When King Charles II was dying, the name of only one of his many mistresses was in his mind and on his lips: that of Nell Gwyn. Born in extreme poverty, forced to become a child prostitute, she went on the stage and became the most popular actress of the time until Charles took her into his bed, where her beauty, wit and liveliness made her in the end preferable to his other many mistresses, who were either common prostitutes found for him in the bawdy-houses or on the streets by the royal pimp, William Chiffinch, or were would-be grand ladies such as the English Barbara Villiers, the French Louise de Kéroüalle and the Italian beauty Hortense Mancini, eager to use their position to interfere in politics. Charles took all of them to bed with great enthusiasm, but it was Nelly who he loved as much as he was capable of love. Unlike the others, she knew her place – when her coachman fought a fellow who called her a whore, she rebuked him: that, she said, was after all what she was. She flattered no-one – even giving the King a piece of her mind when she pleased. When she died, some years after the King, she was given a grand funeral, the sermon preached by a future Archbishop of Canterbury. No court in modern history has been as scandalously dissolute as that of Charles II, and the story of the king and his mistresses is engrossingly outrageous. The heroine, however – and who would deny her that title – is pretty, witty Nell.