We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  John Wilmot (1647–1680), attrib. Jacob Huysmans, c.1665–70 John Wilmot (1647–1680), attrib. Jacob Huysmans, c.1665–70
Wilmot, John, second earl of Rochester (1647–1680), poet and courtier, was born on 10 April 1647, probably at Ditchley, Oxfordshire, the second but only surviving son of , royalist army officer, and his second wife, Anne Wilmot (1614–1696), widow of Sir Francis Henry Lee, second baronet, of Ditchley, and daughter of Sir John St John, first baronet, of Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire.

Early life, education, grand tour

John Wilmot was soon moved to Paris when Lady Wilmot followed her husband into exile and settled in the Louvre at the court of Henrietta Maria, Charles I's queen. But Lord Wilmot was frequently away from Paris, from May 1650 to October 1652 in Scotland and England, from December 1652 to December 1654 in Regensburg. During the former years Wilmot accompanied Charles II on his disastrous trip to Scotland to be crowned at Scone, fought by his side at Worcester, escaped with him through the North Gate, and in an act of ‘suicidal loyalty’ (Hutton, 65) remained with Charles through the forty days and forty nights in the wilderness until they embarked together for Fécamp on 14 October 1651. He was rewarded by being created earl of Rochester in December 1652.

In August 1653 Edward Hyde wrote to Rochester from Paris that his son is ‘always anxious for letters from him; he is an excellent youth, and Rochester cannot be too fond of him’ (Clarendon State Papers, 2.240). Nothing is known of John Wilmot's early education, but his half-brothers, Sir Henry Lee, third baronet, and Francis Lee, were brought to Paris in 1653 and attended the Académie du Veaux (ibid., 2.278). The half-brothers, however, were not playmates. When John Wilmot was six Sir Henry was sixteen and Francis was ten.

By May 1654 Wilmot's mother, now the countess of Rochester, was ‘heartily weary of Paris’ (Clarendon State Papers, 2.357) and by April 1655 she was back at Ditchley. There she retained Francis Giffard to be her chaplain and to tutor Wilmot. He also probably attended the free school at Burford. Wilmot would have known Ditchley, a royal hunting lodge, as a low, half-timbered house near the site of a Roman villa, with stag horns in the great hall, a pretty bowling green, and a gallery of Elizabethan portraits by Dutch masters, ‘in itself a liberal education’ as Sir Ralph Verney wrote (Verney, Memoirs … during the Commonwealth, 3.310). Wilmot may have seen his father once more, in June 1655 during Rochester's miraculous escape from York back to the continent in disguise.

Early in 1658 came bad news. Henry Wilmot, only forty-five years old, had died in Ghent on 19 February and was buried in Sluys (later reburied at Spelsbury). Thus, at the age of ten John Wilmot succeeded as second earl of Rochester, Baron Wilmot of Adderbury, and Viscount Wilmot of Athlone in the Irish peerage. Since his father was a malignant his heavily mortgaged estates were forfeited. His mother, however, was able to save her jointure estates, including Ditchley. ‘A Rochester portion, two torn smocks and what nature gave’ (Tilley, 550) has passed into folklore, but in truth Rochester's inheritance included titles and privileges that were restored to the nobility in 1660 and the pretensions to the king's favour derived from his father's distinguished services to the Stuarts, which Charles II, who made Rochester his foster son, most generously fulfilled.

On 18 January 1660 Rochester was admitted to Wadham College, Oxford. As a fellow-commoner he wore a different gown from other undergraduates, took his commons at the high table, and was a member of the fellows' common room. There he ‘heard talk that sounded very strange and fascinating after the pietism that prevailed in his mother's house and at Burford’ (Pinto, 6). Under Cromwell's brother-in-law, John Wilkins, Wadham had become the most flourishing of the Oxford colleges. The ‘experimentall philosophicall clubbe’ that Wilkins had organized in 1645 in London moved into his lodgings at Wadham when he became warden in 1648 (Brief Lives, 2.301). After the Restoration and with the patronage of Charles II these meetings, dedicated to experimental science, became the Royal Society at Gresham College.

It was amid all the excitement of the Restoration that Rochester, in the ineffable prose of Robert Parsons ‘suck'd from the breasts of his Mother the University … perfections of Wit, and Eloquence, and Poetry’ (Parsons, 6). In January 1660 Rochester was ‘a very hopefull Youth, very virtuous and good natur'd (as he was always) and willing & ready to follow good Advice’ (Remarks, 3.263). His tutor, Phineas Bury, a Hebrew scholar, was ‘a Gentleman of good Parts’, ‘a very learned and good natured man’ (Remarks, 1.327; Burnet, Some Passages, 4), who would have made a good academic role model for Rochester. But ‘the humour of that time wrought so much on him, that he broke off the Course of his Studies’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 4). Francis Giffard said he was ‘debauch'd’ (Remarks, 3.263), a very elastic term.

Oxford was a hard drinking university and Rochester had the misfortune to be patronized by Robert Whitehall, that ‘useless member’ of Merton College (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 4.178) who, by ‘following the trade of drinking as he was wont, procured himself a red face’ (ibid., 1.144). ‘There is something pathetic’, Professor Pinto says, ‘in the spectacle of the slender, bright-cheeked boy becoming “debauched” at the age of fourteen [in fact, thirteen] under Whitehall's expert tuition’ (Pinto, 8–9). But Whitehall was also a buffoon, a wit, a physician, and a poet. He undertook to instruct the boy, ‘on whom he absolutely doted’, in the art of poetry, and this must have proved irresistible to Rochester (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.1232). While at Oxford, Rochester contributed a poem in Latin, ‘In obitum serenissimae Mariae principis Arausionensis’, to a collection of verse published to celebrate the Restoration.

