It wasn’t until some time after Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory over the French fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain on 21st October, 1805, that the large public space in Westminster we now know as Trafalgar Square took its name.

Prior to the development of the square, much of the area it covers was occupied the King’s Mews – stables linked to the Palace of Whitehall – and was simply seen as part of the district known as Charing Cross (named for the memorial cross which stood close to where the equestrian statue of King Charles I now stands – for more on this, see our earlier post and follow the links).

Following the relocation of the Mews in the early 19th century, plans were drawn up by architect-of-the-age John Nash to redevelop the area while the square itself, completed in 1845, was designed by Sir Charles Barry (best known for his work on the Houses of Parliament).

The final design incorporated a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson atop a column, known as ‘Nelson’s Column’, in the centre – apparently against Barry’s wishes (see our earlier post for more on Nelson’s Column).

Originally designed with an upper terrace and a lower piazza linked by stairs at the eastern and western end of the terrace, the square contains two fountains on either side of the column – the current fountains were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1937-9 and replaced earlier ones.

It was originally suggested that the square be named King William IV Square but it was apparently architect George Ledwell Taylor who provided the alternative of Trafalgar Square in honor of Nelson’s great battle.

Bordered by significant landmarks including the National Gallery to the north, the church of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields to the north-east, South Africa House to the east and Canada House to the west, the square stands at the confluence of a number of major roadways including Whitehall, Strand, Charing Cross Road and The Mall.

Aside from the aforementioned statue of King Charles I, monuments within the square include Nelson’s Column along with plinths set in the four corners of the square. These bear statues of King George IV, Victorian military figures General Sir Charles James Napier and Major-General Sir Henry Havelock while the fourth plinth, located in the north-west corner, was originally intended to bear an equestrian statue of King William IV.

Instead, it was left empty for many years before the advent of the Fourth Plinth project under which a variety of contemporary artworks – most recently a massive sculpture of a boy astride a rocking horse – have occupied the space (you can see a picture of the current work in our earlier post here).

The square, once known as the home of thousands of pigeons before these were banished midway through last decade to allow greater public use of the space, also features the busts of three admirals – John Jellicoe, David Beatty and Andrew Cunningham, located against the north wall under the terrace.

There are also two statues on a lawn in front of the National Gallery – these are of US President George Washington and King James II. Curiously, the square also features a small pillar box in the south-east corner, referred to by some as the smallest police station in London.

A renovation project in 2003 pedestrianised the roadway along the north side of the square and installed a central stairway between the the upper and lower levels along with lifts, public toilets and a cafe.

For some more on the history of Trafalgar Square, see Jean Hood’s Trafalgar Square: A Visual History of London’s Landmark Through Time.

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Perhaps now best known as the most prominent of the many mistresses of King Charles II, Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn – currently subject of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – was a renowned actress in the years after the Restoration, known for her wit and beauty – “Pretty, witty Nell “as diarist Samuel Pepys called her.

Gwyn’s (variously spelt as Gwynn or Gwynne) origins remain something of a mystery – believed to have been born around 1651, her parents remain something of a mystery (some have suggested a Cavalier, Captain Thomas Gwyn, as her father) as does the place of her birth, variously claimed to be London, Hereford or Oxford – one source from 1715 claims she was born in Coal Yard Alley, off Drury Lane in Covent Garden.

Ascribed as having various jobs during her childhood – everything from helping at a bawdyhouse to a street vendor or cinder girl – around 1663, she was working as an “orange girl” at a theatre then known as the King’s Theatre in Bridge Street (now the site of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane).

She clearly made an impression for a year later she was working as an actress and is believed to have taken prominent actor Charles Hart as her lover. It has been suggested her first recorded stage appearance was in March, 1665. She wasn’t viewed as a brilliant dramatic actress but instead came into her own in comedies where her wit, as well as her beauty, could shine.

Having already been known to have had at least two lovers – Charles Hart and aristocrat Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst – by 1667 George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, had decided to bring her to the attention of the king as a possible new mistress and so increase his influence. By 1668 or 1669, Nell is believed to have succeeded in this, joining the growing number of women who could claim the title (Charles II ended up having at least 12 children by his many mistresses).

Her acting work gradually decreased and in 1670, she gave birth to Charles, her first son and believed to be the king’s seventh illegitimate child. She briefly returned to the stage in 1670-71 before retiring from the theatre for good.

In February, 1671, Nell moved into a townhouse at 79 Pall Mall (she was granted freehold of the property five years later and the property, which still stands, remains the only one on the south side of Pall Mall not owned by the Crown) and in December, she gave birth to her second child by the king, another son James (he died in Paris while attending school there 10 years later).

Both sons were given titles – Charles was later named Duke of St Albans – and given the surname Beauclerk. In the 1670s, Charles granted Nell Burford House in Windsor where she resided when the king was resident there.

In the 1670s, Nell – who continued to maintain her friendships with the likes of Villiers – successfully fought off several rivals for the king’s affection and by the 1680s, her position as the king’s mistress was not in doubt. It was during this period that the story goes when her coach was mistaken by an angry to be that of the unpopular Duchess of Portsmouth, she put her head out the window to tell them “Pray good people be silent, I am the Protestant whore”.

When King Charles II died on 6th February, 1685, he left instructions she was to be looked after – his brother King James II both paid her debts and continued to pay her an annual pension.

Nell died less than three years later – still only aged in her thirties – on 14th November, 1687, have suffered strokes in previous years. She was buried in the church of St Martins-in-the-Fields.

Gwyn is seen as a key figure in London during the period after the Restoration and a symbol of the hedonism of the court of King Charles II, and her rise from apparently humble origins to the royal court has been the subject of numerous books, plays and films.

Gwyn is currently featured in an exhibition currently being held at the National Portrait Gallery: The First Actresses – Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. The exhibition runs until 8th January (an admission charge applies). For more information visit www.npg.org.uk.

PICTURE: Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn, by Simon Verelst, © National Portrait Gallery, London