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The ancestors of Nell Gwyn

 Genealogists’ Magazine 2009; 29 (9): 319-324

The Ancestors of Nell Gwyn

Paul A Fox


It is fitting for such a famous actress that the story of her own antecedents is both dramatic and colourful. Although many have delved into her past, nobody has troubled to go beyond her grandfather, and thus a family genius which defined her has been neglected. The story of Nell’s immediate family has been well covered in her numerous biographies and will only be dealt with here in the briefest outline. Her father Thomas Gwyn is stated to have been a captain in the royal army during the Civil War who, like many others,  impoverished himself in the service of the crown. During the Commonwealth  he was committed to Oxford gaol, where he died. Unless he died awaiting trial he was almost certainly in prison for debt, as justice was delivered at the time by means other than incarceration. Amongst Nell’s most conspicuous acts of charity were those she made under the pseudonym Mrs Margaret Symcott to provide bread for poor prisoners in three debtors’ prisons in Southwark: the King’s Bench, the White Lion and the Marshalsea. [1] She also made a further bequest  in her will  for the release of poor debtors.  Not a single contemporary document survives  which names Thomas Gwyn, but his elder daughter Rose spoke of his service to the crown in a letter which she wrote in 1663 from Newgate prison  to secure her own release on a charge of theft.[2] A royal pardon was swiftly forthcoming, which supports the veracity of her statement.

         Nell herself claimed that her father had served under Lt Colonel Sir Thomas Dallison in  Prince Rupert’s Horse. [3]  This is highly probable as both Nell and Rose were employed at the King’s Theatre in London from its opening in 1663, and this theatre was run by three actors who had all served under Dallison: Charles Hart, John Lacy and Michael Mohun.[4] These men took infinite pains to turn the illiterate Nell into an actress, and her debut was  a play about royalist soldiers in the civil war. Prince Rupert’s Horse followed the movements of its colonel in chief throughout the Civil War, being present at the battles of Edgehill and Naseby.[5] Dallison was killed at the latter engagement. The regiment regarded Oxford as its home base,  spending more than half of the year there in 1643 and 1645, but less than two months in 1644. [6] This provides independent support for the statement that Nell’s mother Eleanor Smith was living in St Thomas’ parish Oxford at the time of her marriage. There would have been ample opportunity for one of Prince Rupert’s officers to have met and married an Oxford girl.

        Eleanor Gwyn told Nell the day and hour of her birth in 1650, and from this a horoscope was cast; but the document, which yet survives, does not state her place of birth.[7] This would be the extent of our knowledge were it not for the interest of the antiquary Anthony Wood, who began collecting material for a history of Oxford when Nell was six years old.

         Wood  entered this  skeleton pedigree of Nell at the back of his almanac for the year 1681; the full significance of the date has  hitherto been overlooked.[8]


                     Dr { Edward } GWYN of Ch Ch


             |                                                                       |

   .......Gwyn  mar .......Smith ( of St          Henry Gwyn married Susan.......

                         |          Thomas’ parish)                    ______|______

                         |                                                        |                       |

                    Eleanor                                            Math(ew)        Henry, borne at



      In  that year Charles II chose Oxford as the place to summon a March parliament, during which he stayed for two weeks with Dr John Fell, who was both Dean of Christ Church and Bishop of Oxford. The king took with him the queen and his two mistresses, Nell Gwyn and the french catholic Duchess of Portland, leading to the famous scene where Nell’s carriage was stopped by an angry mob who confused her with the duchess, and the abuse was turned to cheers when she declared herself to be “ the protestant whore”. It is possible that Nell’s uncle Henry Gwyn was also there for the parliament in his capacity as secretary to the earl of Oxford, but had he been Wood’s informant the pedigree would have been more detailed. [9] 

        Wood’s almanac demonstrates that Nell’s presence in Oxford brought to light the fact that her  grandfather had been Dr Edmund Gwyn, a canon of Christ Church. [10] John Fell was the son of  Dr Samuel Fell, a previous Dean and contemporary of  Edmund Gwyn at Christ Church. It is hard to imagine that the subject of Nell’s family would not have cropped up on one of the many occasions that the king dined with the bishop. It is certain that up to this point Nell herself was not aware who her ancestors were, since she had previously obtained a grant of arms in which the herald took as his model the arms of a distantly related Welsh family surnamed Gwyn, rather than the arms recorded for her ancestors in the visitations of Berkshire and London. Moreover, Nell knew Elias Ashmole, the historian of Berkshire, and Windsor Herald. [11]  He is very likely to have been Nell’s agent at the College of Arms, from which he resigned in 1675. Unfortunately prior to 1673 the records of  grants from the college are incomplete, but it is known that when Nell’s mother died in 1679 she was given an heraldic funeral, and the record of this survives.[12]

