Nell rose from almost complete obscurity to become a major symbol of the Restoration period, and one of the first actresses to take to the English stage (before her time, women’s roles were played by men). She was probably born in London (although both Oxford and Hereford claim to be her birthplace), and as a young teenager she started working in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane as an orange-seller. Less than a year later, at the age of 14, she moved on to the stage and became an actress, a profession that was probably hampered a bit by her lifelong illiteracy.
Her wit and beauty made her popular, particularly in comedic roles, and she began taking a string of increasingly higher ranking lovers. When she was 18, she began an affair with Charles II. She continued to act for a while, but gave up the stage in 1671, after giving birth to her two sons with Charles: Charles (later Duke of St. Albans) and James, who died at the age of 10.
Nell was a particularly successful royal mistress: instead of meddling in politics or causing trouble like many of Charles’s other amours, she dedicated herself to entertaining her royal lover, putting on shows for him and amusing him with her witticisms and sometimes coarse humor. Nell was never one to put on airs–when she caught her coachman fighting with another man who had called her a whore, she told them: “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.” Another popular story has her fending off a mob in Oxford that had surrounded her carriage, thinking the woman inside was Charles’s unpopular French Catholic mistress, Louise de Kerouaille. Nell popped her head out the window and called out: “Good people, you are mistaken! I am the Protestant whore!” Her earthiness and rags-to-riches story made Nell popular with the common people, and even now she’s often viewed as a sort of folk hero.
Charles II died on February 6, 1685. On his deathbed, he entreated his brother and heir, James, to “let not poor Nelly starve.” James obliged his brother’s wish and paid off Nell’s considerable gambling debts. Nell herself didn’t long outlive the king. In March of 1687, she suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side. A second stroke in May left her bedridden; she died in November at the age of 37, having left her indelible mark on an entire era.