On June 25 1675, Charles II held a court banquet. Allowed the crown 15 years earlier on the condition that he form a new covenant with his people that promised fairness, tolerance and openness – qualities that both his father and the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell had lacked – the King had instead frittered his time away with costly foreign expeditions and self-indulgent sexual adventuring. He enjoyed the company of hard-living, witty young men, whose ability to entertain led him to grant them titles and riches.
On the evening of June 25 this group of aristocrats, social climbers and poets – what Andrew Marvell called a “merry gang” – tore recklessly about town. They included the wit Charles Sedley and the Master of the Revels John Killegrew. They were notorious for their escapades, which included lewd pantomimes of buggery, genital exposure and violence. They had scandalised society; only royal intervention saved them from reprimand or arrest.
However, the leader of the merry gang, poet and aristocrat John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, was a man quite different from the rest. As avowed a tavern-botherer, whoremaster and libertine as any of them, there remained about him something of the angel undefaced. After Rochester had “grown debauched” while a 13-year-old student at Oxford, he had established himself as a leading figure at court. It helped that Charles saw him as a surrogate son of sorts, due both to his father Henry Wilmot’s unstinting support for the exiled royal court and Rochester’s own valiant service in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. His friendship with the King was sufficiently deep that antics other men would have been imprisoned for were readily forgiven; no wonder Samuel Pepys wrote scornfully that it was “to the King’s everlasting shame to have so idle a rogue his companion”.
None the less, Rochester inspired a fierce loyalty, even love, in many, despite his public behaviour growing ever more outrageous. Perhaps it was the melancholic quality that he had, with mild, dark eyes that hinted at wistfulness, even as the effects of years of drinking – and sexual abandon with everyone from great ladies to street whores – took their toll. Or maybe it could have been his innate decency, which led him to say, late in life, that “he should do nothing to the hurt of any other” in pursuit of what he termed his “natural appetites”. But with the merry gang in headlong bacchanalian mode, such niceties might have gone unnoticed.
As they rampaged after the banquet into the Privy Garden at Whitehall, fired with wine, Rochester and his companions came across a new piece of ostentation by Charles. The King was a keen collector of astronomical items, and the crown jewel in his collection was a large, ornate sundial set with a complex design of glass spheres, on which portraits of the royal family were engraved. It had been constructed a few years earlier by Francis Hall, professor of mathematics at the University of Liège, and was the most expensive and elaborate instrument of its kind in Europe. The King’s pride and joy, the sundial took up a prominent position in the garden. A sensible or moderate man admired it from a distance and steered well clear. Neither sensible nor moderate, Rochester had no intention of doing any such thing.
To the horror of his companions, he drew his sword and threw himself at the sundial, taking exception to its phallic shape. According to one source, he was heard to yell: “What! Dost thou stand here to f— time?” (Another, more restrained account had him say: “Kings and kingdoms will tumble down, and so shall you.”) He attacked the elaborate structure with mad slashes. The priceless object lay in ruins over the garden. Returning to their drink-sodden senses, the terrified rakes ran away from the roused guards, in desperate hope that they would not be found out. Most avoided detection; Rochester, the ringleader, did not.
When Charles discovered the destruction of his beloved toy, he left court immediately in an apoplectic rage, much to the consternation of his hangers-on, who had no idea where he was for 10 days. Eventually, it transpired that he had taken a cruise aboard the royal yacht, accompanied by Rochester’s closest friend, Henry Savile, who tried to intercede on his behalf. But the damage was too great. Rochester left court immediately, knowing that disgrace would follow. While he had been banished and allowed to return before, this time Charles’s anger was unprecedented. When what must have been an almighty hangover had abated, Rochester feared that he had finally overstepped the mark and lost Charles’s favour forever. At the time, he was 28 years old. Within five years he would be dead, but his reputation as “the wickedest man in England” was cemented forever.
Yet Rochester’s foolhardy and violent actions were not dictated by mere abandon. Instead, they were the culmination of a reasoned process of intellectual dissent against Charles and his court – a chaotic and frenetic place that he described to Savile as a place where “you… think not at all, or at least as if you were shut up in a drum, you can think of nothing but the noise that is made upon you”. The reward for enduring the wearying revels of Whitehall was royal patronage, which Rochester had received from his Oxford days. By 1675, his gifts and titles included the prestigious roles of Gentleman of the Bedchamber and Ranger and Keeper of Woodstock Park.