            The Gwyn pedigrees from the 1634 visitations provide the key to Nell’s unsuspected paternal London ancestry. [13] Edmund Gwyn is revealed to be the son of Edward Gwyn, citizen and grocer of London, and grandson of Mathew Gwyn, gentleman of Windsor and Clewer, but there is no record of Edmund’s marriage. Captain Thomas Gwyn and his brother were in fact both illegitimate, as is implied by Wood’s pedigree, and confirmed by a dispute concerning the administration of the estate of their father Edmund. The Canon died intestate in 1624, and his brother Dr Matthew Gwyn was granted executorship. One of his nieces evidently thought that  Edmund must be worth some money as she brought an action in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury for her division of the inheritance. [14]

           The proceedings reveal only that he left debts exceeding one  hundred pounds. He had lived his entire adult life in Christ Church from his matriculation in November 1581, taking his MA in 1587 and receiving a studentship which gave him a small annuity. [15] This was tenable for life, but he would have surrendered it after the Dean granted him a college living, that of Market Lavington in Wiltshire, in September 1604. That same year the Dean also petitioned  King James I  to grant Edmund the next available canonry at Christ Church, but one did not become available until 1615. [16] In the mean time he must have supplemented his modest stipend by continuing to teach at the college, in which capacity he was not permitted to marry. Once he did become a canon he was at last free to do so, but if he aspired to becoming a professor he might have chosen to remain single, or perhaps his partner had already died.  He never received a doctorate, but Wood is correct to give him the courtesy title of doctor which was attached to his canonry. [17]

      Dr Matthew Gwyn was another Oxford academic who could not marry because of his position, and as a consequence his first son  was born out of wedlock in 1603. Matthew was a most accomplished  polymath, a musician,  playwright, teacher, alchemist, royal servant and  physician. [18] As a fellow of St John’s College Oxford he taught both music and physic. He wrote a comedy for the king which was performed at Christ Church in 1605, and sent James I to sleep: he himself admitted that he could not write that genre. It is ironic that Nell Gwyn is best known as a comedienne who was uncomfortable with serious roles. In 1607 Matthew asked the king for a dispensation to marry, which as a professor of Gresham College he was not allowed to do, a request which was declined, compelling the doctor to resign his teaching post. His two elder sons  Matthew junior and  John both matriculated at Christ Church in 1621 under the watchful eye of their uncle Edmund. Clearly Matthew and Edmund were close, and it cannot be doubted that Matthew would have taken care his brother’s children  after Edmund’s death. [19]

            There was another brother of distinction, Roger Gwyn, who became a freeman of the Grocers’ Company by patrimony and resided in the parish of St Stephen’s Walbrook, London, where he and his siblings were all born. By trade Roger was a different type of medical man, an apothecary. For most of his life this mystery was under the jurisdiction of the Grocers. A number of presumed patients are recorded as having died in his house, including the Spanish ambassador in 1603. There were those who felt that the apothecaries warranted their own independent royal charter, and thus in 1617 began the Society of Apothecaries. The prime mover in all this was a royal apothecary called Gideon de Laune. Roger Gwyn  also served James I, but he was opposed to the split from the Grocer’s Company, the epicentre of his life. [20]  As Master of the Grocers in 1620, and until his death, Roger and other traditionalists made frequent attempts to have the royal charter to the Apothecaries revoked.  Roger invested in property outside London, primarily in Essex, where he purchased the manors of  Pebmarsh and Dagworth. He also retained a link with his grandfather’s county of Berkshire, where he owned  the chantry house which still stands in the churchyard at Bray. [21]   


         The parents of Edmund, Matthew and Roger were Edward Gwyn, citizen and grocer of London and his wife Elizabeth Thayer, who were married at St Mary le Bow in 1545. Edward came to London as an apprentice grocer  in 1534 and became a freeman in 1540. [22]  They lived in Bucklersbury in the parish of St Stephen’s Walbrook.[23] The Grocers’ index states that Edward became Master of the Saundershouse in Dec 1562, but it is unclear what this institution was.  He went on to found Dartford Grammar School in the Cornmarket in Dartford in 1576, with William Death gentleman, principal of the Staple Inn and attorney of the Common Pleas, and William Vaughan, a yeoman of the Guard and a gentleman of the wardrobe of Henry VIII. [24]  Death was the son-in-law of Vaughan, and the latter left money to Gwyn’s daughter Frances in his will of 1577. [25] The three men all had an interest in a house and garden in High Street, Dartford which was described as their inheritance.  Edward died in 1584  and his widow Elizabeth in 1593, her will confirms that the family were materially very comfortable. [26]  She made small bequests to her sons Edmund and Roger, and to her daughters Ann Matthews and Magdalene wife of Matthew Green. [27]

