Wilmot, John (1647-1680) (DNB00)
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Wilmot, John (1647-1680)
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WILMOT, JOHN, second Earl of Rochester (1647–1680), poet and libertine, was the son of Henry Wilmot, first earl of Rochester [q. v.], by his second wife. He was born at Ditchley in Oxfordshire on 10 April 1647, and on the death of his father on 9 Feb. 1657–8 succeeded to the earldom. He was left with little besides the pretensions to the king's favour bequeathed him by his father's services to Charles after the battle of Worcester. After attending the school at Burford, he was admitted a fellow commoner of Wadham College, Oxford, on 18 Jan. 1659–60. His tutor was Phineas Bury. He showed as an undergraduate a happy turn for English verse, and contributed to the university collections on Charles II's restoration (1660) and on the death of Princess Mary of Orange (1661). He was created M.A. on 9 Sept. 1661, when little more than fourteen. Next year he presented to his college four silver pint pots, which are still preserved. On leaving the university he travelled in France and Italy under the care of Dr. Balfour, who encouraged his love of literature. In 1664 he returned from his travels while in his eighteenth year, and presented himself at Whitehall. In the summer of 1665 he joined as a volunteer Sir Thomas Teddeman [q. v.] on board the Royal Katherine, and took part in the unsuccessful assault on Dutch ships in the Danish harbour of Bergen on 1 Aug. He is said to have behaved with credit. He again served at sea in the summer of the following year in the Channel under Sir Edward Spragge [q. v.], and distinguished himself by carrying a message in an open boat under the enemy's fire.
Rochester had meanwhile identified himself with the most dissolute set of Charles II's courtiers. He became the intimate associate of George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham; Charles Sackville, earl of Dorset; Sir Charles Sedley, and Henry Savile, and, although their junior by many years, soon excelled all of them in profligacy. Burnet says that he was ‘naturally modest till the court corrupted him,’ but he fell an unresisting prey to every manner of vicious example. His debaucheries and his riotous frolics were often the outcome of long spells of drunkenness. Towards the end of his life he declared that he was under the influence of drink for five consecutive years. At the same time he cultivated a brilliant faculty for amorous lyrics, obscene rhymes, and mordant satires in verse, and, although he quickly ruined his physical health by his excesses, his intellect retained all its vivacity till death.
The king readily admitted him to the closest intimacy. He was Charles's companion in many of the meanest and most contemptible of the king's amorous adventures, and often acted as a spy upon those which he was not invited to share. But although his obscene conversation and scorn for propriety amused the king, there was no love lost between them, and Rochester's position at court was always precarious. His biting tongue and his practical jokes spared neither the king nor the ministers nor the royal mistresses, and, according to Gramont, he was dismissed in disgrace at least once a year. It was (Pepys wrote) ‘to the king's everlasting shame to have so idle a rogue his companion’ (Pepys, viii. 231–2). He clearly exerted over Charles an irresistible fascination, and he was usually no sooner dismissed the court than he was recalled. He wrote many ‘libels’ on the king, which reeked with gross indecency, but his verses included the familiar epigram on the ‘sovereign lord’ who ‘never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one’ (‘Miscellany Poems’ appended to Miscellaneous Works of Rochester and Roscommon, 1707, p. 135). He lacked all sense of shame, and rebuffs had no meaning for him. On 16 Feb. 1668–9 he accompanied the king and other courtiers to a dinner at the Dutch ambassador's. Offended by a remark of a fellow-guest, Thomas Killigrew, he boxed his ears in the royal presence. Charles II overlooked the breach of etiquette, and next day walked publicly up and down with Rochester at court to the dismay of seriously minded spectators. When he attempted to steal a kiss from the Duchess of Cleveland as she left her carriage, he was promptly laid on his back by a blow from her hand; but, leaping to his feet, he recited an impromptu compliment.
