Nell Gwyn (or Gwynn or Gwynne), (1650-1687), was one of the earliest English actresses and a long-time mistress of king Charles II. Her mother ran a brothel and Nell first made a living selling oranges in the pit of a London theatre, while probably procuring actresses for the men in the audience. When she was fifteen she became an actress – definitely not a respectable profession at that time – and was reportedly a sensation. When she was nineteen she became the king’s mistress, having previously been the mistress of both Lord Buckhurst and Sir Charles Sedley.
Although she was often caricatured as an empty-headed woman John Dryden said that her greatest attribute was her native wit and Samuel Pepys called her ‘pretty, witty Nell’. She was the only one of Charles II’s many mistresses to be genuinely popular with the English public; once when the London mob jossled her carriage thinking her to be the unpopular, Catholic Louise de Keroualle she reportedly addressed them: ‘Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore.’
She had a reputation for being the least greedy of Charles’s mistresses but according to her own accounts (auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2008) she thought nothing of ordering a bed costing £1,135 (equivalent to roughly the average cost of a terraced house today!) and even charged the Exchequer for charitable gestures: ‘For a poor man at the play house – 6d’. She accumulated enormous debts and on his deathbed Charles is said to have asked his brother: ‘Let not poor Nelly starve.’ James II duly paid most of her debts and gave her a pension of £1500 year (worth around £200,000 a year today) but she died of apoplexy only two years later, aged just thirty seven.