Gwynn, Or Gwinn Eleanor, one of the mistresses of Charles II., born in London about 1650, died there about 1790. It is said that her father, Capt. Thomas Gwynn of the army, was a member of an ancient Welsh family; but that she was born in a night cellar in the Coal Yard, Drury Lane, and was reared in the lowest haunts of vice. She was an orange vender, and wandered from tavern to tavern, entertaining the company with her songs. After being the mistress successively of the actors Hart and Lacy, she went in her 16th year upon the stage, and became one of the most popular actresses of the time in light, humorous parts, especially where singing and dancing were introduced. About 1667 she became the mistress of Lord Buckhurst, who, it is said, for a political reward, surrendered her to his royal master. She remained on the stage till 1671, although her intimacy with Charles, which lasted till his death, commenced in 1669. Upon becoming his acknowledged mistress she was called Madam Ellen, had an establishment of her own, and was even made a lady of the privy chamber to Queen Catharine, and admitted to the best society of the period. The king at first refused her demand of £500 a year, although she is said subsequently to have cost him upward of £60,000 in four years.
Of all his mistresses Nell was the only one who remained faithful to him, and the only one perhaps who has won any sympathy or forgiveness from posterity. Her frailty and a tendency to hard swearing seem to have been her chief faults. She was merry and open-hearted, generous to profusion, and in her prosperity ever mindful of her old friends, particularly those of the theatrical profession.
Dryden, Lee, Otway, and Butler are reported to have been liberally aided by her. She instigated Charles to erect Chelsea hospital for disabled soldiers, presenting the land on which the building stands, and her health used regularly to be drunk by the pensioners on the anniversary of Charles's birthday. She was even popular with the public, as the supposed representative at court of Protestant interests. Charles appreciated her good qualities, and among his last words were, " Let not poor Nelly starve." She bore him two sons, one of whom died in childhood, and the other was successively created a baron, an earl, and finally duke of St. Albans. She is believed to have led a virtuous life after the death of the king, and her funeral sermon was preached by Dr. Teni-son, afterward archbishop of Canterbury. The "Memoirs of the Life of Nell Gwinn, Mistress to K. Charles II., by John Seymour, Comedian " (1752), is a panegyric. Another memoir, by Peter Cunningham, was published in 1850.