The son of a Presbyterian minister, Nathaniel Lee (born c.1649) had been educated at Winchester School and Trinity College, Cambridge before attempting to become an actor in Restoration London. Finding his stage fright to be an insurmountable obstacle, Lee rose through the ranks of the London theatre word as a playwright and dramatist, creating extravagant tragedies like The Rival Queens (1676/7)and Caesar Borgia (1679/80). Though a writer to the King’s Players, he was censured by the Court as the main character in Lucinius Junius Brutus (1682) was thought to be a little too close to Charles II for comfort.
On 10th November 1684 Lee was confined to Bethlem Hospital in Moorfields, which looked a little like the picture here, where he was to spend the next five years of his life. While we do not know what happened to Nathaniel, and it is impossible to diagnose him at this remove in history, it seems credible that excess drinking and drug use in the circles of his patron John Willmot, the notorious Earl of Rochester, exacerbated his problems. Trinity College certainly records that he ‘lost his reason through intemperance’.
While in Bethlem, Lee was often the subject of attentions of the paying visitors to the Hospital, attracted by his reputation and royal connections. This practice was controversial even at the time, but was also a source of vital funds for the Hospital. His friend William Wycherley condemned the entertainment of his ‘gaping audience’ and wrote to ‘Nath Lee’-
And now the rabble to thee does resort
That thy Want of Wits may be their Sport
Lee himself reflected wryly on his time in the Hospital ‘They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me’.
However his stay in Bethlem did have some positive aspects- the cost of at least some of his care was covered by the Board of Green Cloth, the organisation that managed the Royal Household, which suggests that any rift with Charles II had healed. He also seems to have found some respite from his illness, and seems to have been discharged well from the Hospital in 1689. His reputation was such that his admission record even has this bit of explanatory information from the Steward in 1853 (see picture). Sadly he seems to have relapsed into alcoholism, and passed away in a ‘drunken fit’ in 1692.