Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Wickedly Romantic, The Earl of Rochester

by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

When England, disillusioned with Cromwellian rule and its enforced puritanism, welcomed a monarch back to the throne, King Charles II was crowned, and thus began the period we now call The Restoration.

Partially due to a backlash regarding the strict codes of puritanism, and partly due to the character and behaviour of King Charles II himself, this period in history was soon known as a time of loose morals and sexual freedoms, particularly amongst the titled and moneyed classes. Charles was a popular king most of the time, a man of considerable charm and conviviality, but the country continued paranoid concerning Catholicism and the remaining believers in Protestant puritanism were outraged by the new trends in liberal immorality.

Charles had his faults. He also had his virtues and strengths. He tended to elevate his many mistresses to the highest titles in the land and shower them lavishly with the somewhat impoverished country’s dwindling funds. This occurred even to the detriment of those who had suffered appalling poverty and hardship whilst backing Charles as king and attempting to save his father before him. Naturally he was criticised for this, but he was also loved for his flamboyance, disregard for stuffy rules, and outrageous indulgence of his lovers. His queen was unable to give him children, but he managed to sire a number of them on his mistresses. So much for Charles!

John Wilmot
2nd Earl of Rochester
John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, (1647-1680) burst into this scene as one of Restoration England’s most fascinating and unusual characters. His life was hardly routine – and it started with his father. The first earl aided Charles, son of the deposed and executed King Charles I, to escape England during the civil war, both in outrageous disguise before successfully arriving in 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 only 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.

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, young John Wilmot 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 with vice at the top of the list. He returned to England with a good deal more knowledge than he had left it.

With Charles II on the throne and his father dead, John 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 titled gentleman but also essential, since no nobleman could be seen to trade - let alone work!! Yet 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 later promised paid positions and 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 and authors from the Brontes to Georgette Heyer? It all started when the earl attempted to abduct the woman he wanted to marry. Elizabeth Malet was an heiress, and her two 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 this attempt 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. With the plague raging through London at the time (1665), there was considerable danger. The very young earl pleaded with the king and was eventually set free. He later became a close friend of the king although the friendship was sometimes a rocky one. On his release from the Tower, Rochester promptly joined the Dutch wars and following his father’s example, acted with considerable courage, quickly becoming known as a naval hero.

The Lady Elizabeth had declined all other 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 outrageous and infectious sense of humour who had secretly wooed her with poetry and wildly romantic demonstrations.

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 infatuation, but she did bear him a lover’s child, a little girl named Elizabeth whom Rochester quickly adopted onto his own estates after breaking up with the mother and accusing her of neglecting the child. 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.

But at that time the accepted standard of wild immorality had serious disadvantages, and soon Rochester (as did half the court and the king himself) contracted syphilis. A hideous disease, it was both misunderstood and incurable. The 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. He also converted from blatant atheism to become a devout religious believer.

Certainly much of Rochester’s poetry is hilariously vulgar and even pornographic, but a good deal more is enchantingly beautiful, thoughtful, and insightful. Although cynical, he was also a master of human understanding, and his work is rich in empathy and melancholy. He was certainly one of the greatest intellectuals of his age, and had he lived longer he would perhaps have become the most accomplished and famed of poets.

The 2nd Earl of Rochester,
older and sicker
The young earl is now more particularly famed as a drunken libertine, but Rochester was an awful lot more than that. Adored by his wife although he often treated her badly, and much loved by his children, he was tall, handsome, highly intelligent, eloquent and dashing, honest and courageous, fought duels, led a madly adventurous life of escapes, disguises, and even foreign espionage in the king’s service. His poetry was of the highest quality, although frequently dissolute and uproariously humorous. There was certainly no one quite like him. But he died tragically young and in terrible pain at the age of 33, leaving a reputation which has lasted more than 400 years.

This is an Editor's Choice originally published September 21, 2015


Barbara Gaskell Denvil was born in Gloucestershire, England but, has now moved to rural Australia. She has published six historical novels - Satin Cinnabar which is a crime adventure actually commencing on the Bosworth battlefield, Sumerford's Autumn which is an adventure mystery with strong romantic overtones, set in the early years of the Tudor reign, Blessop's Wife (published in Australia as The King's Shadow) which is a crime/romance set in England during 1482-3 in those turbulent years around the death of King Edward IV, The Flame Eater, a romantic crime novel also set in 1482/3, The Deception of Consequences, a Tudor mystery-adventure, and a time-slip novel Fair Weather, a highly adventurous mystery which is set earlier during the reign of King John.
Her new novel The Deception of Consequences is a Tudor mystery - adventure and will be published late February 2017. Barbara is also an author of fantasy fiction.

Barbara's novels are available through Amazon.


  1. One wonders what he might have been like had if he'd lived long enough to grow out of his youthful excesses.

  2. Replies
    1. Yes, exactly the way I see his life - he could have been brilliant

  3. Jude, I have often wondered the same. He's such an interesting character.

  4. Wasn't there a life version of his life, The Libertine, with Johnny Depp playing Lord Rochester?

    1. Yes - that's true - and I very much enjoyed the film. It followed the truth in many areas - but was sadly inaccurate in most things - even attributing a play to him which he certainly did not write. Films often do this sort of thing - but Wilmot's life was cracy and exciting enough without making things up

  5. True, Jude - and that's interesting speculation. I think he would have matured into an intellectual and a great poet. However - I'm not sure all his excesses were necessarily confined to youthful habits - the age of the Restoration saw far worse and more libertine behaviour than Rochester's - including that of the king himself - and they all grew to ripe mature age without letting up for a minute!!

  6. And yes, there was (some years back) a brilliant - but highly fictional - film called The Libertine starring Johnny Depp. The film was in my opinion a masterpiece but it really didn't manage a great deal of historical accuracy and depicted Rochester as a bad-tempered drunken sot - which he really wasn't - and managed a whole picture of inaccuracies. I still enjoyed the film!! But I enjoy the sound of the real Rochester far more.

  7. I've been thinking about Rochester for the last few days. It occurs to me that he was a Trickster ... a Puck ... a Robin Hood ... a Jack-in-the-Beanstalk ... even a Harry Potter. He learned the ways of power, and then used their weaknesses against them in order to expose corruption and wickedness. Omarosa is doing it today. You paint a very balanced appreciation of his talents. Thanks.

    1. What a clever summary - and I completely agree. Thanks - great words

  8. A lovely tribute! I feel rather close to Rochester, having written of him very briefly as a character, when one of my own characters fell in love with hi,...
    I remember when I finally got to see his portrait at the V and A (the original of the first photo you've shared) being rather startled -- I was so used to thinking of him in certain ways, and the images of that painting online don't capture the real thing very well -- he looked so very young!
    This explains a bit of my character's history with Rochester: http://thegirdleofmelian.blogspot.com/2010/12/review-of-regina-brooks-and-love-letter.html

  9. Interesting post - I 'enjoyed' The Libertine as well, alas it was marred somewhat by the lead actor's seemingly all too true inclination for over drinking. (According to some sources the drunken performance was a little to real at times). Great film,not great history in it though.

    1. I agree 100%. Now when you decide to start writing screen scripts, you could write a fantastic TV series on the real man including a lot of Charles II and others


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