We all think the pop stars and actors of today invented naughty, crazy behavior but have I got a story for you and it goes way back to 1647 in England. The Earl of Rochester was renowned for his bawdy, satirical poetry, his drinking, partying and extremely bad behavior. Here is his story.
John Wilmot was born on the 1st April; some may say this was the sign of what was to come! He was born in Ditchley, Oxfordshire, England. His father, Henry Viscount Wilmot, was a hard drinker Royalist from Anglo-Irish stock who became the Earl Of Rochester in 1652. He was given this title for military services to Charles ll during his exile. His mother, Anne St John, was a Royalist by descent and a staunch Anglican.
John was 12 years old when he was sent to Wadham College in Oxford and it is here that it was thought he started his ‘debauched’ life. When he was 14 years old, he was awarded the degree of MA by Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon. This was always a little suspicious as the Earl was the Chancellor of the University as well as his uncle. But saying that, John was a very bright student.
After University, he went off on a Grand Tour of France and Italy and came back a war hero, having shown great courage at the ‘Battle of Vagen’. Once his fighting days were over, he joined the ‘Royal Restoration Court’ in London and his party days began. Lots of drinking, women and crazy pranks.
At this time, John was intrigued by Elizabeth Malet, a witty heiress. One night, he decided to abduct her from the coach she was traveling in with her aged guardian, Lord Howley. He eventually had to release her, and because of the complaint by Lord Howley, was sent to the Tower of London for kidnapping. Meanwhile, Elizabeth decided she quite liked John and so rejected other wealthy suitors that asked to marry her. Eventually, John was pardoned by King Charles ll and was able to join his friends back at court.
In 1667 he married Elizabeth Malet and they set up home in a beautiful mansion on an estate in Adderbury. Once settled with a wife and children, he then split his time between his quiet home and the wild party time with his friends at the court of the King. The ‘Merry Gang’, as he and his friends were known, spent their time with lively conversation, drinking, mistresses and pranks. Even their King, like most kings in the past, had his share of mistresses, one being the famous Nell Gywn, and he encouraged a lively court.
John’s friends included Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset, Henry Killigrew, Sir Charles Sedley, Henry Jermyn, John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, and the popular playwrights of that time George Etheridge, William Wycherley and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
In 1674, John wrote a satire on his friend, King Charles ll. It was a little too risque in its content. It criticized the king of being obsessed with sex at the expense of his kingdom! He was exiled from court and had to go back to his country estate but after a few weeks, was so missed that he was forgiven and called back to Court.
Our Earl loved the theater and became interested in an actress, Elizabeth Barry. He wanted her as his mistress and made a bet with his friends that he would make her the most famous actress of the Restoration Stage. In 1675, she became his mistress and he coached her. He won his bet and gained a daughter in the process, who was also named Elizabeth. The affair went on for two years, but eventually she left him for other more influential wealthy men! (Doesn’t that remind you of the film ‘My fair Lady?’) Here is one of the poems he sent Elizabeth at the end of their affair.
“Leave this gaudy gilded stage
From custom more than use frequented
Where fools of either sex and age
Crowd to see themselves presented.”
Shortly after the affair had ended, he was out with his drinking buddies and they had a drunken scuffle with the Night Watch. One of his friends was killed by a pike thrust. John ran away that night and had to disappear for a while. This was one crazy guy! He decided to impersonate a quack physician and was known as ‘Dr Bendo’. He claimed he had skills in treating barrenness and gynecological disorders! He was apparently quite successful with his ‘treatments’ as a few of his patients became pregnant. Make what you want out of that! John even had the nerve to assume the role of matronly “Mrs Bendo”. This allowed him to examine younger women without their husbands becoming suspicious.
Once again, he was missed at court, forgiven and invited back so ‘Dr Bendo’ retired. He was even welcomed back by his long suffering wife. Court life was a constant party and he was close to the King. John wrote a teasing epitaph for his King,
Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King
Whose word no man relies on
He never said a foolish thing
Nor ever did a wise one.
King Charles was reputed to respond with “That is true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers.”
By the young age of 33 years old, the Earl of Rochester was dying from the effects of alcoholism and probably syphilis, gonorrhea and other venereal diseases. His wife and mother nursed him on his death bed, along with attendance by his mothers’ religious associates. One in particular, Gilbert Burnet, who later became the Bishop of Salisbury, seemed to have an influence on our crazy Earl. John did turn towards religion and thoughts of the afterlife as he was dying.
Most of his written works were not published under his name until after his death, by his choice. I am sorry, most of them are X rated so you will have to research them yourselves. They made me blush reading them!!
I think you will agree that the Earl of Rochester set the trend for outrageous behavior but still being admired and loved. He lived a life ruled by emotions, passions, jealousy, devotion and forgiveness and did not waste a second of his short life. It was said that our Earl of Rochester “Blazed out of his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness.”
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