Biography John Wilmot

John Wilmot

photo of John Wilmot
  • Time Period1647 - 1680
  • PlaceOxfordshire
  • CountryEngland

Poet Biography

Rochester was born in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. His father, Henry, Viscount Wilmot, a hard-drinking Royalist from Anglo-Irish stock, had been named Earl of Rochester in 1652 for military services to Charles II during his exile under the Commonwealth; he died abroad in 1658, two years before the restoration of the monarchy in England. His mother Anne St. John was a Royalist by descent and a staunch Anglican.

At the age of twelve, Rochester matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, and there, it is said, "grew debauched". At fourteen he was awarded the degree of M.A. by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, who was Chancellor to the University and Rochester's uncle. After carrying out a Grand Tour of France and Italy, Rochester returned to London, where he graced the Restoration court. Later, his courage in a sea-battle against the Dutch made him a hero.

In 1667 he married Elizabeth Malet, a witty heiress whom he had attempted to abduct two years earlier. Samuel Pepys describes the event in his diary for 28 May 1665:

Thence to my Lady Sandwich's, where, to my shame, I had not been a great while before. Here, upon my telling her a story of my Lord Rochester's running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallett, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men, and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord of Rochester (for whom the King had spoke to the lady often, but with no successe) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry, and the Lord sent to the Tower.

Rochester's life was divided between domesticity in the country and a riotous existence at court, where he was renowned for drunkenness, vivacious conversation, and "extravagant frolics" as part of the Merry Gang (as Andrew Marvell called them). The Merry Gang flourished for about 15 years after 1665 and included Henry Jermyn; Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset; John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave; Henry Killigrew; Sir Charles Sedley; the playwrights William Wycherley and George Etherege; and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Much of Rochester's poetry suggests that he was bisexual.

Rochester was fascinated by the theatre and was the model for the witty, poetry-reciting rake Dorimant in George Etherege's The Man of Mode (1676). According to an often repeated anecdote, his coaching of his mistress Elizabeth Barry began her career as the greatest actress of the Restoration stage.

In 1674, Rochester wrote a satire on Charles II (variously known simply as "Satyr" and by its first line, "In the Isle of Britain"), which criticised the King for being obsessed with sex at the expense of his kingdom. Charles reacted by briefly exiling Rochester from the court. During his brief exile, Rochester appears to have spent time at his estate in Adderbury and perhaps also posing as a merchant in London's old city. He then returned to his seat in the House of Lords after an absence of about seven weeks.

Rochester fell into disfavor again in 1676. During a late-night scuffle with the night watch — a scuffle probably provoked by Rochester himself — one of Rochester's companions was killed by a pike-thrust. Rochester was reported to have fled the scene.

Following this incident, Rochester briefly went underground, impersonating a quack physician, "Doctor Bendo." Under this persona, he claimed skill in treating "barrenness," i.e. infertility, and other gynecological disorders. Gilbert Burnet wryly noted that Rochester's practice was "not without success," implying his intercession of himself as surreptitious sperm donor. On occasion, Rochester also assumed the role of the grave and matronly Mrs. Bendo, presumably so that he could inspect young women privately without arousing their suspicions.

By the age of 33, Rochester was dying, presumably from syphilis, gonorrhea, other venereal diseases, as well as the effects of alcoholism. His mother had him attended in his final weeks by her religious associates, particularly Gilbert Burnet, who later became the Bishop of Salisbury. A deathbed renunciation of atheism was published and promulgated as the conversion of a prodigal. This became legendary, reappearing in numerous pious tracts over the next two centuries. Because the first published account of this story appears in Burnet's own writings, some have disputed its accuracy, suggesting that he shaped the account to enhance his own reputation. However, other sources, including documents signed by Rochester, confirm that in his final months his thoughts turned towards religion and the afterlife. In the early morning of 26th July, 1680, Rochester died a 'without a shudder or a sound'. Rochester was later buried at Spelsbury Church in Spelsbury, Oxfordshire.