Rochester was created MA filius nobilis on 9 September 1661. ‘Presented in scarlet robes belonging to doctors’ (Life and Times of Anthony Wood, 1.414), he received a kiss on his left cheek from his cousin Edward Hyde, now earl of Clarendon, and the new chancellor of the university. On 21 November 1661 he set out on his travels with a governor, Dr Andrew Balfour, a physician and herbalist presumably chosen by the king, and two servants, with all expenses paid by the crown. The next three years are a blank, but Rochester told Gilbert Burnet that Balfour ‘drew him to read such Books, as were most likely to bring him back to love Learning and Study’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 5). No sighting of the party occurred until 1 October 1664, when Dr Walter Pope reported seeing Rochester in Venice. Then, on 26 October 1664, Rochester signed the Registro dei viaggiatori Inglesi in Italia at the University of Padua. By November 1664 the party had reached Paris, where Rochester paid a courtesy call on ‘the fair princess’ of his undergraduate poem (Complete Works, 301–2), Henrietta Anne Stuart, now duchess of Orléans, who entrusted him with a letter to her brother Charles II.

Marriage, Second Anglo-Dutch War, life at court

On 26 December 1664 Charles wrote to Henrietta, ‘I have receaved yours by my Lord Rochester but yesterday’ (My Dearest Minette, 105). Even before Rochester arrived at court the king had chosen a bride for him. He was ‘encouraged by the king to make his [addresses] to Mrs. Mallet’ (Cooper, 5). She was the ‘great beauty and fortune of the North’ (Diary of Samuel Pepys, 6.110). Elizabeth (d. 1681) was the only child of John Malet of Enmore, Somerset, who died in 1656, and Untia, née Hawley. It was said that ‘She is worth … 2500l. per annum’ (ibid., 6.110). Elizabeth's grandfather, Francis Hawley, Baron Hawley of Duncannon in the peerage of Ireland, raised a troop of horse for the king in 1642 and came to be something of a ‘Court-Buffoon’ (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 4.appx, xxiv). Her mother was married again, to Sir John Warre, justice of the peace, commissioner for sewers, and knight of the shire for Somerset.

Elizabeth's grandfather brought her to court in 1664 to find a husband for her. In November 1666 Pepys was told how the lady herself ranked her suitors: ‘my Lord Herbert would have had her—my Lord Hinchingbrooke was indifferent to have her—my Lord Jo. Butler might not have her—my Lord of Rochester would have forced her; and Sir [Francis] Popham (who nevertheless is likely to have her) would kiss her breech to have her’ (Diary of Samuel Pepys, 7.385). Rochester would indeed have forced her. On 28 May 1665 Pepys recounted the
story of my Lord of Rochester's running away on Friday night last [26 May] with Mrs. Mallet … who had supped at White-hall with Mrs. [Frances] Stewart [one of the maids of honour] and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Ha[w]l[e]y, by coach, and was at Charing-cross seized on by both horse and foot-men and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord Rochester (for whom the King had spoke to the lady often, but with no success) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry and the Lord sent to the Tower. (ibid., 6.110)
It can be guessed that Rochester's object in this caper was matrimony and that his very elaborate stage setting included somewhere in the wings—at Uxbridge, for example—a marrying parson, who for a consideration would waive consent of parents, publication of banns, and marriage licence. Some time in June 1665, in a rush of adolescent contrition, Rochester addressed a petition to the king from the Tower:
Sheweth That noe misfortune on earth could bee so sensible [painful] to your Petitioner as the losse of your Majesties favour. That Inadvertency, Ignorance in the Law, and Passion were the occasions of his offence. That had hee reflected on the fatall consequence of incurring your Majesties displeasure, he would rather have chosen death ten thousand times then done it. That your Petitioner in all humility & sence of his fault casts himself at your Majesties feet, beseeching you to pardon his first error, & not suffer one offence to bee his Ruine. And hee most humbly prayes, that your Majesty would bee pleased to restore him once more to your favour, & that he may kisse your hand. (Letters, ed. Treglown, 247)
To this conceivably ironic, comico-pathetic appeal Charles responded on 19 June by ordering Rochester to be discharged from the Tower. On 6 July Rochester set off with a note to Lord Sandwich, commander-in-chief of the fleet, ‘to recommend this bearer … to your care, who desires to go a voluntere with you’ and Sandwich wrote back on 17 July, ‘In obedience to your Majesties Commands … I have accommodated [Lord Rochester] the best I can & shall serve him in all Things that I can’ (TNA: PRO, SP 29/127, fol. 14).

