Nell Gwynn: Not your strumpet

Nells mother ran a brothel; her Dad wasn’t on the scene. But this wasn’t even the most tulmotous part of her, far from ideal, childhood. 

Born in 1650, Nell grew up in one of the most difficult times in English history.

By 11 Nell had seen England change from a puritanical Government led country, where church attendance was mandatory and gambling, dancing and theatre was banned – to a country with a new King, Charles ll, at its helm, who loved nothing more than a drink, a dance and a roll of the dice.

It was to say the least: a full on clusterfuck of change!

Nell saw her future possibilities and place in society change overnight.

BUT she didn’t have time to focus on how the rich (and therefore powerful) were turning her world on its head; she had to earn a living!

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But obviously less making it rain, more making it so you eat and don’t die…

Growing up in a brothel it’s very possible that Nell worked there as a child and although that suggests she may have dabbled working as a sex worker, it’s not known for sure if she did.

What we do know is that one of Nells jobs was to fetch brandy to refresh worn out punters mid session. A totally acceptable job for a child. What gif.gif

But, growing up in the brothel made Nell a hustler and by her early teens she was flogging oranges to the crowds now flocking to Londons Covent Garden and its newly re-opened theatre district.

Orange selling may sound wholesome, but believe me, it was dog eat dog.

With hoards of sellers packing the streets, only the loudest, boldest and most whip smart would get theirs wares noticed. In this competitive game of survival, Nell was a clear winner.

With a quick wit, a no nonsense attitude and looks to boot she quickly captured the attention of the crowd and her oranges were selling like hot cakes (or hot oranges?…)

But it wasn’t just Theatre go-ers who were attracted to Nell. The Kings own theatre company soon noticed Nell and invited her to join their troupe.

At just 14 Nell became one of the first female actresses to take the stage.

Nell Gwynn, painting
The hero of our play, Nell Gwynn

Sadly, Nell couldn’t read or write, which made reading scripts and learning lines pretty much impossible!

Still, she found ways round this. Having herself coached through the dialogue.

But this impairment perhaps explains why Nell hated dramas, which she found dull and too wordy (to be fair, if you’ve ever had to sit through a restoration era drama, then I’m sure you agree)

Yet, when it came to comedy, Nell would light up a stage. Using her fast wit and ability to creatively swear like a sailor, Nell became a household name.

Esteemed writer Samuel Pepys was a huge Nell fan girl, dubbing her:

‘Pretty witty Nell’

His thirst apparently could not be contained and Pepys continued;

‘So great a performance of a comical part, I believe, was never in the world before’

Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys: Fan girl and thirstiest bitch on the planet 

As all good theatre kids know, a play isn’t anything if there isn’t a showmance behind the scenes and Nell was more than happy to do her bit. So, she started an affair with famed actor, Charles Hart.

Like all good showmances the pair starred opposite each other in several productions and their PDA made things nice and awkward for everyone working with them.

But it wasn’t too last. Nell moved onwards and upwards. Starting affairs with many a man whose name started with ‘Sir’ and ‘Lord’.

And then one night Nells life changed for ever…

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It’s about to be just like disney; with added sex, swearing and alcohol!

In 1667 a 17 year old Nell was performing in ‘The Maiden Queen’, when the thirty something King Charles ll rocked up.

Charles was taken with Nell, as was his pal, the Duke of Buckingham, who saw Nell as the perfect pawn for a scheme he was plotting.

You see, The Duke of Buckingham was keen to oust the Kings current mistress, Barbara Castlemaine, who he believed was demanding too much money and power.

So why not replace the noble born Barbara with this gutter snipe? Nell was a slum girl done good, surely she’d be so thrilled at being in the Kings bed and would be no trouble at all!

Not our Nell!

Nell immediately refused the Mistressing offer. Unless, of course, she was paid £500 compensation for the ‘trouble’ that becoming the Kings mistress would cause her.

