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"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Nov 14, 2014

The Death of Nell Gwyn

Nell Gwyn (private collection)
When recently in England, I was able to view several portraits of Nell Gwyn, the actress-mistress of
King Charles II and mother of the 1st Duke of St. Albans,
the male protagonist of A Pledge of Better Times. This is one of them, less well known than others painted by Lely, Kneller, and other artists.

I won't attempt to recount her full biography, but any version makes for interesting reading. In short, she was a child of the slums, an orange- and apple-seller in a London theatre, a popular comic actress, mistress to England's lustiest king, and mother to two of his sons.

After her royal lover's death in February 1685, her health rapidly deteriorated. The previous year she wrote from her house in Windsor to a correspondent, "I have continued extreme ill ever since you left me, and I am so still. I have sent to London for a doctor. I believe I shall die." It is supposed that complications from intermittent or undiagnosed venereal disease was responsible for her frequent maladies during her last years. In the spring of 1687, a time of great worry and strife, a series of strokes left her incapacitated and bedridden. She composed her last will and testament in July, and added a codicil a few months later, on October 18th, with specific instructions about her burial and a few final bequests.

Nell died at 10 in the evening on 14 November in 1687 at her mansion in Pall Mall. She was thirty-seven, and had crammed a lot of living into a relatively short life.

She requested burial in the chancel of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. She wanted Dr. Tenison, who was her support and her confessor during her months as an invalid, to preach the funeral sermon. He did, basing his text on the parable of the Lost Sheep from the Gospel of Luke.

Her charitable bequests included:

£100 to be distributed to the poor of the parishes of St. Martin's and St. James's by Dr. Tenison, especially for clothing the poor and the release of debtors from prison. (In today's money, this could be as much as £8500 or $14,500.)

£50 to be delivered by Tenison and her personal chaplain John Warner to two Roman Catholics to be given "for the use of the poor of that religion inhabiting the parish of St. James's"

£20 to be applied annually by her son the duke to release poor debtors out of prison every Christmas Day.

King Charles II (private collection)
 Her burial service took place three days after her death, on 17th November, when she was interred in the Vicar's Vault. The funeral expenses were £375, paid by Sir Stephen Fox.

Her debts were massive. Immediately after King Charles's death she was in grave danger of being outlawed as a debtor. While the King lived, she spent freely from the income he provided for her maintenance and that of her son. Although he died before he was able to elevate her to the peerage as Countess of Greenwich, he had bestowed several valuable properties upon her. Her son, who had to contend with her creditors, was obliged to sell her fine house in Pall Mall. Burford House in Windsor, where she usually passed the summer, was leased to Princess Anne and her husband Prince George of Denmark while the duke was a minor.

King James II (private collection)

Bestwood Park in Nottinghamshire, a hunting lodge, was heavily mortgaged, and in compliance with his late brother's deathbed request that he "not let Nelly starve," King James II paid off the mortgage after his accession.

Nell's death inspired many verses, of dubious quality but with the intention of expressing her "whore with a heart of gold" persona.

From "Laurinda, a Pastoral on the Lamented Death of the Incomparable Madam Gwyn":

'Twas always spring, for when the sun retired,
Her warmer beams the vocal groves inspired
Her cheerful looks the winter's rage beguiled,
Her smiles made summer, and she always smiled.

And "An Elegy in Commemoration of Madam Eleanor Gwyn" declares:

. . . some may cast objections in and say
These scattered praises that we seek to lay
Upon her hearse are but the formal way.
Yet when we tell them she was free from strife,
Courteous even to the poor, no pride of life,
E'er entertaining, but did much abound
In charity, and for it was renowned . . .

I recently had an interesting conversation with one of her descendants, who speculated about the reaction of the court if King Charles had lived to transform the lowly, brothel-reared playactress into Lady Greenwich. If he had done so, her enduring legend might have been a different one. In the popular imagination, she seems to live on as "the people's mistress," the commoner who consorted with a king, amusing him and his courtiers with her spirit and her wit.

Charles Beauclerk evidently exhibited his parents' flair for repartee. As an adult, the duke was described as having inherited the King's "humour and entertaining Wit, which none of his other Children can boast." In Queen Anne's reign, another former royal mistress observed "the Duke of St. Albans a-jesting" one dull evening when the court was at Windsor.

Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St Albans
(private collection)

Nell makes a few appearances in A Pledge of Better Times. Writing about the decline and demise of so vital a creature was moving and challenging.