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Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King by Charles…

Nell Gwyn: Mistress to a King

by Charles Beauclerk

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The author of this book, Charles Beauclerk, is Nell Gwynn’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson (I may be a “great” or so off there; I don’t have enough fingers) and therefore has some personal – if remote – interest in the subject. My own interest in Mistress Gwynn comes from seeing the movie Stage Beauty, where she has the memorable line (on meeting a countess while wearing a décolleté gown) “Sorry I can’t bow, but my t**s would fall out”). Although there’s no record of Nell ever saying that, it’s certainly in character for her.

Nell Gwynn is really a history of the Restoration, going into considerable detail on Charles II’s other mistresses, his confidants, his enemies, and the politics of the time. Beauclerk writes with a casual, lively style that manages to keep your interest even while discussing such unsalacious topics as the Treaty of Dover, the Cabal (Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale), and the Exclusion Crisis. The other mistresses – at least the main ones – get considerable attention; Nell’s actress contemporary Moll Davis, Barbara Villiers (later Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland), Louise de Keroulle (later Countess of Portsmouth) and Hortense Mancini. Although Nell did profit considerably from her relationship, she was the least grasping and most humane of Charles’ seraglio (although she indulged in some pretty vicious practical jokes now and then; she once invited Moll Davis over to dine on a day when Davis was scheduled to spend the rest of the evening with the King and surreptitiously dosed Moll’s tea with laxative (the custom of drinking tea – especially at a particular time of day – was introduced to England by Charles’ legitimate wife, Catherine of Braganza, who is also responsible for the name of the Borough of Queens in New York City. How about that.)

Nell’s early life was anything but promising – her father died when she was young and her mother took up running a brothel; Nell initially (age perhaps 9 or 10) acted as a barmaid but is presumed to have moved up to dispensing other things to the customers. She eventually moved on to her second most famous profession as theater orange seller, where at age 14 she became the protégé (and mistress) of actor Charles Hart, who taught her to read, write, and act. She quickly became a talented and popular comedienne, which is how she attracted the eye of Charles II (thus Stage Beauty is historically inaccurate – Nell was an actress well before she became Charles’ mistress rather than the other way around, as the movie shows it).

Charles’ attraction to Nell seems based on her natural ease and wit (well, there were probably other things – several nude portraits of Nell show she had no need for silicone). While Charles could have had (and in many cases, did have) any of the noble ladies in the kingdom, they all came with politics. The ladies inveigled, conspired, and coaxed for favors, and were egged on by patrons (Louise de Keroulle, in particular, was essentially recruited by the King of France and sent to England to become the King’s mistress and a French intelligence agent). Although Nell was perfectly willing to accept any favors the King provided, she never pestered him for them (with the sole and understandable exception of support for her children). Charles could relax with her, and while the other mistresses loved court functions, Nell enjoyed fishing, horseback riding, and just strolling through the woods. Although the public resented the other mistresses as expense on the treasury, they liked Nell; when her carriage was mistaken for Louise de Keroulle’s on leaving Whitehall, an angry crowd gathered and blocked it. Nell stuck her head out the window and said “Please, good people, let me pass – I’m the Protestant whore!” and everybody cheered and threw their hats in the air. Nell was also famed for her charity, and spent a considerable amount of royal largesse on the poor. Perhaps one indicator of Nell’s character is she was the only one of the mistresses to earn the affection of Catherine of Braganza (despite, as noted, being the only one who was a Protestant). It’s not known whether they ever actually met and talked but after Nell became mistress, Catherine (who had been raised in the strict seclusion of a Portuguese infanta) began wearing more revealing dresses and going out in public. In any event, after Nell’s death Catherine, as Queen Dowager, settled a £1000/year pension on Nell’s son Charles. Beauclerk suggests that Catherine recognized that Nell was the only one of the mistresses that actually loved Charles II for himself.

Charles II died in 1685; the suggested cause is kidney failure, but medical assault may have contributed; there were 16 different doctors in the King’s bedchamber and he was bled, cupped, scarified, blistered, cauterized, shaved, given enemas and purges, and dosed with “spirit of human skull”, “pearl julep”, and a bezoar stone. Nell, alas, only survived him by four years, dying at age 37 – apparently of a stroke (“apoplexy” in the jargon of the time) but likely exacerbated by years of untreated STDs. Her funeral sermon was based on the Parable of the Lost Sheep.

