Nell Gwyn: Royal Mistress

Nell Gwyn: Royal Mistress

Nell Gwyn: Royal Mistress

Nell Gwyn: Royal Mistress

Excerpt

Like Cleopatra or Helen of Troy, Nell Gwyn belongs as much to folklore as to history. The facts about her life and character have been overlaid by fable and anecdote. Many people remember her as the mistress of a king, but like Huck Finn they are not sure which king. "My, you ought to seen old Henry the Eighth when he was in bloom," said Huck. "He was a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day and chop off her head next morning, and he would do it just as indifferent as if he was ordering up eggs. 'Fetch up Nell Gwyn,' he says. They fetch her up. Next morning, 'chop off her head!'"

Better informed than Huck, we know, of course, that Nell was the mistress of King Charles II, a monarch not given to maiden beheading. But our further knowledge of her has been drawn from more than two centuries of anecdotes, romances, sentimental plays, and popular biographies. We are conditioned to think of her as "sweet Nell of Old Drury," a happy-go-lucky child of the slums who flourished in good King Charles's golden days, rose from poverty to a palace, and died repentant, leaving behind her a trail of good works. The moral Victorians, whenever they wrote about her, suppressed or bowdlerized her bawdy sayings, choosing to ignore those facts of her life which collided with the legend of her goodness; they even overpainted portraits which displayed an embarrassing expanse of her uncovered bosom. They canonized her as . . .

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