When she was just a child, Eleanor Gwyn lost her father, who likely died in a debtor’s prison. The future great actress of the Restoration stage therefore grew up under the care of her mother, who ran a house of prostitution near Covent Garden, then in the western end of the city of London. In her childhood years she was a barmaid in her mother’s establishment before becoming a fruit seller at the nearby Drury Lane Theater. She came to the attention of the theater’s major actor, Charles Hart, and although only fifteen at the time she became his lover. Hart saw to it that she was given roles in productions and she continued in the company until 1669 when she became pregnant by the king. She returned to the theater for one production after the birth, but then soon retired to devote herself to her love, King Charles II. In the years that she had performed at the Drury Lane Theater, Gwyn premiered a number of roles in plays by John Dryden and James Howard.
Although she acted in dramas, it was in comic roles that her talents were most evident. Observers noted that she had a quick and ready wit, and althoug hilliterate, was able to charm even the most educated by the intelligence of her conversation. She was also considered to be an excellent singer and dancer, and she was admired for her abilities to recite the poetic prologues and epilogues that were common in the theater of the day. In her retirement the king granted her a house, where she entertained Charles and members of the aristocracy. She was twice coaxed back onto the stage during the 1670s, the first time to play the female lead in Aphra Behn’s comedy of manners, The Rover (1677) and again in a role in the author’s Sir Patient Fancy a year later. These productions were staged, not at her former establishment the Drury Lane Theater, but at the Dorset Gardens, the house belonging to the troupe known as “The King’s Men.”
In the years after she became the king’s lover, she devoted almost all of her energies to entertaining Charles and members of his court and to tending to her mother and children. Since she had the royal ear, she frequently became involved in intrigues at court, although she seems never to have tried to interfere in politics. Charles richly rewarded her with a generous allowance and a handsome house in the St.James’ section of London so that she could be near the palace. He elevated the two sons she bore him to the nobility. With her newfound wealth, Gwyn provided a house for her mother in fashionable Chelsea, but her mother died in an accident in 1679 brought on by a bout of drunkenness. Despite the king’s great largesse, Gwyn spent prodigiously and when Charles died in 1685, she was in danger of being sent to debtor’s prison.
Charles had commanded his brother King James II to look after “poor Nelly,” and he quickly came to her rescue, dispensing with her debts and granting her a generous royal pension. For her part, the actress seems to have always been faithful to the king and to his memory; Charles, on the other hand, may have had two illegitimate children with Gwyn, but he produced a dozen more with other women, mostly from the nobility. Gwyn was the first great female “star” of the London stage, and her career both promoted and reinforced the notion that actresses were little more than prostitutes and courtesans.
At the same time, Gwyn came to be widely admired throughout London because of her generosity of spirit, sense of fun, and ready wit. In this regard she stood in marked contrast to all of Charles II’s other mistresses, many of whom were subjected to boos and cat calls as they moved about the streets of London. In particular, Charles’ French mistress, the aristocratic and Catholic Louise de Kéroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth, was particularly unpopular, and one day when Gwyn’s carriage was moving through London’s streets, the crowd mistook her for her French Catholic rival. Gwyn was said to have peered out of the carriage and shouted, “I am the Protestant whore!” It was this self effacing quality that made the commoner Gwyn beloved among Londoners, and which made her death in 1687 following a stroke an event that elicited mourning from many of the capital’s subjects.