I shared an anecdote in my last post about King Charles II and his search for a wife, how in a century where leaders affected piety and stuffiness, he told Europe that he cared about looks and cash and nothing else. I thought kings weren’t supposed to say that part out loud, not where biographers could hear them. I’ve now read one-and-a-half biographies of Charles, and I can confirm he really lived his whole life this way.
You know those R-rated college comedies from the seventies? Imagine Hollywood’s wildest idea of a party fraternity. Now imagine that frat lived in the same building as the government. That was the court of Charles II. Nearly any prank or vice was tolerated, and most were encouraged. The king even suffered personal insults. As long as you made him laugh or you were good at racing or chess or some other distraction, eventually you were forgiven.
The poster boy for this sort of behavior was John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. I recently read Merry Monarch: The Life and Likeness of Charles II by Hesketh Pearson. Here are edited passages from its section on the Earl of Rochester.
The example of free behavior set by the King was sometimes carried to excess by his courtiers. Once the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester took an inn on the Newmarket road and while pretending to act as publicans did their best to seduce the respectable women in the neighborhood, with what success we do not know. Rochester was the son of the King’s old friend and fellow-fugitive Henry Wilmot. He was born in 1647; and Oxford having made him a Master of Arts of Arts at the age of fourteen, he traveled in Europe. Then he served in the Navy during the Dutch wars with distinction and bravery, once volunteering to take a message from one ship to another in an open boat while a battle was raging, going and returning amidst a hail of shot. At Court he quickly won a reputation for sparkling wit, loose principles, obscene verses, lewd talk, heavy drinking, and general viciousness. In the execution of mad escapades he out-bucked Buckingham. He went about the streets disguised as a beggar, made love as a porter, harangued the populace from a stage on Tower-hill as a mountebank doctor, and disguised as a tinker collected the pots and pans of the housewives at Burford, damaged instead of mending them, and was thrust into the stocks and eventually reduced by his servants, who got him home by transporting the stocks as well. For five years he was perpetually drunk and never out of mischief. One of his hobbies was the writing of libels. Burnet relates that ‘he found out a footman that knew all the Court, and furnished him with a red coat and a musket as a sentinel, and kept him all the winter long every night at the doors of such ladies as he believed might be in intrigues’. Having collected enough material, Rochester then retired into the country for several weeks in order to compose scorching verses at the expense of his victims. These were distributed about the Court and caused much merriment, unless they got into the wrong hands; which occurred when he accidentally gave the King what in his alcoholic condition he believed to be a libel on certain ladies but was actually a defamatory assessment of the monarch himself…
… The King loved his company but not his character, and frequently sent him to cool his head in the Tower because of the objectionable nature of his sallies on the female favourites at Court. Unrepentant and unrebuffable, he emerged from these temporary incarcerations whenever the King wanted a good laugh, returning to the Tower after a few months’ freedom had resulted in some unpardonable burst of ribald rhymes.
His debaucheries sometimes laid him low and he suffered from remorse, ‘for he was guilty both of much impiety and of great immoralities’, wrote Burnet; but having recovered ‘he turned again to his former ill courses’. Between his bouts of what Johnson called ‘drunken gaiety and gross sensuality’, he took an interest in the drama, helped Dryden, and occasionally wrote lyrics of some charm. He also fell in love with a pretty girl, or coveted her fortune, and abducted her. But she was retrieved by her family, and Rochester had to wait two years before marrying her. The French ambassador called him ‘the man in all England who has the least honour and most wit’. Charles continually forgave his scathing sarcasms for the sake of his lively conversation, and when bored by business would send for Rochester to cheer him up, or cheer the Court up when important Dutch or German visitors had to be entertained. In his case the King probably used the Tower as a sort of inebriates’ home. The patient entered it dead drunk and came out of it relatively sober…
…Rochester having, in Johnson’s phrase, ‘blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness’, was reduced ‘to a state of weakness and decay’. He died of ulcers at the age of thirty-three, penitent, pious, and full of good resolutions (Pearson 204-206).
Pearson, Hesketh. Merry Monarch: The Life and Likeness of Charles II. 1969.