6th February 1685: 'Let not poor Nelly starve....'

In good King Charles's golden days,

When Loyalty no harm meant;

A Zealous High-Church man I was,

And so I gain'd Preferment.

From ‘The Vicar of Bray’ Anonymous late 17th century satirical song

After the grey years of the Commonwealth, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 must have lightened the heart of feast and festival lovers across the land. King Charles II returned from exile and many people tried to put the previous twenty or so years behind them. Old scores were undoubtedly settled and the King did grant numerous pensions to his loyal followers, but there was a realization that reconciliation was necessary in order for the country to move on and this was enshrined in the wonderfully named ‘Indemnity and Oblivion Act’ of 1660.

One of the deals that had been struck during the 'War of the Three Kingdoms' was between the Parliamentarians and the Scots. In exchange for military help, the Scots demanded further reform of the established Church. The radical Puritans then seized the initiative to ban many religious holidays – including Christmas! With the restoration of the monarchy, Christmas returned to the calendar but other religious feasts such as Candlemas did not.

The theatres had been closed for twenty years, so their re-opening in 1660 signaled a huge flowering of drama and poetry. Women started to take parts on the stage and in a reversal of the Elizabethan convention actresses often took breeches parts. The theatres were full of young women selling their wares and one of these young girls, an orange seller who then became an actress, caught the new King’s eye.

Ellen Gwyn became the King’s mistress in about 1667 and was much loved for her quick wits. Pepys called her ‘pretty witty Nell’. The story I like best about her is the one when an angry crowd mobbed the coach of a richly dressed young woman thinking she was the King's mistress, the Catholic Duchess of Portsmouth. Nell put her head out of the coach window, ‘Good people,' she said ‘you are mistaken, I am the Protestant whore!’

Nell kept meticulous household accounts and from them we get a glimpse of her lifestyle. She loved oysters, sometimes ordering three barrels a week (maybe they were for the King?), maintained a liking for ‘oringes (sic) and lemons’ and spent a fortune on tarts, cheesecake and sugar. She also paid the equivalent of £150,00 for a silver bed head.

By the mid 1680s good King Charles’s golden days had been in full swing for a quarter of a century, but there were still some dissident voices. The diarist John Evelyn was one. In the week of Charles’s death he commented on the scene at court:

'….the King sitting and toying with his concubines…..a French boy singing love-songs in that glorious gallery, whilst about twenty of the great courtiers and other dissolute persons were at basset, round a large table, a bank of at least £2000 in gold before them.'

A few days later on his deathbed and after his conversion to Catholicism, Charles uttered the famous last words that every schoolchild knows, 'do not let poor Nelly starve'. His successor, his brother James II, kept his promise and Nell retained her allowance and her house in Pall Mall until her own death only two years later. Her descendants by one of the two sons she bore the King are still with us.

Nell would have loved these.....

Little Orange Tarts (pun intended)

First make Seville orange curd the Hugh F-W way:

200ml Seville orange juice (about 5 oranges)
finely grated rind of an ordinary unwaxed orange
400g granulated sugar
125g unsalted butter
1 tsp orange flower water (my addition)

Melt the butter in a double saucepan over a low heat and add the rest of the above ingredients, stir until the sugar has dissolved and all is glossy.

Whisk 2 large eggs and 2 egg yolks is a separate bowl and then heave them into the orange mixture stirring briskly. Keep stirring over a low heat until the mixture coats the back of a spoon - at about 83c ( just showing off - I bought a digital thermometer as a Christmas present to myself). Pour into warm sterilised jars. It keeps for 3-4 weeks in the fridge.

Line some tartlets tins with pastry, I used sweet pastry but a good buttery shortcrust would do. Bake the tartlets blind until lightly golden. Spoon in your curd and top with a meringue made from the egg whites you have left over from the curd (4oz caster sugar to two egg whites, whisk in half, fold in half). Pop back into the oven for 15 minutes at 100c to slightly brown the meringue.

Incredibly scrummy.

‘We have a pretty witty king,
And whose word no man relies on,
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.’

Description of Charles II By John Wilmot Earl of Rochester (1647-1680)

PS I drafted this post a couple of weeks ago and originally totally missed the fact that today is the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and therefore also the anniversary of the death of her father King George VI. How odd that there should have been two accessions to the British throne on the 6th February, two hundred and sixty seven years apart.


Gerry Snape said...

I love the history! and guess what I've just made a pan of lime curd....a cheap bag in the market!...so I shall have a go at these. Do you think Nell would mind that I am using lime rather than "oringes"? shouldn't think so...still a sweetie!

Mary Beth said...

Liz, I wrote something about a week ago and I *thought* it posted but it has not- I must have hit the wrong button. Of course, it had taken me a few moments to put together thoughtfully, which I don't have now- so I'll just say REALLY GOOD STUFF you are writing up here! Loved this, loved the story and the fact that all the images of Nell on Google show a similar "tarty" pose-
Now to find a juicy historical novel about her-
Have you any favorites?

Grazing Kate said...

yum! Nice photo too...

Anonymous said...

There's a historical romance novel based on her relationship with the king called The Darling Strumpet. Not sure if you'll like it, but it's the only one I've come across, though I'm sure there must be more.