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Though it is over 330 years since she sold oranges to audiences at the King’s Theatre in London, then became the most popular actress in England and finally the mistress of King Charles II, Nell Gwyn’s name is still familiar to most people – and it can only be because of a personality which was delightful in every way: ‘pretty, witty Nell’, as Pepys called her, charmed not only the King but his subjects – who cordially disliked most of his other mistresses, in particular the Catholic Frenchwoman Louise de Keroualle. When crowds booed Nell’s carriage, thinking she was Louise, she leaned out of the window and called ‘I am the Protestant whore!’
She was never ashamed of her position, and never ceased to delight the King – who grew very bored indeed with Louise, and with his earlier mistress Barbara Villiers. And she never attempted, as they did, to interfere in politics. The King was greatly relieved – though he was a master politician, he tried hard to keep state affairs separate from his private life- to which he gave a great deal of time and energy, with the help of his pimp-in-ordinary, a Mr Chiffinch, who arranged the schedule by which his mistresses moved in and out of his palace at Whitehall.
in Coal Hole Alley to a luxurious house in St James’s – and also tells of her battles with Louise and Barbara, of the King’s relationship with his loving Queen (whose attitude to Nell and the other mistresses has lessons for subsequent members of the Royal Family) and of her touching life-long attachment to the King, who famously on his death-bed pleaded with his brother James ‘not to let Nelly starve.’
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