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Truly, Nell had historic levels of sass

The King wouldn’t pay Nell… but he also couldn’t resist her.

She soon became became a fixture at court parties, events and plays.

Within months the unlikely pair were firm friends and only then did Nell fall into Charles bed and accept the role of royal mistress.

Of course she still had caveats! She wasn’t giving up her career for anyone.

Charles eventually agreed and so Nell became one of the first Royal Mistresses to hold down a career and her mistress-ing duties.

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Duties that included, but were not limited to, occasionally getting half a boob out

Charles was enamored with Nell. So enamoured in fact that he had a topless portrait of Nell made and took immense pleasure in taking male friends into his rooms to let them marvel at the fine piece he was tapping. Because Charles was nothing if not a classy King. Nell Gwynn as venus

Nell was the apple of Charles eye…but that eye had a habit of wandering.

In 1668 Charles made entertainer, Moll Davis his mistress.

He lavished Moll with jewels and the promise of a house. The similarities between the two women were obvious and this cut a little to close to the bone for Nell. So she decided to shut that shit down.

Moll Davis
Moll Davis – I mean she hasn’t even got half a boob out, what kind of mistress is she?

Nell sent a dish of sweet meats for Moll to fill up on before she joined the King in bed that night (gotta keep your energy up!).

Sadly the sweet meats were laced with laxatives and for some reason Moll didn’t make her rendezvous with Charles…

Shortly after she was removed from mistress-ing duties.

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After Moll, no other mistress came close to toppling Nell. By 1670 she was firmly the main woman in Charles life and was pregnant with his child.

She decided to rest up and make sure her unborn baby was safe, so stopped working as an actress.

Unfortunately, at the same time, Charles decided she should also stop working as his mistress.

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Appropriate reaction

There was a new lady in Charles life and this one was no less than French nobility!

Louise de Kéroulle moved to England to serve the Queen (she had previously served Charles sister in France) Charles was soon head over heels for his wifes new maid and made her a royal mistress.

Louise used this new position to enjoy the finer things in life. She spent wads of cash on art, fashion and jewels. On the side she took up politics, forging herself a key role in English affairs with which to promote French causes.

Louise de Kéroulle
Louise De Kerolle: Unlike Moll, you know she is a threat because she has both boobs out.

Unsurprisingly Nell and Louise did not get along.

Not only were they fighting over the same man, but they were from two very different worlds. Louise was born into her position, Nell had to fight tooth and nail. Louise had never needed to work a day in her life, while Nell loved the independence work gave her so much that she was back on stage a mere four months after giving birth!

The fight between Louise and Nell got dirty real quick. And by that I mean they used tactics that were less based in Royal proticall and more Mean Girls.

Nell dubbed Louise ‘squintabella’ (due to a slight cast on Louise’s eye) and Louise never missed a chance to bitch out Nells lowly birth.

Charles gave Louise the title, Duchess of Portsmouth, as thanks for her role as mistress. Obviously Louise looooved rubbing this in Nell’s face. Once confronting/faux complimenting Nell in a crowded room (As she was passive aggressively want to do)

‘Nelly, you are grown rich, I believe, by your dress; why woman you are fine enough to be a queen’

Nell shot back

‘You are entirely right, madam, and I am whore enough to be a duchess.’

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Bitchy comments aside, Nell had one thing Louise could never have.

She had the people on her side.

English people had a history of not being huge fans of the French and they were certainly not fans of Louise.

She was a catholic in a protestant country, who was rumored to be a spy and oh yeah…she was French. Nell played up to this.

One day when riding through London, the people in the street stopped to boo the carriage, thinking the woman inside to be Louise.

Calmly Nell popped her head out of the window and said:

“Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore” 

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seriously, get Tina Fey, I think we found a Mean Girls prequel 

In addition to her ability to sass for days, a HUGE positive Nell had going for her in the growing battle against Louise, was that she didn’t engage in politics.

