Eleanor "Nell" Gwyn (2 February 1650 – 14 November 1687; also spelled Gwynn, Gwynne) was a long-time mistress of King Charles II of England and Scotland. Called "pretty, witty Nell" by Samuel Pepys, she has been regarded as a living embodiment of the spirit of RestorationEngland and has come to be considered a folk heroine, with a story echoing the rags-to-royalty tale of Cinderella. She was the most famous Restoration actress and possessed a prodigious comic talent. Gwyn had two sons by King Charles: Charles Beauclerk (1670–1726); and James Beauclerk (1671–1680). The surname of her sons is pronounced 'Bo-Clare'. Charles was created Earl of Burford and later Duke of St. Albans.
In her early teens, Nell Gwyn was engaged to sell oranges at the King's Theatre. Her natural wit and complete lack of self-consciousness caught the eye of the actor Charles Hart and others, and Dryden wrote plays to exploit her talents as a comic actress.
She became Charles Hart's mistress, she called him Charles the First, and was then passed to Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, whom she dubbed Charles the Second, and later the King, calling him her Charles the Third.
Lady Castlemaine (Barbara Palmer) had been King Charles' mistress for many years when he became enamoured of Nell.
"Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore" was Nell Gwyn's cheeky retort to the masses pushing around her coach in the mistaken belief that it was that of the Duchess of Portsmouth, the Catholic Louise de Keroualle, one of Charles' other mistresses.
Unlike Charles' other mistresses, Nell never received a title herself, but by using clever tactics she obtained a title for her son.
"Come here you little bastard" she is reputed to have said to her small son in the Kings presence. The King was horrified, but as Nell asked, "what should she call him, was not bastard true?" The King immediately made him Duke of St. Albans.
When the King died in 1685 Nell's creditors descended upon her - she never did starve, but was in grave danger of being sent to a Debtors prison. She appealed to King James and to his credit, he settled her immediate debts and gave her a pension of £1500 a year.
James asked in return that her son should become a Catholic but James was to be disappointed.
Nell survived Charles by only two years and was only in her thirties when she died. She became a legend, the only royal mistress in English history to provoke popular affection.