Eleanor “Nell” Gwynn: The Protestant Whore


Eleanor “Nell” Gwynn: The Protestant Whore

About this Exhibit: By Kayle N. Pichalski

The purpose of this exhibit is to highlight the amazing life of Restoration actress, Nell Gwynn. Specifically, her time as a mistress to Charles II. In doing this, it is clear to see how Nell was a new woman of her time, and how her involvement in Charles life provided her insight to the life at court, and how this in turn, exemplifies how tensions between Catholics and Protestants were still high. 

"Pray, good people, be civil: I am the Protestant whore."

The prospect of a Monarch having a mistress was far from uncommon in any aspect of history. King and Queens were married for political gain, their duty was not to their hearts, but to their country. However, this surely did not stop Kings from participating in extra-marital affairs--some having multiple affairs throughout their life, and some having multiple affairs at the same time! In the case of King Charles II, he had recognized 9 total mistresses during his reign. Not to mention, he legitimized 14 children who were bore from these various mistresses (Beauclerk 35).

Portrait of Charles II, Sir Peter Lely, 1675.

Portrait of Charles II, Sir Peter Lely, 1675.

But, what was so precarious about Charles II position, was the ongoing struggle between Protestants and Catholics during his reign. Charles's predecessor had been Charles I, the first King to be famously executed by his own government just 11 years before Charles II took the throne in 1660 (Roseveare). Upon the Restoration of the Monarchy, the religion of the Monarch took absolute precedence, as the public would be in unrest if there was another Catholic King. Despite the public distaste for Catholics, Charles II did not seem to mind what religion his mistresses were. He took Catholic and Protestant mistresses, and his reign would be called what was known as the "Merry Monarchy" (Beauclerk, 46). Despite the many women Charles entertained during his reign, one stands out from all the rest, and her name was Nell Gywnn. She was an actress, and would be Charles's mistress for the course of 17 years, and as her ancestor, Charles Beauclerk puts it, was the "embodiment of a real Queen of Restoration England" (Beauclerk 1).

Engtaving of Nell Gwynn, Thomas Wright, 1851.

Engtaving of Nell Gwynn, Thomas Wright, 1851.

Nell Gywnn, despite her lowborn status, would become favored by the King and by the public, and would exert the true meaning of the Restoration. She capitalized of now being allowed to become an actress, and furthered her position even more so because of her relationship with the King. She was a revolutionary woman of her time and would serve as an example to both Protestant and Catholic woman. The life of Nell Gywnn proved that women could change their status in Restoration England--even if it was at a cost. Not only does Nell Gywnn embody the essence of the Restoration, key events in her life exemplify the tensions that were still boiling between Catholics and Protestants. Nell Gywnn was a woman of grandeur, and her relationship with the King of England set the stage.

 According to Alison Conway, "It is the Protestant Whore's ability to draw together a constellation of meanings--about religion, politics, sexuality, and cultural authority--particular to the Restoration that enabled later authors to reflect on the Stuart legacy, both historical and literary" (Conway 7). Meaning, in a time where the public feared Charles II Catholic mistresses would influence him, we must look to an outlier of this genre, who Conway was explicitly referring to as Nell Gywnn. In perhaps her most famous moment, Gywnn portrayed the essence of religious turmoil in Restoration England when her carriage was being attacked in Oxford. The mob presumed that the carriage was holding Charles's French Mistress, Louise de Kerouaille, who was Catholic. Gywnn then put her head outside of the coach's window and retorted: "Pray, good people, be civil: I am the protestant whore" (Conway 4). In this moment, as a woman, Gwynn was able to self title herself, and did not shy away from the fact that she was indeed a mistress of the King, and was not ashamed for it. She represents a new woman in the Restoration, as she is the complete antithesis of the Puritanism that plagued the English Commonwealth (Nell Gwynn English Actress, Britannica).

Portrait of Louise de Kerouaille, Sir Peter Lely, 1670.

Portrait of Louise de Kerouaille, Sir Peter Lely, 1670.

