Gwyn, Eleanor (DNB00)

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GWYN, ELEANOR (1650–1687), actress, and mistress to Charles II, was born, according to a horoscope preserved among the Ashmole papers in the museum at Oxford, and reproduced in Cunningham's 'Story of Nell Gwyn,' on 2 Feb. 1650. Historians of Hereford accept the tradition that she was born in a house in Pipe Well Lane, Hereford, since called Gwyn Street. This account is said to be confirmed by a slab in the cathedral, of which James Beauclerk, her descendant, was bishop from 1746 to 1787. A second account, resting principally on the not very trustworthy information supplied by Oldys in Betterton's 'History of the Stage' (Curll, 1741) and in manuscript notes still existing, assigns her birth to Coal Yard, Drury Lane. In the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth series of 'Notes and Queries' will be found full discussions of the question whether her father, who is said to have been called James, was a dilapidated soldier or a fruiterer in Drury Lane, and of other points. Her mother Helena (? Eleanor), according to the 'Domestic Intelligencer' of 5 Aug. 1679 and the 'English Intelligencer' of 2 Aug. 1679, 'sitting near the waterside at her house by the Neat Houses at Chelsea (Millbank), fell into the water accidentally and was drowned.' Report naturally ascribed the calamity to drunkenness. Mrs. Gwyn was buried in the church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, in a tomb subsequently shared by her daughter. Nell's first public occupation was that of a vendor in the Theatre Royal of oranges, or, according to a satire of Rochester, of herrings. She was then, it is said, with the infamous Mother Ross. Charles Hart and John Lacy the players and a certain Robert Duncan, Dungan, or Dongan, have been reckoned among her lovers. To Hart she owed her theatrical training; Dungan is said to have promoted her from the place in the pit assigned during the Restoration to the orange-women to the stage of the Theatre Royal. Her first recorded performance there took place in 1665 as Cydaria in the 'Indian Emperor' of Dryden. She is believed to have played at the same house the following parts among others: in 1666 Lady Wealthy in the 'English Mounsieur' of James Howard [q. v.]; in 1667 Florimel in Dryden's 'Secret Love,' Flora in 'Flora's Vagaries' by Richard Rhodes, Alizia in the 'Black Prince' of the Earl of Orrery, Mirida in 'All Mistaken' by James Howard; in 1668 Bellario in 'Philaster' by Beaumont and Fletcher,' and Jacinta in Dryden's 'Mock Astrologer;' in 1669 Valeria in Dryden's 'Tyrannick Love;' in 1670 Almahide in Dryden's 'Conquest of Granada.' After an apparent absence from the stage of six to seven years she played at Dorset Garden in 1677 Angelica Bianca in Mrs. Behn's 'Rover,' Astrea in the 'Constant Nymph' (an anonymous pastoral), and Thalestris in the 'Siege of Babylon' of Samuel Pordage. In 1678 she appeared as Lady Squeamish in Otway's 'Friendship in Fashion,' and Lady Knowell in Mrs. Behn's 'Sir Patient Fancy.' In 1682 she returned to the Theatre Royal, and was Sunamire in the 'Loyal Brother' of Southern, and Queen Elizabeth in Banks's 'Unhappy Favourite, or the Earl of Essex.' These characters, with one or two exceptions, were original 'creations.' Upon the junction of the two companies in 1682 she appears to have definitely quitted the stage.

