Book Review: Charles II's Favourite Mistress

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Charles II and his mistresses.

It's an entertaining subject, the third Stuart king being well-known for his extramarital adventures. He was said to have fathered (depending on which account you read) over a dozen illegitimate children and had a bevy of state-funded mistresses that sparkled in jewels and accompanied him to plays, parties and to the bedroom.

The most famous of these is probably Barbara Villiers, who met the king in 1660 while he was in exile, ended up on their return to England with a job as a lady in waiting to his new wife, Catherine of Braganza and then birthed Charles' baby while the king and queen were on their honeymoon. She went on to have other affairs and demolished the Tudor palace of Nonsuch to pay off gambling debts. Hardly a national treasure, and they weren't even on great terms when the king died in 1685. 

His favourite mistress, it's argued in a new book by Sarah Beth-Watkins, was Nell Gwyn. 

Nell Gwyn, Circle of Peter Lely. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The book Charles II's Favourite Mistress: Pretty, Witty, Nell Gwyn goes into the (admittedly sparse) accounts of Nell Gwyn's early life, not helped by Nell's own reluctance to discuss her upbringing to friends. We do know that she was well-known as an actress, and I found this an interesting link between her and the king, which was discussed in the book. The theatres were ordered shut under Cromwell's rule and Charles reinstated them on his accession to the throne. Theatrical work gave Nell - and other actresses of Restoration England - regular work, and this is how Charles met her and how she made her name. 

I enjoyed the references to the people Nell met during her theatrical career, some descriptions of her performances and ballads, and rhymes from the time that people wrote about her. The author draws on a lot of primary sources to build a picture of what Nell Gwyn was actually like, even letters that she wrote. I liked her a lot. She was definitely witty: she played practical jokes on friends - even on the king himself - and was very quick-witted when dealing with rivals at court. I especially loved some of the tales of bickering between the mistresses, who were rivals for the king's attention - and Nell's responses to them were so often created in humour (and, at times, even required props and dressing up, which gave me a whole new set of life goals). Samuel Pepys wrote about her in his diary, too, and reading these entries made me feel as if I'd time-travelled back to the 1660s, catching a glimpse of Nell at her open door in a cobbled London street.

There's a real attempt to uncover, through the sources, the real Nell Gwyn: not just the dazzling mistress who gave Charles a son, but Nell as a daughter, sister, mother, friend and colleague. We see her long-lasting friendships with men of the time, including the unruly Earl of Rochester, who also penned poetry about her. 

Nell Gwyn was loved by the people: and maybe that's what Charles himself loved about her, and one of the reasons they stayed close until the end of his life. The fact that not only was she faithful to him (many of his mistresses weren't), but, as the sources show, she didn't seek vast sums of money and titles from the Crown in return for her companionship. We know that others did. Nell fought for what she believed in, including appropriate recognition for her sons - but stayed humble despite her growing wealth and status. That may be why her name has endured in the people's consciousness. 

I found this a really interesting account of Nell Gwyn's life, and her personality really emerged from the sources that were discussed. It has a good few anecdotes, some in-mistress fighting and an appreciation for the relationship that she had with the king, too. The book aims to disperse many myths about Nell, and reveals some less-well known information, too. If you're into the Restoration period or any aspect of women's history you'll love it. 

You can find Charles IIs Favourite Mistress: Pretty, Witty Nell Gwyn at bookshops, on the Pen and Sword website and also on Amazon

Have you read this book? Let me know what you think in the comments below. 

You might also like: How Charles II Dealt with the Plague Outbreak in 1665, Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain and 7 Historic Events That Happened at Hampton Court. 

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