|John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Portrait by Sir Peter Lely.
John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, was a Restoration courtier, poet, satirist, and libertine. He was lauded by Andrew Marvell and Voltaire, who described him as a man of genius and translated some of his work into French. Entertaining and offending with works such as Signior Dildo and Panegyrick Upon Cundums, his life was no less exciting than his verse. He inherited his title at age eleven, kidnapped his future wife at seventeen, trained one of the period’s most famous actresses, and fell in and out of the King’s favor until his death from syphilis at age thirty-three. A rake and accomplished wit, his actions and works would impress and offend in equal measure for centuries to come, and he even received the compliment of being banned in the Victorian period.
So who was he?
Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man)
A spirit free to choose, for my own share
What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal,
Who is so proud of being rational. (1)
John Wilmot was born, appropriately enough, on April Fool’s Day, 1647. His father, Henry, Viscount Wilmot, was a Cavalier hero credited with assisting the future Charles II’s escape to the Continent after the battle of Worcester in 1651. For his service to Charles II, he was created Earl of Rochester in 1652. John inherited the title at the age of eleven with his father’s death in 1658.
As an act of gratitude to his father, Charles II himself sent the young Earl of Rochester on a Grand Tour of France and Italy that would last three years and acquaint the fourteen-year old with a great deal of European writing and thought. He returned at seventeen and formally entered the court on Christmas Day of 1664.
Charles II suggested the relatively impoverished Rochester marry heiress Elizabeth Mallet. Mallet was not opposed: “He was handsome: tall, graceful, well-shaped. His complexion was fair, of a rosy hue; and his good breeding and wit were striking… He was far too attractive for a flirtatious fifteen year-old to reject out of hand. Moreover, he could write the sort of fashionable, amorous, pastoral poetry that delighted (her) girlish heart.”
That poetry is still pretty effective today:
My rifled Love would soon retire,
Dissolving into Aire,
Should I that Nymph cease to admire,
Blest in whose Arms I will expire*
Or at her Feet despair.
Elizabeth understandably was no opposed to the idea of marrying the gorgeous, intelligent, and very witty earl, but her relatives were less keen on the idea. When they refused the match, Rochester handled their refusal with dignity and grace.
Just kidding. He kidnapped her.
According to Pepys’ diary entry for May 26th, 1665:
“Here, upon my telling the story of my Lord Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallet, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men and forcibly taken from him, and put in a coach with six horses and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord of Rochester (for whom the King had spoken to the lady often, but with no success) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry, and the Lord sent to the Tower…”
Rochester spent three weeks in the Tower for this stunt, but his bravado paid off. Two years later, after he distinguished himself in the second Dutch War and was installed a Whitehall as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Elizabeth defied her family and eloped with him in January of 1667.
He was reputed to be among Nell Gwyn’s lovers, and they remained close throughout their lives. His affection for the theater extended to writing plays, scenes, and prologues for the stage, including the delightful sounding Sodom, of the Quintessence of Debauchery, which has never been definitively proven to be his. He trained actress Elizabeth Barry, who later became his mistress, and was one of the most renowned actresses of the period.
|Rochester giving his laurels to a cute monkey
Rochester was a renowned libertine, raising hell with a group of like-minded gentlemen referred to by Marvell as ‘The Merry Gang.” He told Gilbert Burnet that he had once been drunk for five years, and was almost certainly referring to the time he spent with them between 1668 and 1672. Among their numbers were the Earl of Dorset, the Earl of Mulgrave, Sir Charles Sedley, playwrights William Wycherly and George Etherege, and the Duke of Buckingham himself. Like many of his contemporaries, Rochester was bi-sexual, and spent his evenings (and mornings, and days) in the company of both sexes. Though Rochester doubtlessly loved his wife, he benefited from the sexual double standard that allowed men to please themselves as they saw fit while their wives remained, as Elizabeth did, at their homes in the country. His “extravagant frolics” with the libertines led to his banishment from court in 1669.
It was not the last time he was banished from court. He returned shortly thereafter, and was sent away again after Christmas on 1673 when he presented In the Isle of Britain, a satire poking fun at the King during the holiday festivities. He returned to court in February of the next year, only to be exiled again in June of 1675.
After he fell out of favor again in 1676, he began to impersonate a fictional “Doctor Bendo,” specializing in infertility and gynecological disorders. According to Gilbert Burnet, Rochester personally cured a few patients of infertility.
He died at age 33, almost certainly of syphilis. Gilbert Burnet reported that Rochester renounced his life of libertinism, but it’s debatable whether or not this actually happened, as his conversion may have been embellished by Burnet to improve his reputation. If it was, it worked. Burnet later became the Bishop of Salisbury.
His wisdom did his happiness destroy,
Aiming to know that world he should enjoy.
And wit was his vain, frivolous pretense
Of pleasing others at his own expense.
For wits are treated just like common whores:
First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors.
The pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains
That frights th’ enjoyer with succeeding pains.
Women and men of wit are dangerous tools,
And ever fatal to admiring fools:
Pleasure allures, and when the fops escape,
‘Tis not that they’re beloved, but fortunate,
And therefore what they fear, at heart they hate. (1)
Rochester appears as a peripheral character in Tyburn. Derby and Conley are active members of his band of libertines, and Sally’s friend, Bettie, is half in love with him. I tried to fit his appearances in the book within the timeline of his life, and though you don’t get to see inside his head in this book, you can feel the effects of Derby’s hangover following one of their “extravagant frolics.” I hope you enjoy it.
(1) A Satyr against Reason and Mankind. You can read the full annotated text of the poem here.
(2) James William Johnson. A Profane Wit: The Life of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.
*This is in no way a euphemism for orgasm.
You can read more about syphilis in my post Syphilis: Genius, Madness, and the Sickness of Naples, and more about seventeenth century condoms and Rochester’s verse in praise of them in my post Love’s Pleasing paths in Blest Security: Condoms in Restoration London.