In a letter of 3 August 1665 to his mother Rochester describes his subsequent service on the Revenge, the flagship of Captain Sir Thomas Teddiman in the disastrous Bergen campaign:
it was not fitt for mee to see any occasion of service to the King without offering my self, soe I desired & obtained leave of my Lord Sandwich to goe with [Teddiman]. … [W]ee … sailed to Bergen [Norway] full of hopes and expectations, having allready shared amongst us the rich lading of the [Dutch] Eastindia merchants [,] some for diamonds some for spices others for rich silkes & I for shirts and gould which I had most neede of … Mr. Mountegue and Thom: Windhams brother were both killed with one shott just by mee … Your most obedient son Rochester[.] I have binn as good a husband as I could, but in spight of my teeth have binn faine to borrow mony. (Letters, ed. Treglown, 46–9)
Lord Sandwich reported to the king that Rochester ‘showed himself brave, industrious, and of useful parts’ (CSP dom., 1664–5, 562). The ‘gould’ that Rochester never found at Bergen was made up for by the king's ‘free gift’ of £750 (CSP dom., 1665–6, 35). In the long list of Charles's benefactions to Rochester, the most important were the appointment in March 1666 as a gentleman of the bedchamber with lodgings in Whitehall and £1000 a year for life and the appointment in May 1674 as ranger and keeper of the royal hunting park at Woodstock with residence in the High Lodge.

In 1666, without any orders from the king and ‘without communicating his design to his nearest Relations’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 10), Rochester went aboard the Dreadnought, the flagship of Sir Edward Spragge, as a volunteer, the day before the carnage called the Four Days' Battle (1–4 June 1666). Almost all of the volunteers were killed, the brother of Sir Hugh Myddleton dying in Rochester's arms. At the height of the battle ‘Spragge not being satisfied with the behaviour of one of the Captains, could not easily find a Person that would chearfully venture through so much danger, to carry his Commands to that Captain’ (ibid.). Indeed it was remarked that ‘No sober man … would … venture into a crazy Cock-boat out of a sound Ship, when tis but barely possible he may be saved’ (Parsons, 20). But Rochester volunteered and ‘went in a little Boat through all the shot, and delivered his Message, and returned back to Sir Edward’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 11), thus fulfilling his ambition, as he told the king in his undergraduate poem, ‘to be known / By daring loyalty your Wilmot's son’ (Complete Works, 1).

In August 1666 Elizabeth Malet told Lord Hinchingbrooke, who had followed her to Tunbridge Wells, that ‘her affections [were] settled’ on another (Diary of Samuel Pepys, 7.260), not necessarily Rochester. On 29 January 1667, however, she married Rochester (Le Fleming MSS, 44). In July 1667 Rochester was summoned to his seat in the House of Lords.

When she became pregnant in 1668 Lady Rochester retired to Adderbury, the Wilmot estate in Oxfordshire, near Ditchley, where Anne Wilmot, named for Rochester's mother, was born on 30 April 1669. For twelve years, from 1667 to 1679, Rochester's life followed the familiar pattern of London during sessions of parliament and Adderbury and High Lodge during recesses. ‘He was wont to say that when he came to Brentford [on the London road] the devill entred into him and never left him till he came into the country again’ (Brief Lives, 2.304).

With Charles as his father in vice, it is not surprising that Rochester's life at court revolved around wine and women. ‘Cupid and Bacchus my saints are’, says the speaker in ‘Upon his drinking a bowl’ (Complete Works, 38). ‘The court … not only debauched him but made him a perfect Hobbist’ (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 3.1229). ‘One day at an Atheistical Meeting’, Rochester recalled, ‘I undertook to manage the Cause, and was the principal Disputant against God and Piety, and … received the applause of the whole company’ (Parsons, 23). On his deathbed Rochester explained to Burnet that ‘it seemed unreasonable to imagine that [the natural appetites] were put into a man only to be restrained’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 38). In Rochester they were indulged. But the record is difficult to reconstruct.

According to Anthony Hamilton's Memoirs of the comte de Grammont, Rochester seduced Sarah Cooke, who became ‘the prettiest, but also the worst actress in the realm’ (Hamilton, 248, 239). She was followed by others, including the actress . The grand affair with Elizabeth Barry probably began in 1675 when she was seventeen. According to Anthony Aston she was not beautiful, but she had an imposing presence and a crooked smile (Aston, 7). Her first recorded role was that of Draxilla in Otway's Alcibiades, which opened at Dorset Garden, the new state-of-the-art playhouse of the duke of York's company, about the end of September 1675. Later reports stated that Rochester took over her training as an actress and ‘taught her not only the proper cadence or sounding of the voice, but to seize also the passions, and adapt her whole behaviour to the situations of the character’ (Davies, 3.199). He apparently ‘made her rehearse near 30 times off the Stage, and about twelve in the Dress she was to act … in’ (Betterton, 16), presumably for her role as Leonora in Aphra Behn's tragedy, Abdelazer, or, The Moor's revenge, that opened at Dorset Garden about 3 July 1676 (Van Lennep and others, 1.245). If such coaching did take place it must have occurred in the months before July 1676 for Rochester spent the winter of 1675–6 at Adderbury. Thereafter Barry's success was assured.

In April 1677 Barry left ‘this gaudy, gilded stage’ (Complete Works, 194) because she was pregnant. Rochester's daughter, named Elizabeth Clerke, was born in December 1677. But Barry was ‘no more monogamous than Rochester’ (Letters, ed. Treglown, 29), and the relationship was stormy. According to one of Rochester's letters Elizabeth ‘made it … absolutely necessary’ (ibid., 216–17) for Rochester to remove his daughter temporarily from her care. In his will he left the child £40 a year.

