Nell; instead, wit and spontaneity emerge as her chief strengths.

Her birthday fell on the Celtic festival of Imbolc, which celebrated the return of the Sun. It was the feast day of the Celtic goddess Brigid, the light-bringer, whose temple at Kildare housed the eternal flame. Under the Catholic Church, Brigid became St Brigit and Imbolc was transformed into the Feast of Candlemas, or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at which candles are lit at midnight to attend the first stirrings of spring.

Despite the associations with light implicit in her name and birthday, Nell Gwyn was born at one of the darkest hours in her nation's history. King Charles I had been executed almost exactly a year before, leaving the nation shocked and bewildered. The theatres were closed, the maypoles axed, public entertainments and holidays banned, dancing, singing and playing musical instruments proscribed. Even wrestling, leaping, running and 'unnecessary' walking (i.e., walking for pleasure) were denied the common people. Adultery was now a capital offence. The great iron giant of Puritanism thundered through the land, threatening to rip up the entire fabric of society.

There was a strong feeling that the end of the world was approaching and that Christ would return to begin his 1,000-year reign on earth. The execution of the King had fuelled this millennarian fervour. Messiahs, prophets and ranters of both sexes and every conceivable sect flooded into London from the countryside, as England suffered something in the nature of a nervous breakdown. Predictions were rife and could be used by the government to create a climate of opinion conducive to their aims, as with those that foretold the execution of the King as a necessary precondition for the rule of Christ. The London of Nell Gwyn's childhood was teeming with possessed souls.

Women of course were the main target of the Puritans' blind projection of humankind's darker nature, and their status in the new regime was little better than that of children. Gone were the days of Shakespeare's witty heroines. The Puritans strove relentlessly for the light, their instincts bound like squirming devils and shoved into some dark corner of the soul. Instead, they looked outside themselves for the objects of their torment. Women were the obvious scapegoat, and those whose independent spirits did not allow them to submit either ran mad or became prostitutes. Indeed, it is no surprise that prostitution was more widespread under the Commonwealth than in Charles I's reign. Such are the fruits of demonization.

Poetic justice, however, was served one famous morning in St Paul's Cathedral. A Puritan divine was preaching on the Resurrection when a lady in the congregation suddenly stripped herself naked in her pew and advanced on him with cries of 'Welcome the Resurrection!' One can only hope, for the minister's sake, that the members of the congregation that rose up in response did not include his own! Merry England may have gone underground, but it was certainly not dead.

Nothing perhaps gives a better flavour of the dreary theocracy that was Puritan England than the names with which devout Puritans saddled their children, names such as Abstinence, Forsaken, Tribulation, Ashes, Lamentation, Fear-not, Weep-not, Kill-sin and Flyfornication. How delightfully bright and simple 'Nell Gwyn' sounds beside a name like 'Perseverance Middleton'. No wonder the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes her as 'the living antithesis of Puritanism'. Art too was forced underground, as were all expressions of joy, beauty, and panache. In the words of the poet, the lovers and the dancers were beaten into the clay.1

At the exact date of Nell Gwyn's birth, 2 February 1650, Cromwell was marching through rain-sodden Tipperary in the heat of his campaign of butchery in Ireland. The judgement of God was upon those 'barbarous wretches' and the privilege of wielding his righteous sword fell to the future Lord Protector of England. Cromwell's fierce star was in the ascendant. Meanwhile the nineteen-year-old King Charles II was in Jersey with his ragged ad hoc court, where he enjoyed sailing and long walks as distractions from the constant bickering of his followers and the sheer boredom of his permanently makeshift life. Money was scarce. The King himself ate sparingly; his clothes were conspicuously threadbare. Restoration seemed an impossible dream.

Appropriately enough, the royal seal designed for the accession of King Charles in Jersey showed St George on the obverse, for the King in exile was to endure another ten years as the wandering knight, though the dragons that he would vanquish were those reared in the bowels of his own being. Over the next decade he would learn to live as a man among men. Enduring frustrations and humiliations that would have broken others, he came to know himself as few monarchs ever have or ever could. The depth of Charles's self-transformation in exile has rarely been noted, possibly because he hugged this new man to himself in defiant secrecy. Having learnt to conceal himself for survival's sake, he later turned this necessity into an art.

Of all the misfits of Puritan England that took to the roads, Charles Stuart had the furthest to go. It was as if fate had prescribed that the future King of England should know the sorrows and afflictions of ordinary men, for he could have no better tutors for the life of kingship that awaited him. Nothing tested him more ferociously than the forty days and nights after the Battle of Worcester. Charles was disguised as a woodsman and given the name 'Will Jones', his long black locks lopped with a pair of shears, his face smeared with soot. In addition to his coarse peasant shirt and breeches, he wore a greasy, grey steeple-crowned hat and shoes so ill-fitting that his feet bled horribly. Some accounts say he carried a thorn-stick, others a billhook. If Nell Gwyn was ever baptized, it would most likely have been in the aftermath of Worcester, while her future lover was enduring his own second baptism, that of fire.

This teenage vagabond King had already become a father before Nell Gwyn was born. He had sired a son upon his first great love, another beauty of Welsh ancestry, Lucy Walter, who was quickly shunted out of the way by exiled courtiers loyal to the King. The boy, who was later to become the Duke of Monmouth, was only prised from his mother in 1658. Later that year, the same year that Cromwell passed away, Lucy lost her life to syphilis.

In a very real sense, Charles's experiences as an exile were an apprenticeship for his relationship with Nell Gwyn, for it was during his years of wandering that he came to identify with the underdog and the common man. Living off charity and in social limbo, despised by those in power, he knew what it was to wear dirty clothes and survive on one meal a day. Through hardship he came to appreciate the ordinary pleasures of life with an almost ritualistic enjoyment.

Copyright 2005 by Charles Beauclerk. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Read full story transcript

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR

Visitor comments

on:

NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.