Last night I gave my first reading at a photographic exhibition. The show was called Between the Mop and the Bucket and the artist was a Welsh feminist called Becky Beynon. She uses tights to create prison-like webs in houses. It’s a clever way to show the restrictions imposed by domesticity. In response to this I thought I’d write something about my favourite feminist, Nell Gwyn, who in the 1660s was the most famous prostitute in all Europe. No one threw eggs or rotten fruit and I was paid, rather handsomely, in beer.
“Nell, Nell, sharp as a bell, pretty as a flower and bad as hell.
When she died nobody could tell, till they dug up her body and gave it a smell.”
Nell Gwyn was born on the eve of festival of Brigid, that old Irish Celtic Goddess of fertility and strength. Of course, Nell wouldn’t have known that – by that stage the Roman Catholic Church in its attempt to dismantle the competition had demoted Brigid from Goddess of fertility to just an everyday saint.
Nell never knew her father and her mother died from alcohol poisoning when Nell was still a teenager. That said Nell didn’t rely too much on parental care anyways. She started turning tricks from the age of nine and aged 12, sold her supposed virginity to a noble man in return for clothes, food and a roof over her head.
Nell jumped from client to client selling her virginity, climbing a career ladder that would bring her from musty bedsits over taverns to parkside mansions on Suffollk Street but her passion lay elsewhere. She joined a theatre and started off selling six penny oranges at intermission. When a law was passed allowing women to share a stage with men, Nell, who had about as much education as a chicken, paid a girl to recite the lines over and over to her until they were lodged permanently in her head. She got her first role age 14, playing Montezuma’s lover in a John Dryden play. Nell also became the first British woman to have her name on a performance poster outside a national theatre.
The theatre didn’t bring in much cash so Nell continued to work as a prostitute but she didn’t feel bad about it. One day her couchman attacked a passer by who called her a whore. The coachman was about ready to pummel the guy to death when Nell jumped in and said, “I am a whore, now can’t you two find something else to fight about?”
Now, some would have you believe that prostitution is the oldest profession ever created, but that would be doing a disservice to all the gatherers, healers and tribal leaders who made up the first matriarchal stoneage societies. I say matriarchal because there’s a strong strain of revisionist theory maintaining that until weapons were developed, women, who had recognisably stronger, innate survival instincts, ruled supreme. It was only when their male counterparts picked up sticks and stones and transformed these erstwhile tools into weapons that the age of hunting really began. See, where previously women had plucked, scraped and collected berries, worms, grubs and edible plants, men were now stabbing, harpooning and tearing strips of animal flesh to small edible shreds. Overnight they became killers. The gatherers became hunters, humans became carnivores, and women, fully cogniscent of their need to survive amidst the blood and violence on their doorsteps, adopted, as a prudent safety measure, a secondary role in society.
Like a dog in a thunderstorm they hid behind the couch.
The rise of religion copperfastened this position. God hated women and so men were afraid of them. Disenfranchised, disabused and driven back to cower in their muck and straw houses, the only business that a woman could engage in was supplying the one thing heterosexual men just couldn’t seem to get enough of by themselves: no strings sex.
Now England at that time was a mess of a nation. The English were unhealthy both in mind and body. The Plague was rampant and so was religious hysteria. The Apocalypse was close as hand, they said. There were frightened murmurs everywhere. People were petrified of the end of the world and named their children Abstinence, Ashes, Tribulation, Lamentation, Forsaken and the number one bonny baby name in 1662: Fornication. London was burning too. From St Paul’s to Pudding Lane the city was engulfed in smoke and flames. And while all this was happening Cromwell was butchering his way across the Empire and the teenage king Charles II was in Paris learning the fine art of tuning an acoustic guitar.
When he returned to resume his kingly duties, the first place he went to was Nell’s theatre. Nell had red hair, green eyes and porcelain skin. Her name “Gwyn” is the Welsh word for white. It was said that she had the brightest smile in all England. Charles fell head over heels in love with her and asked her out after the performance, for coffee and a slice of chocolate cake. Charles forgot his wallet so Nell had to cough up for the bill. That, she told herself, would be the last time she’d pay for anything again.
During pillow talk and between various sexual acts, she managed to get titles for all her bastard sons, property signed into her name and she even convinced the king to build the Royal Chelsea Hospital in London.
The King was not a simple man and Nell had many rivals. He set them up in houses all across Britain. Thousands of whores. Lying back, perfumed and scrubbed and waiting for the king to call. Occasionally they’d all come to Windsor Castle for a type of royal gangbang. Nell, a shrewd card player would hustle all the other prostitutes out of their salaries.
Nell’s fiercest rival was a nasty piece of meat called Barbara Castlemaine. Barbara was Charle’s first mistress. She’d popped his cherry after all, and popped the cherries of his sons too. Barbara was a nymphonmaniac who slept with both men and women and once reportedly bit the penis off a dead bishop.
Nell fed her laxative for two weeks till the woman was so dehydrated from shitting that Charles had her shipped off to the countryside to recover. Nell became King’s Mistress number one, and never got knocked off the top again.
In her latter years Nell spent less and less time on the stage and more of it striving for the better treatment of women. She organised a fund for female prisoners and set up a girls school in the slums where she was raised, and she wouldn’t have done more but for a stroke that killed her off at 37.
Nell was the firs British woman to not curb her wit for the sake of propriety or at the request of masculinity.
One time a heroic cavalryman, invited to dine at Windsor, made a pass at Nell. “You may spend your days mounting wild beast,” she said, “But you’ll have to bide your time if you want to mount this wild beast.”
Nell donated her considerable legacy to the Newgate women’s penitentiary. She also left enough money for all her illegitimate children to establish themselves in proper British society. And that they most certainly did. Nell’s great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandaughter shares a bed in Downing Street every night, with the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.