‘For five years together’, Rochester said, ‘he was continually Drunk … [and] not … perfectly Master of himself … [which] led him to … do many wild and unaccountable things’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 12). He presented himself to Barry as ‘the wildest and most fantastical odd man alive’ (Letters, ed. Treglown, 99). One night in February 1669 at the Dutch embassy:
after dinner they drank and were pretty merry; and among the rest of the King's company, there was that worthy fellow my Lord of Rochester and T[homas] Killigrew, whose mirth and raillery offended the former so much, that he did give T. Killigrew a box on the ear in the King's presence. (Diary of Samuel Pepys, 9.451)
This constituted the crime of lèse-majesté, or treason. Killigrew had rallied Rochester about keeping his wife in the country. The next day the king ‘did publicly walk up and down, and Rochester … with him, as free as ever’ (ibid., 9.451–2), but he required Rochester to withdraw to Paris with a letter to his sister, ‘You will find him not to want witt’, he wrote, ‘and did behave him selfe, in all the duch warr, as well as anybody, as a volunteer’ (My Dearest Minette, 172).

In June 1675 ‘Lord Rochester in a frolick after a rant did … beat downe the dyill [glass chronometer] which stood in the middle of the Privie Garding, which was esteemed the rarest in Europ’ (Laing MSS, 1.405). Aubrey learned what Rochester said on this occasion when he came in from his ‘revells’ with Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, and Fleetwood Sheppard: ‘“What … doest thou stand here to fuck time?” Dash they fell to worke’ (Brief Lives, 2.34).

An even more disgraceful episode took place at Epsom on 18 June 1676. Rochester, Etherege, Captain [Richard?] Bridges, William Jephson, and [Quartermaster Samuel?] Downs
were tossing some fiddlers in a blanket for refusing to play, and a barber, upon the noise, going to see what [was] the matter, they seized upon him, and, to free himself from them, he offered to carry them to the handsomest woman in Epsom, and directed them to the constables house, who demanding what they came for, they told him a whore, and, he refusing to let them in, they broke open his doores and … beate him very severely. At last, he made his escape, called his watch, and Etheridge made a submissive oration to them and soe far appeased them that the constable dismissed his watch. But presently after, the Ld Rochester drew upon the constable. Mr Downs, to prevent his pass seized on him [Rochester], the constable cryed out murther, and, the watch returning, one came behind Mr Downs and with a sprittle staff cleft his scull. The Ld Rochester and the rest run away. (Thompson, 1.133)
Downs died before 27 June and it was rumoured that Rochester ‘is to be tryed’ (Pike, 59), but he was not charged.


Rochester's main interest after wine and women was not song but theatre. Even a summary of his involvement is impressive. In summer 1670 he moved into Arbor House next door to the Lincoln's Inn playhouse on Portugal Row. He patronized playwrights such as John Dryden, Elkanah Settle, Nathaniel Lee, John Crowne, Sir Francis Fane, and Thomas Otway. He was a theatre critic who savaged the London audiences. He wrote prologues and epilogues, a comedy, with Dryden as Squab, of which only a fragment survives (1674–5), a tragedy in blank verse, Valentinian (1675–6), and a scene for Sir Robert Howard's hero play, The conquest of China by the Tartars (1676). He translated the second act chorus of Seneca's Troas. He was represented on the stage in Etherege's The man of mode (March 1676), D'Urfey's Madame Fickle (November 1676), Aphra Behn's The second part of ‘The rover’ (1681), Lee's The princess of Cleve (1682), Crowne's The city politiques (1683). His social position prevented him from going on the stage himself, so ‘meerly for diversion, he would go about in odd shapes, in which he acted his part so naturally, that even those who were [in] on the secret … could perceive nothing by which he might be discovered’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 28). His most famous impersonation was that of the German quack, Hans Buling. Calling himself Dr Alexander Bendo he appeared on a mountebank stage in Tower Street, complete with zany, monkey, handbill, and a line of ‘rare secrets … for help, conservation, and augmentation of beauty’ (Complete Works, 97). He also played Bendo's wife (in the habit of a grave matron) for evening consultations in ‘the Bed Chamber’ (Famous Pathologist, 26–7).

Two of these episodes, however, Rochester's abortive duel with John Sheffield, earl of Mulgrave, and the poet John Dryden's beating in Rose Alley on 18 December 1679, are so encrusted with misinformation that more than a summary is required. On 22 November 1669, for some rumoured slight that Mulgrave knew immediately to be false, he challenged Rochester. Rochester chose to fight on horseback. Both combatants chose seconds and agreed to fight the next morning in Hyde Park. Rochester and his second appeared on the field of honour ‘extreamly well … mounted’, while Mulgrave and Lieutenant-Colonel Edmond Ashton ‘had only a couple of pads’ (Works of … Buckingham, 2.9). Mulgrave, pleading the inequality of their mounts, proposed that they fight on foot. By the laws of the duello Rochester did not need to comply: ‘Whoever giveth the Challenge, is in Honour obliged to Answer the other with whatever Weapons he shall propose’ (Hope, 91). And in fact Rochester ‘was so weak with a certain distemper, that he found himself unfit to fight at all’ (Works of … Buckingham, 2.9). If Mulgrave had not been eager to take advantage of Rochester he could have postponed the encounter. Instead he seized upon this as an act of cowardice and ‘intirely ruined [Rochester's] reputation as to courage, (of which I was really sorry to be the occasion)’ (ibid., 2.10). Mulgrave's refusal to fight on horseback was the real act of cowardice. Rochester's illness was not feigned. A letter which reveals that he was undergoing mercury therapy at M. Fourcade's establishment, previously dated to 1672, seems more likely to have been written in 1669.

