The Story of Nell Gwyn/Chapter 5



"I have made a collection," said Walpole, "of the witty sayings of Charles II., and a collection of bon-mots by people who only said one witty thing in the whole course of their lives."[1] Both these collections are, it is believed, unfortunately lost. The former deficiency I have however attempted to supply (I fear imperfectly) in the following chapter; regarding remarkable sayings as among the very best illustrations of individual character and manners.

The satirical epitaph written upon King Charles II. at his own request,[2] by his witty favourite the Earl of Rochester, is said to be not more severe than it is just:

Here lies our sovereign lord the King,
Whose word no man relies on;
Who never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one.

How witty was the reply. "The matter," he observed, "was easily accounted for—his discourse was his own, his actions were his ministry's."[3]

A good story of the King and the Lord Mayor of London at a Guildhall dinner has been preserved to us in the Spectator. The King's easy manner, and Sir Robert Viner's due sense of city hospitality, carried the dignitary of Guildhall into certain familiarities not altogether graceful at any time, and quite out of character at a public table. The King, who understood very well how to extricate himself from difficulties of this description, gave a hint to the company to avoid ceremony, and stole off to his coach, which stood ready for him in Guildhall Yard. But the Mayor liked his Majesty's company too well, and was grown so intimate that he pursued the merry sovereign, and, catching him fast by the hand, cried out with a vehement oath and accent, "Sir, you shall stay and take t'other bottle." "The airy monarch," continues the narrator of the anecdote, "looked kindly at him over his shoulder, and with a smile and graceful air (for I saw him at the time and do now), repeated this line of the old song:

He that's drunk is as great as a king,[4]

and immediately turned back and complied with his landlord."[5] This famous anecdote is importantly illustrated by a letter from the Countess Dowager of Sunderland to her brother Henry Sidney, written five years after the mayoralty of Sir Robert Viner.[6] The King had supped with the Lord Mayor; and the aldermen on the occasion drank the King's health over and over upon their knees, wishing every one hanged and damned that would not serve him with their lives and fortunes. But this was not all. As his guards were drunk, or said to be so, they would not trust his Majesty with so insecure an escort, but attended him themselves to Whitehall, and, as the lady-writer observes, "all went merry out of the King's cellar." So much was this accessibility of manner in the King acceptable to his people, that the Mayor and his brethren waited next day at Whitehall to return thanks to the King and Duke for the honour they had done them, and the Mayor confirmed by this reception was changed from an ill to a well affected subject.

It was an age of nicknames—the King himself was known as "Old Rowley," in allusion to an ill-favoured but famous horse in the Royal Mews. Nor was the cognomen at all disagreeable to him. Mrs. Holford, a young lady much admired by the King, was in her apartments singing a satirical ballad upon Old Rowley the King, when he knocked at her door. Upon her asking who was there, he, with his usual good humour, replied, "Old Rowley himself, madam."[7] Hobbes he called "the Bear." "Here comes the Bear to be baited," was his remark, as soon as he saw the great philosopher surrounded by the wits who rejoiced in his conversation.[8] A favourite yacht received from him the name of Fubbs—in honour of the Duchess of Portsmouth, who was become notably plump in her person.[9] The queen he called "a bat," in allusion to her short, broad figure, her swarthy complexion, and the projection of her upper lip from a protuberant foretooth.[10]

His politeness was remarkable, and he could convey a rebuke in the style of a wit and a gentleman. When Penn stood before him with his hat on—the King put off his, "Friend Charles," said Penn, "why dost thou not keep on thy hat?" "'Tis the custom of this place," replied the monarch, "that only one person should be covered at a time."[11] The well-known English schoolmaster, Busby, excused himself to the King for wearing his hat in his Majesty's presence in his own school at Westminster—"If I were seen without my hat, even in the presence of your Majesty, the boys' respect for me would certainly be lessened." The excuse, such is the tradition at Westminster, was at once admitted, and Busby wore his hat before the King as he still is seen to wear it in his portrait in the Bodleian.

