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Prostitution: Eleanor Gwyn

The history of infamous child prostitute Nell Gwyn

Published onDec 01, 2022
Prostitution: Eleanor Gwyn
Portrait of famous mistress of Charles II from 1650, bosom exposed

Painted portrait of Eleanor Gwyn from 1680 | “Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn by Simon Verelst from National Trust Collections

A Highly Sexualized Celebrity Figure

When you do a quick search for celebrity figure “Nell Gwyn”, there are a number of notable things that come up. First and foremost, she is identified as being an infamous “child prostitute”. However, no source can either confirm or deny the validity of this nickname. We are met with many speculations and arguments on its truth. Nevertheless, for this nickname to have survived centuries worth of time is worth investigating its significance. It can be seen that this woman was highly sexualized during her time as every painting portrait of her is of her half-undressed, bosom exposed. Most portraits of respected historical women are held to a much different standard: their collars are high and tight, and their composure is poised. So, how did she get this nickname? Why is she so sexualized yet still loved and respected?

Humble Beginnings

Nell Gwynn, a loved celebrity figure and beloved mistress of King Charles II, did not always hold this honored title.1 Many would assume that based on her influence and how infamous she was that she would have come from a family of honor and wealth. However, this assumption is in stark contrast to her reality. Growing up, she was exceptionally impoverished.2 To make a living and survive, she sold oranges and lemons with her father as well as worked in a brothel.3 With her work in the brothel, many speculate that she was a child prostitute and that this is how she managed to gain influence in the world.

Truth Behind the Nickname

Although these speculations have never been officially confirmed, there are instances where Nell Gwyn herself hinted at its truth. For example, there is evidence that during her time a number of people would throw derogatory names at her, including prostitute and whore.4 As a response to these names, she would simply laugh or crack jokes about them with a positive attitude. Perhaps hinting at her promiscuity, when her coachman got into a physical altercation for her, she proclaimed, “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.”5 However, it is also possible that these comments could have been made to jokingly reclaim a false nickname being spread.

The Effect of the Nickname

Despite whether the nickname was true or not, there is no doubt that people believed she was a prostitute. What is interesting about this fact is that these assumptions and beliefs did not dilute the overall love people had for her.6 Even if she was a prostitute, she was still an adored celebrity and King Charles II’s most beloved mistress. This is surprising because, in recent years, prostitutes have been outcast and unloved by the general population. The love shown for Nell Gwyn shows that perhaps there used to be less of a negative stigma against prostitution— that perhaps “the oldest profession in the world” could get a woman from outcast to celebrity and from rags to riches.

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