The ‘evidence’ that Rochester ordered the beating of Dryden, thinking that the latter had written ‘An essay upon satyr’, which attacked various courtiers (including Rochester) and circulated in 1679, is another misdated letter, from Rochester to Henry Savile: ‘You write me word that I'm out of favour with a certain poet … If he falls upon me at the blunt, which is his very good weapon in wit, I will forgive him if you please and leave the repartee to Black Will with a cudgel’ (Letters, ed. Treglown, 119–20). First published, undated, in 1697, the manuscript has not survived. From its apparent reference to the Rose Alley fracas Prinz dated it 1 November 1679. It is now agreed that the letter was written in spring 1676, nearly four years before the incident, which effectively exonerates Rochester. In his letter to Savile of 21 November 1679, moreover, Rochester carelessly attributed the poem to Dryden, as did others (it was in fact written by Mulgrave), but showed no concern about his ‘share’ in the ‘libel’ (Letters, ed. Treglown, 232).

For Rochester, Dryden was a cadet, ‘Damned to the stint of thirty pound a year’ (Complete Works, 48), son of a younger son, ineluctably a commoner. But an educated commoner and deservedly the poet laureate, a rara avis, an owl that could sing and worse yet an owl with social ambitions. Dryden had married the daughter of an earl, and taken a mistress from the stage exactly as the king, Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, and John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, had done. For Dryden, Rochester was obviously a dilettante: he dabbled in verse which circulated in manuscript, ‘needlesly expos[ing his] nakedness to publick view’ (Works of John Dryden, ed. Hooker, Swedenborg, and Roper, 13.14), but published nothing.


It has been difficult to obtain a proper understanding, much less a proper evaluation, of Rochester's poetry. The obstacle has been its repeated disparagement. This, beginning with Dryden and Samuel Johnson, reached its apogee in Sir Edmund Gosse. It is based on several misconceptions: the autobiographical fallacy and the charges of plagiarism, blasphemy, and obscurity.

The autobiographical fallacy assumes that every poem is an autobiographical document. Graham Greene quotes ten lines of a speech of Lucina's in Valentinian (that has no counterpart in John Fletcher's The tragedies of Valentinian and Maximus (1610), on which Rochester's work is based):
[to] these murmuring floods
… When … I came distressed,
… seeking peace and rest,
Why would you not protect …
A sleeping wretch from such wild, dismal dreams?
(Complete Works, 133)
Greene pronounces these lines ‘clearly autobiographical’ (Greene, 143), missing the point that Rochester is reinforcing Lucina's nightmare of impending rape with Daphne's horror upon receiving the addresses of the god Apollo: ‘“fer, pater” [Daphne is the daughter of a river god], inquit “opem! Si flumina numen habetis”’ (‘“Oh!, help”, she cried, “in this extremest need, / If water-gods are deities indeed”’; Ovid, 1.545; Works of John Dryden, ed. Scott and Saintsbury, 12.92).

Sidney Lee's complaint that Rochester was ‘something of a plagiarist’ (DNB) misses the point that Rochester, as in the case of Valentinian, habitually worked from models, ‘which yet he used not, as other Poets have done, to translate or steal from them, but rather to better and improve them by his own natural fancy’ (Parsons, 8). This gives his poems an intertextuality lacking, for example, in Abraham Cowley, Rochester's favourite English poet. He knew the risks he ran in mixing ‘other mens thoughts … with his Composures’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 8), but the effect could be brilliant. In To the postboy, for example, Rochester seems to have confessed that he was an accessory before the fact to Downs's murder:
Frighted at my own mischiefs I have fled
And bravely left my life's defender dead.
(Complete Works, 195)
This is the way the poem has been read, as a straightforward confession of guilt. But it is much more complicated than this. And ‘the beauty of the Poem’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 26) lies precisely in the ‘plagiarism’ (ibid.).

To the postboy is a satire on aristocracy, on privilege based on genealogy, like Seneca's epistle 4: ‘We have all had the same number of forefathers; there is no man whose first beginning does not transcend memory. Plato says, “Every king springs from a race of slaves, and every slave has had kings among his ancestors”’ (Seneca, 1.289). The model for To the postboy is a speech by Malevole in John Marston's The Malcontent (1604):
Why, sure my blood gives me I am noble, sure I am of noble kind; for I find myself possessed with all their qualities;—love dogs, dice, and drabs, scorn wit in stuff-clothes; have beat my shoemaker, knocked [up] my semstress, cuckold my pothecary, and undone my tailor. Noble! why not? (John Marston: Works, 1.265)
In place of Marston's conventional aristocratic misdmeanours, Rochester, in a moment of breathtaking daring, substituted felonious episodes from his own life:
I've swived more whores more ways than Sodom's walls
E'er knew, or the college of Rome's cardinals …
I have blasphemed my God and libelled kings.
(Complete Works, 195–6)
‘To make a Satyre without Resentments’, Rochester said, ‘was as if a man would in cold blood, cut mens throats who had never offended him’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 26). In To the postboy the resentments are directed against himself, a drunken, syphilitic brawler, cowardly, blasphemous, libellous, and still a ‘peerless peer’, which creates a powerful animus against aristocracy, exactly the effect that Rochester wanted.