When reprimanded by one of his courtiers for leading or interlarding his discourse with unnecessary oaths, he defended himself by saying, "Your martyr swore twice more than ever I did."[12] And, in allusion again to his father's character, he observed to Lord Keeper Guildford, who was musing somewhat pensively on the woolsack, "My Lord, be of good comfort, I will not forsake my friends as my father did."[13] To Reresby he remarked, "Do not trouble yourself; I will stick by you and my old friends, for if I do not I shall have nobody stick to me;" and on another occasion he said to the same memorialist, "Let them do what they will, I will never part with any officer at the request of either House; my father lost his head by such compliance, but as for me, I intend to die another way."[14]

While Prince, seeing a soldier of the parliament—one of Cromwell's officers, and one active against the King—led through the streets of Oxford as a prisoner, he asked what they designed to do with him. They said they were carrying him to the King, his father; "Carry him rather to the gallows and hang him up," was the reply; "for if you carry him to my father he'll surely pardon him."[15] This was assuredly not cruelty in Charles—but merely an odd specimen of his ever playful temperament.

He was altogether in favour of extempore preaching, and was unwilling to listen to the delivery of a written sermon. Patrick excused himself from a chaplaincy, "finding it very difficult to get a sermon without book."[16] On one occasion the King asked the famous Stillingfleet, "How it was that he always read his sermons before him, when he was informed that he always preached without book elsewhere?" Stillingfleet answered something about the awe of so noble a congregation, the presence of so great and wise a prince, with which the King himself was very well contented. "But pray," continued Stillingfleet, "will your Majesty give me leave to ask you a question? Why do you read your speeches when you can have none of the same reasons?" "Why truly, doctor," replied the King, "your question is a very pertinent one, and so will be my answer. I have asked the two Houses so often and for so much money, that I am ashamed to look them in the face."[17] This "slothful way of preaching," for so the King called it, had arisen during the civil wars; and Monmouth, when Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, in compliance with the order of the King, directed a letter to the University that the practice of reading sermons should be wholly laid aside.[18]

When Cosins, Bishop of Durham, reminded the King that he had presumed to recommend Sancroft and Sudbury as chaplains to his Majesty, the King replied, "My Lord, recommend two more such to me, and I will return you any four I have for them."[19]

One of his replies to Sir Christopher Wren is characteristic both of the monarch and his architect. The King was inspecting the new apartments which Wren had built for him in his hunting-palace at Newmarket, and observed that "he thought the rooms too low." Sir Christopher, who was a little man, walked round them, and looking up and about him, said, "I think, and it please your Majesty, they are high enough." Charles, squatting down to his architect's height, and creeping about in this whimsical posture, cried, "Aye, Sir Christopher, I think they are high enough."[20]

The elder Richardson was fond of telling a characteristic story of the King and kingly honour. A cut-purse, or pickpocket, with as much effrontery of face as dexterity of finger, had got into the drawing-room on the King's birthday, dressed like a gentleman, and was detected by the King himself taking a gold snuff-box out of a certain Earl's pocket. The rogue, who saw his sovereign's eye upon him, put his finger to his nose, and made a sign to the King with a wink to say nothing. Charles took the hint, and, watching the Earl, enjoyed his feeling first in one pocket and then in another for his missing box. The King now called the nobleman to him: "You need not give yourself," he said, "any more trouble about it, my Lord, your box is gone; I am myself an accomplice:—I could not help it, I was made a confidant."[21]

Of his graver and deeper remarks Dryden has preserved a specimen. "I remember a saying," writes the poet, "of King Charles II. on Sir Matthew Hale (who was, doubtless, an uncorrupted and upright man), that his servants were sure to be cast on any trial which was heard before him; not that he thought the judge was possibly to be bribed, but that his integrity might be too scrupulous; and that the causes of the Crown were always suspicious when the privileges of subjects were concerned."[22] The wisdom of the remark as respects Sir Matthew Hale, is confirmed by Roger North: "If one party was a courtier," says North, "and well dressed, and the other a sort of puritan, with a black cap and plain clothes, Hale insensibly thought the justice of the cause with the latter."[23] Nor has it passed without the censure of Johnson: "A judge," said the great Doctor, "may be partial otherwise than to the Crown; we have seen judges partial to the populace."[24]

