Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr

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Public Domain Books

Nell Gwyn
Simon Verelst, ca. 1680
At the National Gallery

King Charles II. and Nell Gwyn

One might classify the kings of England in many ways. John was undoubtedly the most unpopular. The impetuous yet far-seeing Henry II., with the other two great warriors, Edward I. and Edward III., and William of Orange, did most for the foundation and development of England’s constitutional law. Some monarchs, such as Edward II. and the womanish Henry VI., have been contemptible. Hard-working, useful kings have been Henry VII., the Georges, William IV., and especially the last Edward.

If we consider those monarchs who have in some curious way touched the popular fancy without reference to their virtues we must go back to Richard of the Lion Heart, who saw but little of England, yet was the best essentially English king, and to Henry V., gallant soldier and conqueror of France. Even Henry VIII. had a warm place in the affection of his countrymen, few of whom saw him near at hand, but most of whom made him a sort of regal incarnation of John Bull–wrestling and tilting and boxing, eating great joints of beef, and staying his thirst with flagons of ale– a big, healthy, masterful animal, in fact, who gratified the national love of splendor and stood up manfully in his struggle with the Pope.

But if you look for something more than ordinary popularity– something that belongs to sentiment and makes men willing to become martyrs for a royal cause–we must find these among the Stuart kings. It is odd, indeed, that even at this day there are Englishmen and Englishwomen who believe their lawful sovereign to be a minor Bavarian princess in whose veins there runs the Stuart blood. Prayers are said for her at English shrines, and toasts are drunk to her in rare old wine.

Of course, to-day this cult of the Stuarts is nothing but a fad. No one ever expects to see a Stuart on the English throne. But it is significant of the deep strain of romance which the six Stuarts who reigned in England have implanted in the English heart. The old Jacobite ballads still have power to thrill. Queen Victoria herself used to have the pipers file out before her at Balmoral to the “skirling” of “Bonnie Dundee,” “Over the Water to Charlie," and “Wha’ll Be King but Charlie!” It is a sentiment that has never died. Her late majesty used to say that when she heard these tunes she became for the moment a Jacobite; just as the Empress Eugenie at the height of her power used pertly to remark that she herself was the only Legitimist left in France.

It may be suggested that the Stuarts are still loved by many Englishmen because they were unfortunate; yet this is hardly true, after all. Many of them were fortunate enough. The first of them, King James, an absurd creature, speaking broad Scotch, timid, foolishly fond of favorites, and having none of the dignity of a monarch, lived out a lengthy reign. The two royal women of the family–Anne and Mary–had no misfortunes of a public nature. Charles II. reigned for more than a quarter of a century, lapped in every kind of luxury, and died a king.

The first Charles was beheaded and afterward styled a “saint"; yet the majority of the English people were against his arrogance, or else he would have won his great struggle against Parliament. The second James was not popular at all. Nevertheless, no sooner had he been expelled, and been succeeded by a Dutchman gnawing asparagus and reeking of cheeses, than there was already a Stuart legend. Even had there been no pretenders to carry on the cult, the Stuarts would still have passed into history as much loved by the people.

It only shows how very little in former days the people expected of a regnant king. Many monarchs have had just a few popular traits, and these have stood out brilliantly against the darkness of the background.

No one could have cared greatly for the first James, but Charles I. was indeed a kingly personage when viewed afar. He was handsome, as a man, fully equaling the French princess who became his wife. He had no personal vices. He was brave, and good to look upon, and had a kingly mien. Hence, although he sought to make his rule over England a tyranny, there were many fine old cavaliers to ride afield for him when he raised his standard, and who, when he died, mourned for him as a “martyr.”

Many hardships they underwent while Cromwell ruled with his iron hand; and when that iron hand was relaxed in death, and poor, feeble Richard Cromwell slunk away to his country-seat, what wonder is it that young Charles came back to England and caracoled through the streets of London with a smile for every one and a happy laugh upon his lips? What wonder is it that the cannon in the Tower thundered a loud welcome, and that all over England, at one season or another, maypoles rose and Christmas fires blazed? For Englishmen at heart are not only monarchists, but they are lovers of good cheer and merrymaking and all sorts of mirth.

Charles II. might well at first have seemed a worthier and wiser successor to his splendid father. As a child, even, he had shown himself to be no faint-hearted creature. When the great Civil War broke out he had joined his father’s army. It met with disaster at Edgehill, and was finally shattered by the crushing defeat of Naseby, which afterward inspired Macaulay’s most stirring ballad.

Charles was then only a child of twelve, and so his followers did wisely in hurrying him out of England, through the Scilly isles and Jersey to his mother’s place of exile. Of course, a child so very young could be of no value as a leader, though his presence might prove an inspiration.