Dismissing Rochester's verse as blasphemous and obscene misses the most important point. Impelled by the new science, institutionalized in the Royal Society, all the major Augustans were engaged in the ‘endeavour to see things as they are’ (Boswell, Life, 1.339). With Rochester this was both a personal commitment and a political statement. ‘Because the Presbyterians … had affected to call every thing by a Scripture-name, the new Court [of Charles II] affected to call every thing by its own name’ (Walpole, Catalogue, 2.38). This produced an ‘appalling realism’ in Rochester's verse (Prinz, Wilmot, 245). But Rochester knew and defended what he was doing: ‘Expressions must descend to the nature of things expressed’, he told Savile (Letters, ed. Treglown, 232). Rochester's friend, Sue Willis, was a complicated woman:
Bawdy in thoughts, precise in words,
Ill-natured, though a whore,
Her belly is a bag of turds,
And her cunt a common shore [sewer].
(Complete Works, 200)
This exactly descends to the nature of the thing expressed. As late as 1953 it was impossible to publish Rochester's ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’ and ‘A ramble in St. James's Park’ (Poems, xlix). And even after Judge John W. Woolsey's landmark decision in the Ulysses case in December 1933 ‘A ramble in St. James's Park’ could still be called ‘this unprintable poem’ (Berman, 362) in 1964.

Parliamentary career

Rochester's parliamentary career was not distinguished. There is no evidence that he initiated a bill or sat as a chairman of the committee of the whole house. The record of his attendance is poor. Of the 831 meetings of parliament from 10 October 1667, when Rochester took his seat in the House of Lords, until 26 January 1680, the last meeting he attended, Rochester was present at only 220, or 26 per cent of the total. By comparison during this same period the king attended 65 per cent of the meetings, Mulgrave 50 per cent, Buckingham 46 per cent.

Rochester was not appointed to many committees of the house. The first, on 9 November 1667, was to consider a bill to prevent the importation of Irish cattle that he later recalled in a satire to prevent the importation of pocky Irish beauties (Complete Works, 35, 334). He was not appointed to the important standing committees of the house, for privileges and to receive petitions, until October 1673, but then he was reappointed in October 1675, February 1677, and March 1679. In December 1678 he was appointed to manage a free conference with the lower house about a bill to disband the army, that the king strongly opposed.

Rochester's record of inactivity is confirmed by the Lords division lists and protests. Of twenty one surviving division lists for the period Rochester's name appears on only one, voting for the attainder of Danby (the king wanted banishment). Of the thirty-two protests, whereby a peer signed his name on the manuscript journal below the vote from which he dissented, Rochester signed five. By voting for the attainder of Danby on 14 April 1677 and by writing his name under Buckingham's to protest against two resolutions of the house that the king very badly wanted it appeared that Rochester was going to follow Buckingham into opposition. But he did not. On 21 November 1679, while parliament was prorogued during the height of the Popish Plot madness, Rochester wrote to Henry Savile in Paris:
Mr. O[ates] was tried two days ago for buggery and cleared. The next day he brought his action to the King's Bench against his accuser, being attended by the Earl of Shaftesbury and other peers to the number of seven [including the Duke of Buckingham], for the honour of the Protestant cause. (Letters, ed. Treglown, 232)
By this bitter sarcasm Rochester separated himself from the opposition and on his deathbed he praised not Buckingham but George Savile, Viscount Halifax, one of the king's friends, who had been instrumental in defeating the opposition's bills for excluding the duke of York from the throne.

The last act

In summer 1679 Rochester learned that Jane Roberts, a former mistress, was dead. The summer before, Savile had reported that what she had suffered undergoing mercury therapy is ‘so farr beyond description or beleefe that till shee tells it you herselfe I will not spoyle her story’. What Savile wrote was, ‘what shee has endured would make a damd soule fall a laughing att his lesser paines’ (Letters, ed. Treglown, 198), which can stand as a surrogate for what Rochester suffered in the last nine weeks of his life.

In October 1679, when Rochester learned that Gilbert Burnet had attended Roberts in her last illness, he told Halifax that he would like to meet him (Burnet, Some Passages, A5r). Their meeting went on every week until March 1680, when Rochester went to the races at Newmarket with the king. When the court was unexpectedly called back to Whitehall and parliament was prorogued Rochester retired to Woodstock Park. Early in April
he thought he was so well, that being to go to his Estate in Somersetshire he rode thither Post. This heat and violent motion did so inflame an Ulcer, that was in his Bladder, that it raised a very great pain in those parts: Yet he with much difficulty came back to … Woodstock-Park. He was then wounded both in Body and Mind: He understood Physick and his own Constitution and Distemper so well, that he concluded he could hardly recover. (Burnet, Some Passages, 127–8)
On 26 May 1680 Rochester was visited by his mother's chaplain, Robert Parsons. Parsons read to him the suffering servant passage in Isaiah 53: ‘as he heard it read’, he told Burnet, ‘he felt an inward force upon him, which did so enlighten his Mind, and convince him, that he could resist it no longer’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 141). So ‘the greatest of sinners’ became ‘the greatest penitent’ (Parsons, 8; Some Unpublished Letters of Gilbert Burnet, 41).

