Nell Gwyn: Actress, mistress, philanthropist

Actress, mistress, philanthropist

Nell Gwyn was an actress and Charles II's most beloved mistress. Nell was most likely born in the slums surrounding Covent Garden. Although this can't be proven, we know she was the daughter of a brothel keeper and completely illiterate. However, she was attractive and intelligent enough to attract attention from the very highest echelons of society, even earning a mention in Samuel Pepys' diary as ‘pretty, witty Nell'.


Having worked as an orange seller at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane she was ‘spotted' and given a role on-stage, making her one of the first female actors in England. From here it was short hop to the bed of Lord Buckhurst, and an even shorter one to the bed of the King.


Charles II and Nell's relationship today is seen as one of hedonism, but it's thought they were genuinely affectionate towards each other, and Nell bore him two illegitimate children.


Given her exalted position, it's not surprising that Nell Gwyn had an impact on London as a whole; various properties in Covent Garden claim to be connected to her and there is a story which has circulated since her lifetime that she was responsible for Charles' decision to build the Royal Hospital in Chelsea as a retreat for ex-servicemen. In her will, she also left a legacy to Newgate, one of London's most notorious prisons.


Number 79 Pall Mall was given to Nell by Charles II. It remains a private residence to this day, and the only house on the south side of the road not to belong to the crown.


Nell Gwyn wasn't the only unusual discovery in Pepys' diary. For more on this remarkable document, see our blog Getting a Pepys out of london