In 1648, however, when he was eighteen years of age, he gathered a fleet of eighteen ships and cruised along the English coast, taking prizes, which he carried to the Dutch ports. When he was at Holland’s capital, during his father’s trial, he wrote many messages to the Parliamentarians, and even sent them a blank charter, which they might fill in with any stipulations they desired if only they would save and restore their king.

When the head of Charles rolled from the velvet-covered block his son showed himself to be no loiterer or lover of an easy life. He hastened to Scotland, skilfully escaping an English force, and was proclaimed as king and crowned at Scone, in 1651. With ten thousand men he dashed into England, where he knew there were many who would rally at his call. But it was then that Cromwell put forth his supreme military genius and with his Ironsides crushed the royal troops at Worcester.

Charles knew that for the present all was lost. He showed courage and address in covering the flight of his beaten soldiers; but he soon afterward went to France, remaining there and in the Netherlands for eight years as a pensioner of Louis XIV. He knew that time would fight for him far more surely than infantry and horse. England had not been called “Merry England” for nothing; and Cromwell’s tyranny was likely to be far more resented than the heavy hand of one who was born a king. So Charles at Paris and Liege, though he had little money at the time, managed to maintain a royal court, such as it was.

Here there came out another side of his nature. As a child he had borne hardship and privation and had seen the red blood flow upon the battlefield. Now, as it were, he allowed a certain sensuous, pleasure-loving ease to envelop him. The red blood should become the rich red burgundy; the sound of trumpets and kettledrums should give way to the melody of lutes and viols. He would be a king of pleasure if he were to be king at all. And therefore his court, even in exile, was a court of gallantry and ease. The Pope refused to lend him money, and the King of France would not increase his pension, but there were many who foresaw that Charles would not long remain in exile; and so they gave him what he wanted and waited until he could give them what they would ask for in their turn.

Charles at this time was not handsome, like his father. His complexion was swarthy, his figure by no means imposing, though always graceful. When he chose he could bear himself with all the dignity of a monarch. He had a singularly pleasant manner, and a word from him could win over the harshest opponent.

The old cavaliers who accompanied their master in exile were like Napoleon’s veterans in Elba. With their tall, powerful forms they stalked about the courtyards, sniffing their disapproval at these foreign ways and longing grimly for the time when they could once more smell the pungent powder of the battle-field. But, as Charles had hoped, the change was coming. Not merely were his own subjects beginning to long for him and to pray in secret for the king, but continental monarchs who maintained spies in England began to know of this. To them Charles was no longer a penniless exile. He was a king who before long would take possession of his kingdom.

A very wise woman–the Queen Regent of Portugal–was the first to act on this information. Portugal was then very far from being a petty state. It had wealth at home and rich colonies abroad, while its flag was seen on every sea. The queen regent, being at odds with Spain, and wishing to secure an ally against that power, made overtures to Charles, asking him whether a match might not be made between him and the Princess Catharine of Braganza. It was not merely her daughter’s hand that she offered, but a splendid dowry. She would pay Charles a million pounds in gold and cede to England two valuable ports.

The match was not yet made, but by 1659 it had been arranged. The Spaniards were furious, for Charles’s cause began to appear successful.

She was a quaint and rather piteous little figure, she who was destined to be the wife of the Merry Monarch. Catharine was dark, petite, and by no means beautiful; yet she had a very sweet expression and a heart of utter innocence. She had been wholly convent-bred. She knew nothing of the world. She was told that in marriage she must obey in all things, and that the chief duty of a wife was to make her husband happy.

Poor child! It was a too gracious preparation for a very graceless husband. Charles, in exile, had already made more than one discreditable connection and he was already the father of more than one growing son.

First of all, he had been smitten by the bold ways of one Lucy Walters. Her impudence amused the exiled monarch. She was not particularly beautiful, and when she spoke as others did she was rather tiresome; but her pertness and the inexperience of the king when he went into exile made her seem attractive. She bore him a son, in the person of that brilliant adventurer whom Charles afterward created Duke of Monmouth. Many persons believe that Charles had married Lucy Walters, just as George IV. may have married Mrs. Fitzherbert; yet there is not the slightest proof of it, and it must be classed with popular legends.

There was also one Catherine Peg, or Kep, whose son was afterward made Earl of Plymouth. It must be confessed that in his attachments to English women Charles showed little care for rank or station. Lucy Walters and Catherine Peg were very illiterate creatures.

In a way it was precisely this sort of preference that made Charles so popular among the people. He seemed to make rank of no account, but would chat in the most familiar and friendly way with any one whom he happened to meet. His easy, democratic manner, coupled with the grace and prestige of royalty, made friends for him all over England. The treasury might be nearly bankrupt; the navy might be routed by the Dutch; the king himself might be too much given to dissipation; but his people forgave him all, because everybody knew that Charles would clap an honest citizen on the back and joke with all who came to see him feed the swans in Regent’s Park.

