From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

A Pair of Merrie Ladies: Katherine Sedley & Nell Gwyn

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Readers of The Countess and the King have been intrigued by the relationship between Katherine Sedley and actress Nell Gwyn, and have asked for more information about their friendship. I'm happy to oblige!

At first glance, the two seem to have little in common. Nell Gwyn (1650-1687), left, was born into extreme poverty. Raised by her mother in a brothel, she was saved from that fate by her beauty, her charm, and, most of all, her gift for being able to entertain others with her singing, dancing, and witty, bawdy banter. She was also lucky. The return of Charles II to the English throne in 1660 marked the end of Puritan rule. One of the first acts by Charles was to reopen the playhouses, and better still, permit women on the stage for the first time. The rowdy Restoration playhouse was the perfect place for Nell’s saucy exuberance, and she rose quickly from being an orange seller in the pit to a leading lady in comic roles. She was a favorite of audiences, and in 1667, when she first would have met Katherine, she was a seventeen-year-old superstar that had already been noticed by the king himself.

Katherine Sedley (1657-1717), right, was the daughter of baronet, poet, politician, and libertine Sir Charles Sedley (1639-1701.) Sir Charles was young, wealthy, and sufficiently connected at court that he regularly drank and played tennis with the king. But Sir Charles’s wife was mad, believing herself to be queen, and he soon sent her to live out her days in a foreign convent. This left Sir Charles as the only parent to their only child, and instead of having ten-year-old Katherine reared by relatives, he decided to include her in his life. This meant that Katherine stayed out late at playhouses and taverns, and that some of the town’s most disreputable, high-born gentlemen (known as the Merry Gang) became like indulgent uncles. In the company of her father’s friends, she learned to drink, swear, and gamble. Because she amused them, she was encouraged to speak freely, and outrageously. Whatever well-bred shyness she might have once possessed vanished, and unlike most young ladies her age, she came to enjoy being the center of attention for what she said.

She probably met Nell in a playhouse tiring room, for Sir Charles liked actresses, and kept at least one of Nell’s friends as a mistress. In turn Nell was mistress to one of Sir Charles’s closest friends, Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. Katherine certainly knew Nell by July of 1667, when Lord Buckhurst and Nell retreated to a house in Epsom for the summer. Sir Charles was a frequent visitor, and he often brought Katherine with him. Nell taught Katherine to dance the theatrical jigs that had made her famous, and amidst all the drunken partying and general excess that were the talk of Epsom –– another friend of Sir Charles, the infamous Earl of Rochester was a frequent guest as well –– it’s likely Katherine observed and learned a great deal more than just jigs. (I've included much of this summer at Epsom in my novel about Nell, The King's Favorite.)

Back in London, the baronet’s daughter and the actress continued to cross paths. Nell recognized a kindred spirit in the younger girl, and looked after her – if not exactly like a mother, then as an affectionate older sister. When Nell left Lord Buckhurst’s keeping for that of the king, becoming a royal mistress, Katherine took notice. Wives were banished to the country (or, like her mother, abroad), while mistresses stayed in town and had much more fun. Is it any wonder that when Sir Charles, belatedly worrying about his daughter’s future, began to speak of finding a husband for the teenaged Katherine, she wasn’t interested?

Instead Katherine became part of the royal court, first attending the palace with her father and later, as a maid of honor, in her own right. There she was again united with Nell. They must have been quite a pair to see: Katherine tall, dark, and angular, with snapping dark eyes that missed nothing, and tiny, doll-like Nell with her auburn curls. Together they must have struck fear in the hearts of all gentlemen who lacked the quickness to follow their wit, or worse, to deflect it. The two women were fast with jests, jibes, droll observations, and barbed insults, and because they were women, they often got away with saying things that might have landed a man in the Tower.  They also amused the King, and that, too, was a sure way to success at court. But women as clever as these two were a rarity, and being the only females connected to the Merry Band must have also strengthened their friendship.

Certainly Nell provided an example of the fun-loving royal mistress for Katherine, and neither one pretended to be better than they were. While Louise de Keroualle, another of Charles’s mistresses, clung to the French notion of a royal mistress as an honorable position of state, Nell and Katherine thought otherwise. When anti-Catholic sentiment makes a crowd stop Nell’s carriage, mistaking her for French Louise, Nell famously popped her head through the window and reassured the onlookers that they should be calm and let her pass, because she “was the Protestant whore.”

Katherine, too, believed in calling a spade a spade. It was James’s idea to make her a countess, not Katherine’s, and Katherine wickedly enjoyed reminding the reserved Mary of Orange (the Mary of William and Mary) that she had been Mary’s father’s whore. Shortly before Katherine’s death in 1717, she attended one of George I’s drawing rooms. Among those attending were two other former royal mistresses: Louise , and Elizabeth Villiers, mistress to William II. Cackling with delight, Katherine loudly announced their presence: “Who would have thought that we three old whores should meet here?”

Who, indeed?  By then the time of the Merry Gang were forever done, and no other English royal court would welcome two such outrageous ladies as Katherine and Nell. For better or worse, but certainly for quieter, the palace would never be the same.

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