Rochester threw himself into his final role: ‘he begg'd his Mother and Lady to read the same to him frequently, and was unsatisfied … till he had learn'd … the 53. of Isaiah without book’. He ‘wish'd he had been a starving Leper crawling in a ditch’ (Parsons, 24–5). ‘“Mr Hobbes and the philosophers have been my ruin”, he said, He then put his hand on a Bible, and, with great rapture, said, “This, this is the true philosophy”’ (Seward, 2.509). He spoke marvellous things, which ‘God alone must teach him’, his mother said, ‘for no man could put into him such things as he says’ (Letters, ed. Treglown, 249). More brilliantly theatrical was his calling to his bedside his entire family on 19 June 1680, to witness his ‘dying Remonstrance’: ‘from the bottom of my soul I detest and abhor the whole course of my former wicked life … I one of the Greatest Sinners, do yet hope for Mercy and Forgiveness. Amen’ (Parsons, 32). ‘Though … signed by Rochester, it is the language of Robert Parsons, M.A.’ (Norman, 200).

He ordered ‘all his profane and lewd Writings … and all his obscene and filthy Pictures, to be burned’ (Parsons, 28–9). In addition his aunt Johanna, ‘an old devout Lady St. John … burnt a whole trunk’ of his letters, ‘for which’, said Richard Bentley in ‘a most admirable bon mot … her soul is now burning in heaven’ (Walpole, Corr., 28.239–40). Rochester's colourful swearing at his servants had entertained his friends, but on his deathbed he thought he had overcome this habit. He relapsed, however, and asked Burnet to call ‘that damned Fellow’ back so he might apologize, ‘but such mots de théâtre were too melodramatic for the … sober priest’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 153; Williams, 260).

The penitent became an evangelist. He persuaded his wife, whom he is said to have previously converted to Roman Catholicism (perhaps in the hope of gaining favour at court), to rejoin the English church. He startled his friend William Fanshaw, one of the king's masters of requests (and a witness to Rochester's will), by fixing him with his gaze and crying ‘Fanshaw … there is a God, and a powerful God, and he is a terrible God to unrepenting sinners’ (Letters, ed. Treglown, 252). Poor Fanshaw, who was disfigured by venereal disease, concluded that Rochester was mad, and he may have been right. Rochester was ‘certainly delirious’, Fanshaw said, ‘for to my knowledge he believed neither in God nor Jesus Christ’ (Prinz, Rochesteriana, 57). His mother reported to her sister-in-law, Lady St John of Battersea, that ‘one night … he was disordered in his head’ and talked ‘ribble rabble’ and that on another occasion ‘his head was a little disordered’ (Letters, ed. Treglown, 250, 253). It seems unlikely that his mother, her chaplain, and Gilbert Burnet, three intelligent people with vested interests in the matter, should later spend so much effort denying that Rochester was mad, unless he was.

In the end there was nothing left but ‘Skin and Bone’ (Burnet, Some Passages, 155). Rochester died at High Lodge about 2 a.m. on 26 July 1680 ‘without … so much as a groan’ (ibid., 158), was buried on 9 August ‘without any memorial in the vault beneath Spelsbury Church’ (Corbett, 124), and, in a scene of dantesco horror, was left to sin and repent, to sin and repent, for 200 years in the chapbooks of evangelical Christians, with titles like A mirror for atheists and The libertine overthrown.

