Margaret Hughes (c. 1645 – 1 October 1719), also Peg Hughes or Margaret Hewes, is often credited as the first professional actress on the English stage. Hughes was also famous as the mistress of the English Civil War general and later Restoration admiral, Prince Rupert of the Rhine.
Women in Restoration drama
Hughes became an actress during a period of great change in English drama. English drama had suffered greatly during the English Civil War and the Interregnum, being banned by a Puritan Parliament in 1642. This ban was finally lifted upon the Restoration of King Charles. Charles was a keen theatre-goer, and promptly gave two royal patents to Sir Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant. During the Renaissance women had been almost exclusively banned from appearing as actresses on the stage, and there was a history of embarrassing incidents occurring for male actors in female roles. One famous incident occurred when a play which King Charles II was watching suddenly stopped. When he sent servants to see what the problem was it was found that the male that was supposed to play one of the female parts was still shaving. There were also concerns over this practice encouraging ‘unnatural vice’, which added to Charles’ decision to issue a royal warrant in 1662 declaring that all female roles should be played only by female actresses. Killigrew and Davenant were casting women almost immediately following the Restoration, and once women began appearing professionally on the stage in the early 1660s, they won quick acceptance. Killigrew staged an all-female-cast production of his own play The Parson’s Wedding in 1664, and again in 1672.
Hughes may have been the first professional actress in England. The occasion of her first performance was on 8 December 1660, in a production of Shakespeare’s play Othello, when she played the role of Desdemona in a production by Thomas Killigrew’s new King’s Company at their Vere Street theatre. There remains some uncertainty over this, however. Some other historians place Anne Marshall as the first such actress, and there has been much analysis of the early recollections of John Downes, whose memories of the 1660s form a key part of Hughes’ claim in this regard.
Hughes was famous for her charms as an actress; diarist Samuel Pepys considered her ‘a mighty pretty woman’, and she was said to be a ‘a great beauty, with dark ringletted hair, a fine figure, and particularly good legs’. Pepys suggested that she was a lover of Sir Charles Sedley, a noted dramatist and “famous fop”, in the 1660s; she was reportedly also involved with Charles II himself, if only briefly. Hughes is also believed to have had an illegitimate son, Arthur, earlier in her career, who remained associated with drama in the capital.
Most famously, however, Hughes became associated with Prince Rupert, Duke of Cumberland (sometimes known as “Rupert of the Rhine”) as his morganatic wife. Rupert fell in love with her in the late 1660s, although Hughes appears to have held out reciprocating his attentions with the aim of negotiating a suitable settlement. Prince Rupert was one of the most senior members of the royal family at court, and Hughes rapidly received advancement through his patronage; she became a member of the King’s Company by 1669, giving her status and immunity from arrest for debt, and was painted four times by Sir Peter Lely, the foremost court artist of the day.
Despite being encouraged to do so, Rupert did not formally marry Hughes, but acknowledged their daughter, Ruperta (later Howe), born in 1673. Hughes lived an expensive lifestyle during the 1670s, enjoying gambling and jewels; Rupert gave her at least £20,000 worth of jewellery during their relationship, including several items from the Palatinate royal collection. The two appear to have been close – Prince Rupert’s older brother, Charles Louis, Elector Palatine, once sounded out Rupert as to his willingness to return to the Rhineland and marry appropriately, but his suggestion was rejected. Margaret continued to act even after Ruperta’s birth, returning to the stage in 1676 with the prestigious Duke’s Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre, near the Strand in London. The next year Rupert established Hughes with a ‘grand building’ worth £25,000 that he bought in Hammersmith from Sir Nicholas Crispe.
Prince Rupert died in 1682, leaving most of his estate, worth some £12,000, equally to Hughes and Ruperta. Hughes had an ‘uncomfortable widowhood’ without Rupert’s support, allegedly not helped by her continuing gambling. Presents from Rupert such as Elizabeth of Bohemia’s earrings were sold to the Duchess of Marlborough, whilst a pearl necklace given by Rupert’s father to Elizabeth was sold to fellow actress Nell Gwynn. Hughes sold the house in Hammersmith to two London merchants: Timothy Lannoy and George Treadwell — it ultimately was purchased by the Margrave of Brandenburg-Anspach and became known as Brandenburg (or Brandenburgh) House. Her daughter, Ruperta, ultimately married Emanuel Scrope Howe, future MP and English general. Hughes died in 1719.