Not only did Gwynn's personality shape the new kind of woman of the Restoration, her involvement with Charles's other mistresses exemplifies how there were high tensions between Protestant and Catholics at the court. Gwynn was one of Charles's mistress's for 17 years, and never seemed to fall too far from favor, as she was loved by the public and deeply by the king. She saw his various other mistresses come and go, but never fully emerged herself with the politics of the Monarchy (Beauclerk 258). However, Gwynn never missed her chance to make fun of Louise de Kerouaille, even going as far as dressing in mourning clothes the day after Chevalier de Rohan's death, to mock Louise's mourning (Beauclerk 247). While this may have been done as a joke in the eyes of Nell, there were surely those who were disappointed with the fact that a Catholic Duchess was granted levy to mourn a Catholic Prince in a Protestant Monarchy (Beauclerk 246). Also, when it came to the children of the the King, Gwynn made sure to let people know how she felt about Louise's child and the titles the child should receive. It is reported that in regards to this, Gwynn made the statement, "Even Barbara's brats,' (Barbara Palmer, another of Charles's mistresses) were not made Dukes until they were twelve or thirteen, but this French spy's son is ennobled when little more than an infant in arms!" (Beauclerk 241). While Gwynn had remained dutifully cordial with Louise, despite the prank or two, her real feelings came out during this time, and were shared with many others of the court. This notion of making such a young bastard child a Duke, whose mother is a French Catholic, mobilized the fear that Charles was under too much sway from his Catholic mistresses and this scared the public. 

In response to this, Gwynn used her close relationship with the King to further her own position, by requesting him to make their own son a noble. What was perhaps most loved about Gwynn was not her humor, but her easyness. She asked not nearly as much from Charles and his other mistresses, but this changed when she had children. Sadly, Gwynn's first son with Charles died of unknown causes in Paris when he only six. After this, Gwynn knew she could not let her second child die without titles and land. As Beauclerk recounts, when the King arrived, Gwynn urged her child, "Come here you little bastard, and say hello to your father", the King was displeased when Gwynn referred to the boy in this manner, but Gwynn cheekily responsed, "Your majesty has given me no other name by which to call him!" (Beauclerk 315). Upon this, her son, James, was named Earl of Budford, and would later claim the title of Duke of St. Albans with an allowance of 1,000 pounds a month. Gwynn used her relationship with the King to ensure her child had a better life growing up than she did. Upon this, she was also given a home called the House of Budford. 

When the King fell ill, one of his last wishes was, "not to let poor Nelly starve" (Beauclerk 350). And starve she did not. Upon the death of Charles II, James I pardoned all of her debt, and even granted her a 1,500 pound allowance. However, Gwynn did not outlive Charles for much longer. Due to complications of a stroke, the eccentric Nell Gwynn died at the age of 37. Her life in Restoration England represented the new ideal of progressiveness, and a new beginning. Her relationship with Charles II provides insight on to the fear the public held of a potential Catholic uprising, and how the mistresses he choose brought that fear to life. Nell Gwynn led a turbulent life, and proved woman are able to enhance their stations in life during this time period--even if it was not by conventional means. With this new era in life, also came a new fear, and her life portrays both of these fully. Nell Gwynn died as a woman with massive historical value, and a whore, and she was better loved for it.

Other Known Mistresses of Charles II:

  • Barbara Palmer, 1st Duchess of Cleveland
  • Moll Davis
  • Hortense Mancini
  • Catherine Pegge
  • Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth
  • Elizabeth Killigrew, Viscountess Shannon
  • Lucy Walter
  • Winifred Wells

Bibliography:

Beauclerk, Charles. Nell Gwynn: Mistress to a King. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.

While Beauclerk's biography did not necessarily assist with my analysis completely, his dictation of Gwynn's life is unparalleled to any of the other sources I addressed.  

Conway, Alison. The Protestant Whore. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Conway's book helped me as a reader understand why it was so important to understand the fact that Gwynn was a Protestant mistress, and not a Catholic one. Understanding the situation in England helped with this as well.

Roseveare, Henry. "Charles II: King of Great Britain and Ireland" Encyclopedia Britannica. June 16th, 2011. Date Accessed: December 10th, 2016.

This article was useful in the sense of information on Charles II, including early years of his reign and the how England responded to the Restoration.

Images: 

Lely, Peter. Charles II. January 1st, 1675. Portrait. Wikimediacommons.com. Web. December 10th, 2016. Public Domain. 

Lely, Peter. Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth. December 30th, 1670. Portrait. Wikimediacommons.com. Web. December 10th, 2016. Public Domain. 

Wright, Thomas. Portrait of Nell Gwynn, (1650-1687), British Actress. Engraving. 1851.  Wikimediacommons.com. Web. December 10th, 2016. Public Domain.