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
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
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
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
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
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
"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!"
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