Steeped in Sin and Squalor

Alexander Larman takes issue with some of the assertions made in John Redwood’s otherwise incisive 1974 article on the Earl of Rochester, the fast-living rake who epitomised the Restoration.

Lord RochesterJohn Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, epitomised the Restoration in miniature. Living fast and dying all too young of syphilis in 1680 at the age of 33, he ‘blazed out his life and health in lavish voluptuousness’, as Samuel Johnson later put it. Described in his own time as ‘the wickedest man alive’, he has built up a posthumous reputation as the rake’s rake, a man steeped in the sin and squalor of an age dedicated to hedonism and the pursuit of pleasure. 

The 1974 article, Lord Rochester and the Court of Charles II, by the future Conservative MP and minister John Redwood, takes steps to paint a more comprehensive picture of Rochester than the playboy of repute, placing him as the totemic figure of his time. Redwood illustrates the relief and hope with which the Restoration was greeted by many, saying ‘most were satisfied that a better social order had reasserted its position in England’. The reopening of the playhouses and the foundation of the Royal Society indicated that both the arts and the sciences would find their niche in this new world, with Charles as patron to both. Nonetheless, Redwood does not paint a wholly accurate picture of Restoration Oxford or Rochester’s role there; described by the antiquary Anthony à Wood as a ‘strange effeminate age’, where cross-dressing and sodomy were widespread, it was here that the young Rochester ‘grew debauched’ at the hands of his tutor, the occasional poet and likely pederast Robert Whitehall. 

Redwood exaggerates Bishop Burnet’s depiction of Rochester arriving at court in 1664 after his Grand Tour as a pure young man who then became infected by the decadence around him, although he notes that Burnet sought to convey a moral message by contrasting the louche atmosphere of Whitehall with the eager and corruptible new arrival. He omits the salient detail that Rochester’s military service, which he describes as the one truly useful thing that he ever undertook for court and country, took place as a means of proving his valour to Charles after the failed abduction of Rochester’s eventual wife, Elizabeth Malet, and was dictated as much by necessity as bravery. 

Redwood is perceptive on the half-luxuriant, half-paranoid atmosphere at court and the way in which an intelligent man could rise to its zenith. He offers what had become the standard line on Rochester’s relationship with Charles, namely that the king enjoyed his company and wit too much to banish him from court permanently, even when he misbehaved. It now seems clear that the king’s actions were also dictated initially by loyalty to Rochester’s father, Henry Wilmot, his faithful supporter on his flight after the Battle of Worcester, and latterly by the need for a pliable ally who could be bribed in exchange for much-needed assistance. 

Redwood uses the expurgated texts of Rochester’s poetry, meaning that his cited opening lines of his dark satiric fantasia ‘A Ramble In St James’s Park’ rely on the text ‘Much wine had passed, with grave discourse/Of who kist who, and who does worse’ rather than the more pungent ‘Of who fucked who, and who does worse’. He also cites at least two poems which are no longer believed to be by Rochester. One, ‘Rochester’s Farewell’, assumes an attack on Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth; in fact, Rochester wrote several anguished letters in an attempt to prove he had not libelled her. The other, ‘On Rome’s Pardon’, leads Redwood to conclude that it indicates anti-Catholic sentiment, though it actually reflects a generalised dislike of organised religion, as expressed in his masterpiece ‘A Satire Against Reason and Mankind’. 

Redwood cites outrageous antics ascribed to Rochester that are now believed to be false, most notably a tale about him and the Duke of Buckingham opening an inn in an attempt to seduce travellers’ wives. Nonetheless, his conclusions on Rochester – that he saw the theatricality and shallowness of the court as the stage on which to adopt a glittering persona that defined and defied the age – remain sound, as does his statement that ‘the end of Rochester was an important event in English social and intellectual history’. While Charles would linger on for another five years, it is Rochester’s death that signified the end of the era. 

Alexander Larman is the author of Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (Head of Zeus, 2014).

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