His easy, gentlemanlike way of expressing disapprobation is exemplified in a saying to which I have already had occasion to refer: "Is that like me?" he asked Riley the painter, to whom he had sat for his portrait—"then, odds fish! I am an ugly fellow."[25]

When told that the Emperor of Morocco had made him a present of two lions and thirty ostriches, he laughed and said, "He knew nothing more proper to send by way of return than a flock of geese."[26]

Of Harrow Church, standing on a hill and visible for many miles round, he is said to have remarked, "that it was the only visible church he knew;"[27] and when taken to see a fellow climb up the outside of a church to its very pinnacle and there stand on his head, he offered him, on coming down, a patent to prevent any one doing it but himself.[28]

"Pray," he said at the theatre, while observing the grim looks of the murderers in Macbeth, "pray what is the reason that we never see a rogue in a play, but, odds fish! they always clap him on a black perriwig, when it is well known one of the greatest rogues in England always wears a fair one?" The allusion was, it is asserted, to Oates, but, as I rather suspect, to Shaftesbury. The saying, however, was told by Betterton to Cibber.[29]

He was troubled with intercessions for people who were obnoxious to him, and once when Lord Keeper Guilford was soliciting his favour on behalf of one he did not like, he observed facetiously, "It is very strange that every one of my friends should keep a tame knave."[30]

One day while the King was being shaved, his impudent barber observed to him that "he thought none of his Majesty's officers had a greater trust than he." "Oy," said the King," "how so, friend?" "Why," said the barber, "I could cut your Majesty's throat when I would." The King started up and said, "Odds fish! that very thought is treason; thou shalt shave me no more."[31] The barber of Dionysius, who had made the same remark, was crucified for his garrulity; but honest Rowley was not cruel. His loquacious barber was only dismissed. "Falsehood and cruelty," he said to Burnet, "he looked on as the greatest crimes in the sight of God."[32]

Of Woolley, afterwards Bishop of Clonfert, he observed wittily and with great knowledge of character, that "He was a very honest man, but a very great blockhead—that he had given him a living in Suffolk, swarming with Nonconformists—that he had gone from house to house and brought them all to Church—that he had made him a Bishop for his diligence; but what he could have said to the Nonconformists he could not imagine, except he believed that his nonsense suited their nonsense."[33]

On one occasion when unable or unwilling to sleep, he was so much pleased with a passage in a sermon by South, that he laughed outright, and turning to Laurence Hyde Lord Rochester, "Odds fish! Lory," said he, "your chaplain must be a Bishop, therefore put me in mind of him next vacancy."[34] Of Barrow, he said that "he was an unfair preacher,"[35] because, as it has been explained, he exhausted every subject and left no room for others to come after him;—but the King's allusion was made somewhat slyly to the length as well as excellence of Barrow's sermons."[36]

He said often "He was not priest-ridden: he would not venture a war nor travel again for any party."[37] Such is Burnet's story, curiously confirmed as it is by Sir Richard Bulstrode's conversation with the King on his former exile and the then condition of the country. "I," said the King, most prophetically indeed, "am weary of travelling—I am resolved to go abroad no more; but when I am dead and gone, I know not what my brother will do. I am much afraid that when he comes to the crown he will be obliged to travel again."[38]

He observed, in allusion to the amours of the Duke of York and the plain looks of his mistresses, that "he believed his brother had his favourites given him by his priests for penance."[39]

After taking two or three turns one morning in St. James's Park, the King, attended only by the Duke of Leeds and Lord Cromarty, walked up Constitution Hill into Hyde Park. Just as he was crossing the road, where Apsley House now is, the Duke of York, who had been hunting that morning on Hounslow Heath, was seen returning in his coach, escorted by a party of the Guards, who, as soon as they perceived the King, suddenly halted, and stopped the coach. The Duke being acquainted with the occasion of the halt, immediately got out, and after saluting the King, said he was greatly surprised to find his Majesty in that place, with so small an attendance, and that he thought his Majesty exposed himself to some danger. "No kind of danger, James," was the reply: "for I am sure no man in England will take away my life to make you King." The old Lord Cromarty often mentioned this anecdote to his friends.[40]

