Clio Edition 4 - page 26

The mistress of King Charles II, a famous actress and occasional cross dresser – Nell Gwynn
was the living symbol of the Restoration. She was beloved by the public who enjoyed her
refreshing sense of humour and can be described as an early feminist who broke many social
barriers. Her rags-to-riches life story in the 17th Century is one that has inspired the new play
‘Nell Gwynn’– but is it really deserving of being told in West End’s Apollo Theatre?
It is certainly an interesting one. Nell’s life story includes the cross dressing period
between 1663-1667 when she wore a false beard and went by the name ‘William Nell’, and
her alcoholic mother who ran a ‘bawdy house’ (brothel). Nell’s career in acting began with her
and her sister Rose becoming ‘orange girls’, who were sparsely clothed young women selling
oranges to the audience at Drury Lane Theatre. Here she was exposed to London’s higher
society and theatre life. King Charles II had recently reinstated theatre after an eighteen
year ban imposed by the Puritans during which time, pastimes regarded as frivolous (such
as theatre) had been prohibited. Another of his early acts as King was to legalise acting as a
profession for women when before this, women’s parts had been played by boys or men. This
meant that less than a year after becoming an orange girl, she
could join the rank of actresses at Bridges Street. She soon
found fame in the new form of restoration comedy, starring
in comedies such as The Mad Couple by James Howard and
The Maiden Queen by John Dryden.
As one of King Charles II’s many mistresses, Nell became
rivals with another of his mistresses named Louise de
Kérouaille, who was the Duchess of Portsmouth and was
nicknamed ‘Catholic whore’ by the public. Nell was passing
through Oxford one day and was mistaken for Louise de
Kérouaille by a mob, which then began to push around her
coach and heckle that she was the ‘Catholic whore’. As a
response, she put her head out of the window and said, while
Nell Gwynn
By Raffaella Culora
One of Gwynn’s
rivals, Louise de
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