He married an heiress, Elizabeth Malet, and his mistresses included the actress Elizabeth Barry.
Rochester told the historian Gilbert Burnet that, "for five years together he was continually drunk; not all the while under the visible effect of it." He was repeatedly banished- and as often recalled- by the King he scurrilously lampooned. Drink made him "extravagantly pleasant"; it also led to disgraces like the smashing of the royal sundial and the brawl at Epsom in which his friend Mr. Downes was killed.
His poetry, much of it censored during the Victorian era, began a revival from the 1920s onwards, with notable champions including Graham Greene. Vivian de Sola Pinto linked his libertinism to Hobbesian materialism.
John Wilmot was born in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. His father, Henry, Viscount Wilmot, was a hard-drinking Cavalier of Anglo-Irish stock, and had been created Earl of Rochester in 1652 for military services to Charles II during his exile under the Commonwealth. His mother, Anne St. John, was a Royalist by descent and a strong willed Puritan. From the age of 7, Rochester was privately tutored, two years later attending the grammar school in nearby Burford. When Rochester was ten years old, he lost the father he had probably seen no more than a dozen or so times in his life.
At the age of twelve, Rochester attended Wadham College, Oxford, a new and comparatively poor college. There, unsupervised, he fell under the influence of the tutor Robert Whitehall, a hard-drinking wit, and "grew debauched". At fourteen he was awarded an honorary M.A. by an old family friend, the newly-elected Chancellor of the university, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. As an act of gratitude towards the son of Henry Wilmot, Charles II conferred on Rochester an annual pension of £500. In November 1661 Charles sent him on a three year Grand Tour of France and Italy, accompanied by the physician and scholar Andrew Balfour. In 1664 Rochester returned to London, where he graced the Restoration court. The seventeen year old Rochester was witty, graceful and handsome.
Charles, continuing in his role in loco parentis, suggested marriage between Rochester and the wealthy heiress Elizabeth Malet. Her wealth-hungry relatives opposed marriage to the impoverished Rochester, who thus decided to take matters into his own hands, abducting the young Countess. Samuel Pepys describes the attempted abduction in his diary for 28 May 1665:
Thence to my Lady Sandwich's, where, to my shame, I had not been a great while before. Here, upon my telling her a story of my Lord Rochester's running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallett, 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 into 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 spoke to the lady often, but with no successe [sic]) 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 was quickly apprehended, and sent to the Tower for several weeks, only released after he wrote a penitent apology to the King. Rochester attempted to redeem himself by volunteering in the Second Dutch War. His courage at the Battle of Vågen made him a war hero. Pleased with his conduct, Charles made Rochester Gentleman of the Bedchamber upon his return. Malet agreed to marry Rochester in January 1666/67.
In 1667 Rochester took his seat in the House of Lords, despite protests from the Lords that he was underage.
According to an often repeated anecdote, Rochester's coaching of his mistress Elizabeth Barry began her career as the greatest actress of the Restoration stage.
Rochester's life was divided between domesticity in the country and a riotous existence at court, where he was renowned for drunkenness, vivacious conversation, and "extravagant frolics" as part of the Merry Gang (as Andrew Marvell called them). The Merry Gang flourished for about 15 years after 1665 and included Henry Jermyn; Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset; John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave; Henry Killigrew; Sir Charles Sedley; the playwrights William Wycherley and George Etherege; and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Rochester said that, "For five years together he was continually Drunk … [and] not … perfectly Master of himself … [which] led him to … do many wild and unaccountable things."
In 1674, Rochester wrote a satire on Charles II, which is commonly known by the title of "Satyr" and by its first line, "In the Isle of Britain" – which criticized the King for being obsessed with sex at the expense of his kingdom. Charles' reaction to this satirical portrayal resulted in Rochester's brief exiling from the court. During his brief exile, Rochester appears to have spent time at his estate in Adderbury, and may have also posed as a merchant in London's old city. He then returned to his seat in the House of Lords after an absence of about seven weeks.
In June 1675 Lord Rochester in a frolick after a rant did ... beat downe the dyill which stood in the middle of the Privie Garding, which was esteemed the rarest in Europ". John Aubrey learned what Rochester said on this occasion when he came in from his "revells" with Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, and Fleetwood Sheppard to see the phallic object: "'What ... doest thou stand here to fuck time?' Dash they fell to worke".
Rochester fell into disfavour again in 1676. During a late-night scuffle with the night watch — a scuffle probably provoked by Rochester himself — one of Rochester's companions was killed by a pike-thrust. Rochester was reported to have fled the scene of the incident.
