She was probably born in 1650 (or possibly as early as 1642). Her mother was the alcoholic proprietor of a bawdy house, and it is possibly she was herself a child-prostitute. Certainly by 1662, she had an acknowledged lover who paid for her rooms in a tavern near a newly opened playhouse.
Here, Nell and her sister sold oranges to theatre-goers, and here, less than a year later, Nell became an actress. She made her first recorded appearance on stage in 1665, in a dramatic part, but soon found her niche as a comedic actress, playing opposite Charles Hart, who also became her lover.
The theatres at the time had trouble keeping leading actresses, as the aristocracy delighted in tempting them away to be kept mistresses. In 1667, Nell became the mistress of Charles Sackville, then Lord Buckhurst.
In 1668, she began an affair with King Charles the Second (she called him her Charles the third), and spent less and less time acting, and more time with the King.
She had her first son, Charles, in 1670. There’s a story that she demanded a title for him . Charles refused, and Nell hung him out the window, threatening to drop him. “Someone catch the Earl of Burford,” said Charles. I like the story, but I also like the alternative story, that Nell said to her son, “Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father.” When Charles objected to the word, she told him he’d given her no other name by which to call him.
James, her second child, was born in 1671.
Nell is remembered for her wit, as much as for her beauty. She died in 1687, three years after her eldest son was created Duke of Argyll, and two years after the death of her royal lover.