This was a shrewd move. Nell had seen countless mistresses removed from their posts due to political meddling. Hell, she had even bought in as a mistress to oust the political minded Barbara Castlemaine!

The more Louise pushed for Frances interests in English politics, the more she pissed people off and pushed Charles away.

Nell opted for a different tact. She wanted to show Charles she was in it for the long haul. That the only thing she wanted from this relationship was him.

She didn’t ask for titles unless it was for their children and only pushed for political and social change on very rare occasions; which had the added bonus that this meant she was more likely to be listened to.

Nell’s clever moves paid off in 1675 when an exotic new woman arrived at court and pushed Louise off her pedestal.

The arrival of Italian runaway bride, Hortense Mancini, sent Louise packing.

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Hortense Mancini, only one boob out…who knows what that means at this point

But Nell wouldn’t be ousted so easily. By now she had stopped acting and given Charles 2 sons, she’d paid her dues and wasn’t leaving without a fight!

Luckily Nell didn’t need to fight, Hortense (who we’ve covered here) was far to busy getting drunk, dueling in her nightgown and having sex with Charles’ daughter, to have any time to actually spend with Charles.

Unsurprisingly her career as mistress was short lived (screwing your partner’s daughter will do that…)

Though Hortense was out the picture things were about to get veeeeery shit for Nell.

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Honestly, this level bad

Within 2 years:

– Nell’s mum drowned

– Nell fell seriously ill

– Nell’s son died

– The press started saying that Nell was losing her looks (because papers have always been pricks)

Nell had just turned 30 and it felt like her life was already over.

She didn’t know what to do. All she wanted to do was escape.

So she did.

Nell packed up her things and moved to the country.

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half boob, a confused child and sausages…truly the symbols of the British countryside

But Nell wasn’t going to be shacked up in the countryside alone.

By the time he reached middle age Charles was having some trouble getting it up (decades of excessive drinking and partying will do that to a penis)

He wanted to relax; less partying all night, more of having a little lie down. Where better to do that then Nell’s country escape.

With nearly twenty years under their belt, Nell and Charles were happy to just spend time together. They went on walks, played cards and spent time with their son. Basically, they just had a nice time.

Then, on 1st February 1685, Charles spent the evening with Nell and some of his past mistresses (which sounds a bit Sister Wives…but each to their own)

The next morning Charles suffered a fit and 4 days later he was dead.

His last wish was:

‘ Let not poor Nelly starve’

As per Charles wishes, Nell’s debts were wiped and she was given a hefty pension. Despite being an very eligible bachelorette, Nell turned down all suitors, instead choosing to spend her time hosting salons at her house and entertaining friends.

Then in March 1687 Nell suffered a stroke that left her half paralysed.

In May that same year she suffered another stroke that confined her to bed.

She continued cracking jokes and seeing friends until in November 1687 she suffered a final stroke. Nell died aged just 37.

But she wasn’t done just yet…

A huge crowd swarmed London’s Martins in the fields church for Nell’s funeral. As per one of her final wishes, the closing sermon read:

‘Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance’

This was really interesting where can I find out more? In the spirit of Nell I am going to direct you to a play. That play is of course called, Nell Gwynn. Much like Nell its a whole lot of fun and is currently on at the Globe in London and also on tour!

Why Millicent Fawcett was the fucking best

Think votes for women and you think Pankhurst’s, you think fearless suffragettes risking everything, committing violent acts to win the day.

And you would be wrong. 

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Well this is awkward

Ok fine, not entirely wrong, but you would only be seeing about 10% of the picture. Women’s suffrage was a fight that had been going on since the early Victorian period, decades before the suffragettes were formed – it’s a battle thats largely been forgotten, but thanks to some bad ass feminists & historians thats all changing!

