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Eleanor Gwynn (Nell Gwyn)

It is claimed that Nell Gwyn was an actress of Welsh decent (on her mother’s side) and one of the first women to make a name for herself in London’s theatres in the mid-sixteenth century.

According to tradition Nell was from a poor background and she and her sister sold oranges at Drury lane in London before she managed to make a name for herself as an actress. But he also became famous as one of King Charles II’s mistresses with whom she had two illegitimate children. Although Charles had several mistresses over the years, as well as a wife, who failed to provide him with an heir, legend has it that his last words on his death bed were 'Don't let poor Nell starve'.

It was very common practice for actresses from this era to become mistresses for the gentry that came to see them perform, but unlike many other girls, Nell apparently returned to the stage after the birth of her first child. However, her career as an actress was short-lived and is thought that she died comparatively young in November 1687. There has been much debate over her exact date of birth, with some maintaining that she was born in 1650, whilst others believe that it was prior to this, in 1642, based on her first appearances on stage.
Over the years a number of books, plays and films have been created based on her colourful life story.

These two images of Nell Gwyn are from the National Library of Wales’ portrait collection.

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