Nell Gwynn was born in a respectable, but rather humble, dwelling in Pipe Lane, Hereford.
Her father was a smith, but she was orphaned at an early age and went to live with her grandfather at Dinedor. He was an old soldier who, after many year’s service, had returned to Herefordshire a poor man. He had no pension, no Chelsea Hospital to fall back on, and they suffered much privation.
Nell was a pretty brunette, well known for her liveliness, humour and vivacity.
Nell Gwynne Goes to London
When her grandfather died, she went to London to seek her fortume and fell in love with a strolling comedian who became manager of the King’s Theatre. At first she made some money as a flower girl, and then as an orange girl in the lobby of the theatre.
Before long, her lover introduced her to the stage and one evening King Charles II went to the theatre in order to see one of his favourite actresses perform; the lady was suddenly taken ill, and Nell went on stage in her place wearing a white pasteboard hat the size of a cart wheel!
King Charles II and Nell Gwynne
King Charles was so taken with Nell that he took her away with him that night in his own carriage and she became his favourite lover. In 1670 she gave birth to a son, but he had no title which rather irked Nell and one day when the King visited her she dangled her baby by one leg over the bannister of the stairs declaring that he was a nameless wretch. King Charles was so alarmed that he quickly exclaimed “St. Albans”, and Nell was duly appeased……….so came about the first Duke of St. Albans!
Years later, the King commanded Nell to put the huge hat on once more, saying that if she did she could have anything she wanted. She put the hat on, and remembering the privations of her poor grandfather at Dinedor, she claimed the establishment of Chelsea Hospital. This was built and every year the hospitallers drank to the immortal memory of Nell Gwynn.
The last words of King Charles were “Don’t let poor Nelly starve”; Nell died in Pall Mall in 1691.
Many years later Nell’s grandson, Bishop Beauclerk planted the elm trees at the upper walk in the Castle Green, Hereford, which of course sadly no longer exist.