Restoration Theatre Part II: Rochester and the Rake

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester
John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

This is the second part of my three part series on Society, Stage and the Rake’s Progress. You can read the first here.

‘The identification of Rochester with Dorimant was very likely intentional, a part of the design by Etherege and the managers to assure the success of ‘The Man of Mode’’

If the rake didn’t simply spring ‘full-grown and furiously erect from the head of John Dryden or James Hayward or George Etherege’[1]  it would be sensible to surmise that there was a trigger.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, seems to fit the bill. Dying from suspected venereal disease at the age of thirty three, his poetry is riddled with references to sexual conquests with a violent malice that seems predatory (if you haven’t read A Ramble in St. James Park, please do). He married a wealthy heiress, took an actress as his mistress and used prostitutes. If the rumours about his life are to be believed it certainly reads like a Restoration comedy, and he would justly deserve John Miller’s label of being ‘the extreme example of (the) recognised type’[2].  One of George Etherege’s biographers has even gone so far as to suggest that ‘the identification of Rochester with Dorimant was very likely intentional, a part of the design by Etherege and the managers to assure the success of ‘The Man of Mode’’[3].  Rochester was certainly friends with Etherege and William Wycherley. Aphra Behn was also a great admirer of the earl. In her prologue to Valentinium, Rochester’s only authenticated play, she declares:

Now ladies you may celebrate his name,

Without scandal on your spotless fame.

With Praise his dear lov’d memory pursue,

And pay his death, what in his life was due.[4]

Rochester’s achievements as poet are hard to deny, but to credit him as the being the model rake is to ignore the facts and endorse the myth. When it comes to the earl, there is a deep cleavage between truth and rumour.

Certainly the picture painted by Anthony Hamilton some years later is of a man who is instantly endearing to women. He writes how ‘there is not a woman who listens three times to what he has to say, who does not thereby damage her reputation’[5].  In his memoir, Hamilton chronicles Rochester’s involvement with a Miss Temple.  He recalls how Miss Temple’s maid had attempted to prevent a relationship between her mistress and the earl. She did this by changing some of Rochester’s satires to incorporate Miss Temple’s name.  While reading the satire to Miss Temple, the maid was secretly listened to by one of Rochester’s mistresses.  The subsequent series of confused incidents involving disguise and intrigue are ripe for the Restoration stage. The saga concludes with Rochester winning back Miss Temple and the maid disgraced.

A further story attesting to his malignant pursuit of women can be found in a piece of work attributed to the French scholar, Saint Evremonde.[6]  The author tells the story of how Rochester and ‘the last splendid playboy of the fading renaissance’ George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, set themselves up as innkeepers in order to get local men drunk so that they could have affairs with their wives. On learning that one of their customers had a particularly beautiful wife they decided to seduce her. While Buckingham entertained the husband in the tavern, Rochester made his way to the wife’s house. There, he persuaded her back to the inn where he and Buckingham took it in turns to have sex with her. On finding himself a cuckold, the husband hanged himself. Rochester and Buckingham gave the woman money and advised her to get a new husband.

These stories certainly chime with the view presented in The Man of Mode that ‘he was the devil’ with ‘something of the angel yet undefac’d in him’[7].  Yet they both suffer, in varying degrees, from a gaping lack of evidence. Hamilton was on the periphery of the court circle which warrants his account a modest amount of credence; there is even a mention of a ‘Miss Temple’ in Rochester’s poem ‘Signour Dildo’[8]. But the poem reveals little of any relationship. Given the inaccuracy of many of his other stories, Hamilton is a troublesome source to say the least. The second account is even more questionable. The authorship is in no way certain because Saint Evremonde was a victim of several forgeries.

When events are corroborated with other evidence, the reality is quite different. In 1676, Rochester was caught committing the ‘beastly prank’[9] of running naked in Woodstock park with some companions to attract the attention of passing ladies.  In a letter to his close friend, Henry Savile, he refers to the incident yet has an entirely different take on events.

For the hideous deportment which you have heard of concerning running naked, so much is true: that we went into the river somewhat late in the year and had a frisk for forty yards in the meadow to dry ourselves.[10]

The truth appears to have been deliberately distorted, resulting in a ‘Rochester persona’. This persona was partly down to gossips of the time and partly down to the earl himself. While Rochester claims in his notorious poem ‘The Imperfect Enjoyment’ that his ‘dart of love, whose piercing point, oft tried, With virgin blood ten thousand maids have dyed’[11], there are few recorded instances of sexual atrocities that support this claim.  As Robert Wolseley said at the time, because Rochester’s poetry was so widely read and heard ‘everybody is so well acquainted with it.’ People recognised his poetry and thought they knew the type of poetry he would write. David M. Veith has cited nearly two hundred poems falsely attributed to Rochester, most of an vulgar and obscene nature, and all carrying a similar sentiment[14].

