17th Century Rake – John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

Code Red – we have a 17th Century Rake Alert!!!

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, who in his thirty-three years of life was one of the most dissolute, reckless, cocksure members of Charles II’s Merry Gang – a collection of the most lusty, debauched personages at the Restoration court.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Born on 1 April, 1647, he was an innocent babe who would become completely different. He grew “debauched” at school at Oxford, apparently, and became an Atheist.

From A Satyr Against Mankind:

Adore those Shrines of Virtue, Homage pay,
And with the Rabble World, their Laws obey.
If such there are, yet grant me this at least,
Man differs more from Man, than Man from Beast.

Here is an excerpt from “Signior Dildo” (Yes, he’s referring to that!)

You ladies of merry England
Who have been to kiss the Duchess’s hand,
Pray, did you not lately observe in the show
A noble Italian called Signior Dildo?

This signior was one of the Duchess’s train
And helped to conduct her over the main;
But now she cries out, ‘To the Duke I will go,
I have no more need for Signior Dildo.’

At the Sign of the Cross in St James’s Street,
When next you go thither to make yourselves sweet
By buying of powder, gloves, essence, or so,
You may chance to get a sight of Signior Dildo.

You would take him at first for no person of note,
Because he appears in a plain leather coat,
But when you his virtuous abilities know,
You’ll fall down and worship Signior Dildo!

He even inspired the film, The Libertine, starring Johnny Depp, with the memorable line “You will not like me”.

Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

This guy topped them all in terms of depravity and even I wince at some of the stuff he wrote in his more obscene poetry. At times it can be rather funny, at others, unsettling. This one is tame, and is probably the most popular, A Satire on Charles II:

    “Nor are his high desires above his strength;
    His sceptre and his prick are of a length;

And she may sway the one who plays with th’other,

    And make him little wiser than his brother.

Poor prince! they prick, like thy buffoons at Court,

Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.

    ‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e’er did swive,
    The proudest, premptoriest prick alive.
    Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,
    A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.”

When some would have done anything to stay in the King’s good books, he regularly caused offense and lost favour and was banished from court several times. Some people have romantic notions about the Restoration rakes, but if we were to go back in time, they might turn your stomach!

He loathed constancy, against having one partner – which he found boring – as he explained in his poem, Against Constancy:

Tell me no more of constancy,
The frivolous pretense
Of old age, narrow jealousy,
Disease, and want of sense.

Let duller fools on whom kind chance
Some easy heart has thrown,
Despairing higher to advance,
Be kind to one alone.

Old men and weak, whose idle flame,
Their own defects discovers,
Since changing can but spread their shame,
Ought to be constant lovers,

But we, whose hearts do justly swell
With no vainglorious pride,
Who know how we in love excel,
Long to be often tried.

Then bring my bath and strew my bed,
As each kind night returns:
I’ll change a mistress till I’m dead,
And fate change me for worms.

True to his word, although he was married to the wealthy Elizabeth Malet, he had so many mistresses and lovers that I couldn’t possibly give you a number. Among these was Elizabeth Barry, one of the first actresses of the English stage. He also took on the guise of a “Mrs. Bendo” – and gave treatments to infertile couples – I believe he may have been the sperm-donor, if you know what I mean. Sex appears to have been first and foremost on his mind.

So, how did it end for the lusty libertine? Not well…you might have been wondering why he lived only until age thirty-three, and he died from a body riddled with all sorts of venereal diseases – most notably syphilis and probably gonorrhoea. He lost his handsome looks – his nose was eaten away by syphilis and he became blind and incontinent. He had also been an alcoholic. He apparently (if we can believe Mr. Exaggerator, Gilbert Burnet) had a deathbed conversion back to Christianity, and he may well have done this because he had been suffering for months due to his ailments. Who knows?

He died on the 26th of July, 1680, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire (this is the town right on the doorstep of Blenheim Palace, which at that time hadn’t yet been built). Many people thought he got his just desserts. I find him morbidly fascinating, but no, I do not like him… 😉

 

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Hear ye! 10 thoughts — so far — on “17th Century Rake – John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester”:

    1. Andrea Zuvich (The 17th Century Lady) Post author

      Hello Frances, and thank you both for commenting and for the link. I found it a very good post and loves the images. The death-bed conversion is still a subject of controversy, though one can understand why people felt a need to warn others from the same nasty end. 😉

      Reply
  1. dubyaa

    Do NOT like him, for he is a cad,
    yet fair lady you swoon; he was so bad!
    Exclamations you make to expose his denial,
    Fair maiden you want how he did make whores…smile.

    His lust for the things that make the fine cringe,
    his pushing the limits giving cheeks red twinge.
    O’er flows sensual detachment, sit you there in water,
    The chair dry when you sat, twas HE made you hotter!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Harfield

      I feel great tenderness towards John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester. However, I am not blind to his obviously flawed character. I do believe that he owned a split personality, and that he tortured himself constantly over his own shortcomings. (no pun intended) So, yes John, I do like you now…!!

      Reply
  2. David Byrne

    I think that John’s uniqueness lies not in his character, because the dissolute have existed as long as mankind, but in his ability to express his feelings about the world. This is the reason we should like him. He reveals great insights into the type of people we all know, but never understood.

    Reply
  3. more of monika

    exactly – he possessed an intellect and the sharpest insight from experience and observation of all his earthy surroundings.. His satire shows the lowest form of “civilised’ society of his time, at his best, eloquent, witty and frank, his worst ,in order to shock and push the extreme but he astutely pinpoints the debaucheries and corruption characteristic to the politics and society of the times; his uniqueness was in his daring accuracy in depicting the most base behaviours – of which he also lived out, while possessing a depth of integrity and truth he denied himself until it was too late.
    His personal life was an irony destined to self-destruct while his recognition of the finest of human feelings far surpassed those in his immediate environment .

    Reply
  4. Hemant Samtani

    I watched to movie the Libertine and while i do agree with his “banging everything that moved” What i didnt agree with was how much of a bastard he was especially to his wife and mother….of course if you believe the movie version of the events….and then also the drink? Jesus christ how much wine could you drink? I am a bartender so i have an idea about drinking and banging chicks but still there comes a time when you try to slow down or maybe that was just his way of dealing with his demons and also the “genius” of his poetry and acting tutelage. Back to being a bastard with his wife….there are millions of men banging ladies outside thier marriage but at least they take care of the home and kids and whatnot….

    Reply
  5. judyzilla

    John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, 17th Century “bad boy” to say the least! Some would say that he got his just desserts but he did live his life the way he chose to (perhaps he was even envied). What an Age the Restoration period was – colourful characters such as John – he was fascinating to read of but…I do not like him either 🙂 I did, however, love Johnny Depp in the Libertine!

    Reply
    1. Andrea Zuvich Post author

      Hi Abe, thanks for your comment. For your information, please check primary source documents from the seventeenth century and you’ll see that Early Modern spellings were much more fluid than now, and “satyr” was often used for “satire”. The original spelling for John Wilmot’s poem was indeed “A Satyr against Mankind”…Hope that helps you!

      Reply

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