John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a leading wit at Charles II’s court during the Restoration era, was born on April 1, 1647, at Ditchley Manor House in Oxfordshire, England, to Henry, Lord Wilmot, and his wife Anne St. John. Wilmot created the position of Earl of Rochester in 1652, a year after helping Charles II escape to France when the royalist army was defeated during the Battle of Worcester. John succeeded his father as the second earl in 1658 after Henry’s death. Rochester began his studies at Wadham College, Oxford University, in 1660, in the same year in which Charles II returned to England. (Though Rochester was only twelve, it was not entirely unusual at the time for someone so young to enter university.) During the following year, until 1664, Rochester toured the European continent with his tutor Sir Andrew Balfour, a Scottish physician and a founding member of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. In 1665, Rochester volunteered with the English Navy during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–67) and earned a distinction for bravery. In 1667, he took his position in the House of Lords. Though he spent much of his time in London, Rochester’s family, including his wife Elizabeth (née Mallet) and their children, remained at the Rochester family’s seat at Adderbury, a village in Oxfordshire. 

Rochester’s reputation in Charles II's court was that of a bawdy poet and hedonist. He was also the leader of the “Merry Gang,” a group of young aristocrats at court who advocated for libertinism. The term was coined by Andrew Marvell, who believed that Rochester was the country’s best satirist. Rochester worked closely with future poet laureate of England John Dryden on the latter’s compositions. Dryden dedicated his comedy Marriage à la Mode, first performed in 1673, to Rochester, acknowledging the earl’s assistance. A rivalry later ensued between the pair, spurred by Rochester’s antipathy toward both Dryden’s manners and what Rochester believed was Dryden’s aversion to revising his work.

Rochester is credited with helping to establish the tradition of English satiric poetry. He wrote so candidly about sex that only three of his poems were published during his lifetime. Centuries after his death, English author Graham Greene had to wait forty years before a publisher would release his biography about the second earl, titled Lord Rochester’s Monkey: Being the Life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (Bodley Head, 1974), though Greene had written it in the early 1930s.

Rochester’s best known works are “A Satyr Upon Charles II” (1673), “A Satyr Against Mankind” (1675) and “The History of Insipids” (1676), a satirical attack on Charles II that, along with the insulting sexual humor in the 1673 poem, resulted in Rochester’s banishment in the same year. His ostracism led to a period of both writing and appearing publicly in the guise of his alter ego, Alexander Bendo, an Italian charlatan who peddled cures for various ills around London for several weeks. Rochester offered his services in Alexander Bendo’s Brochure (1676), a pamphlet in which he claimed expertise in palmistry, chemistry, astrology, government, and more. According to professor of English Kirk Combe, “Rochester’s performance satire works to expose the fraudulent, speculative, and selfish actions of the ruling elite centered about Charles II […] where the manipulative few exploit the gullible many.”

By 1679, Rochester had developed an interest in religion and underwent a conversion, fostered by his friend Gilbert Burnet, a historian and author as well as the future Bishop of Salisbury. Their conversations were recorded in Some Passages of the Life and Death of the Right Honorable John Earl of Rochester (1680), supposedly written on Rochester’s death bed and preserved according to his wishes.

The Earl of Rochester died of syphilis on July 26, 1680, in Woodstock, England. Five years after his death, in 1685, his sole play was published: Valentinian, a revision of a tragedy by the popular Jacobean playwright John Fletcher. Rochester’s reputation as a hedonist was further solidified by Samuel Johnson’s chronicle of his life in the first of the multivolume Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), also known as the Lives of the Poets. Feminist and literary scholar Germaine Greer has also written about Rochester’s life and work in John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (Liverpool University Press, 2000), with particular attention to the possibility of Burnet exploiting the poet’s premature death and interest in religion.