Rather than being a ‘Machiavel in love’[15] like Horner, Rochester appears to have been made a fool of more than the other way around.  Reporting in his diary in 1668, Samuel Pepys recalls hearing:

…the silly discourse of the King, with his people about him, telling a story of my Lord Rochester’s having of his clothes stole, while he was with a wench; and his gold all gone, but his clothes found afterwards stuffed into a feather bed by the wench that stole them.[16]

Of course Rochester had dealings with prostitutes and suffered the consequences. His poetry is littered with references to characters like Betty Morris and Mrs Willis.[17]  Yet he was not alone in this pastime especially amongst his contemporaries.  The use of prostitutes was widespread and acknowledged by almost everyone from the nobility at court to the lower echelons of Restoration society.  For men, the use of prostitutes was rarely synonymous with scandal. Mrs Willis pops up in correspondence between the marquis of Halifax and Henry Savile.

My Ld Culpepper is also returned from Paris with Mrs Willis, whom he carry’d thither to buy whatsoever pleased her there [18]

Nell Gwyn

What is more, the relationships Rochester enjoyed with the important women in his life were certainly not calculated and more than just sexual.  His platonic friendship with Nell Gwyn (in many ways she and Rochester were two sides of the same coin) stands in stark contrast to the norms of the Restoration Comedies. In the spring of 1678 we find him offering her advice on how to deal with the king’s roving eye:

…be assured you can’t commit a greater folly than pretending to be jealous; but on the contrary, with hand body, head, heart and all the faculties you have, contribute to his pleasure all you can and comply with his desires throughout.[19]

Furthermore Rochester’s letters to his mistress Elizabeth Barry, spanning several years, appear to be sincere in their content.  A particularly impassioned letter goes as follows:

Anger, spleen, revenge and shame are not yet so powerful with me as to make me disown this great truth, that I love you above all things in the world.[20]

Hardly the words of a man who believed women to merely ‘serve but to keep a man from better company’.[21] Even his wife, Elizabeth, was treated cordially.

The rake was not the Earl of Rochester ‘with his vices polished to shine like perfections’.[22] The rake was a materialization of society’s ideals which were embodied in the persona that had been created around Rochester and realised on the stage in the characters of Dorimant, Willmore and Horner. Rochester was not the only Restoration man to take an actress as a mistress and to visit brothels. What marked Rochester out from the crowd was his ability and willingness to share his experiences (whether real or imagined) with the wider world, and to expose the vice of others.

It was not the reality of Rochester’s sexual endeavours that inspired the rake, but the sexual endeavours people were happy to believe he enjoyed.

The next post will be the final in the series on Society, Stage and the Rake’s Progress.

Rebecca is currently crowd-funding her PhD on Restoration London. If you would like to donate please check out her Go Fund Me page.


[1] Weber, Harold, The Restoration Rake-Hero, (Wisconsin, 1986) p. 13.

[2] Miller, John, Charles II, (London, 1991) p.96.

[3] Huseboe, Etherege, p. 44.

[4] Behn, Aphra, ‘Prologue’, Valentinium, John Wilmot (London, 1685).

[5] Hamilton, Anthony, The Memoirs of Count Grammont, (London, 1885) p. 235.

[6] Wilson, J. H. The Court Wits of the Restoration, (London, 1967) p.45.

[7] Etherege, The Man of Mode, p. 40.

[8] John Wilmot, The Complete Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. David. M.Vieth, (Yale, 2002) p. 57.

[9] Huseboe, Etherege, p. 34.

[10] Ibid, p.153.

[11] Wilmot, Complete Works, p. 38.

[12] Wycherley, William, The Country Wife, ed. John Dixon Hunt, (London, 1973) p. 9.

[13] Ibid, p. 51.

[14] Ibid, pp. 223-237.

[15] Salgado, Gamini, Three Restoration Comedies, (London, 1986) p. 220.

[16] Pepys, Samuel, Diary, 2 December 1668.

[17] Wilmot, Complete Works, p. 137.

[18] Savile, Henry, Savile Correspondence, ed. William Durrant Cooper, (Camden Society, 1851) p. 62.

[19] The letters of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, edited and introduction by Jeremy Treglown, (Oxford, 1980) p. 189.

[20] Ibid, pp. 180-181.

[21]Wycherley, The Country Wife, p. 14

[22] Fraser, Nicholas, That Second Bottle, (Manchester, 2000) p. 171.

© Rebecca Rideal