Much is obscure regarding ‘pretty, witty' Nell’s upbringing, but she was probably born in London on 2nd Feb 1650, and grew up in the slums surrounding Drury Lane. Little is known about her father, but it has been suggested he was a soldier from Wales. He certainly played no part in her upbringing or later life. Her mother was thought to have run a bawdy house or brothel, and young Nell may have even been a child prostitute.
Nell’s life took a turn for the better when she found employment as an orange seller at the newly opened Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Within a year, Nell’s good looks and confident wit had earned her a new role as an actress. Nell soon became renowned as the finest comedic actress of the age.
King Charles II enjoyed frequent attendance at plays and he must have inevitably seen Nell perform on stage. Nell became the king’s mistress in early 1668, but still continued to act until 1671, no doubt her connection to the king drawing in gawping crowds to the theatre.
Nell held her favour with Charles II until the king’s death in 1685. She gave birth to two of the king’s sons. James, the youngest, died whilst still a child. The older boy, Charles, was later created Earl of Burford and Duke of St Alban’s.
Charles II paying court to Nell Gwynn
Nell did not long outlive her royal lover, dying after suffering from two strokes in 1687. Her story was one of rags to riches fame and to many people she embodies the spirit of the Restoration Age.