       Edward  was the younger son of Matthew Gwyn of Windsor, who had links with the borough of New Windsor where he presumably owned shops and other properties. Matthew’s original will of 1549 has been removed from the register, but  it is recorded that it mentioned property in Clewer and New Windsor, doubtless the same which are in the will of his grandson and heir. [28]  Matthew must have lived on for many years after he made his will  because he is listed as the owner of a newly built tenement in the New Windsor rental book of July 1561. [29]

       On the day that parliament was dissolved  in 1681 the king left queen and court behind and took Nell Gwyn with him to stay the night at Windsor. Possibly bishop Fell  told Charles that Nell’s family had been connected with Windsor. Only a few months later Nell was set up with a fine country residence, Burford House in Windsor, a rather curious development in view of the fact that they had already been lovers for thirteen years, yet hitherto she had only received a house in London. His other mistresses had all come from more affluent backgrounds and had been showered titles and properties. That Nell had not  been, up to this point, was indubitably because he felt that her station in life did not warrant it. Something clearly happened about this time to change his mind, and it is reported that some time during the final two years of his life he planned ennoble her, but was prevented from doing so by his untimely death.

           The visitations state that Matthew Gwyn was born in Montgomeryshire in Wales, where he had an inheritance which he died seized of. Boyd’s brief notes on him, information which can only have come from the lost will, state a connection with both Montgomeryshire and Merioneth. As no Welsh property descended to any of his children born in England it must be concluded that Matthew had already placed his patrimony in Wales in the hands of offspring by an earlier wife who had remained in that principality. A surviving deed of 8th October 1549 granted two properties in the town of Montgomery to his nephew John Daccus, and Matthew must have used similar instruments to dispose of his other properties in Wales. [30]

          Surnames were only just coming into fashion in Wales at this time, and the loss of the will makes tracing Matthew Gwyn’s welsh antecendents problematical. There is, however, one more vital clue to be gleaned from the visitations of England: the arms granted to Gwyn were sable three horses’ heads argent, arms  used only by a small group of families who claim male line descent from a sixth century prince of Powys, Brochwel Ysgithrog, to whom these arms were later attributed. [31]  Within the pages of Bartrum’s monumental work on the welsh gentry to 1400 is a single individual from this tribe who might be equated with Matthew Gwyn. This is Madoc Goch ( the red) son of David of Llai, who later anglicised his name to Matthew. [32] His eldest son Roger ap Matthew of Llai inherited his welsh property, and bore the same arms. [33] The choice of Gwyn as a surname was a logical one. Goch would not have been pronouncable to the english. Gwyn, meaning the white, is taken to mean pale skinned, and those with red hair usually have such a complexion.  Matthew’s tribe, moreover, were frequently described as the descendents of Gwyn ap Gruffudd, of Guilsfield near Welshpool in Montgomeryshire. Llai is Tre’r Llai, in english Leighton, which lies one mile south east of Welshpool. Members of the tribe are frequently to be found as burgesses of Welshpool, and a surviving list from 1406 includes an Evan Gwyn who can probably be equated with Madoc Goch’s ancestor. [34] Thus the connection with commerce may go back at least five further generations.

        One final enigma which remains to be wrapped up is the choice of Nell Gwyn’s  coat of arms. She was granted: per pale indented or and argent a lion rampant azure.

They are clearly based on the arms attributed to Cadwgan prince of Powys: or a lion rampant azure. Only one family of Gwyn or Wyn ever used these arms, and they were a little known clan from Trelydan in Guilsfield near Welshpool. This family were somewhat distant kinsmen of Nell’s own ancestors. One of its members was Captain John Gwyn who taught Charles II military exercises when he was Prince of Wales, and served throughout the civil war and afterwards in the Royal Regiment of Guards, later commanded by the king’s son the Duke of Monmouth. He can be placed in some of the same campaigns as Captain Thomas Gwyn and the two men had probably met. John has left a famous account of his exploits during the war which include his pedigree and

arms. [35]  It is likely that he would have sought out Nell and claimed kinship with her, as a means of furthering his own military career.  It is hard to imagine how otherwise Nell would have come to bear the arms that she did.

