Nell Gwyn is the most famous royal mistress in British history. She was one of the many mistresses of King Charles II, who reigned from 1660-1685.

She was originally a fruit-seller, selling oranges in the pit of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

She made it into the big time when she met Charles II, a king who was famous for having many mistresses - he was nicknamed "The Merry Monarch."

Gwyn was born in Coal Yard Alley in London, and when she met the King she became known for her "expenses". She ordered anything that she wanted, no matter the cost. But she was also generous, once giving a beggar sixpence (5 in today's money).

She was also very popular with the people, too, especially neing a Protestant. Whilst out riding in a coach one day, a mob of people mistook her for the hated Catholic Louise de Keroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth, who was also French. The mob rocked her coach and pelted it with mud, until she stuck her head out and shouted: "'Pray good people, be civil. You are mistaken. I am the Protestant wh*re!'

After 11 years of republican dictatorship (which is one of the reasons why the British are so anti-republic today) until the monarchy was restored in 1660 when Charles II took to the throne, Nell Gwyn lifted the spirit of the nation....

Royal mistress Nell Gwyn's expenses would shame our MPs but she was worth every penny

By Andrew Roberts
24th June 2008
Daily Mail

Nel Gwyn (born 1650, died 1687), mistress of King Charles II

The most famous royal mistress in British history, Nell Gwyn, might have been a shopaholic, but she was a very meticulous one.

It seems she kept a note of every act of extravagance she enjoyed, asking the Treasury to pay them off - and her long sexual liaison with King Charles II always ensured they all were.

With the auction at Sotheby's next month of her shopping bills covering a three-week period in 1675, we can see that her cost to the British taxpayer might shock even today's MPs and MEPs. Unlike them, however, her expenses claims were always filed complete with receipts.

Nell travelled everywhere by sedan chair, ordered a silver bed that cost 1,135 (or over 150,000 at today's values), bought three barrels of oysters a week, ordered children's gloves by the dozen (at a shilling each) and put her rum, brandy, cheese, custard pots and even fruit down to the public exchequer.

There is nothing Nell Gwyn could have learned from today's footballers' WAGs when it comes to extravagance, with even the sixpence (5 today) that she gave to a beggar at a theatre being charged to her royal lover's account.

Yet I believe that, in stark contrast to many modern-day politicians, Nell Gwyn was worth every penny to the Stuart taxpayer - for she was one of the most attractive characters in British history.

Attractive not just for her looks and figure - which were popularly acknowledged to be stunning even by the high standards of Charles II's mistresses - but also for her charming, self- deprecating, good-natured personality.

The great diarist Samuel Pepys, who always kept a lewd portrait of her by his desk in the Admiralty, called her 'pretty, witty Nell', and certainly after 11 black and humourless years of Puritan dictatorship, Nell lifted the spirits of a nation.

One of the reasons the British people took Nell to their hearts was that, unlike most of Charles's other mistresses, she came from humble beginnings.

King Charles II, reigned 1660-1685

She grew up in Coal Yard Alley, a slum near Drury Lane, where her father, 'a dilapidated ex-soldier', was a fruiterer, and close to where her mother ran a brothel until she fell drunk into the Thames at Millbank and drowned.

Historians are agreed that she worked on occasion for her father selling oranges and lemons, and some think she probably also worked for her mother as a child prostitute, too, though she always denied it.

It was a lover of hers, the actor Charles Hart, who took her from selling oranges in the pit of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1665 - aged 15 - to appearing on stage there in a series of Restoration comedies and dramas.

Her beauty, fine figure and expressive self-confidence won the hearts of ever-greater audiences, and the playwright John Dryden wrote risque prologues and epilogues especially for her.

She had to learn these lines by heart after having them read to her, as she was illiterate all her life, signing herself 'E.G.' for Eleanor Gwyn.

Britons had been starved of any play-going during the Puritan tyranny, so they took to Nell's sweet-natured bawdiness with gusto. During the Great Plague she move to Oxford to join the King's acting troupe, and later had an affair with the poet and courtier Lord Buckhurst, taking 100 a year off him in 'expenses'.

But in January 1668, she got her big break, as the King noticed her at the theatre, and soon Pepys was recording 'that the King did send several times for Nelly'. That April, Nell and the King were dining together with the Duke of York and a cousin of the Duck of Buckingham when it turned out that only Nell had money on her to pay the bill.

'Odd's fish,' she joked, mimicking the King, 'but this is the poorest company I was ever in!'

Having been the mistress of Charles Hart and the wealthy Lord Buckhurst, also known as Charles Sackville, she nicknamed her new lover 'Charles the third'. In May 1670, Nell had a baby by the King: his seventh son by five mistresses.

Innocent of politics - if not of much else - the young Nell Gwyn stepped into a highly political court. The King's haughty and well-born French mistress, Louise de Keroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth, was as different from Nell as it was possible to be.

Coming from the sophisticated court of Versailles, Louise despised the jokes and high spirits of the former orangeseller, while Nell nicknamed her rival 'Squintabella' for her (very slight) squint and 'the Weeping Willow' for her way of using tears to get her way with Charles.

Ordinary Britons loved Nell and disliked the foreign, Catholic, haughty Duchess, and when goldsmiths were ordered to make a costly service plate for Portsmouth they cursed her, saying they wished it had been made for Nell.

It was during this period that Nell's coach was mistaken by the Oxford mob for that of the Duchess, and it began to be rocked and pelted with mud.

Showing her inimitable humour as well as some courage, Nell put her head through the window and cried out: 'Pray good people, be civil. You are mistaken. I am the Protestant wh*re.'

She never minded being described as such, telling a coachman of hers who was about to fight for her honour: 'I am a *****. Try to find something else to fight about.'

Nell herself was ready to fight for the rights of her two sons by Charles, and when the King protested that it had been indelicate of her to call the eldest son by the unsubtle name of Charles, she archly remarked: 'Your Majesty has given me no other name to call him by.'

Charles made the boy the Earl of Burford. It was said Nell held the six-year-old out of a window by his legs, threatening to drop him if he were not granted a peerage.

'God save the Earl of Burford!' cried the genuinely worried monarch. Eventually the boy became the Duke of St Albans and his descendant, the 14th Duke, lives today.

Yet, for all these high jinks, Charles and Nell had a genuine love match. The King's last words to his brother and heir, the future James II, as he lay dying in February 1685, were: 'Let not poor Nelly starve.'

The new monarch paid off her tradesmen's debts of 729, 2s and 3d, thereby saving her from Newgate Prison. He also gave her a country estate in Nottingham, which stayed in the St Albans family until World War II.

Nell lived two years longer than Charles, dying after two strokes aged 37. In her will she 'laid out 20 yearly for the releasing of poor debtors from prison', a fate she had escaped only by the generosity of her most famous lover and his brother.

Stuart England was the poorer for the loss of a woman who was praised for her wit by both Dryden and Pepys, and who was a friend of the female playwright Aphra Behn, the wit Lord Rochester, and most of her ex-lovers.

One other great legacy of Nell's still stands; the magnificent Royal Hospital in Chelsea which this ex-serviceman's daughter persuaded Charles II to build to house poor veterans. Today it is the home of the red-coated Chelsea Pensioners.

Extravagant and spendthrift with taxpayers' money she undoubtedly was, but in her charm and high spirits she brightened up the Restoration era. She certainly showed far more character and generosity than our grasping MEPs who plunder the public purse today, with so little to show for it. And she even produced receipts.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Jun 25th, 2008 at 12:16 PM..