The popular name for him was “Rowley,” or “Old Rowley"–a nickname of mysterious origin, though it is said to have been given him from a fancied resemblance to a famous hunter in his stables. Perhaps it is the very final test of popularity that a ruler should have a nickname known to every one.

Cromwell’s death roused all England to a frenzy of king-worship. The Roundhead, General Monk, and his soldiers proclaimed Charles King of England and escorted him to London in splendid state. That was a day when national feeling reached a point such as never has been before or since. Oughtred, the famous mathematician, died of joy when the royal emblems were restored. Urquhart, the translator of Rabelais, died, it is said, of laughter at the people’s wild delight–a truly Rabelaisian end.

There was the king once more; and England, breaking through its long period of Puritanism, laughed and danced with more vivacity than ever the French had shown. All the pipers and the players and panderers to vice, the mountebanks, the sensual men, and the lawless women poured into the presence of the king, who had been too long deprived of the pleasure that his nature craved. Parliament voted seventy thousand pounds for a memorial to Charles’s father, but the irresponsible king spent the whole sum on the women who surrounded him. His severest counselor, Lord Clarendon, sent him a remonstrance.

“How can I build such a memorial,” asked Charles, “when I don’t know where my father’s remains are buried!”

He took money from the King of France to make war against the Dutch, who had befriended him. It was the French king, too, who sent him that insidious, subtle daughter of Brittany, Louise de Keroualle–Duchess of Portsmouth–a diplomat in petticoats, who won the king’s wayward affections, and spied on what he did and said, and faithfully reported all of it to Paris. She became the mother of the Duke of Lenox, and she was feared and hated by the English more than any other of his mistresses. They called her “Madam Carwell,” and they seemed to have an instinct that she was no mere plaything of his idle hours, but was like some strange exotic serpent, whose poison might in the end sting the honor of England.

There is a pitiful little episode in the marriage of Charles with his Portuguese bride, Catharine of Braganza. The royal girl came to him fresh from the cloisters of her convent. There was something about her grace and innocence that touched the dissolute monarch, who was by no means without a heart. For a time he treated her with great respect, and she was happy. At last she began to notice about her strange faces–faces that were evil, wanton, or overbold. The court became more and more a seat of reckless revelry.

Finally Catharine was told that the Duchess of Cleveland–that splendid termagant, Barbara Villiers–had been appointed lady of the bedchamber. She was told at the same time who this vixen was– that she was no fit attendant for a virtuous woman, and that her three sons, the Dukes of Southampton, Grafton, and Northumberland, were also the sons of Charles.

Fluttered and frightened and dismayed, the queen hastened to her husband and begged him not to put this slight upon her. A year or two before, she had never dreamed that life contained such things as these; but now it seemed to contain nothing else. Charles spoke sternly to her until she burst into tears, and then he petted her and told her that her duty as a queen compelled her to submit to many things which a lady in private life need not endure.

After a long and poignant struggle with her own emotions the little Portuguese yielded to the wishes of her lord. She never again reproached him. She even spoke with kindness to his favorites and made him feel that she studied his happiness alone. Her gentleness affected him so that he always spoke to her with courtesy and real friendship. When the Protestant mobs sought to drive her out of England he showed his courage and manliness by standing by her and refusing to allow her to be molested.

Indeed, had Charles been always at his best he would have had a very different name in history. He could be in every sense a king. He had a keen knowledge of human nature. Though he governed England very badly, he never governed it so badly as to lose his popularity.

The epigram of Rochester, written at the king’s own request, was singularly true of Charles. No man relied upon his word, yet men loved him. He never said anything that was foolish, and he very seldom did anything that was wise; yet his easy manners and gracious ways endeared him to those who met him.

One can find no better picture of his court than that which Sir Walter Scott has drawn so vividly in Peveril of the Peak; or, if one wishes first-hand evidence, it can be found in the diaries of Evelyn and of Samuel Pepys. In them we find the rakes and dicers, full of strange oaths, deep drunkards, vile women and still viler men, all striving for the royal favor and offering the filthiest lures, amid routs and balls and noisy entertainments, of which it is recorded that more than once some woman gave birth to a child among the crowd of dancers.

No wonder that the little Portuguese queen kept to herself and did not let herself be drawn into this swirling, roaring, roistering saturnalia. She had less influence even than Moll Davis, whom Charles picked out of a coffee-house, and far less than “Madam Carwell,” to whom it is reported that a great English nobleman once presented pearls to the value of eight thousand pounds in order to secure her influence in a single stroke of political business.

