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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Nell Gwyn

b. 1650, England; d. 1687, London

Nell Gwyn, actress and royal mistress, was introduced to theatrical life as a young girl selling oranges to theatergoers in Drury Lane. She made her first stage appearance in 1664 and flourished in comic roles. Around 1667, she came to the attention of the king, Charles II; two years later, their first son was born. She retired from the stage in 1671 to devote herself to the business of royal mistress, which was apparently quite profitable: by 1676, Gwyn had several properties and a yearly pension of 5,000 pounds. The fact that she was lowborn made her the object of satirists, who dubbed her “the Protestant whore,” only slightly more tolerable than the king’s other mistress, the French Catholic Louise de Kéroualle. But Gwyn’s reputation for generosity, as well as an irreverent wit and disdain for courtly convention, endeared her to subsequent generations.