Lord Rochester and the Court of Charles II
In his career as rake and satirist, writes John Redwood, Rochester illustrated both the vices and virtues of the Restoration court.
When Charles II came to England in 1660, his return heralded a new age of court licence and freedom. Charles himself had been long in exile; his father had been executed and he had had to live in penury, begging a living from foreign princes or from his dwindling band of faithful supporters at home.
The Restoration brought with it freedom from want, for both Charles and his intimate circle of Royalist friends and acquaintances; and while the ardent Royalists were to be disappointed both with the settlement of the lands question and with Charles’s own bent towards a policy of toleration in Church matters, most were satisfied that a better social order had reasserted its position in England. This new social order gave the gentlemen power in the countryside and the court the affluence it needed to enjoy life to the full.
England in 1660 was gripped by a mood of hope and expectation of a different kind from that which had flourished in 1643-4 after the collapse of Royal power and the advent of Utopian schemes. In 1660 the feeling was of release from Puritan restraints. With the King returned the Playhouse; with the Playhouse, court patronage, and with court patronage, the talents and vices of Charles’s scurrilous court.
It was a court that patronized the Royal Society, and the architects, painters, playwrights and poets of the later Stuart period; and it was a court where a man like John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, with a talent for lewd verse and scurrilous satire, could hope to survive, if not to prosper, in the circle of rakes that at times seemed to dominate the atmosphere of Charles’s court.