On one occasion, when bidden to withdraw from court, he took up his residence under an assumed name in the city of London, and, gaining admission to civic society, disclosed and mockingly denounced the degraded debaucheries of the king and the king's friends. Subsequently he set up as a quack doctor under the name of Alexander Bendo, taking lodgings in Tower Street, and having a stall on Tower Hill. He amused himself by dispensing advice and cosmetics among credulous women. A speech which he is said to have delivered in the character of a medical mountebank proves him to have acted his part with much humour and somewhat less freedom than might have been anticipated (prefixed to the ‘Poetical Works of Sir Charles Sedley,’ 1710; Gramont, Memoirs). At another time, according to Saint-Évremond, he and the Duke of Buckingham took an inn on the Newmarket road, and, while pretending to act as tavern-keepers, conspired to corrupt all the respectable women of the neighbourhood. On relinquishing the adventure they joined the king at Newmarket, and were welcomed with delight.
With the many ladies of doubtful reputation who thronged the court Rochester had numerous intrigues, but he showed their waiting women as much attention as themselves. Elizabeth Barry [q.v.] , ‘woman to the Lady Shelton of Norfolk,’ he took into his keeping. He taught her to act, and introduced her to the stage, where she pursued a highly successful career. Some of his letters to her were published after his death. A daughter by her lived to the age of thirteen.
Despite his libertine exploits, Rochester succeeded in repairing his decaying fortune by a wealthy marriage. The king encouraged him to pay addresses to Elizabeth, daughter of John Malet of Enmere, Somerset, by Elizabeth, daughter of Francis, baron Hawley of Donamore. Pepys described her as ‘the great beauty and fortune of the north.’ Gramont called her a ‘melancholy heiress.’ Not unnaturally she rejected Rochester's suit, whereupon he resorted to violence. On 26 May 1665 the lady supped with the king's mistress, Frances Teresa Stuart (or Stewart) [q. v.], and left with her grandfather, Lord Hawley. At Charing Cross Rochester and his agents stopped the horses and forcibly removed her to another coach, which was rapidly driven out of London. A hue and cry was raised, Rochester was followed to Uxbridge, where he was arrested, and, on being brought to London, was committed to the Tower by order of the king (Pepys, Diary, ed. Wheatley, iv. 419). Miss Malet was not captured, and Rochester was soon released with a pardon. In 1667 he married the lady, and remained on fairly good terms with her till his death (cf. his letters to her in Whartoniana, 1727, vol. ii.).
Rochester's marriage did not alter his relations with the king or the court. In 1666 he was made a gentleman of the king's bedchamber. On 5 Oct. 1667, although still under age, he was summoned to the House of Lords, and in 1674 he received a special mark of royal favour by being appointed keeper of Woodstock Park, with a lodge called ‘High Lodge’ for residence. On 24 Nov. 1670 Evelyn met him at dinner at the lord treasurer's, and described him as ‘a profane wit’ (Evelyn, Diary, ii. 254). In June 1676 he, (Sir) George Etherege, and three friends engaged in a drunken frolic at Epsom, ending in a skirmish with ‘the watch at Epsom,’ in the course of which one of the roisterers (Downes) received a fatal wound (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. p. 467; Hatton Correspondence, i. 133).
Meanwhile Rochester played the rôle of a patron of the poets, and showed characteristic fickleness in his treatment of them. He was a shrewd and exacting critic, as his caustic and ill-natured remarks in his clever imitation of the ‘Tenth Satire’ of Horace, bk. i., and in the ‘Session of the Poets’ (printed in his works), amply prove. About 1670 he showed many attentions to Dryden, who flattered him extravagantly when dedicating to him his ‘Marriage à la Mode’ (1673). But Rochester fell out with Dryden's chief patron, John Sheffield, earl of Mulgrave [q. v.]; he is said to have engaged in a duel with Mulgrave and to have shown the white feather. By way of retaliating on Mulgrave, he soon ostentatiously disparaged Dryden and encouraged Dryden's feeble rivals, Elkanah Settle and John Crowne. He contrived to have Settle's tragedy, ‘The Empress of Morocco,’ acted at Whitehall in 1671, and wrote a prologue, which he spoke himself. Crowne dedicated to him his ‘Charles VIII of France’ next year, and at the earl's suggestion he wrote the ‘Masque of Calisto,’ which Rochester recommended for performance at court in 1675. The younger dramatists Nathaniel Lee and Thomas Otway also shared his favours for a time. In 1675 he commended Otway's ‘Alcibiades,’ and interested the Duke of York in the young author. Otway dedicated to him his ‘Titus and Berenice’ in 1677; but when the dramatist ventured to make advances to Rochester's mistress, Mrs. Barry the actress, Rochester showed him small mercy. Lee, who dedicated to Rochester ‘Nero,’ his first piece, commemorated his patronage in his description of Count Rosidore in his ‘Princess of Cleves,’ which was first produced in November 1681. Another protégé, whom Rochester treated with greater constancy, was John Oldham (1653–1683) [q. v.] Sir George Etherege is said to have drawn from Rochester the character of the libertine Dorimant in the ‘Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter,’ which was first acted at the Duke's Theatre in 1676 (Etherege, Works, ed. Verity, p. xiv; cf. Beljame, Le Public et les Hommes de Lettres en Angleterre, 1660–1744, Paris, 1881, pp. 92 sq.)