Frank H. Ellis


G. Burnet, Some passages of the life and death of the right honourable John earl of Rochester, who died the 26th of July, 1680 (1680) · The letters of John Wilmot earl of Rochester, ed. J. Treglown (1980) · R. Parsons, A sermon preached at the funeral of the rt honorable John earl of Rochester, who died at Woodstock-Park, July 26. 1680, and was buried at Spilsbury in Oxford-shire, Aug. 9 (1680) · John Wilmot, earl of Rochester: the complete works, ed. F. H. Ellis (1994) · The diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. R. Latham and W. Matthews, 11 vols. (1970–83) · CSP dom., 1660–1704 · JHL, 12–13 (1668–81) · Brief lives, chiefly of contemporaries, set down by John Aubrey, between the years 1669 and 1696, ed. A. Clark, 2 vols. (1898) · Calendar of the Clarendon state papers preserved in the Bodleian Library, ed. O. Ogle and others, 5 vols. (1869–1970) · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn · Remarks and collections of Thomas Hearne, ed. C. E. Doble and others, 11 vols., OHS, 2, 7, 13, 34, 42–3, 48, 50, 65, 67, 72 (1885–1921) · M. M. Verney, ed., Memoirs of the Verney family during the Commonwealth, 1650 to 1660, 4 vols. (1892–9) · M. M. Verney, ed., Memoirs of the Verney family during the seventeenth century, 3rd edn, 2 vols. (1925) · The life and times of Anthony Wood, ed. A. Clark, 5 vols., OHS, 19, 21, 26, 30, 40 (1891–1900) · The works of John Sheffield, earl of Mulgrave, marquis of Normanby, and duke of Buckingham, ed. A. Pope, 2 vols. (1723) · G. de F. Lord and others, eds., Poems on affairs of state: Augustan satirical verse, 1660–1714, 7 vols. (1963–75) · The Nicholas papers, ed. G. F. Warner, 4 vols., CS, new ser., 40, 50, 57, 3rd ser., 31 (1886–1920) · V. de S. Pinto, Enthusiast in wit: a portrait of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, 1647–1680 (1962) · My dearest Minette: the letters between Charles II and his sister Henrietta, duchess d'Orléans, ed. R. Norrington (1996) · G. Greene, Lord Rochester's monkey being the life of John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester (1974) · J. Evelyn, Diary, ed. E. de Beer, 5 vols. (1955) · Report on the Laing manuscripts, 2 vols., HMC, 72 (1914–25) · A. Hamilton, Memoirs of the comte de Gramont, trans. P. Quennell (1930), title, disc. with text · J. Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, ed. F. G. Waldron, another edn (1789) [with additions by T. Davies] · DNB · W. Van Lennep and others, eds., The London stage, 1660–1800, 5 pts in 11 vols. (1960–68) · The works of John Dryden, ed. W. Scott, rev. G. Saintsbury, 18 vols. (1882–93) · J. Prinz, John Wilmot, earl of Rochester: his life and writings (1927) · The manuscripts of S. H. Le Fleming, HMC, 25 (1890) · A. Browning, Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby and duke of Leeds, 1632–1712, 3 vols. (1944–51) · C. Williams, Rochester (1935) · J. Gadbury, Ephemeris, or, A diary … for 1698 (1698) · R. Hutton, Charles the Second: king of England, Scotland and Ireland (1989) · W. Monk, History of Burford (1891) · M. Tilley, A dictionary of the proverbs in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (1950) · A. Swatland, The House of Lords in the reign of Charles II (1996) · A. Hill, Letters between Abraham Hill, esq. and several eminent and ingenious persons (1767) · A. Favaro and others, eds., Monografie storiche sullo Studio di Padova (Venezia, 1922) · W. D. Cooper, ed., Savile correspondence: letters to and from H. Savile, CS, 71 (1858) · Cobbett, Parl. hist., 4.appx, XXIV · The famous pathologist, or, The noble mountebank, by Thomas Alcock and John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, ed. V. de S. Pinto (1961) · I. C., ‘Warre, Sir John’, HoP, Commons, 1660–90 · TNA: PRO, SP 21/127, C14 · E. Chamberlayne, Angliae notitia, or, The present state of England, 4th edn (1670) · A. Aston, A brief supplement to Colley Cibber, esq.: his ‘Lives of the late famous actors and actresses’ [n.d., c.1747] · C. Cibber, An apology for the life of Mr. Colley Cibber (1740) · T. Davies, Dramatic miscellanies: consisting of critical observations on several plays of Shakespeare, 3 vols. (1783–4) · T. Betterton, [W. Oldys and others], The history of the English stage (1741) · J. G. Nichols and J. Bruce, eds., Wills from Doctors Commons: a selection (1863) · Journal of the first earl of Sandwich, Mapperton House, MSS · E. M. Thompson, ed., Correspondence of the family of Hatton, 2 vols., CS, new ser., 22–3 (1878) · W. Hope, The sword-man's vade mecum (1694) · Ovid, Metamorphoses, ed. and trans. F. Miller, 2 vols. (1916) · L. A. Seneca, Ad Lucilium epistulae morales, ed. and trans. R. Gummere (1917–25) · John Marston: works, ed. A. Bullen, 3 vols. (1887) · Boswell, Life · H. Walpole, A catalogue of the royal and noble authors of England, 2 vols. (1758) · The works of John Dryden, ed. E. N. Hooker, H. T. Swedenberg, and V. A. Dearing, 20 vols. (1956–2000) · E. Marshall, Woodstock: a supplement to the history (1874) · Poems by John Wilmot earl of Rochester, ed. V. de S. Pinto (1953) · R. Berman, ‘Rochester and the defeat of the senses’, Kenyon Review, 26 (spring 1964), 354–68 · W. Seward, Biographiana, 2 vols. (1799) · C. Norman, Rake Rochester (1954) · Walpole, Corr. · J. Spingarn, ed., Critical essays of the seventeenth century, 3 vols. (1908–9) · J. Prinz, ed., Rochesteriana (1926) · E. Corbett, A history of Spelsbury (1931) · J. Wilson, ‘Rochester, Dryden, and the Rose-Street affair’, Review of English Studies, 15 (July 1939), 294–301 · Highfill, Burnim & Langhans, BDA · Familiar letters: written by the right honourable John late earl of Rochester, 1, ed. T. Brown, 2, ed. C. Gildon (1697) · C. Pike, ed., Selections from the correspondence of Arthur Capel, earl of Essex, 1675–1677 (1913) · Some unpublished letters of Gilbert Burnet, ed. H. C. Foxcroft (1907) · GEC, Peerage, new edn · GEC, Baronetage · parish register, Spelsbury, 17 Aug 1680 [burial]


BL, MSS relating to Sodom, Add. MS 57732, Harley MS 7003 · CUL


attrib. J. Huysmans, portrait, c.1665–1670, Warwick Castle [see illus.] · oils, c.1665–1670 (after J. Huysmans?), NPG · D. Loggan, drawing, 1671, BM · attrib. P. Lely, oils, c.1677, V&A · R. White, line engraving, 1681 (after oil painting, attrib. P. Lely), BM, NPG · oils, Knole, Kent