So how do you get up to speed with this unsung era of history? Well theres no better place to start than Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

 

Millicent
Feminist hero and Queen of fidly up-do’s

Millicent was born in 1846, one of the youngest of 10 (yep that’s right, 10!). She was raised right; taught to think for herself and pursue her passions.

When Millicent was 12 her older sister Elizabeth moved to London to study medicine (FYI- Elizabeth went on to become Britain’s first female doctor – you will soon learn that these sisters had badassery hardwired in their genes) it was whilst visiting Elizabeth in London that the young Millicent had her first brush with the women’s rights movement.

Elizabeth introduced her younger sister to Emily Davies, a fervent campaigner for women’s rights. Soon the two friends descended into talk of overcoming gender barriers in education (Emily) and medicine (Elizabeth) deciding that it was only after achieving equal rights in fields like these that women would be able to fight for the vote; then as if in an after thought the women turned to Millicent and Emily said:

You are younger than we are, Millie, so you must attend to that.”

Older sisters, right!

But attend to it Millie did. She threw herself into reading up on the law and female rights. She went to a talk given by radical MP John Stuart Mill in favour of women’s rights and became his ardent supporter…she did all this before she was 19, and she wasn’t done.

Now lets pause for a moment and think about what your life’s greatest achievement at 19 was. I’ll admit that working out jäger bombs do not a good evening make is an achievement. But it’s not got shit on 19 year old Millie.

Because In 1866 she delivered a petition to parliament calling for women to have the vote.

That’s right. At 19 Millicent kickstarted things, with the first official move in the loooong battle for equal votes.

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Yup it’s both amazing and sickening   via giphy 

Having fired the opening shot, Millicent was keen to continue her campaign. She started writing and working at getting more politically active. Then in 1867 she met Henry Fawcett a radical liberal MP and scholar, the two had a lot in common and Millicent felt like she had met a kindred spirit. BUT Henry was a decade older than her and was also newly blind..not your stereotypical dreamboat.

Yet against everyone’s wishes the pair married with Millicent helping Henry come to terms with his new disability and he supporting her to find her feet in politics.

Henry and Millicent
Henry and Millicent Fawcett 

As  part of Millicents’ effort to get womens’ right to vote into the public consciousness, she gave her first speech in 1869. She hated every moment of it.

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Urgh public speaking! via giphy

But without any real mass media to spread the word on women’s suffrage she didn’t really have a choice. So Millicent fought through it, chucking herself in at the deep end she went on a speaking tour in 1871. She kept pushing through and eventually became one of England’s most popular and passionate public speakers.

Whilst overcoming her fears Millicent published several in depth political and economic books and founded Newham College, Cambridge – you know as you do. A boss at multitasking she also found time to give birth and raise a daughter, Philippa (who went on to become an acclaimed mathematician and educator btw) 

Everything was coming up Millicent, and she was fast becoming one of the most vocal proponents for women’s rights in the world; her husband, Henry one of the most loved and respected figures in British politics (not an easy feat being a liked politician!) it seemed nothing could stop this power couple.

And then Henry died. it isnt fair.gif

 

But Millicent persisted. Now a single mother, she buckled down on women’s rights. Soon becoming the clear figurehead for the movement in the U.K. Millicent fought for the campaign to seek more than the vote, fighting for women’s sexual rights, working rights and so much more.

In 1897 she helped form the NUWSS (The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies- also known as the suffragists) bringing the majority of the countries women’s rights groups together and making their voice even louder. Suffragist

Though the Suffragists means were peaceful that didn’t mean Millicent couldn’t get militant.

She had an active role in the Personal Rights Association who sought to shed light on men with, er, nefarious intentions when it came to young women. Once throwing flour at a seemingly untouchable Army General who had been sexually harassing a maid; Millicent then pinned a sign to his back which outlined his deeds and sent him packing down a crowded street of onlookers (because seriously, fuck that guy)

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A witness said Millicent ‘had no pity and would have cashiered him if she could’

But it wasn’t just women’s rights that concerned Millicent. In 1900 NUWSS member Emily Hobhouse traveled to South Africa and shone light on the treatment of the Boer People who were at war with England (The Boer War)

The Boer People were being sent to concentration camps (never not a good time to to remember that the British invented them!) and their land overturned and scorched. This quickly became a hot topic in Parliament with all around liberal bae David Lloyd George declaiming the British military’s actions as an extermination of a people.

