Actress, Royal Mistress. Born Eleanor Gwynne, probably in Hereford, Herefordshire, although Coal Yard Alley off Drury Lane in Covent Garden, London also claims to be her birthplace. According to most sources, her father was Thomas Gwyn, a former soldier in the Royalist army, and her mother was Eleanor Smith. By early childhood, her father was gone from her life, and her mother, by then known as Madam Gwyn, ran a bawdy house in Covent Garden. Many youthful professions have been suggested for Nell, including bawdyhouse servant, orange hawker, and cinder-girl, she herself claimed not to have plied her mother's trade. She became mistress to the actor, Charles Hart very young and it was through him she won a place on stage. Her first recorded appearance on the stage was in 1665 in Dryden's ‘Indian Emperor,' apparently proving her forte was not to be drama. She followed her debut with a comedy in May 1665 in James Howard's ‘All Mistaken, or the Mad Couple' followed by Howard's ‘The English Monsieur'. Her performance won her a famous epithet from Samuel Pepys who dubbed her "pretty, witty Nell." Her success as a comic actress gained her leading roles and wide recognition. John Dryden created characters especially for her to play. She became the mistress of Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst for a brief time in 1667 and then moved up the social ladder to become Charles II mistress probably in early 1668. She remained a member of the Drury Lane Company until 1669 but her appearances fell off as she became more involved with the King. In June of 1669, she played in Dryden's ‘Tyrannick Love' which was her last performance before the birth of her child by Charles II, on May 8, 1670. Her son, Charles, would be created Baron Heddington and Earl of Burford and, eventually Duke of St. Albans. To the astonishment of many, she returned to the stage in late 1670 to appear in Dryden's epic, ‘The Conquest of Granada', that ran in December 1670 and January 1671. It was her last play. She retired from the stage at the age of 21. Her second child by the King, a son, James, styled Lord Beauclerk was born on December 25, 1671. He died, possibly of an infection, while at school in Paris at age nine. Upon his deathbed in 1685, Charles II directed his brother and heir to "Let not poor Nelly starve." The new king faithfully discharged her debts, which were numerous, and granted her an annual pension. Two years later, she suffered a paralytic stroke and lived as an invalid for several months before dying at her London home at the age of 37. She was buried at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, her funeral sermon was delivered by Thomas Tenison, who would become Archbishop of Canterbury. Nell had the distinction of being the only one of Charles II's legion of mistresses to be genuinely popular with the English people.
Bio by: Iola