Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The 'Poisonous Dragonflies' of Restoration London

by Deborah Swift

Scene from The Libertine

Charles II's reign is known as the Restoration in English history. This is because Charles was restored to the throne in 1660 after the Commonwealth period during which Oliver Cromwell and his more repressive Puritan views had set the moral tone. When the King came back from exile he brought with him a Court which had taken on the laxer morals of France and was determined to impose them. Charles II himself was a womaniser and reveller, and soon he gathered a coterie of wild and dangerous young men around him.They could do almost anything they wanted and get away with it, very often under the protection of the King himself, which is why their behaviour was tolerated, even if it was outrageous or repellent by usual standards. 
The Wits
The most infamous rogues of Charles II's court were the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester. Both were members of a young group of courtiers called 'The Wits' so named because of their literary pretensions, and their reputation for quick repartee.

In this period of the seventeenth century, sandwiched between the rigours of puritanism and the later tragedies of the Plague and the Great Fire of London, the mood was one of
'a very merry, dancing, drinking, laughing, quaffing and unthinking time' (John Dryden)

The Earl of Rochester was described by John Burnet as 'a lawless and wretched mountebank; his delight was to haunt the stews, to debauch women, to write lewd songs and filthy pamphlets.'
Johnny Depp plays the Earl of Rochester in this trailer for his Biopic 'The Libertine'

Kidnap of an heiress
Rochester was banished from court and committed to the Tower of London after kidnapping an heiress. Elizabeth Malet was a wealthy young woman, and Rochester hoped she would solve his mounting debt problem with her considerable fortune. At first she was flattered and agreed to the match, but then changed her mind. Rochester ambushed her coach at Charing Cross and attempted to take her away, but the King had him pursued and arrested.

Lely, Elizabeth Malet 1667

In his diaries, Pepys describes Elizabeth Malet as the 'great beauty and fortune of the North' and notes the scandal of her kidnapping by Rochester: Apparently, she

'supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, 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 of Rochester (for whom the King had spoke to the lady often, but with no successe) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry, and the Lord sent to the Tower'

Even more weirdly, later in her life Elizabeth Malet relented and she and Rochester were married in 1666, and had a relatively stable marriage, with Elizabeth maintaining their country estate at Adderbury near Oxford.

Adderbury House, home of  Elizabeth Malet & the Earl of Rochester

True to form, Rochester could not remain faithful however, and continued to enjoy numerous mistresses. Charles II remained on good terms with Rochester, despite his hell-raising, because Rochester's father, the first Earl, had been a staunch supporter of the King during the Cromwell period, and had fought bravely for him in both military and political ways. Charles therefore had a debt of gratitude to his son. But also, Rochester was renowned for his wit and humour and was loved by the Court. He also used his powers of seduction to seek out possible mnistresses for the King - which put him in favour and in Charles's debt. When at home though, he was prepared to lampoon life at court;

We have a pritty witty king
Whose word no man relies on.
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.

A ring of poisonous dragonflies
Rochester and Buckingham influenced in turn a 'fast set' of impressionable men at court. These men were nicknamed by Andrew Marvell, 'The Merry Gang.' Hester Chapman in her book Great Villiers calls them 'a ring of poisonous dragonflies', which is a wonderful description as it describes how beautiful they looked, but also how dangerous they were.

Two of them, Sir Charles Sedley and Lord Buckhurst were responsible for an incident outside the Cock Tavern in Bow Street where they postured naked on a balcony and made obscene gestures to the crowd of more than a thousand people below. (Good taste prevents me from relating this incident in more detail!) Lord Buckhurst was also renowned for being one of the lovers of Nell Gwyn.

Many of The Merry Gang were also writers and playwrights of talent, involved with the new Vere Street Theatre. The theatre used to be Gibbons's tennis court, and was the home of Thomas Killigrew's company from 1660 to 1663.

Buckingham, Killigrew and Etheredge were all playwrights as was Wycherley whose work is still performed even today. Below you can see a modern production of The Country Wife, still going strong nearly four hundred years later. I sometimes draw on Wycherley's plays to give a flavour of period dialogue in my books.

A production of The County Wife by Wycherley

Sedley was a talented writer, but in 1679 during the performance of one of his plays, the theatre roof fell in, injuring him. A flattering friend remarked that the play was so good and full of fire it had blown up the theatre, but Sedley apparently said:

Nonsense! It was so heavy it brought down the house and buried the poet in his own rubbish.' 

So the Merry Gang were also renowned for their humour as well as their darker exploits. And I wonder if this is where we get the phrase to 'bring the house down'?!

Sedley is also occasionally associated with a notorious gang of rakes who called themselves Ballers and who were active between 1660 and 1670. Pepys says of them ' their mad bawdy talk did make my heart ake'. Their chief claim to fame, according to Pepys, was orgies and dancing naked at Lady Bennet's whorehouse. It was probably Sedley who wrote the Ballers' Oath on behalf of them, which is too lurid to print here!

The Man of Mode
George Etheredge's play, The Man of Mode alluded to this group of men, although Etheredge was probably the least wild of the group, earning him the nickname 'Gentle George' or 'Easy Etheredge.'  The Man of Mode is widely considered one of the best comedies of the Restoration period. Produced in 1676, its success can be attributed to the fact it satirises his well-known contemporaries. Sir Fopling Flutter was a portrait of Beau Hewitt, a famous rake, and a notorious diner-out. He undertook the management of the bath-rooms at Bath, and conducted the public balls there. The character Dorimant was a reference to Rochester, and Medley a portrait of his fellow playwright and wit Sir Charles Sedley. Even the drunken shoemaker in the play was a real character, who afterwards made his fortune on the streets of London from the publicity the play brought him.

In my book The Gilded Lily, Sedley, Buckhurst and George Etheredge all make a threatening appearance. The lives of the Merry Gang are fascinating and complex, and for those who would like to know more I can recommend the following books:

The Lives of the English Rakes by Fergus Linnane
Constant Delights:Rakes Rogues and Scandal by Graham Hopkins
Charles II and the Duke of Buckingham - David Hanrahan
A Gambling Man, Charles II and the Restoration - Jenny Uglow

Look out for more information on the Restoration Theatre from Annie Whitehead, coming soon on December 17th.


Deborah Swift is the author of four historical novels and a teen trilogy, all available in paperback as well as ebook. Her first novel was shortlisted for the Impress Prize in the UK. You can find her on twitter @swiftstory or sample a free book by signing up for her newsletter at


  1. What a waste of talent and ability there!
    But I always liked King Charles' response to Rochester's little verse:
    "That is because my words are my own but my actions are my ministers'."

    1. Great response, wasn't it! Thanks for commenting Lil.

  2. My favorite gang of historical characters. Thanks, Deborah, for starting my day this way. Much as I love blaming Louis XIV and the French for their riotous behavior, I remember they were nearly all boys whose fathers had died in the Civil War ... others had fought in hand-to-hand combat ... others had been hounded around Europe in poverty, fearing assassination, with Charles II ... so presumably most had PTSD, and were fighting depression. Their behavior was self-medication. America had The Roaring Twenties after WWI, and the drug use of the '60's was partly fueled by the Vietnam War. As there was no treatment, I'm amazed more Wits and Merry Gang didn't commit suicide. I wonder how the poor folk handled their distress -- arduous manual labor was probably the answer for them. As if the plague wasn't bad enough!


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