No one likes a puritan, when you get down to it. They’re the religious equivalent of indie music snobs. So when Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England in 1649, it marked the start of an eleven-year period of no fun. Theatres closed down, Christmas banned as a holiday and forget getting hammered on Saturday night, my droogs. For a brief rundown of Cromwell’s rise to power, I refer you to Messrs. Monty Python:
Now, I’m not even going to think about going into the question of whether Cromwell was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. That’s a whole nest of hornets I’m not sticking my head into. In any case, we’re not here to talk about Cromwell.
See, when Charles II took the throne on 29th May 1660, it meant that fun was legal again. The day was declared a public holiday, and the Venetian Ambassador set the tone by having free wine on tap outside his house all day. Charles had been chilling out, maxing and relaxing all cool in the Netherlands and brought some of the Continent with him. For instance, it became legal for women to perform on stage for the first time, and filthy jokes were viewed as funny again.
Charles himself tends to be viewed as a “Merry Monarch,” and is today notorious for partying very hard. However, the hardest-partying of all his social circle was John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester.
Like so many of us, Rochester learnt debauchery while at university. He enjoyed a distinguished military career fighting against the Dutch. He first got to know his wife by kidnapping her, and still slept around. Indeed, at one stage, following a scandal, he posed under the name “Dr Bendo,” who claimed to be able to treat infertility in young women with great success. It’s fair to say that a lot of the women who came to his private surgery did indeed get up the duff, so I suppose the claim was technically correct. He and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham also on one occasion rented an inn, posed as the landlords and offered the husbands in attendance several rounds on the house apiece, then made time with the wives.
It is fair to say that Rochester was a total bastard. One tale he and Buckingham would often tell was of the time they heard of a wealthy old miser with a pretty young wife. During the time they were posing as landlords, Buckingham invited the miser over for a free drink. While the miser was away, Rochester sneaked over to his house, dressed as a woman, and drugged the maiden aunt who was guarding the wife in question. He then seduced the wife and persuaded her to steal all her husband’s money. Then he took her back to the inn, where Buckingham enjoyed her favours as well, before the two of them robbed the wife and kicked her out, telling her to return to London to “follow the only trade she was now fitted for.” The punchline was that the miser returned home and hanged himself. This story always got a good laugh.
Rochester and chums were in the habit of getting roaring drunk and generally making nuisances of themselves, with a particular habit of flashing passers-by when sozzled. Rochester summed up his lifestyle in bawdy verse:
I rise at eleven, I dine about two,
I get drunk before seven, and the next thing I do,
I send for my whore, when for fear of the clap,
I spend in her hand, and I spew in her lap;
Then we quarrel and scold, till I fall fast asleep,
When the bitch growing bold, to my pocket does creep.
Then slyly she leaves me, and to revenge the affront,
At once she bereaves me of money and cunt.
If by chance then I wake, hot-headed and drunk,
What a coil do I make for the loss of my punk!
I storm and I roar, and I fall in a rage.
And missing my whore, I bugger my page.
Hardly Aphra Behn, but you know.
Charles II seemed to accept Rochester as one of those friends who keeps doing awful things, but is always forgiven afterwards. We all know someone like that. For most people it’s me. However, Rochester took it too far one night. You see, Charles’ particular hobby was astronomy, and to that end he had had a very elaborate, very expensive sundial installed in the Privy Garden. Rochester and chums stumbled across this one night on their way back from another night of sin. Rochester apparently became somewhat annoyed by the sundial’s insolence, demanding, “Dost thou stand there to fuck time?” before smashing it to pieces. Charles was so angry he actually left the country for eleven days without telling anyone, causing no small consternation at home.
Ironically, given what he’d said about “fear of the clap,” Rochester died of syphilis in 1680.
Rochester has inspired many works of fiction over the years, from the protagonist in George Etheridge’s The Man of Mode to the modern dramatisation of his life, Stephen Jeffreys’ The Libertine.
Most of his poetry seems to have been pretty much along the lines of what I have quoted above, but perhaps his best known verse was on the subject of his old buddy Charles:
God bless our good and gracious king,
Whose promise none relies on;
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.
It’s certainly a lot more eloquent than the time he toasted the King’s health by dipping his penis into a glass of wine. Oh, Rochester, you crazy cat!
http://oldpoetry.com/opoem/show/16673-Lord-John-Wilmot-Signior-Dildo - More of Wilmot’s poetry. NSFW, as they say.