Believing Hobhouses’ claims to be vastly exaggerated, The British Government created a commission of women with the purpose of travelling to South Africa and reporting back on the camps. Millicent was made head of the commission, which was met with criticism…as Millicent was in favour of the camps

 

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Yes, I’ll admit this is pretty awkward, but bear with me!

Millicent went out expecting to find the conditions in the camp slightly grim but with the people well fed, clothed and sheltered. This was not what she was met with.

To say the conditions in the camps were grim would be a gross understatement (emphasis on the gross). Disease and famine were widespread and by the end of the war of those in the camps 1 in 4 had died.

Despite a (pretty darn racist) government release defending the camps; The Fawcett Commission backed up Hobhouses claims and made their damning evidence very public knowledge. The Boer War ended in 1902, the camps quickly removed. cheering.gif

But it wasn’t all good news. Back in England the women’s rights movement hit a wall.

The Suffragists arguably had most MPs persuaded that votes for women was the right thing to do, but as anyone who has spent 5 minutes in Parliament will tell you – just because MPs know it’s right…doesn’t mean they will do it. And so from 1901-1914 the Liberal government refused to do anything around women’s votes.

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Yeah don’t try and look for logic in that bullshittery             via giphy 

 

In this climate the suffragettes were born. With the WSPU (The Women’s Social and Political Union) forming in 1903. The suffragettes were a much smaller movement than the Suffragists (by a David and Goliath level comparison) but their violent methods caught the eye of the media and they stayed in the headlines for much of the decade suffragette

 

Yet Millicent maintained that the NUWSS wouldn’t enter the violent fray, intent on keeping the dialogue with politicians open; saying:

‘I can never feel that setting fire to houses and churches and litter boxes and destroying valuable pictures really helps to convince people that women ought to be enfranchised.’

Then in 1914 England entered the First World War and the suffrage movement met a cross roads. Should they halt their actions and support the war effort, or continue none the less? The WSPU agreed to halt activity, with the government releasing all imprisoned suffragettes the movement threw themselves fully into recruiting soldiers.

BUT the NUWSS disagreed with the war. Millicent was torn; to publicly call for peace would lead to a public outcry against the suffragists; horrific considering the fight for the vote hadn’t actually been won – but to do like the WSPU and drive recruitment would splinter the party.

 

In the end Millicent opted to stay neutral, not calling for peace, but not actively speaking out for the war. It meant she lost some face within the party and the NUWSS lost some members, but crucially it ensured the public remained on side and lines with politicians open. munitions ad

Throughout the war women from all over the country took up the job roles men had left behind. Both the NUWSS and the WSPU were key to this work effort, which did far more than help the British military…it showed on a practical level that women were just as capable as men on every level.

And so in 1916 Millicent wrote to the Prime-minister urging him to take into account the tremendous daily work being carried by women and reconsider the vote.

And this time he did.

In 1918 women over 30 who were householders or wives of householders were granted the vote.

A year later, now in her 70s, Millicent stepped down from her role leading the NUWSS. But of course, her fight was not over. As she always campaigned for women’s rights, calling for equal access in the fields of civil service and law and fighting for better divorce rights for women.

In 1928 Parliament granted women the same voting rights as men.

Millicent was one of the only original suffrage campaigners to see their decades long campaign win out. After over 60 years of campaigning, she watched the bill be carried out in Parliament.

Forgotten for decades, Millicent’s story is finally getting the attention it deserves and in 2018, she will become the first woman with a statue in Parliament square. Millicent Fawcett

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