Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 23.djvu/410

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Gwyn
Gwyn
402

her, and so did his wife, and he adds, 'and a mighty pretty soul she is' (23 Jan. 1666-7). Dryden kept her supplied with piquant and bustling parts suited to her abilities. She had special happiness in delivering prologues and epilogues, and one or two of these of an exceptionally daring kind were composed by him expressly for her. Reciting an epilogue in a hat 'of the circumference of a large coachwheel' (Waldron, supplement to Downes's Roscius Anglicanus), her little figure looked so droll as to lead King Charles to take her home in his coach to supper, and so to make her his mistress. Innumerable stories of the kind, many of them diverting and all unedifying, are transmitted by tradition, and contain no inherent improbability. After the exaltation of Mrs. Gwyn to royal favour stories and satires multiplied. They abound in 'State Poems,' the works of the facetious Tom Brown, and the poems of Etherege. Specially mentioned in connection with her are the new prologue which she spoke on the revival of the 'Knight of the Burning Pestle' of Beaumont and Fletcher (see Langbaine), and the epilogues to the ('Duke of Lerma' of Sir R. Howard, spoken by Mrs. Gwyn and Mrs. Knipp, 'who spoke beyond any creature I ever heard' (Pepys, 20 Feb. 1667-8), and to Dryden's 'Tyrannick Love.' Under the date 1 May 1667 Pepys gives a pleasing picture of 'pretty Nelly standing at her lodgings in Drury Lane in her smock sleeves and bodice' and watching the May-day revels. On 13 July 1667 he is troubled at a report that Lord Buckhurst has taken her from the stage. She came back, however, on 22 Aug., and acted in the 'Indian Emperor,' 'a great and serious part which she does most basely.' Four days later he hears that 'she is poor and deserted of Lord Buckhurst and hath lost her friend Lady Castlemaine, and that Hart hates her.' Her cursing at an empty house, and her sharp and often indecent retorts on Beck Marshall, follow, and on 11 Jan. 1667-8 he is edifyingly sorry to hear 'that the king did send several times for Nelly.' In the epilogue to the 'Chances,' altered from Beaumont and Fletcher by the Duke of Buckingham, is a curious reference to 'Nel' dancing her jig (Works, ii. 150, ed. 1715).

A portion of her popularity while mistress to the king is attributable to the aversion inspired by her rival, the Duchess of Portsmouth. Waldron, in the supplement to his edition of the 'Roscius Anglicanus,' speaks of an eminent goldsmith, contemporary with Nell Gwyn, who was often heard to tell that, when he was an apprentice, his master made and exhibited a costly service of plate as a present from the king to the Duchess of Portsmouth. The people cursed the duchess, and wished it had been intended for Mrs. Gwyn. When mobbed at Oxford in mistake for her rival, Nell Gwyn put her head out of the window and said: (Pray, good people, be civil; 'am the protestant whore.' A half-sheet in verse (1682), entitled 'A Dialogue between the Duchess of Portsmouth and Madam Gwyn at parting,' and 'A Pleasant Battle between Tutty and Snapshort, the two Lapdogs of the Utopian Court,' 1681, record this rivalry. Madame de Sevigne says of Mademoiselle de K[érouaille]: 'She did not foresee that she would find a young actress in her way whom the king dotes on. … The actress is as haughty as mademoiselle: she insults her, she makes grimaces at her, she attacks her, she frequently steals the king from her, and boasts whenever he gives her the preference. She is young, indiscreet, confident, wild, and of an agreeable humour: she sings, she dances, she acts her part with a good grace. She has a son by the king, and hopes to have him acknowledged ' (Letter xcii.) Burnet (Own Time, i. 369) says that 'Gwyn, the indiscretest and wildest creature that ever was in a court, continued to the end of the king's life in great favour, and was maintained at a vast expense.' The Duke of Buckingham told him that she at first asked only 500l. a year, and was refused; but that four years after, when he heard the story, she had got of the king above 60,000l. Evelyn described her as an impudent comedian, and depicted an interview between her and the king on 2 March 1671. Her first son, Charles Beauclerk [q. v.], was born 8 May 1670 in Lincoln's Inn Fields. In the presence of the king she called him a bastard, pleading that she had no other name by which to call him. On 27 Dec. 1676 Charles created him Baron Heddington and Earl of Burford. He was, 10 Jan. 1683-4, made Duke of St. Albans. A second son, James, was born 25 Dec. 1671. To the end of his life the king retained his affection for Nell Gwyn, though according to Burnet 'he never treated her with the decencies of a mistress.' His dying request to his brother, according to Burnet (History, ii. 460, ed. 1823) and Evelyn (Diary, 4 Feb. 1684), was 'Let not poor Nelly starve.'

An intention to create Nell Gwyn Countess of Greenwich was frustrated by the death of Charles. She had paid as much as 4,520l. for the 'great pearl necklace' belonging to Prince Rupert (see Appendix to Warburton, Prince Rupert and the Cavaliers), and after the loss of her royal lover she had to melt her plate. James charged to the secret service money 729l. 2s. 3d. to be paid to her tradesmen, for which debts 'the