St David’s Day, Nell Gwyn, and David Garrick

Today’s blog is based on the facts that, first, it is St David’s Day; St David being the patron saint of Wales and, second, that I had a recent ‘I never knew that’ moment when I learned that the Pretenders were (apart from Chrissie Hynde) from Hereford. Or at least the original band members were.

So, here we go again with the tenuous connections, and leap straight to Nell Gwyn (or Gwynne). The city of Hereford claims to have been the birthplace of Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II, and supporters of that theory point to the fact that Gwyn is a name of Welsh origin and Herefordshire borders Wales.

It is, however, considered more likely that she was born in London, in Coal Yard Alley off Drury Lane. The alley did actually lead to an old coal yard; in the 19th century it was described as “a row of miserable tenements”. Much of the ‘facts’ about Nell Gwyn are largely a matter of speculation: Pepys records that Nell said she was “brought up in a bawdy-house to fill strong water to the guests”.

Incidentally, there is a Hereford Road in West London; the land in this area was developed by a Mr William Kinnaird Jenkins, a Herefordshire lawyer and landowner (with a Welsh name) who named many streets after places in Herefordshire and the neighbouring Welsh area.

But back to Nell, who was described as the “indiscreetest and wildest creature that ever was in court”; it was also said of her that “the King loved more for her wit than the attractions of her person … it was difficult to remain long in her company without sharing her gaiety”. Indeed, Charles II’s last words were reputed to have been “Let not poor Nellie starve.”

Nell did not try to hide her humble beginnings or her status as a concubine; one example of her wit was when she was bing booed by people mistaking her for Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille, another of Charles’s mistresses, Nell said, “Pray, good people, be civil – I am the Protestant whore.”

Nell spend the last years of her life in Pall Mall, where she spent her last years and where she had a solid silver bed in a room lined with mirrors.

And even more – not even that tenuous – connection: Nell was reputed to have sold oranges outside of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane; the actor and playwright David Garrick managed the theatre for nearly 30 years. Oh, yes, and Garrick was born in Hereford.

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.