Actresses, oranges, and paille-maille

This day in London’s history: on 8 December 1660, Thomas Killigrew opened his new theatre and made history by having the first actress to play on the British stage. The role was Desdemona in Shakespear’s Othello but there is some debate as to who the actress was; many sources point to either Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall.

Another, less likely, candidate is Katherine Corey, who was involved in a major scandal. Nell Gwynne, perhaps the most famous of Charles II’s mistresses, was embroiled in a feud with a noblewoman by the name of Elizabeth Harvey. Nell bribed the actress to mimic Harvey on stage, an act that moved Lady Harvey to hire thugs to hiss Corey on stage and throw oranges at her.

The oranges, presumably, may have been a reference to Nell’s earlier life; in her teens she sold oranges at the King’s Theatre, when the actor Charles Hart became her lover. (Before she became a royal mistress, another of her lovers was Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. Nell referred to her lovers as Charles the First and Charles the Second, so that when the king came along, he became to her Charles the Third.)

In the last years of her life, Nell lived in Pall Mall, which takes its name from a French game, paille-maille (also known as palla a maglio), mentioned as early as the reign of James I, who recommended the game for his eldest son, Prince Henry. The game was similar to croquet, involving a “wooden hammer set to the end of a long staff to strike a boule with”. Pall Mall was allegedly constructed by Charles II especially for the playing of this game.

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