                          The tribe of Gwyn ap Gruffudd from which Nell Gwyn descended in the male line, and Capt John Gwyn in the female line, emanated from the Prince Eliseg, in honour of whom the famous genealogical pillar was erected in Wales in the ninth century. He in turn claimed as his ancestor  none other than Vortigern, the high king of Britain who was closely associated with the Saxon adventus. Ironically therefore, Nell’s remote ancestors in the male line go back twice as far as Charles II’s. The earliest known patrilineal ancestor of the house of Stuart is an eleventh century Breton, which means that the king, unbeknown to him, was probably also of  “welsh” descent.




[1] Owen Manning and William Bray, History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey vol 3, 1814: xvi, xxii, xxxi.

[2] Cal State Papers Dom 1663-4 pg 390 +393.

[3] Roy MacGregor-Hastie, Nell Gwyn, London 1987 pg 40.

[4] Knowledge of the officers in the royalist army is very imperfect, being derived mainly from the list of “indigent officers” compiled in 1663 for distribution of funds to those who were in hardship. None of the actors was on this list.

[5] Stuart Reid. Officers and Regiments of the Royalist Army pg 151-2: only Charles Hart is listed therein with the rank of Lieutenant.

[6] C.H.Firth. Journal of Prince Rupert’s Marches, English Historical Review 1898, vol 13 no 52 pg 729-41.

[7] A tradition in Hereford states that Thomas Gwyn sought refuge in that city after the royal army surrendered in 1646, and that Nell was born there.

[8] The Life and Times of Anthony Wood, Antiquary, vol ii  1664-1681 Ed Andrew Clark, Oxford 1892 pg 565.  There is a separate two line reference to Nell’s mother in Bodleian Wood ms E5, which is Wood’s copy of her epitaph from the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

[9] Henry Gwyn’s marriage to a Susan cannot be located, neither can the births of his sons Matthew and Henry, “ born at Reuley”. There are a number of Rowleys, the most likely candidate being Rowley near Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Henry’s name and position are given independent confirmation by John Aubrey, author of “Brief Lives” and associate of  Anthony Wood, who  met him and has left a withering description. The earl  of Oxford frequented London, and indeed his own mistress was plucked from the stage at the King’s Theatre. There is a link between the earls of Oxford and  Rowley in Yorkshire, in that the 15th earl married a woman from there, and Nell’s decendents the Beauclerks also had links with Hull. The parish records of Rowley do not survive for the critical period. In her will Nell made a bequest to her kinsman Mr Cholmley, who was Captain William Cholmley of the Coldstream Guards. It is probable that this individual is connected with the Cholmleys of Yorkshire, but unfortunately it has not been possible to determine his parentage.

[10] He was baptised as Edward, see below.

[11] Ashmole was greatly interested in astrology, and  was probably instrumental in the preparation of Nell’s horoscope, which she gave to him. Ashmole was one of Anthony Wood’s many sources of information.

[12] BL Add ms 26,684 folio 59v is the herald painter’s log book. Nell ordered  a hatchment, 12 shields and other accoutrements, and the lozenge shield was here recorded. At folio 53 is an account of work for the reception of the king at the Guildhall on 30th October 1671.

[13] Visitation London 1634-5 HS 15 pg 338, Visitation of Berkshire HS vol 57 pg 134.

[14] PRO  PROB 11/148.

[15] Emden, Alumni Oxoniensis 1500-1714  pg 623. For the information on the studentship I am indebted to Judith Curthoys,Archivist of Christ Church.

[16] He received the fourth stall or prebend which had lodgings assigned which now belong to the Regius Professor of Pastoral Theology, see Oxford College Histories, Christ Church by Henry L Thompson 1900 pg 14-15.

[17] EGW Bill Education at Christ Church Oxford 1660-1800, Oxford 1988, pg 90.

[18] New Oxford DNB.

[19] In fact Matthew did not long outlive Edmund, dying in 1627. His wife was Susan daughter of Edward Duncomb. Susan’s PCC will of 1651 mentions two of her sons and six grandchildren, see SOG  Boyd’s Inhabitants of London no 35558.

[20] That he was the king’s apothecary  is shown by the proceedings of the court of Requests 409/57 which give him both this title and that of grocer of London in a case against Dame Proctor widow of Sir Stephen Proctor of Fountains Abbey, Yorks concerning her husband’s debts, and a lease of land in the market of Ripon. Roger attended the Merchant Taylors School until 1570 and was then apprenticed, becoming a freeman grocer  in 1579. He became a liveryman in March 1601, was elected to the court 20th July 1610, became Warden 19th July 1612, and Master 20th July 1620. See Guildhall Library ms 11592a.