"It is better to be envied than pitied," was his observation to Lord Chancellor Clarendon.[41]

"He that takes one stone from the Church, takes two from the Crown," was another of his sayings preserved by Pepys.[42]

He said to Lauderdale, "To let Presbytery go, for it was not a religion for gentlemen."[43]

That "God would not damn a man for a little irregular pleasure," he observed in one of his free discourses with Burnet on points of religion.[44]

If his short characters of men were in common at all like the one that has been preserved to us of Godolphin, we have lost a good deal by the lack of reporters. Of Godolphin, when only a page at court, he said, "that he was never in the way, and never out of the way;"[45] and this was a character, says Lord Dartmouth, which Godolphin maintained to his life's end.

When told by Will. Legge, that the pardoning of Lord Russell would, among other things, lay an eternal obligation upon a very great and numerous family, he replied, with reason on his side, "All that is true; but it is as true, that if I do not take his life he will soon have mine."[46]

Eager for the marriage of the Princess Mary to the Prince of Orange, on being reminded of his promise to the Duke of York (to whom the match was unwelcome), that he would not dispose of the daughter, without the father's consent, he replied it was true he had given his brother such a promise, "but, odds fish! he must consent."[47] After the marriage the King entered their room as soon as they were in bed, and drawing the curtains, cried out to the Prince—it is the chaplain who tells the story, an archdeacon and prebendary of Exeter, whose words I would fain quote in full—"Now, Nephew. Hey! St. George for England!"[48]

When Sancroft, dean of St. Paul's, was brought to Whitehall by Will. Chiffinch, that Charles might tell him in person of his appointment to the arch-bishopric of Canterbury, the dean urged his unfitness for that office, and requested his Majesty to bestow it on some more worthy person. The King replied, "that, whether he would accept the Primacy or not, his deanery was already given to Dr. Stillingfleet."[49]

When Sir John Warner turned Papist he retired to a convent, and his uncle, Dr. Warner, who was one of the King's physicians, upon apprehension that Sir John might convert his property to popish uses, pressed his Majesty to order the Attorney-General to proceed at law for securing his estate to himself, as next male heir; "Sir John at present," said the King, "is one of God Almighty's fools, but it will not be long before he returns to his estate, and enjoys it himself."[50]

One of his last sayings related to his new palace at Winchester. Impatient to have the works finished, he remarked that, "a year was a great time in his life."[51]

When he was on his death-bed the Queen sent him a message that she was too unwell to resume her post by the couch, and implored pardon for any offence which she might unwillingly have given. "She ask my pardon, poor woman!" cried Charles. "I ask hers with all my heart."

In almost his last moments he apologised to those who had stood round him all night for the trouble he had caused. "He had been," he said, "a most unconscionable time dying; but he hoped that they would excuse it."[52] A similar feeling ruffled the last moments of the polite Earl of Chesterfield, whose only expressed anxiety related to his friend Dayrolles being in the room without a chair to sit down upon.

If he was ready at a reply there were others about him who were not less happy. When he called Lord Chancellor Shaftesbury, in his own hearing, "The greatest rogue in England," the reply was—"Of a subject, Sir, perhaps, I am."[53] Not less witty was the sarcastic answer of the Lord Dorset, to whom I have already introduced the reader, as a lover of Nell Gwyn. The Earl had come to court on Queen Elizabeth's birthday, long kept as a holiday in London and elsewhere, and still, I believe, observed by the benchers of Gray's Inn. The King, forgetting the day, asked "What the bells rung for?" The answer given, the King asked further, "How it came to pass that her birthday was still kept, while those of his father and grand-father were no more thought of than William the Conqueror's?" "Because," said the frank peer to the frank King, "she being a woman chose men for her counsellors, and men when they reign usually choose women."[54] Of the same stamp was the more than half-heard aside of the Duke of Buckingham, to an appeal to the monarch "as the father of his people." "Of a good many of them," whispered the author of the Rehearsal.

