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The Gardens of Gwyn

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By —— Bio and Archives November 19, 2017

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The Gardens of Gwyn
Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn was many things in her time. She has remained so for more than 350 years. Commencing literally as a Cinderella—sifting ashes for unburnt fuel, she progressed to peddling turnips, selling ‘strong’ drinks in her mother’s brothel, to leading actress and, for seventeen years, mistress of the ‘Merry Monarch’ Charles II. She also became something of a gardener, owning a fair-sized property with her London townhouse and 40 acres of landscaped grounds up the Thames River at Burford House, Windsor. Both were gifts of Charles.

Born in 1650, little is known of her early life. By the age of 13, she was an orange girl, peddling the then exotic fruit for an exorbitant six pence each to gallants in the theatre audience. She would have been required to work six days a week, receiving a penny for each of her sales. This did not last for long. By April 1665 she had acquired fame as an actress among theatre goers. Within two years, aged just 17, she had found fame, if not fortune, on the London stage. Doubtlessly, this is where the king first saw her. Fascinated with this witty, petite performer Charles first sent for her as an entertainer. She became his long-lasting mistress. The rest, as they say, is history.

In September 1660, Charles presented Nell with her Windsor home. Burford House lay in the shadow of Windsor Castle which the king himself had taken in hand—inside and outside. Built on an old vineyard, Burford was surrounded by 40 acres of formal gardens, an orangery, orchards, bowling alleys and a new tennis court installed for Charles’ pleasure—the king played tennis or swam every day. A proficient horticulturist, he explained to Nell the advantages of trees, recommended their installation. Gwyn spent much time at her new property and it was there she conceived her first son by the king, Charles Beauclerk, in August 1669. He moved there, age 21, taking the title of the Earl of Burford, later becoming 1st Duke of St. Albans.

In her day, Windsor required much travel time by water or jolting carriage from London. A residence in the city was required if she was to remain close to the king. In February 1671, she acquired an upscale brick townhouse, 79 Pall Mall, on the fashionable west end of the elm-lined street. The thirty-five-foot wide home had seventeen fireplaces and a generous garden, alongside that of St. James’s Palace and park of the same name. St James’s Park had been taken in hand by Charles soon after he came to the throne and opened to the public. Pall Mall obtained its name from a lawn game akin to croquet, then a popular pastime. The house was destroyed in the nineteenth century to make way for the present building designed by David Brandon for the Eagle Insurance Company in 1866-68; a plaque marks the site of Nell’s former townhouse. Her gardens there and in Windsor have long since vanished to ‘development.’

Considered a folk heroine, Gwyn’s rags-to-riches tale does not end so happily. Following her paramour’s death, his brother James did indeed “not let poor Nelly starve,” as the dying monarch instructed in 1685. He paid off her gambling debts and mortgages and gave her a pension of £1,500 a year. But financial support was no guarantee good health. While yet in her mid-thirties Eleanor Gwyn was partially paralyzed by at least two strokes. Final release came from an apoplectic stroke on 14 November 1687, at ten at night. She was just 37.

“To those born to speak English her name has more sunlight in it than the name of any other woman in history,” declared playwright and author Clifford Bax. As might be expected, Bishop Burnet was less complimentary, branding “The indiscreetest and wildest creature that ever was in a Court.” And of course, she was “a right pretty creature” to diarist Samuel Pepys.

Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.