[21] Morant’s Essex vol 2 pg 261-3  Feet of fines Essex pg 127+144. Simon Symonds, Canon of Windsor and a kinsman, was vicar of Bray until his death in 1551.

[22] Grocers’ register at Guildhall ms 11,571/5  f 8 and 97v.

[23] His place of residence comes from his wife’s will, see also Patent Rolls Eliz I  1575-79 pg 418 no 2768.

[24] Archaeologia Cantiana vol 75 pg 81. There is reference to William Vaughan as a yeoman of the guard as early as 1511, see Letters & Papers of Henry VIII vol 1 no 1946.

[25] Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, DRb/Pwr 16/87. It seems likely that Vaughan was a welsh kinsman of Gwyn.

[26] His Admon in PCC 1584 fol 119.  Her will  PRO  PROB 11/82. 

[27] Edmund was baptised Edward on 30th March 1563 at St Stephen’s Walbrook, see Harleian Society vol 49. Throughout his life the names Edward and Edmund were used interchangeably.

[28] Boyd’s Inhabitants of London no 3662 refers to the will. A reference to it is in British Record Soc vol 8, Berkshire wills in the Archdeaconry of Berkshire 1508-1652, Dand 227. There are scant records of Matthew Gwyn. His  eldest english born son William married Emma daughter of Thomas and Alice Tawke of New Windsor. The Talke family was allied to the families of Alley and Symonds of Windsor. Matthew witnessed the PCC will of Andrew Symons brewer of New Windsor in 1540. William Gwyn took a lease on Frogmore Farm from the crown for 40 years in 4 James I, carried over to his son Richard Gwyn for 31 years in 11 Charles I. In 1561 William  was tenant of an inn called the George with an adjacent gatehouse held from the borough of New Windsor, previously held by the family of Talke, see Berks Record Office Wi/FR1 fol 5 and 12v. Matthew’s grandson Richard in his will of 1638 lived in the Chantry House in Clewer, and owned the Chantry Meadows in Spittle Hill, New Windsor, see Berks Record Office D/A1/72/108. Richard’s son William who died in 1667 was one of Charles II’s exchequer auditors.

[29] Berks Record Office Wi/FR1 fol 14v.

[30] National Library of Wales, J.D.K.Lloyd Collection number 163. The family of Dackus were hereditary burgesses of Montgomery and connected  with the nearby parish of Forden and with Chirbury, just across the border in Shropshire. If  Matthew Gwyn has been correctly identified, his father-in-law was Daffydd ap Ieuan Vychan. This Daffydd might be the same person who used the anglicised name David Dackus, of Forden, who was linked to Chirbury in 1550. See Shropshire Archive Office, Lloyd of Leaton Knolls papers 103/1/10/222. Ieuan Vychan ( John the younger)  might then be John Daccus of Montgomery who was connected with Chirbury in 1483-4, see Shropshire Archives, Phillips Collection 1/6. Matthew Gwynne’s nephew John appears as a witness in a Montgomery charter of April 1549, see Nat Lib Wales Powysland Club ms. A William Dacus was bailiff of Montgomery 1530-32. The name Dackus is an anglicisation of Deicws, a diminutive of Daffydd.

[31] The first certain use of the arms was by Sir Gruffudd Vychan in the early fifteenth century

[32] See pedigrees in Montgomeryshire Collections vol 19 pg 239-40, based on BL ms Harley 1982 fol 138, and Bartrum  Welsh Genealogies 1400-1500 vol 6 pg 916: Gwyn ap Gruffudd 3.

[33] He named one of his sons Edmund.

[34] Lewys Dwnn . Heraldic visitations of Wales and part of the Marches, vol 1, Llandovery 1846, pg 312.

[35] BL Add 4208 fol 179. Capt Gwyn’s great-grandfather Howell who died in 1546 was a burgess of Welshpool. He was descended in the female line from Brockwell Ysgithrog, and his will has been printed in  Powysland vol 21 (1887) pg 164-8 .  The family connection with Nell is that Howell married a descendant of her kinsman Sir Gruffudd Vaughan or Vychan of Trelydan, said to have been at Agincourt.  See Peter Young and Norman Tucker ( eds) Military Memoirs of the Civil War: Richard Atkyn and John Gwyn.

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