Yet Rochester knew that these honours were little more than cynical bribes offered by an increasingly desperate king in an attempt to keep his court together. The nation, meanwhile, had long since realised that their king was a selfish and ageing playboy more interested in sex and showing off than he was in ruling his country. Some brave clergymen criticised him from the pulpit for his moral degeneracy, knowing that they faced being stripped of their livings if their words were brought to royal attention. Others muttered discreetly to their friends and families about the disappointment brought about by the abhorrent royal court – corruptions that, many believed, had led to divine judgment in the form of the 1665 Plague and the 1666 Great Fire.
Rochester, meanwhile, attacked Charles with the weapon he knew best – satirical poetry. In 1673, two years before he smashed the sundial, his “A Satire on Charles II” took aim at the King and court with disdain. Seeing his country worn down by war and poverty, Rochester mocked “the easiest King and best-bred man alive” as someone who was occupied with “starving his people” and “hazarding his crown” in the pursuit of carnal desires. He dismissed the royal mistresses who manipulated Charles, most notably the vile-tempered and covetous Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine, with the observation that:
His sceptre and 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! Thy prick, like thy buffoons at court,
Will govern thee because it makes thee sport.
Rochester might have been an enthusiastic participant in carnal abandon, but the only people he betrayed were his family – Charles prized his sexual activity over “safety, law, religion, life”. The King’s abandon was summed up with the memorably cutting couplet: “Restless he rolls about from whore to whore/ A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.” The satire ends with the scathing observation: “All monarchs I hate, and the thrones they sit on/ From the hector of France to the cully of Britain.” When completed, the poem was discreetly passed from aristocratic hand to hand, and its readers marvelled at the daring – some might call it folly – of the man who posed such a full-frontal attack on his king.
But soon the poem would make a fateful public appearance. At a court banquet close to Christmas 1673, a rumour reached royal ears about a scurrilous poem, “Signior Dildo”, written by Rochester and others, that ridiculed many of the leading women of the day as being in thrall to the “noble Italian, Signior Dildo”. Charles, who had slept with most of the women alluded to, was amused by the idea, and asked Rochester to show him the poem. Rochester – either by accident or design – instead handed Charles the explosive satire that he had written about him earlier that year.
Traditional accounts of this incident depict Rochester as a drunken idiot, incapable of distinguishing “Signior Dildo” from the more scurrilous satire against Charles. This is possibly true. However, given the authenticity of the sentiments expressed within the poem, and the weariness with the false life of court that he writes about in his letters, it is equally likely that Rochester, in a moment of self-destructive bravado, decided to deliberately hand over the “wrong” poem and be damned – taking masochistic pleasure both in his certain punishment and in the knowledge that Charles would have the smile wiped off his face when he saw how he was really regarded by his favourites.
Unsurprisingly, the merry monarch was enraged by the poems. After fleeing, Rochester was formally banished from court. This meant that to return uninvited meant a potential death sentence, and all of Rochester’s endowments, pensions and payments were suspended. He returned to his country estate at Adderbury in Oxfordshire where he contemplated being cast out forever.
Yet Rochester did not waste time in self-pity. Instead, he began thinking about what would become his definitive work, “A Satire Against Reason and Mankind”. Not content with merely attacking Charles and his court, Rochester instead adapted a satire by the French poet Boileau into the definitive statement of the libertine idea of mocking the conventional strictures of society. Criticising those “strange, prodigious creatures, man” for being, by turns, vain, misguided, in thrall to everything from religion to false ambition and simply gullible, his epic dismissal of the society in which he was one of the leading lights would become his most famous statement of his beliefs. In a famous comparison between the “true” values of the animal world and the false values of humanity, his bitterness at his surroundings is all too plain:
But man, with smiles, embraces, friendship, praise,
Inhumanly his fellow’s life betrays;
With voluntary pains works his distress,
Not through necessity, but wantonness.
Charles, seldom angry with his favourites for long, recalled Rochester from banishment in February 1674. This time, he had managed to escape without lasting censure for his rash – or carefully considered – action. But the following year his luck would run out. Charles not only temporarily stripped Rochester of his titles and grants as a result of his destruction of the famous sundial, but informed him that, after his death, the Rangership of Woodstock Park would no longer pass to his son and his descendants, but instead would revert to his uncle. The message was clear: royal favour, so long indulged by the poet, was no longer with him.
Though Rochester was received at Whitehall again, his relationship with Charles was characterised by mutual suspicion and antagonism. It was telling that when the King heard in 1680 that his protégé was lying wracked with pain on his deathbed, he did little more than raise a sour toast to him, perhaps knowing that his own end would come all too soon.