Seven little known facts about Nell Gwyn: A Guest Post by Deborah Swift

1. Nell experimented with cross-dressing.  Between 1663 and 1667 she posed under the name “William Nell” and adopted a false beard. The disguise stood her in good stead when she needed to act as a man on the stage in March 1667, and we know from Pepys’ diary that he found her performance the best he’d ever seen.

2. Her mother came to a sad and unusual end – always known to be one for drinking, Nell Gwyn’s mother drowned when she fell into the water at her house near Chelsea. She was 56 years old. She was buried at St Martin in the Fields on 30 July 1679.

Here’s a contemporary account of Nell at her mother’s funeral:
No cost, no velvet did the daughter spare;
Fine gilded ‘scutcheons did the hearse enrich
To celebrate this martyr of the ditch;
Burnt brandy did in flaming brimmers flow,
Drunk at her funeral, while her well-pleased shade
Rejoiced, even in the sober fields below,
At all the drunkenness her death had made.’

3. Nell once paid for the King’s dinner. She was attending a performance of George Etheredge’s She Wou’d if She Cou’d at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In the next box was the King, who spent more time flirting with Nell than watching the play. Charles invited her to supper, along with his brother, the Duke of York. Apparently the King discovered that he had no money on him, and neither did his brother the Duke, so Nell had to foot the bill. “Od’s fish!” she is said to have exclaimed, “but this is the poorest company I ever was in!”


4. She and King Charles slept in a solid silver bed. The bed was commissioned from silversmith John Coques in 1674 and featured a sculpture of the king’s head along with symbols of sovereignty such as eagles and crowns, and also included the figures of cherubs or possibly her sons. Read more about the bed in this lovely post by Margaret Porter here.

5. The only statue of any royal mistress in the city of London is the one of Nell Gwyn. In 1937, a new ten-storey block of 437 flats in Chelsea was given the name ‘Nell Gwynn House’, and in a high alcove above the main entrance is a statue of Nell, with a spaniel at her feet.

6. She pretended to turn Catholic. When the king died and the Catholic James became king, Nell’s fortunes changed dramatically. According to John Evelyn, she was seen going to mass with her children, sons to the late king. But Nell was wily; she never actually converted, but did all she could to keep in the new king’s favour.

BOL93904 Portrait of James II (1633-1701) in Garter Robes (oil on canvas) by Lely, Peter (1618-80) (school of); 121.5×99.5 cm; © Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, Lancashire, UK; English, out of copyright

7. In her will, she left money to those in debt. Always conscious of her humble upbringing, Nell asked that twenty pounds a year should be put aside to release debtors from the prison on Christmas Day. A lovely way to remember a woman who crossed all boundaries and still retained a kind heart.

Fleet Debtors Prison

Deborah Swift’s new book Entertaining Mr Pepys about Elizabeth Knepp, an actress who shared the stage with Nell Gwyn is out now. You can read The Seventeenth Century Lady’s review here.

Deborah’s website
Follow Deborah on Bookbub for her bargain books.

Hear ye! 2 thoughts — so far — on “Seven little known facts about Nell Gwyn: A Guest Post by Deborah Swift”:

  1. Sarah Johnson

    One of my favorite 17th century personalities. I think of her as being the Elizabeth Taylor of her day. I wonder who had the nerve to melt down that incredible bed. Thank you for reminding me why she was so special.

    1. Deborah Swift

      So glad you enjoyed the post. She obviously kept Charles’s affection right up until the end. I would love to have her as one of my dinner guests along with Judi Dench. They could discuss their lives in the theatre and what has changed and what’s the same. I’m sure she’d be savvy with social media too if she was alive now!


Please contribute thy thoughts!

Your e-mail address will not be published.