The Life and Times of John Wilmot - The 2nd Earl of Rochester

John Wilmot (1647-1680) was an English poet. Though he died at the age of 33, he lived a fascinating life. This article is a brief biography of the man.
John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, was one of the most fascinating and notorious characters of the Restoration Age. In his brief life―he was only 33 when he died―he led a very eventful existence. As John Dennis put it, 'his wit, his spirit, his amorous temper, the charms that he had for the fair sex, his falsehood, and his inconstancy...' , and managed time to leave a poetic output that rivals that of Dryden and is still colored by his original personality.

His friend, the playwright Sir George Etherege, based a character 'Dorimant' on him in his play 'Sir Fopling Flutter or Man of the Mode' and described him as "...a Devil, but he has something of the Angel yet defac'd in him."

Early Life

The Earl, known in his lifetime as Lord Rochester, was born at Ditchley in Oxfordshire on the 1st of April, 1647. His parents were Henry Wilmot and Anne St. John.

It was two years after his birth that Charles I of England was beheaded. Henry Wilmot, who became the 1st Earl of Rochester in 1652, had been a Royalist supporter of Charles I and later aided the escape of Charles II and followed him into a long exile. He died while in exile in 1658, and so didn't see the Restoration of the Monarchy that came about just two years later in 1660.

Education

As a child, Wilmot attended the Burford Grammar School while also being taught by a tutor at home. He was generally considered a model, well-behaved pupil. Later, he was sent to Oxford. He was just 12 when he was admitted as a Fellow commoner to Wadham College. When he was 14, the Chancellor of the University―the Earl of Clarendon who was a family friend―awarded him an honorary M.A. degree. Then, as was the fashion amongst the English Aristocracy, he was sent to finish his education by traveling in Italy and France.

On his return, now a polished, sophisticated young man of 18, he took his place in the new court of Charles II―he wasn't to grace the Parliament until he reached the more mature age of 21―and quickly became one of the most well-known wits. In May 1665, he created a stir by kidnapping the heiress, Elizabeth Mallet, as she left the Westminster Palace in her grandfather's coach one night. Apparently, she had caught his eye for her beauty, wit, and immense wealth. The young Lord Rochester thought of this method of winning himself a wife. As it turned out, Elizabeth was impressed and finally married him two years later, but at the time the King was vastly annoyed by his uncivilized conduct. Elizabeth was brought back and returned to her family. Lord Rochester was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for a few weeks.

In August 1665, Lord Rochester took part in the Battle of Vagen against the Dutch, where he is said to have shown exceptional courage.

Marriage and Mischief

On 29 January 1667, Lord Rochester and Elizabeth Mallet were married and―despite his notorious character and philandering―it was a happy union. They had three children that he doted on. Elizabeth and the children lived mainly at the Rochester Country Estate.

The Earl divided his time between being a sober family man in the country and a hell-raising boozer and womanizer in London.

He had numerous mistresses, notable amongst them the famous actress Elizabeth Barry. It is said that she was a rather ordinary stage performer until he took her under his wing and personally coached her.

His court shenanigans were plenty and ranged from drunken brawls, running naked, and destroying the King's sun-dial to writing bawdy verses that lampooned the licentious behavior of the King and the Aristocracy. He wrote about the Duchess of Cleveland,
"When she has jaded quite
Her almost boundless appetite...
She'll still drudge on in tasteless vice
As if she sinn'd for exercise."


This sort of thing succeeded in getting him banished from the royal presence. He is known to have donned different disguises to keep a low profile and easily mingle with the lower classes. It seems he got a kick out of fooling everyone in the vicinity. His most famous disguise was as Doctor Alexander Bendo, a German, specializing in fertility treatment. This came about after, in a moment of drunkenness, he mistakenly handed Charles II a particularly insulting poem on himself. In this, he described the King as,
"Nor are his high desires above his strength:
His scepter and his prick are of a length;
And she may sway the one who plays with th' other,
And make him little wiser than his brother."


Banned from court for several months, he set up a stall on Tower Hill and soon fooled half of London as the good Doctor Bendo.

Lord Rochester and Charles II

Despite his numerous offenses, Lord Rochester was invariably forgiven and allowed to return to court. Charles II had a soft corner for the Earl, and found him very entertaining to have around. Charles II appointed the Earl as the Ranger of Woodstock Park and the Gentleman of the Bedchamber―a high honor that was only conferred upon the King's closest friends.

Lord Rochester was an important member of the infamous 'Merry Gang' at the court, that included other high-spirited wits and rakes like Charles Sackville (Earl of Dorset), John Sheffield (Earl of Mulgrave), George Villiers (Duke of Buckingham), William Wycherley, and others.

Most of these people―for all their baffling antics and practical jokes―were intellectuals with several literary accomplishments to their names. Lord Rochester's lively and often sexually explicit poetry, biting satires, songs, and plays were well-known in his lifetime, but most of the works were published anonymously and it was not until after his death that they were published under his name. His play 'Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery' was later banned for being obscene and all the printed copies were destroyed.

Lord Rochester finds a somewhat censorious mention in Samuel Johnson's 'Lives of the English Poets',
"Having an active and inquisitive mind, he never, except in his paroxysms of intemperance, was wholly negligent of study: he read what is considered as polite learning so much, that he is mentioned by Wood as the greatest scholar of all the nobility. Sometimes he retired into the country and amused himself with writing libels, in which he did not pretend to confine himself to truth."

"Thus in a course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness; till, at the age of one-and-thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay."


Death

The Earl's constant drinking proved to have a disastrous effect on his health. He contracted syphilis and other venereal diseases, for which there was no cure in those days, and also suffered from cirrhosis as a result of his alcoholism. After much suffering, he died on 26 July 1680.

Lord Rochester had always been an atheist in his lifetime, but as his health ebbed, on his mother's insistence, he had to endure the administrations of her religious friends. One of them, Dr. Burnet, was with him at the very end, and later claimed to have got him to repent and return to the religious fold. Whether this really happened or not, it got Dr. Burnet some Christian publicity.
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