The wildest & most fantastical odd man

This snippet follows on from A Ramble in St James’ Park, and is an overview of the life of the second earl of Rochester.

John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester (1647–1680), poet and courtier, was born on 10 April 1647 the only surviving son of Henry Wilmot, first earl of Rochester, a royalist army officer, and his second wife, Anne.  The family moved to Paris when Henry Wilmot went into exile, settling in the Louvre at the court of Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s queen.

In 1660 Rochester was admitted to Wadham College, Oxford.  He was ‘a very hopefull Youth, very virtuous and good natur’d (as he was always) and willing & ready to follow good Advice’. Oxford was a hard drinking university and Rochester had the misfortune to be patronised by Robert Whitehall, known as that ‘useless member’ of Merton College, who, as a result of ‘following the trade of drinking as he was wont, procured himself a red face.’ Whitehall undertook to instruct the boy, ‘on whom he absolutely doted’, in the art of poetry.

Rochester was created MA filius nobilis on 9 September 1661, and on 21st November 1661 he set out on his travels with a governor, Dr Andrew Balfour, a physician and herbalist presumably chosen by the king, and two servants, with all expenses paid by the crown. The group toured Europe, resting at Venice, Padua, and Paris.

Even before Rochester arrived back at court, the king had chosen a bride for him. He was ‘encouraged by the king to make his [addresses] to Mrs. Mallet, who was the great beauty and fortune of the North.’  Elizabeth’s grandfather had brought her to court in 1664 to find her a husband. On 28th May 1665, Pepys recounted the following story:

of my Lord of Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallet … who had supped at White-hall and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Ha[w]l[e]y, by coach, and was at Charing-cross seized on by both horse and foot-men and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord Rochester (for whom the King had spoke 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.

In June 1665, Rochester addressed a petition to the king from the Tower: ‘Sheweth that noe misfortune on earth could bee so sensible to your Petitioner as the losse of your Majesties favour.’ Charles responded on 19th June by ordering Rochester to be discharged from the Tower. Released from prison, and having spent some time abroad, serving in the Anglo-Dutch wars, Rochester returned to court in 1667, and on 29th January, he and Elizabeth were married. In the same year he took his seat in the House of Lords.

In 1668, pregnant with their daughter, Lady Rochester retired to Adderbury, the Wilmot estate in Oxfordshire, where Anne Wilmot (named for Rochester’s mother), was born on 30th April 1669. For twelve years, from 1667 to 1679, Rochester’s life followed a familiar pattern: London during sessions of parliament and Adderbury during recesses; ‘He was wont to say that when he came to Brentford [on the London road] the devill entred into him and never left him till he came into the country again.’

Rochester’s life at court revolved around wine and women. According to Anthony Hamilton’s Memoirs of the comte de Grammont, Rochester seduced Sarah Cooke, who became ‘the prettiest, but also the worst actress in the realm.’  She was followed by others, including the actress Elizabeth Barry. Later reports stated that Rochester took over Barry’s training as an actress and ‘taught her not only the proper cadence or sounding of the voice, but to seize also the passions, and adapt her whole behaviour to the situations of the character.’ In April 1677, Barry, pregnant with Rochester’s child, left ‘this gaudy, gilded stage’.  His daughter, Elizabeth Clerke, was born in December 1677, but Barry was ‘no more monogamous than Rochester,’ and their relationship was very stormy. According to one of Rochester’s letters, Elizabeth ‘made it … absolutely necessary’ for Rochester to remove his daughter temporarily from her care.  In his will he left the child £40 a year.

‘For five years together’, Rochester himself said, ‘he was continually Drunk … [and] not … perfectly Master of himself … [which] led him to … do many wild and unaccountable things.’ He presented himself to Barry as ‘the wildest and most fantastical odd man alive,’ and in June 1675, he ‘in a frolick after a rant did … beat downe the dyill [glass chronometer] which stood in the middle of the Privie Gardens, which was esteemed the rarest in Europe’.  “What … doest thou stand here to fuck time?” he apparently ranted.

Rochester’s writings were admired and infamous. A Satyr Against Mankind (1675), one of the few poems he published (in a broadside in 1679) is a scathing denunciation of rationalism and optimism, but the majority of his poetry was not published under his name until after his death. Because most of his poems circulated only in manuscript form during his lifetime, it is likely that much of his writing does not survive.  Rochester was also interested in the theatre. In addition to an interest in the actresses, he wrote an adaptation of Fletcher’s Valentinian (published in 1685), a scene for Sir Robert Howard’s The Conquest of China, a prologue to Elkanah Settle’s The Empress of Morocco (1673), and epilogues to Sir Francis Fane’s Love in the Dark (1675), Charles Davenant’s Circe, A Tragedy (1677). The best-known dramatic work attributed to Rochester, Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, has never been successfully proven to be written by him;

In the summer of 1679, Rochester learned that Jane Roberts, a former mistress, had died of syphilis. The year before, she had undergone mercury therapy, a particularly unpleasant therapy to cure the pox; ‘what shee has endured would make a damd soule fall a laughing att his lesser paines’.

Rochester himself succumbed to syphilis in 1679.  He renounced his former life of sin, and ordered ‘all his profane and lewd Writings … and all his obscene and filthy Pictures, to be burned.’ Towards the end, Rochester was ‘delirious’ his friend William Fanshaw observed, ‘for to my knowledge he believed neither in God nor Jesus Christ.’ His mother reported to her sister-in-law that ‘one night … he was disordered in his head’ and talked ‘ribble rabble’ and that on another occasion ‘his head was a little disordered.’ At last there was nothing left but ‘Skin and Bone’. Rochester died at High Lodge about 2 a.m. on 26 July 1680 ‘without … so much as a groan.’ He was buried on 9th August 1680.

Source: Frank H. Ellis, DNB. 
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2 Comments

  • December 2, 2009 - 1:11 pm | Permalink

    It is quite a sad life, I agree. And a horrible end. Johnny Depp did a wonderful job portraying him. It’s a shame Rochester isn’t more widely respected as a poet.

  • December 2, 2009 - 11:48 am | Permalink

    I was wondering if this was the story on which The Libertine was based – and then I came to the end of the post.

    Great story. Very sad. And, Johnny Depp played the part to perfection.

  • Comments are closed.

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