peg thomas

The first British actresses

During the Interregnum period (1649-1660), following the execution of King Charles I, the theatres of Britain were closed by Oliver Cromwell. However, upon the restoration of Charles II as king in 1660, they were re-opened and theatre managers, Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant, specifically, were issued a royal charter to set up a theatre company. Subsequently, the King’s Company and the Duke of York’s Company became the major duopoly of the Restoration theatre scene.

This was also the first time that women were allowed on the stage. Previously, female parts had been played by young boys or men but the King had experienced the phenomenon of the actress during his exile on the Continent and was highly impressed. The King’s Company was one of the first theatre companies to feature actresses in the plays it staged and they were a sensation. There is some debate as to who the very first British actress, as we would define it today, was, although many say that the first female role to be played by a woman was that of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello on 8th December 1660. Male members of the audience, especially, flocked to see these talented, charismatic ladies perform in a way that had never been seen before.

Pictured are the Restoration era actresses Nell Gwyn (who later went on to become the most famous mistress of King Charles II), Mary Saunderson, Anne Marshall and Margaret “Peg” Hughes. Other female actresses of the era included Elizabeth Barry, Mary Knepp, Elizabeth Boutell, Katherine Corey, Rebecca “Beck” Marshall (sister of Anne Marshall: occasionally, the two performed as a pair), Hester Davenport and Mary “Moll” Davis. These women were among the first ever celebrities and professional career girls.

It wasn’t all glitter and glamour for these girls, however. Beck Marshall, especially, on several occasions, had to petition the king to make sure she was protected against boisterous male audience members.