The Deliciously Wicked Earl of Rochester

John_WilmotThe perfect romantic hero means something rather different to different people. One of my favourite historical figures comes very close for me.

John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, (1647-1680) was one of Restoration England’s most fascinating and unusual characters.  His life was hardly routine – and it started with his father. The first earl earned his title when he loyally and most courageously helped the young Charles II escape England during the civil war, both in outrageous disguise before successfully escaping to safe haven abroad. So the first earl was quite a character too, heavy drinking, firmly royalist and unstoppable when roused. Not that young John ever saw much of him. The first earl seemed to fear only one thing – the responsibility of his wife and child. So John was left to grow up in puritan England with his strictly religious mother, a clever and sensitive young man who heard of his father’s heroic exploits – but did not meet him and knew himself unwanted.

As the puritan age was eventually swept away with the return of the roistering new monarch, it must have been quite an adjustment for most people. Brought up to consider even Christmas carols, the hint of a dance, bright clothes and any dash of decoration in a church as heinous blasphemy, quite suddenly England was rollicking with song, colour and bawdy celebration. Fashionable clothes became sumptuous with luxury, long wigs, lace and jewellery. This was a time when those who had lived under sufferance when puritanism was law, now raged in rebellion against all that pious suffocation.

John Wilmot’s mother tended to cling to past moral standards, but her clever son was accepted into Oxford University by the age of 12, and later the following year was taken on the grand tour of France and Italy where he discovered many more exciting temptations. He lost his virginity, and was possibly further introduced to vice by his accompanying tutor.

Whatever the facts, John Wilmot returned to England with a good deal more knowledge than he had left it. His father dead, he was now the 2nd earl, with a head full of inspiration and dreams. He loved poetry, which was most definitely in fashion at court during that time, and began tentatively to write his own. However, living a life of ease and pleasure was considered not only the God-given right of a gentleman but also essential, since no nobleman could be seen to trade  – let alone work!! But the Earldom of Rochester came with virtually no land, property or acquisitions, and the 2nd earl was as poor as a church mouse. The king made allowances, but the king rarely paid up and his promises were frequently empty ones.

So how has Rochester become the inspiration for a multitude of historical romances? It all started when he attempted to abduct the woman he wanted to marry. Elizabeth Malet was an heiress, and her two greedy guardians refused Rochester, the poverty stricken young earl, all permission to court her. She was being approached by far more eligible suitors, although she had refused them all. She was very young, attractive, high spirited and rich. What more could any man want?

It does seem that Rochester was genuinely in love with the lady, and it became clear that abduction was the only way to get her. Sadly it failed when the coach was seen and stopped. The prospective bride was saved and the 18 year old Rochester was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London. Not into a cell, rather a tiny apartment – but the door was locked and with the plague rife in London at the time, there was considerable danger. He pleaded with the king and was eventually set free. He promptly joined the Dutch wars and following his father’s example, acted with considerable courage, becoming a naval hero.

The Lady Elizabeth, had declined all offers of marriage in his absence and on his return to England, they immediately escaped her guardians and eloped. This action leads me to suspect that it was Elizabeth herself, rather than Rochester, who actually organised the earlier abduction. She was in love with the handsome young man with an infectious sense of humour who had secretly wooed her with poetry and wildly romantic demonstrations. Besides, her strict guardians must have been driving her mad!

And so they were married. But they failed to live happily ever after, although it would seem they were gloriously happy at times and managed to produce four children, three girls and a boy. But Rochester was soon in the employ of the king and therefore obliged to stay in London at court while his wife stayed on the country estate. When separated, Rochester was anything but faithful. He followed the court’s and king’s example and frequented the brothels and theatres. Actresses at that time were little different from prostitutes and Rochester became particularly involved with one – Elizabeth Barry who he tutored until she became the most lauded actress of her time. I think some historians have over-exaggerated the seriousness of this affair, but in any case they did produce one child, a little girl named Elizabeth whom Rochester quickly adopted onto his own estates after breaking up with the mother. Thus at one time he had a wife named Elizabeth, a legitimate daughter Elizabeth, a mistress Elizabeth and an illegitimate daughter Elizabeth. Well at least he wasn’t in danger of saying the wrong name by mistake at impolitic moments.

The revolt against the previous regime of enforced puritanism had also led to an age ofJohn_Wilmot2 heavy drinking, and here again Rochester was no exception. Far worse – he contracted syphilis which was rife at that time. A hideous disease, it was both misunderstood and incurable. The ghastly agonies that syphilis brought to its many sufferers is almost unimaginable, and Rochester began to die. It took years of collapse and remission during which time he wrote swathes of the most glorious poetry, and also finally converted from atheist to religious believer

Some of his shorter verses introduced ideas which have since been copied a thousand times by modern comedians, poets and philosophers without them realising where those ideas originated. From the vulgar:

Oh that I could by some chemic art,

To sperm convert my vitals and my heart,

That at one thrust I might my soul translate,

And in the womb myself regenerate:

There steeped in lust nine months I would remain;

Then boldly f— my passage out again.

To the melancholy:

Since death on all lays his impartial hand

And all resign at his command;

The Stoic too, as well as I,

With all his gravity must die;

Let’s wisely manage this last span,

The momentary life of man,

And still in pleasure’s circle move,

Giving our days to friends, and all our nights to love.

He has long been famed as a libertine but during the Restoration period the king and nobility indulged in a form of sexual licence rarely known before or after. Drunken libertines were common currency, but Rochester was an awful lot more than that. He made friends with the king although the friendship was a rocky one, adored his wife though hurt her badly, loved and was loved by his children, fought duels, led a madly adventurous life of escapes, disguises, pretence, artistic creation of the highest quality, dissolution and uproarious humour. There was certainly no one quite like him, even in that era of extravagance and accepted moral corruption.  He was tall, handsome, eloquent and dashing, and as far as we can tell from his poetry, he certainly knew how to make love. His courage and honesty continued, he was unafraid of telling the truth even to royalty, and although he had married an heiress, it would seem he took little advantage of her wealth. Religion was a matter of supreme importance back then and Protestants and Catholics were bitter enemies, but Rochester stood apart as unashamedly atheist until his final and heartfelt conversion. Some of his poetry is astonishingly vulgar, hilariously shocking, but most is exceptionally beautiful, insightful and often impressively intellectual. He was probably the best satirist, wit and poet of his age (and there were many around) whilst also the most outrageously interesting character of that era. But he died tragically young at the age of 33, leaving a reputation which has lasted more than 400 years.

Now, how many fictional romantic heroes does that remind you of?

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