London History Bulletin – February 2

It’s Happy Birthday to Charles II’s favourite mistress. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s February 2nd – February 2nd 1651 – so it’s Happy Birthday, Nelly. Witty, pretty Nelly. 

Yes, Nell Gwyn, Charles II’s favourite mistress.

Now the fact of the matter is, we don’t know for sure that it was February 2nd. we’re not even certain she was born in 1651.

Nor are we sure that she was born in London.

The birthday evidence – such as it is – comes from a horoscope.

And as for her uncertain place of birth – who cares, because Nell Gwyn was a consummate Londoner. And if she was – like so many of us – an incomer – well, London was after all, a city founded by immigrants, a city made by immigrants, a city of immigrants.

Of much more interest is what we get from a close reading. Samuel Pepys – and he was a connoisseur of Restoration female flesh – calls her witty, pretty Nelly. I’ll get back to those adjectives – and especially their sequencing – in a minute. Anyway, Pepys tells us “she was brought up in a bawdy house to fill strong water to the guests.”

And there are other stories that her early career path – she would have been just a kid, a teenage London girl – her early career path included raking cinders and being a street vendor selling herrings. Then, famously, she became an orange seller at a theatre. And then she made the transition from the auditorium to the stage. Became an actress.

But let’s go back to those two adjectives – and their sequencing. Witty, pretty Nelly. Witty comes first. Takes precedence. And that’s very London.  This is a city that’s always lived by its wits.

And sure enough, we have it on good authority that Charles II – she became his mistress when she was 18 and gave him a couple of royal bastards – we have it on good authority that Charles II “loved her more for her wit than the attractions of her person.”

The book on witty, pretty Nelly was that it was difficult to remain long in her company without sharing her gaiety.”

And that, you can be sure, is what her fellow Londoners would also have loved about her. 

There’s the great story about her being in a royal carriage going across town and the London mob, getting the wrong end of the stick, assuming it was the Catholic royal mistress the Duchess of Portsmouth in the carriage, surrounded it and began to throw stones at it. Nelly opened a window, thrust her head and said, “please desist dear friends, I am the protestant whore.”

That angry London mob desisted. And it cheered.

Another close reading moment in her story I can’t get over, dying, Charles II said, “pray let not poor Nelly starve.” It’s an extraordinary statement. We don’t give it its due. He never would have said it if there wasn’t a chance of poor Nelly starving.

She didn’t of course. She lived very well in a fine house in Pall Mall. It was a royal property that the king turned over to her. It was so close to St James palace that witty pretty Nelly was on tap as it were.

Eventually his ardour cooled. And he decided that he wanted a nominal rent for the property. Nothing extortionate but a little something. Witty, pretty Nelly wasn’t having it. She burst in on his Royal Highness and said, “Charles, is it fair, that I, who have served under you so faithfully all these years should have to pay rent.” Her manner, her words carried the day. She got the house rent-free. She would die there on the 14th of November, 1687. Some two and a half years after Charles II went to his heavenly reward. It’s pleasing to know that she’s buried in that most London of churches, St Martin in the Fields.

And that she left Nell left £100 for debtors in the parish of St Martin, and £20 a year for releasing debtors from prison every Christmas day. And last but by no means least, She gave £50 to poor Catholics ‘for showing my charity to those who differ from me in Religeon’.

That generosity – together with her 

humble origins and her high spirits – there you have the quintessence of witty, pretty Nelly and why Londoners loved her. Happy Birthday, Nell Gwyn.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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