I have referred in a former chapter to the King's partiality for his dogs; one species of which is still celebrated among the fancy as King Charles's breed. On the occasion of an entry into Salisbury, an honest Cavalier pressed forward to see him, and came so near the coach that his Majesty cautioned the poor man not to cling too close to the door lest one of the little black spaniels in the coach should chance to bite him. The loyalist still persisting in being near, a spaniel seized him by the finger, and the sufferer cried with a loud voice, "God bless your Majesty, but G—d d—n your dogs!"[55] This story has been preserved to us by the mercurial Duke of Wharton as an illustration of the indulgence which the King accorded to his subjects on all occasions,—as an instance of the popular, easy, and endearing arts which ensure to a monarch the love and good-will of his people.—But his best saying was his last,—"Let not poor Nelly starve!" and this, the parting request of the Merry Monarch, reminds us, that it is time once more to return to Nelly.


  1. Walpoliana, vol. i. p. 58.
  2. So Sir Walter Scott in Misc. Prose Works, vol. xxiv. p. 171—but upon what authority?
  3. Hume's History of England, viii. 212.
  4. In Tate's Cuckold's Haven, 4to. 1685, is the following couplet:

    Good store of grood claret supplies every thing,
    And the man that is drunk is as great as a king.

  5. Spectator, No. 462.
  6. Letter of March 12 [1679-80], in Henry Sidney's Diary. &c. vol. i. p. 300.
  7. Granger's Biog. Hist. iv. 50, ed. 1775.
  8. Aubrey's Life of Hobbes. See also Tom Brown, i. 174, "King Charles II. compared old Hobbes to a bear."
  9. Hawkins's History of Music, iv. 359, n.
  10. Lord Dartmouth in Burnet, i. 299, ed. 1823.
  11. Grey's Hudibras, i. 376.
  12. Rev. Mr. Watson's Apology for his conduct on Jan. 30, 8vo. 1756, p. 34, and Malone's Shakespeare, by Boswell, iii. 235.
  13. North, i. 387.
  14. Reresby's Memoirs, ed. 1735, pp. 103, 105.
  15. Dr. Lake's Diary in Camden Miscellany, vol. i.
  16. Patrick's Autobiography, p. 66.
  17. Richardsoniana, p. 89.
  18. Wilkins's Concilia, iv. 594.
  19. Dr. Lake's Diary in Camden Miscellany, vol. i.
  20. Richardsoniana, p. 187.
  21. Richardsoniana, p. 103.
  22. Dryden's Prose Works, by Malone, iv. 156
  23. North, i. 119.
  24. Boswell, by Croker, p. 448, ed. 1848.
  25. Walpole's Anecdotes.
  26. Reresby's Memoirs, ed. 1735, p. 132.
  27. Remarks on Squire Ayre's Life of Pope. 12mo, 1745, p. 12.
  28. Horace Walpole, in Gent.'s Mag. for January 1848.
  29. Cibber's Apology, ed. 1740 p. 111.
  30. North's Lives, ii. 247, ed. 1826.
  31. Richardsoniana, p. 106.
  32. Burnet, ii. 169, ed. 1823.
  33. Burnet, i. 449, ed. 1823. The story is spoilt in Walpoliana, i. 58.
  34. Biographia Britannica, art. "South."
  35. Life in Biographia Britannica.
  36. Biographia Britannica, art. "Barrow."
  37. Burnet, i. 356, ed. 1823.
  38. Sir Richard Bulstrode's Memoirs, p. 424.
  39. Burnet, i. 288, ed. 1823.
  40. King's Anecdotes of his Own Times, p. 61.
  41. Clarendon's Own Life, i. 412, ed. 1827.
  42. Pepys, 29 March, 1669.
  43. Burnet, i. 184, ed. 1823.
  44. Burnet, ii. 23, ed. 1823.
  45. Lord Dartmouth in Burnet, ii. 240 ed. 1823.
  46. Lord Dartmouth's note in Burnet, ii. 370, ed. 1823.
  47. Ibid. i. 118, ed. 1823.
  48. Dr. Lake's Diary in Camden Miscellany, vol. i.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Secret History of Whitehall.
  51. North, ii. 105, ed. 1826.
  52. Macaulay, i. 439.
  53. Preserved by the witty Lord Chesterfield. Works by Lord Mahon, ii. 334.
  54. Richardsoniana.
  55. Duke of Wharton's Works.