In 1679 Rochester's health failed, although he was able to correspond gaily with his friend Henry Savile on the congenial topics of wine and women. During his convalescence in the autumn he, to the surprise of his friends, sought recreation in reading the first part of Gilbert Burnet's ‘History of the Reformation.’ He invited the author to visit him, and encouraged him to talk of religion and morality. Rochester, in his feeble condition of body, seems to have found Burnet's conversation consolatory. In April 1680 he left London for the High Lodge at Woodstock Park. The journey aggravated his ailments, and he began to recognise that recovery was impossible. He showed signs of penitence for his misspent life. After listening attentively to the pious exhortations of his chaplain, Robert Parsons (1647–1714) [q. v.], he wrote on 25 June to Burnet begging him to come and receive his deathbed repentance. Burnet arrived on 20 July, and remained till the 24th, spending the four days in spiritual discourse. ‘I do verily believe,’ Burnet wrote, ‘he was then so entirely changed that, if he had recovered, he would have made good all his resolutions.’ Rochester died two days after Burnet left him, on 26 July. He was buried in the north aisle of Spelsbury church in Oxfordshire, but without any monument or inscribed stone to distinguish his grave (cf. Marshall, Woodstock, suppl. 1874, pp. 25–36). His bed is still preserved at High Lodge.
Rochester's will, with a codicil dated 22 June 1680, was proved on 23 Feb. 1680–1. His executors included, besides his wife and mother, whom he entreated to live in amity with one another, Sir Walter St. John, his mother's brother, and Sir Allen Apsley (1616–1683) [q. v.] Settlements had already been made on his wife and son; 4,000l. was left to each of his three daughters; an annuity of 40l. was bestowed on an infant named Elizabeth Clerke; and other sums were bequeathed to servants (Wills from Doctors' Commons, Camd. Soc., pp. 139–41).
Sympathetic elegies came from the pens of Mrs. Anne Wharton, Jack How [i.e. John Grubham Howe [q.v.] ], Edmund Waller (Examen Miscellaneum, 1702), Thomas Flatman, and Oldham. His chaplain, Robert Parsons, preached a funeral sermon which gave a somewhat sensational account of his ‘death and repentance,’ and attracted general attention when it was published. A more edificatory account of Rochester's con- version, which made even greater sensation than Parsons's sermon, was published by Burnet under the title ‘Some Passages of the Life and Death of John, Earl of Rochester,’ 1680, 8vo. Like Parsons's volume, it was constantly reissued. A modern reprint, with a preface by Lord Ronald Gower, appeared in 1875. Of the episode of his visit to Rochester's deathbed Burnet wrote: ‘Nor was the king displeased with my being sent for by Wilmot, earl of Rochester, when he died. He fancied that he had told me many things of which I might make an ill use; yet he had read the book that I writ concerning him, and spoke well of it’ (Burnet, Own Times, 1823, ii. 288).
