Sunday, 7 April 2013

Rakes and Rogues of Restoration London by Deborah Swift

The most infamous rogues of Charles II's court were the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rochester. Both were members of a young group of courtiers called 'The Wits' so named because of their literary pretensions, and their reputation for quick repartee.


In this period of the seventeenth century, sandwiched between the rigours of puritanism and the later tragedies of the Plague and the Great Fire of London, the mood was one of 
'a very merry, dancing, drinking, laughing, quaffing and unthinking time' (John Dryden)

The Earl of Rochester was described by John Burnet as 'a lawless and wretched mountebank; his delight was to haunt the stews, to debauch women, to write lewd songs and filthy pamphlets.'

Johnny Depp plays the Earl of Rochester in this trailer for his Biopic 'The Libertine'



Rochester was banished from court and committed to the Tower of London after kidnapping an heiress. Elizabeth Malet was a wealthy young woman who Rochester hoped would solve his mounting debt problem with her considerable fortune. At first she was flattered and agreed to the match, but then changed her mind. Rochester ambushed her coach at Charing Cross and attempted to take her away, but the King had him pursued and arrested.

Elizabeth Malet by Peter Lely 1667
File:Adderbury Manor House - geograph.org.uk - 818088.jpgLater in her life, surprisingly, Elizabeth Malet relented and they were married in 1666, and  had a relatively stable marriage, with Elizabeth maintaining their country estate at Adderbury near Oxford. 




Rochester could not remain faithful however, and continued to enjoy numerous mistresses. When at home though,  he would write verses lampooning life at court, including this one on Charles II -

We have a pritty witty king
Whose word no man relies on.
Who never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one.

Rochester and Buckingham influenced in turn a 'fast set' of impressionable men at court. These men were nicknamed by Andrew Marvell, 'the Merry Gang.' Hester Chapman in her book Great Villiers calls them 'a ring of poisonous dragonflies', which is a wonderful description as it describes how beautiful they looked, but also how dangerous they were.

Two of them, Sir Charles Sedley and Lord Buckhurst were responsible for an incident outside the Cock Tavern in Bow Street where they postured naked and made obscene gestures to the crowd below from a balcony. (Good taste prevents me from relating this incident in more detail!) Lord Buckhurst was also renowned for being one of the lovers of Nell Gwyn.

Many of the Merry Gang were also writers and playwrights of talent, involved with the new Vere Street theatre. Buckingham, Killigrew and Etheredge were all playwrights as was Wycherley whose work is still performed even today. Below you can see preparations for a modern production of The Country Wife, still going strong nearly four hundred years later. I drew on Wycherley's plays to give a flavour of period dialogue in The Gilded Lily.

Fully dressed
Preparations for a modern production of The Country Wife by William Wycherley
http://www.dal.ca/news/2011/03/28/meet_the_countrywife.html
Sedley was a talented writer, but during the performance of one of his plays the theatre roof fell in, injuring him. A flattering friend remarked that the play was so good and full of fire it had blown up the theatre, but Sedley apparently said, 'Nonsense! It was so heavy it brought down the house and buried the poet in his own rubbish.' So the Merry Gang were also renowned for their humour as well as their darker exploits. And I wonder if this is where we get the phrase to 'bring the house down'?!

In The Gilded Lily, Sedley, Buckhurst and George Etheredge all make an appearance. The lives of the Merry Gang are fascinating and complex, and for those who would like to know more I can recommend the following books;

The Lives of the English Rakes by Fergus Linnane
Constant Delights:Rakes Rogues and Scandal by Graham Hopkins
Charles II and the Duke of Buckingham - David Hanrahan
A Gambling Man, Charles II and the Restoration - Jenny Uglow

THE GILDED LILY is out now in paperback, and on special offer on Kindle.

2 comments:

Marg said...

I do so love to read about the court of the merry king Charles. Thanks for an interesting post

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