Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sackville, Charles (1638-1706)
SACKVILLE, CHARLES, sixth Earl of Dorset and Earl of Middlesex (1638–1706), poet and courtier, born on 24 Jan. 1637–8, was the son of Richard Sackville, fifth earl (1622–1677), and Frances, daughter of Lionel Cranfield, first earl of Middlesex [see under Sackville, Sir Edward, fourth earl]. Owing, perhaps, to the confusion of the times in his youth, he received his education from a private tutor, and, as Lord Buckhurst, travelled in Italy at an early age. Returning at the Restoration, he was in 1660 elected to parliament for East Grinstead, but ‘turned his parts,’ says the courtly Prior, ‘rather to books and conversation than to politics.’ In other words he became a courtier, a wit, and a man about town, and for some years seems to have led a very dissipated life. In February 1662, he, his brother Edward, and three other gentlemen were apprehended and indicted for killing and robbing a tanner named Hoppy. The defence was that they took him for a highwayman, and his money for stolen property; and either the prosecution was dropped or the parties were acquitted. In 1663 he was mixed up in the disgraceful frolic of Sir Charles Sedley [q. v.] at ‘Oxford Kate's,’ and, according to Wood and Johnson, was indicted along with him, but this seems to be negatived by the contemporary report of Pepys (1 July 1663). He found better employment in 1665, volunteering in the fleet fitted out against the Dutch, and taking an honourable part in the great naval battle of 3 June 1665. On this occasion he composed that masterpiece of sprightly elegance, the song, ‘To all you ladies now at land,’ which, according to Prior, he wrote, but according to the more probable version of Lord Orrery, only retouched on the night before the engagement. Prior claims for him a yet higher honour, as the Eugenius of Dryden's ‘Dialogue on Dramatic Poesy.’ Dryden, however, gives no hint of this in his dedication of the piece to Sackville himself; and if it is really the case, he committed an extraordinary oversight in fixing his dialogue on the very day of the battle, when Sackville could not possibly have taken part in the conference. For some time after his return Buckhurst seems to have continued his wild course of life. Pepys, at all events, in October 1668 classes him along with Sedley as a pattern rake, ‘running up and down all the night, almost naked, through the streets; and at last fighting, and being beat by the watch and clapped up all night; and the king takes their parts; and the Lord-chief-justice Keeling hath laid the constable by the heels to answer it next sessions; which is a horrid shame.’ He had a short time previously taken Nell Gwynne [see Gwyn, Eleanor] under his protection, to the additional scandal of Mr. Pepys, not on moral grounds, but because the stage was thus deprived of a favourite actress. The latter is said to have called him her Charles I. He and Nell ‘kept merry house at Epsom’ during 1667, but about Michaelmas 1668 Nell became the king's mistress, and Sackville was sent to France on a complimentary mission (or, as Dryden called it, ‘on a sleeveless errand’) to get him out of the way.
From this time we hear little of his follies, but much of his munificence to men of letters and of the position generally accorded him as an arbiter of taste. When Prior was employed as a boy in his uncle's tavern (about 1680) Sackville discovered his promise, helped to defray his schooling at Westminster, and aided him with his influence. He befriended Dryden, Butler, Wycherley, and many more; he was consulted, if we may believe Prior, by Waller for verse, by Sprat for prose, and by Charles II touching the merits of the portraits of Sir Peter Lely. He inherited two considerable estates—that of his maternal uncle, Lionel Cranfield, third earl of Middlesex, in 1674; and that of his father in 1677, when he succeeded to the title. He had previously, on 4 April 1675, been created Baron Cranfield and Earl of Middlesex. He preserved Charles's favour throughout the whole of his reign; but neither his gaiety nor his patriotism was a recommendation to Charles's successor, whose mistress, Lady Dorchester, he had moreover bitterly satirised. Dorset withdrew from court, publicly manifested his sympathy with the seven bishops, and concurred in the invitation to the Prince of Orange. His active part in the revolution was limited to escorting the Princess Anne to Nottingham. Having no inclination for political life, he took no part in public affairs under William, but accepted the office of lord chamberlain of the household, which he held from 1689 to 1697, and was assiduous in his attendance on the king's person, being on one occasion tossed for twenty-two hours in his company in an open boat off the coast of Holland. When obliged in his official capacity to withdraw Dryden's pension as poet laureate, he allowed him an equivalent out of his own estate. Dryden in a measure repaid the obligation by addressing his ‘Essay on Satire’ to Dorset. Dorset also received the Garter (1691), and was thrice one of the regents during the king's absence. In his old age he grew very fat, and, according to Swift, extremely dull. He died at Bath on 29 Jan. 1706, and was interred in the family vault at Withyham, Sussex.
His first wife, Mary, widow of Charles Berkeley, earl of Falmouth, having died without issue, he married in 1685 Mary, daughter of James Compton, third earl of Northampton, celebrated alike for beauty and understanding. His second wife was a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Mary; she died on 6 Aug. 1691, and the earl married, thirdly, on 27 Aug. 1704, Anne, ‘Mrs. Roche,’ a ‘woman of obscure connections.’ His only son, Lionel Cranfield Sackville, succeeded to the title, and afterwards became first Duke of Dorset [q. v.] An anonymous portrait of Dorset belonged in 1867 to the Countess De la Warr 9cfr. Cat. Second Loan Exhib. No. 110).
Walpole wrote of Dorset with discernment that he was the finest gentleman of the voluptuous court of Charles II. ‘He had as much wit as his master, or his contemporaries Buckingham and Rochester, without the royal want of feeling, the duke's want of principle, or the earl's want of thought’ (Noble Authors, ii. 96). Despite the excesses of his early life, and the probably malicious innuendoes of the Earl of Mulgrave in his ‘Essay upon Satyr,’ Sackville's character was not unamiable. His munificence to men of letters speaks for itself, and tempts us to accept in the main the favourable estimate of Prior, overcoloured as it is by the writer's propensity to elegant compliment, his confessed obligations to Dorset, and its occurrence in a dedication to his son. Prior's eulogiums on Dorset's native strength of understanding, though it is impossible that they should be entirely confirmed, are in no way contradicted by the few occasional poems which are all that he has left us. Not one of them is destitute of merit, and some are admirable as ‘the effusions of a man of wit’ (in Johnson's word's), ‘gay, vigorous, and airy.’ ‘To all you Ladies’ is an admitted masterpiece; and the literary application of the Shakespearian phrase ‘alacrity in sinking’ comes from the satirical epistle to the Hon. Edward Howard.
Dorset's poems, together with those of Sir Charles Sedley, appeared in ‘A New Miscellany’ in 1701, and in vol. i. of ‘The Works of the most celebrated Minor Poets’ in 1749. They are included in the collection of the ‘Poets’ by Johnson, Anderson, Chalmers, and Sanford. Eight of his pieces are included in ‘Musa Proterva,’ 1889, edited by Mr. A. H. Bullen, who calls him one of the lightest and happiest of the Restoration lyrists.[Prior's Dedication to his own Poems, ed. 1709; Collins's Peerage; Beljame's Hommes de Lettres en Angleterre, 1883, pp. 108, 501; Cunningham's Story of Nell Gwyn; Gramont's Memoirs, ed. Vizetelly, passim; Burnet's Hist. of his Own Time; Macaulay's Hist. of England; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ed. A. Waugh; Pepys's Diary.]