Following this incident, Rochester briefly went underground, impersonating a quack physician, "Doctor Bendo." Under this persona, he claimed skill in treating "barrenness" (infertility), and other gynecological disorders. Gilbert Burnet wryly noted that Rochester's practice was "not without success," implying his intercession of himself as surreptitious sperm donor. On occasion, Rochester also assumed the role of the grave and matronly Mrs. Bendo, presumably so that he could inspect young women privately without arousing their husbands' suspicions.
By the age of 33, Rochester was dying, presumably from syphilis, gonorrhea or other venereal diseases, as well as from the effects of alcoholism. His mother had him attended in his final weeks by her religious associates, particularly Gilbert Burnet, later Bishop of Salisbury. A deathbed renunciation of libertinism was published and promulgated as the conversion of a prodigal son. This reported renunciation became legendary, reappearing in numerous pious tracts over the next two centuries. Because the first published account of this story appears in Burnet's own writings, some have disputed its accuracy, suggesting that he shaped the account of Rochester's denunciation of libertinism to enhance his own reputation. Notwithstanding this, other sources, including documents signed by Rochester, confirm that in his final months his thoughts turned towards religion and the afterlife. Rochester died in the early morning of 26 July 1680, "without a shudder or a sound." Rochester was later buried at Spelsbury Church in Spelsbury, Oxfordshire. After hearing of Burnet's departure from his side he muttered his very last words; "Has my friend left me? then I shall die shortly"
It's his poetry, permeated with invocations of drunken revelry, sexual dissipation, and male separatism, and his involvement with the much disputed (and never staged) play "Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery," which brilliantly demonstrates Restoration versions of bisexuality. Here androgynous boys are idealized as creatures of a "softer sex," often with the bodies of girls, but man-man relations - sexual relations between chronologically and economically similar men - are discouraged.
Burial: All Saints Churchyard, Spelsbury, Oxfordshire, England
Sodomy - A Dark, Debauched Tale of Erotic Madness (Classic Illustrated Erotica: Outrageous & Obscene Gay Sex Play from The English Restoration) by John Wilmot
Publisher: Erotic Evolution - Illustrated Adult Romance Novels and Sex Stories (April 5, 2011)
Amazon Kindle: Sodomy - A Dark, Debauched Tale of Erotic Madness
Sodomy is a famous and controversial work of classic erotic literature from the English Restoration (1660–1689). This outrageously lewd and often humorous dramatic play is written in five acts in rhyming couplets.
The King of Sodom, Bolloxinion, allows homosexual sodomy to become an acceptable sexual practice within his kingdom. This news is welcomed by the soldiers, however the women of the kingdom are not so impressed having to use "dildos and dogs". Erotic madness unfolds and the king is advised to "let Bugg'ry be no more". The King is doubtful and while demons, fire and brimstone rage on his kingdom, he runs off with his favourite friend Pockenello - to die in the act of sodomy.
Homosexuality in Renaissance England by Alan Bray
Paperback: 165 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press (April 15, 1995)
Amazon: Homosexuality in Renaissance England
Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England is a milestone work, one of those rare books that can be said to have virtually milestone work, one of those rare books that can be said to have virtually inaugurated a field of study--and one which remains a standard, comprehensive introduction to the subject. Since it was first published in England in 1982, however, it has been difficult to find in America.
Examining the image of the sodomite in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century literature and polemic, Bray demonstrates how widely that image differed from the everyday occurrences of male homosexual behavior in ordinary households and schools.
Homosexuality in Renaissance England explores how men who engaged in sodomy reconciled this behavior with their society's violent loathing for the sodomite, and shows how a social more that had remained stable for centuries changed dramatically toward the end of the seventeenth century.
Widely considered the best study of its kind Homosexuality in Renaissance England clearly shows why the modern image of "the homosexual" cannot be applied to the early modern period, when homosexual behavior was viewed in terms of the sexual act and not an individual's broader identity.
Bray's classic work goes on to show how the early eighteenth century saw the earliest emergence of a "homosexual identity." Finally available to a broad general audience in America, Homosexuality in Renaissance England is a must-read for anyone interested in sexuality during the early modern period.
Figuring Sex between Men from Shakespeare to Rochester by Paul Hammond
Paperback: 294 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (September 26, 2002)
Amazon: Figuring Sex between Men from Shakespeare to Rochester
Paul Hammond explores the representation of sexual relations between men in English literature of the seventeenth century. He includes detailed readings of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and shows how his plays added homosexual elements to his source stories. He also analyses the satirical representation of homosexual kings such as James I and William III, and the homoerotic poetry of Marvell and Rochester.
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