Of all the women who surrounded Charles there was only one who cared anything for him or for England. The rest were all either selfish or treacherous or base. This one exception has been so greatly written of, both in fiction and in history, as to make it seem almost unnecessary to add another word; yet it may well be worth while to separate the fiction from the fact and to see how much of the legend of Eleanor Gwyn is true.

The fanciful story of her birthplace is most surely quite unfounded. She was not the daughter of a Welsh officer, but of two petty hucksters who had their booth in the lowest precincts of London. In those days the Strand was partly open country, and as it neared the city it showed the mansions of the gentry set in their green-walled parks. At one end of the Strand, however, was Drury Lane, then the haunt of criminals and every kind of wretch, while nearer still was the notorious Coal Yard, where no citizen dared go unarmed.

Within this dreadful place children were kidnapped and trained to various forms of vice. It was a school for murderers and robbers and prostitutes; and every night when the torches flared it vomited forth its deadly spawn. Here was the earliest home of Eleanor Gwyn, and out of this den of iniquity she came at night to sell oranges at the entrance to the theaters. She was stage- struck, and endeavored to get even a minor part in a play; but Betterton, the famous actor, thrust her aside when she ventured to apply to him.

It must be said that in everything that was external, except her beauty, she fell short of a fastidious taste. She was intensely ignorant even for that time. She spoke in a broad Cockney dialect. She had lived the life of the Coal Yard, and, like Zola’s Nana, she could never remember the time when she had known the meaning of chastity.

Nell Gwyn was, in fact, a product of the vilest slums of London; and precisely because she was this we must set her down as intrinsically a good woman–one of the truest, frankest, and most right-minded of whom the history of such women has anything to tell. All that external circumstances could do to push her down into the mire was done; yet she was not pushed down, but emerged as one of those rare souls who have in their natures an uncontaminated spring of goodness and honesty. Unlike Barbara Villiers or Lucy Walters or Louise de Keroualle, she was neither a harpy nor a foe to England.

Charles is said first to have met her when he, incognito, with another friend, was making the rounds of the theaters at night. The king spied her glowing, nut-brown face in one of the boxes, and, forgetting his incognito, went up and joined her. She was with her protector of the time, Lord Buckhurst, who, of course, recognized his majesty.

Presently the whole party went out to a neighboring coffee-house, where they drank and ate together. When it came time to pay the reckoning the king found that he had no money, nor had his friend. Lord Buckhurst, therefore, paid the bill, while Mistress Nell jeered at the other two, saying that this was the most poverty- stricken party that she had ever met.

Charles did not lose sight of her. Her frankness and honest manner pleased him. There came a time when she was known to be a mistress of the king, and she bore a son, who was ennobled as the Duke of St. Albans, but who did not live to middle age. Nell Gwyn was much with Charles; and after his tempestuous scenes with Barbara Villiers, and the feeling of dishonor which the Duchess of Portsmouth made him experience, the girl’s good English bluntness was a pleasure far more rare than sentiment.

Somehow, just as the people had come to mistrust “Madam Carwell," so they came to like Nell Gwyn. She saw enough of Charles, and she liked him well enough, to wish that he might do his duty by his people; and she alone had the boldness to speak out what she thought. One day she found him lolling in an arm-chair and complaining that the people were not satisfied.

“You can very easily satisfy them,” said Nell Gwyn. “Dismiss your women and attend to the proper business of a king.”

Again, her heart was touched at the misfortunes of the old soldiers who had fought for Charles and for his father during the Civil War, and who were now neglected, while the treasury was emptied for French favorites, and while the policy of England itself was bought and sold in France. Many and many a time, when other women of her kind used their lures to get jewels or titles or estates or actual heaps of money, Nell Gwyn besought the king to aid these needy veterans. Because of her efforts Chelsea Hospital was founded. Such money as she had she shared with the poor and with those who had fought for her royal lover.

As I have said, she is a historical type of the woman who loses her physical purity, yet who retains a sense of honor and of honesty which nothing can take from her. There are not many such examples, and therefore this one is worth remembering.

Of anecdotes concerning her there are many, but not often has their real import been detected. If she could twine her arms about the monarch’s neck and transport him in a delirium of passion, this was only part of what she did. She tried to keep him right and true and worthy of his rank; and after he had ceased to care much for her as a lover he remembered that she had been faithful in many other things.

Then there came the death-bed scene, when Charles, in his inimitable manner, apologized to those about him because he was so long in dying. A far sincerer sentence was that which came from his heart, as he cried out, in the very pangs of death:

“Do not let poor Nelly starve!”


The Story of Antony and Cleopatra  •  Abelard and Heloise  •  Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester  •  Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Bothwell  •  Queen Christina of Sweden and the Marquis Monaldeschi  •  King Charles II. and Nell Gwyn  •  Maurice of Saxony and Adrienne Lecouvreur

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