The chief authorities for these performances are Downes's 'Roscius Anglicanus' and Pepys's 'Diary.' Pepys constantly expresses his admiration. He calls her 'pretty witty Nell' (3 April 1665). Of the 'English Mounsieur' he says: 'The women do very well, but. above all little Nelly.' After seeing her in Celia, which she did pretty well, he kissed 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 said Ellen Gwyn stood outlawed' (Secret Service Expenses of Charles II and James II, Camden Soc. p. 109). Other large sums were paid her, and Bestwood Park, Nottingham, was settled on her, and after her death on the Duke of St. Albans. Her will, dated 1687, is printed in Cunningham's 'Story of Nell Gwyn,' and in other works, and a codicil expressing her wishes with regard to her funeral was added 18 Oct. 1687. She died on 13 Nov. 1687 of an apoplexy. Among other requests to her son, many of them charitable and accepted by him, was one 'that he would lay out twenty pounds yearly for the releasing of poor debtors out of prison.' Other sums, said to have been left to bellringers, &c., are of questionable authority. Wigmore writes to Sir George Etherege, then envoy at Katisbon, that she 'died piously and penitently.' She was buried 17 Nov. 1687 in the church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. Dr. Tenison, at her request, preached a funeral sermon in which he said 'much to her praise.' Nell Gwyn was illiterate. Her letters are written by other hands, and signed 'E. G.' by her. Four of these are in the Evidence Chamber, Ormonde Castle. Kilkenny. A letter to Laurence Hyde, second son of the Earl of Clarendon, was sold in the Singer Collection, 3 Aug. 1858, for 13l. 5s., and came into the collection of Sir William Tite. Its orthography is marvellous even for that age. Two letters attributed to her, purchased in 1856, are in Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 21483, ff. 27, 28. She had a sister Rose, who married Captain Cassells, and after his death in 1675 remarried a man called Forster.

Many houses are associated with her name. That in Drury Lane has been photographed by the society for preserving relics of old London. She lodged at the Cock and Pie in Drury Lane, lived at Epsom with Lord Dorset, and; had a house at Chelsea called Sandford House. A house in Bagnigge Wells, traditionally associated with her, had in 1789 a bust, said to be designed by Sir Peter Lely in alto relievo, let into a circular cavity in a wall. One of the houses which she occupied in Pall Mall has been constantly and erroneously said to have been the scene of her death in 1691. A deed of covenant in which she is one of the parties is preserved concerning a house in Princes Street, Leicester Square (see Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iii. 479). The warrant of Charles II, assigning to her Burford House at Windsor, now the site of the Queen's Mews, is in existence. An account of the decorations is in 'Annals of Windsor,' by Tighe and Davis, 1858, ii. 327, 441. Portraits of Nell Gwyn abound. One, presumably a copy, assigned to Sir Peter Lely, is in the Garrick Club; a second is in the Lely room at Hampton Court; and a third, by Lely, is in the National Portrait Gallery. Others, by different hands, are at Goodwood, Elvaston, Althorp, Welbeck, Sudbury, &c. A full-length portrait which has been engraved realised at the Stow sale 100l. No. 306 of King James's pictures was 'Madam Gwyn's picture naked, with a Cupid,' by Lely, and concealed by a sliding panel. The supposition that she induced Charles to found Chelsea Hospital had something to do with the favour always extended to her life. In her character, however, she was frank, unsentimental, and English. As an actress she was best in comedy, in which she was gay, saucy, and sprightly. She protested once or twice in epilogues against being called upon to play in tragedy, but many of her original parts are tragic. She appears to have been low in stature and plump, and to have had hair of reddish brown. Her foot was diminutive, and her eyes when she laughed became all but invisible. In dedications to her of books and plays, especially by Mrs. Behn, she is spoken of with extravagant eulogy.

[Works cited; Memoirs of the Life of Eleanor Gwinn, London, 1752, 8vo; Notes and Queries, all series, passim; Cunningham's Story of Nell Gwyn; Genest's Account of the Stage; Hamilton's Memoirs of Grammont, English translations; Downes's Roscius Anglicanus, ed. Walron; Cunningham's Handbook to London; State Poems, 4 vols.; Betterton's History of the Stage, &c. Coarse epigrams upon her are to be found in the State Poems, and in much Restoration literature. Cunningham's book is not always trustworthy, and portions of the curious information to be drawn from Notes and Queries are contradictory. See also a Memorial of Nell Gwynn the actress and Thomas Otway the dramatist, by William Henry Hart, F.S.A., 1868, 4to, pp. 3.]

J. K.