Rochester's widow survived him about thirteen months, dying suddenly of apoplexy, and being buried at Spelsbury on 20 Aug. 1681 (cf. Hatton Correspondence, ii. 6). By her he left a son and three daughters. The son, Charles, third and last earl of Rochester of the Wilmot family, baptised at Adderbury on 2 Jan. 1670–1, survived his father scarcely two years, dying on 12 Nov. and being buried on 7 Dec. 1681 by his father's side. The earldom thus became extinct, but it was recreated in favour of Lawrence Hyde [q. v.] on 29 Nov. 1682. Rochester's eldest daughter and heiress, Anne, married, first, Henry Bayntun of Bromham, Wiltshire; and, secondly, Francis Greville, leaving issue by both husbands, and being ancestress by her second husband of the Grevilles, earls of Warwick. Elizabeth, Rochester's second daughter, who is said to have inherited much of her father's wit, married Edward Montagu, third earl of Sandwich, and died at Paris on 2 July 1757. Rochester's third daughter, Malet, married John Vaughan, second viscount Lisburne.
The best portrait of Rochester is that by Sir Peter Lely at Hinchinbrooke, the seat of the Earl of Sandwich. In a portrait at Warwick Castle he is represented crowning a monkey with laurel. A third portrait, by Wissing, is in the National Portrait Gallery. A fourth portrait of Rochester in youth belonged in 1866 to Col. Sir E. S. Prideaux, bart. (Cat. National Portraits at South Kensington, 1866). Two engravings of him were made by R. White—one in large size dated 1681, and the other on a smaller scale, which was prefixed to the first edition of Burnet's ‘Some Passages,’ 1680. There is also an engraved miniature signed ‘D[avid] L[oggan] 1671.’
Rochester had as sprightly a lyric gift as any writer of the Restoration. As a satirist he showed much insight and vigour, and, according to Aubrey, Marvell regarded him as the best satirist of his time. But he was something of a plagiarist. His ‘Satire against Mankind’ owes much to Boileau, and to Cowley his lyrics were often deeply indebted. His literary work was disfigured by his incorrigibly licentious temper. The sentiment in his love songs is transparently artificial whenever it is not offensively obscene. Numerous verses of gross indecency which have been put to his credit in contemporary miscellanies of verse may be from other pens. But there is enough foulness in his fully authenticated poems to give him a title to be remembered as the writer of the filthiest verse in the language. His muse has been compared to a well-favoured child which wilfully and wantonly rolls itself in the mud, and is so besmeared with dirt that the ordinary wayfarer prefers rather to rush hastily by than pause to discover its native charms (Mr. Edmund Gosse in Ward's English Poets, ii. 425).
It is said that on his deathbed Rochester directed all his licentious writings to be destroyed, and that after his death his mother ordered a scandalous history of contemporary court intrigues to be burnt (Cibber). Of that work nothing is known, and the order may have been carried out, but much else survives. The bibliography of Rochester's poems is difficult owing to the number of poems that are attributed to him in miscellaneous collections of verse of which he was probably not the author (cf. Poems on Affairs of State, passim; Examen Miscellaneum, 1702). No complete critical collection of his works has been attempted. His ‘Satires against Mankind,’ his poem on ‘Nothing,’ and others of ‘his lewd and profane poems’ and libels appeared as penny broadsides in single folio sheets at the close of his life—in 1679 and 1680—doubtless surreptitiously. According to the advertisement to Parsons's sermon, ‘they were cry'd about the street.’ The letter in which he summoned Burnet to his deathbed also appeared as a broadside in 1680.
Within a few months of his death a short series of ‘Poems on several Occasions by the Right Honourable the E. of R——’ was issued, professedly at ‘Antwerpen,’ but really in London (1680, 8vo). The volume was reprinted in London in 1685, with some omissions and modifications, as ‘Poems on several Occasions, written by a late Person of Honour.’ Some additions were made to another issue of 1691, in which are to be found all his authenticated lyrics. This was reissued in 1696.
