February 2, 1650 - November 13, 1687: Age 37
The restoration of the monarchy in England, after years of straight-laced Puritan parliamentary rule, included the restoration of the theatre. Charles II established two royal theatrical companies in London. This furnished a job for young Nell Gwyn, then the brothel-raised bastard daughter of a whore. She worked as an "orange girl", one of a handful of young girls who moved among the audience selling oranges and sweets. In fact these girls served as go-betweens for assignations between male audience members and the actresses backstage.
As a young teenager Gwyn caught the eye of the manager, who gave her a part in a play. Although illiterate her whole life, she was somehow able to learn her lines and impress the company enough to get more parts. She was a talented comedian, and caught many more eyes as the months went by. Soon she was working both as an actor and as a high-end mistress. In 1667 she caught the eye of the King.
King Charles II had many mistresses, but Gwyn was a favourite until the end of his life. She had enormous freedom: her own house on Pall Mall, an income, the ability to continue to work on stage, which she did until 1671, retiring at age 21. She bore the King two sons, one of whom died as a youngster. The story of how the other was made Earl of Burford, unverifiable, shows her character: When the King came to visit, she called to her son, "Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father." When the King objected to her referring to the boy that way, she sweetly replied "Your Majesty has given me no other name by which to call him." He made the boy the Earl of Burford.
Another story: her coachman was fighting with another man who had called her a whore. She broke up the fight, saying, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about."
Charles died in 1685, and among his last words were the instruction, "Let not poor Nelly starve." She did not. James II paid off her debts and gave her a couple of houses and a generous pension. She drew it, however, for less than three years: in March 1687 a stroke left her paralysed on one side. A second stroke in May left her completely bedridden. She lasted until November 14. She is buried at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields near Trafalgar Square, and the Archbishop of Canterbury preached at her funeral, "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."