The last chapter traces the history of Nell’s descendants; her son James died young but Charles (who had received the surname Beauclerk (it’s pronounced BOWclaire) and the Dukedom of St. Albans from the King) founded a line that obviously continues. The Beauclerks have a tradition of eccentricity (although perhaps not more than any other English noble family) and various family members engaged in unsatisfactory marriages, got themselves committed to mental institutions, and found other ways to attract attention. Notably, the heir apparent to the dukedom (and author of this book), Charles Beauclerk, is famous for an impassioned speech opposing the House of Lords Bill as “treason” (which got him banned for life from the Houses of Parliament) and for espousing the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare (since the 17th Earl of Oxford is also an ancestor). Well, good for him. This is a fun but erudite book and is full of interesting factual tidbits. Recommended. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 15, 2017 |
Charles Beauclerk wrote this portrait of his famous ancestor with humour and affection, but thankfully without rose-coloured glasses. The book is overflowing with fascinating anecdotes and Nell and her time are brought vividly to life. The descriptions of the theatre, the plays and the theatre-going public play a big part and are certainly wonderful, owing largely to quotes from Samuel Pepys, as well as other diarists. This is one of those excellent biographies where you come away feeling you've "met" the subject. A well researched book, as well as a great read. ( )
  SabinaE | Jan 23, 2016 |
What a bawdy and fun biography this was. Charles II was really quite a grand king. He had many maitresse-en-titres, but Nell Gwynn was his favorite. Interesting story, written from the perspective of Ms. Gwynn's descendants. ( )
  mgaulding | Mar 24, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802142745, Paperback)

Written by a direct descendant of the union between Nell Gwyn and King Charles II, Nell Gwyn tells the story of one of England’s great folk heroines, a woman who rose from an impoverished, abusive childhood to become King Charles II’s most cherished mistress, and the star of one of the great love stories of royal history. Born during a tumultuous period in England’s past, Nell Gwyn caught the eye of King Charles II, the newly restored, pleasure-seeking “merry monarch” of a nation in full hedonistic reaction to Puritan rule. Their seventeen-year love affair played out against the backdrop of the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague, court scandals, and the constant threat of political revolution. Despite his other lovers’ Machiavellian efforts to win the king’s favor and humiliate Nell, the self-proclaimed “Protestant whore” earned the devotion of her king and the love of her nation, becoming England’s first “people’s princess.” Magnificently recreating the heady and licentious, yet politically charged atmosphere of Restoration England, Nell Gwyn tells the true-life Cinderella story of a common orange salesgirl who became mistress to a king.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:13 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"Beautiful, quick-witted and sexually magnetic, Nell Gwyn remains one of England's great folk heroines. The story of her exceptional rise from an impoverished, abusive childhood to the wealth and connections that came with being Charles II's mistress is a highly charged mix of lust, money, high politics and love." "'Pretty Nelly', as Samuel Pepys called her in his diary, was famously spotted selling oranges in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The job was already an improvement for a girl who'd grown up in a brothel and sold oysters on the street. Her wit and charm brought her to the attention of one of the theatre's leading actors, Charles Hart, and under his patronage she took to the stage. Through a series of sparkling performances she soon established herself as the greatest comedienne of her day, feted by audiences and befriended by the great dramatists of the age, such as Aphra Behn and Dryden, both of whom wrote parts specifically for her. It was while she was performing that she caught the eye of Charles II, the newly restored pleasure-seeking 'merry monarch' of a nation in full hedonistic reaction to Puritan rule. Their seventeen-year affair is one of the great love stories of our history, played out against the dramatic backdrop of fire, plague, court intrigue and political turmoil. Despite his other lovers, Nell earned the King's particular devotion and their genuine love lasted until their deaths." "Charles Beauclerk has recreated the heady, licentious, yet politically charged atmosphere of Charles II's court, and reveals to us the true nature of Nell Gwyn's world and her relationship with the King. From her origins, earliest affairs and stage performances to her friendships, lavish domestic arrangements and dealings with other courtesans, this portrayal casts fresh light on the real Nell Gwyn, on Charles II and on the Restoration period itself."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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