Meanwhile there appeared an adaptation by Rochester, in poor taste, of Beaumont and Fletcher's tragedy of ‘Valentinian,’ under the title ‘Valentinian: a Tragedy. As 'tis Alter'd by the late Earl of Rochester and Acted at the Theatre Royal. Together with a Preface concerning the Author and his Writings. By one of his Friends’ (i.e. Robert Wolseley, eldest son of Sir Charles Wolseley [q. v.]), London, 1685. When the play was produced in 1685, Betterton played Aecius with much success, and Mrs. Barry appeared as Lucina (Downes, Roscius, p. 55). Three prologues were printed, one being by Mrs. Behn.
A second play (in heroic couplets) of intolerable foulness has been put to Rochester's discredit. It is entitled ‘Sodom,’ and was published at Antwerp in 1684 as ‘by the E. of R.;’ no copy of this edition is known; one is said to have been burnt by Richard Heber. Two manuscripts are extant; one is in the British Museum (Harl. MS. 7312, pp. 118–45, a volume containing many of Rochester's authentic compositions), and the other is in the town library of Hamburg. The piece is improbably said to have been acted at court; it was doubtless designed as a scurrilous attack on Charles II. In a short poem purporting to be addressed to the author of the play (in Rochester's collected poems), he mockingly disclaimed all responsibility for it, and it has been attributed to a young barrister named John Fishbourne, of whom nothing is practically known (Baker, Biogr. Dram.) Internal evidence unhappily suggests that Rochester had the chief hand in the production. French adaptations are dated 1744, 1752, and 1767 (cf. Pisanus Fraxi, Centuria Librorum Absconditorum, London, privately printed, 1879).
An edition of Rochester's ‘Works’ which was issued by Tonson in 1714, 12mo, included his letters to Savile and Mrs. * * *, the tragedy of ‘Valentinian,’ a preface by Rymer, and a pastoral elegy by Oldham. There was a portrait by Van der Gucht. The fourth edition of this is dated 1732. Rochester's ‘Remains,’ including his ‘Satyres,’ followed in 1718. Probably the completest edition is the ‘Poetical Works of the Earl of Rochester,’ 1731–2, 2 vols.
A less perfect collection of his ‘Works’ included the poems of the Earl of Roscommon. The first edition appeared before 1702. An obscene appendix was called ‘The Delights of Venus, now first published.’ The second edition is dated 1702; others appeared in 1707 (and in 1714) with Saint-Évremond's memoir of Rochester and an additional poem of outrageous grossness called ‘The Discovery.’
A volume containing not only Rochester's poems, but also those of the Earls of Roscommon and Dorset and the Dukes of Devonshire and Buckingham, first appeared in 1731, and was frequently reissued, often with an obscene appendix by various hands, entitled ‘The Cabinet of Love,’ London, 1739, 2 vols. 12mo; 1757, 1777. A privately printed reissue of excerpts from the 1757 edition appeared in 1884. Rochester's poems, expurgated by George Steevens [q. v.], appeared in Johnson's collection, and were reprinted in the collections of Anderson, Chalmers, and Park.
Rochester's letters to Savile and to Mrs. Barry were published, with a varied correspondence collected by Tom Brown, in ‘Familiar Letters,’ 1685, 1697, and 1699, and seven letters—two to his son, four to his wife, and one to the Earl of Lichfield—are in ‘Whartoniana,’ 1727, ii. 161–8. A few more are appended to ‘A New Miscellany of Original Poems,’ 1720 (with preface by Anthony Hammond [q. v.])[Saint-Évremond's Memoir, prefixed to Rochester's Miscellaneous Works, 1707; Savile Correspondence (Camden Soc.); Cibber's Lives, ii. 269–300; Gramont's Memoirs; Burnet's Own Times; Aubrey's Lives, ed. Andrew Clark; Poems on Affairs of State, passim; Marshall's Woodstock, with Supplement, 1873–4; Hunter's Chorus Vatum in Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 24491; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham; G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage. Rochester's death is described for edificatory purposes not only in Parsons's Sermon, 1680, and Burnet's Some Passages, 1680, but also in The Libertine Overthrown, 1680, and in The Two Noble Converts, 1680. His career is depicted in an intentionally unedifying light in J. G. M. Rutherford's Adventures of the Duke of Buckingham, Charles II, and the Earl of Rochester, 1857, and in Singular Life … of the renowned Earl of Rochester, 1864?]