Today (January 10) in London History – “come hither, you little bastard”

For today’s Today in London History podcast we time-travel back to January 10th, 1684, the day King Charles II makes his 14-year-old bastard son Charles Beauclerk the Duke of St. Albans. Those are just the trappings. It’s what’s “inside” the story that makes it such a treat. Drill down into it and you hit a rich seam of character – the character of a Londoner, a “commoner” – Nell Gwyn, the actress, orange-seller, prostitute, convicted and favourite mistress of King Charles II. And, for good measure, the mother of the new Duke. It’s a delightful London tale.


London calling.

Ah, January 10th. Crowded field, January 10th.

You’ve got Rowland Hill founding the penny post on January 10th 1840. The Prince of Wales – the future king of England Edward VIII – meeting the game changer in his life – and in the life of his country – the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. That fateful meeting took place on January 10th, 1931. You’ve got the pre-eminent poet of the 20th century, 68-year-old T.S. Eliot marrying his 30-year-old secretary Valerie. That May-December wedding took place on January 10th, 1957. You’ve got Winston Churchill felled by a stroke on January 10th, 1965. You’ve got Phillip Henslowe, the great Elizabethan theatrical impresario, bear-baiter and diarist, being laid to rest on January 10th, 1616 in the chancel of St Saviours church with – we’re told – “an afternoon knell of the great bell.”

You’ve got Beatle George Harrison’s famous argument with fellow Beatle Paul McCartney – a row that led to Harrison storming out and writing Wah Wah. That happened on January 10th, 1969. You’ve got the greatest literary love affair ever kicking off with Victoria Browning writing to Elizabeth Barrett  telling her, “I love your verse with all my heart…and I love you too.” That was on January 10th, 1845. You’ve got the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud being executed on Tower Hill on January 10th, 1645. That episode was one of the great travesties of justice in this country’s history. 

Well, you get the idea. And that’s just a sampling. God knows why but January 10th is one of those days when it all happens.

All eminently worthy candidates but no white smoke yet from the chimney on the roof of the London Walks Sistine Chapel.

Oh, wait a minute – yes, there’s a puff of white smoke. And the newly anointed is the dark horse of January 10th. (Aside here: well, this is London Walks, after all – so what’d you expect.)

      Arise the first Duke of St. Albans. It’s January 10th, 1684 and the brand new Duke is all of 14 years old. He’s the illegitimate son – the bastard son – of the celebrity couple of that era. King Charles II and the Cockney actress Nell Gwyn. Though calling Charles II’s favourite mistress a Cockney actress doesn’t get the half of it. Nell Gwyn had earned some of her stripes in a London brothel, she was a convicted and imprisoned thief, she was an orange seller in a theatre. You know, the 17th century equivalent of the youngsters in today’s theatres who flog ice cream during the interval. 

Given Nell’s stunning good looks and her forwardness and eye to the main chance you can’t help but wonder was there more than oranges on sale from time to time.

Anyway, in the winter of 1667-68, “pretty, witty” Nell – she was all of sixteen years old (sound familiar?) – pretty, witty Nell was one of the actresses promoted by that royal pimp the Duke of Buckingham as a new mistress for His Majesty.

 His Majesty heartily approved of the London dish Buckingham served up for him. Nature took its course and a baby son – Nell named him Charles – was born in his mother’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in May of 1670. 

And so we come to the decisive moment. The King has dropped in on Nell. She calls to the child. “Come hither, you little bastard.” The King reproves her. Nell is more than a match for his royal reproval. She says, “his majesty has given me no other name by which I may call him.” 

That remark hit the sweet spot. The King instantly gave the toddler the name Beauclerk. And that was just for starters.  

When the child was six years old the Merry Monarch made his bastard son Baron Heddington and Earl of Burford.

 And then on this day in 1684 makes him the Duke of St Albans. 

I like everything about this story. Not least because it’s a corrective of sorts. A couple of days ago I wrote about Rainbow Corner, the famous American Red Cross Club at Piccadilly Circus. That piece mentioned in passing the 80,000 British War Brides who were clubbed on the head by their American soldier husbands and taken across the Atlantic to a new home and a new life in America.

 And sure enough, that hoary old chestnut “class” was bobbing up here and there in that saga. 

The conventional wisdom was the Americans’ ignorance of English class structure meant that many an attractive girl from an ordinary background found herself invited to a party at an officers’ mess to which she would not hitherto have aspired.

I don’t completely buy into that poor downtrodden lower-class English girl meekly accepting the hand life has dealt her palaver. Nell Gwyn, the cockney wench and royal mistress and mother of a Duke is a good part of the reason I don’t completely buy into it. 

Good on ya, witty pretty Nelly. You go, girl.

Hey, those wisps of white smoke from the chimney on the London Walks Vatican roof, they’re balloons wafting us up into the sky of January 10th. Away we go. 

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