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A COUPLE OF COURTIERS. THE EARL OF ROCHESTER. THE DUKE OF BUCKINGHAM.
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.
THE most brilliant figure of a brilliant Court-a man of unquestionable ability, but of the most shameless profligacy-wit, poet, dramatist, politician-gifted with rare personal graces and a wonderful charm of manner, yet perverting his fine endowments to the worst purposes— John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, has, in the most literal sense of Johnson's hackneyed lines, left a name to point a moral, if not exactly to adorn a tale. It would seem as if at his birth those powers in whose hands rest the distribution of the good things of nature had lavished upon him all except that one which is indispensable to their right use, the heavenly gift of virtue. With all his talents, with all his opportunities of rank and fortune, his was a wrecked life--a life misspent, and, therefore, unenjoyed—and the only part of it to be contemplated with satisfaction are the hours of contrition and reflection which he spent with the shadow of death upon him.
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, was born at Ditchley, in Oxfordshire, on the 10th of April, 1647. His father was Henry, Lord Wilmot, a brave and loyal Cavalier, who attended Charles II. during his wanderings after the battle of Worcester, and was rewarded for his faithful service with the Earldom of Rochester. His son and only surviving child received his early education at the Grammar School of Burford, whence he was removed to Wadham College, Oxford, in 1659. His intellectual powers were quickly conspicuous; he attained with facility a wide knowledge of the classics ; wrote verses with fluency; and spoke epigrams with careless profusion. In 1661, at the age of fourteen, he was admitted to the degree of M.A., and the Chancellor of the University, Lord Clarendon, distinguished him from other candidates by kissing him in the Continental fashion. He made the customary “grand tour” of France and Italy, and, returning to England in 1665, became at once a splendid figure at Charles's splendid Court. His wit, his handsome person, his graceful address, made him the observed of all observers. Charles admitted him to his intimacy, conferring on him the appointment of a Gentleman of the Bedchamber and Controller of Woodstock Park; and soon in that dissolute scene the young Earl was gayest among the gay.
There were times in the wayward career of this remarkable man when he seems to have struggled against himself- to have been conscious of his powers, and made desultory efforts to direct them to a worthy purpose. Thus, in the winter of 1665, he joined, as a volunteer, the Earl of Sandwich's expedition against the Dutch, whose East India fleet took refuge in Bergen harbour, and were there attacked by Sandwich with desperate resolu.
tion. Rochester served on board The Revenge, was in the thick of the action, and under a tremendous fire preserved his usual air of careless gallantry. In the following year he was present at the great battle of the 3rd of June, and was sent by Sir Edward Sprague with a message to one of his captains in the heat of the engagement, going and returning in an open boat, under a storm of shot, as coolly as if he had been sauntering in the Mall. The stern experience of war exercised for a time a salutary influence on his conduct. He avoided the gay gallants with whom he had plunged into dissipation, and lived with a temperance and a discretion which led his friends to hope he might yet justify their high opinions.
He was already married. In his early manhood he chose for his wife one Elizabeth Mallet, the daughter of John Mallet, Esquire, of Enmore, in Somersetshire, a young lady of considerable personal charms, with a fortune valued at £2,500 a year.* The match was favoured by Charles II., who deigned to recommend his favourite to the lady's attention; nor does there seem to have been any insuperable obstacle to its successful conclusion. Yet, with the perverseness which distinguished him, Rochester resolved to carry her off by force. As the lady was returning home one evening, after supping with Mrs. Frances Stewart, her coach was surrounded by a number of armed men, afoot and on horseback, who violently hurried her into another, drawn by six horses, and drove off rapidly towards Uxbridge, where Rochester was awaiting his intended bride. But the alarm having been given, and a hot pursuit undertaken, the abducted heiress was restored, and Rochester, by the
* This is the “ melancholy heiress” (la triste héritière) of Count Hamil. ton; so called, I suppose, as the wife of Rochester.
King's order, committed to the Tower. Eventually, however, he was pardoned both by his King and by Miss Mallet, and their marriage soon afterwards took place.* Nor does it seem, on the whole-in spite of his infidelities and numerous absences—to have been an unhappy one Rochester's letters afford convincing proof, as we shall see, that he could be an affectionate husband and a tender father; his better nature revealing itself in the pure atmosphere of Home.
After the temporary reformation to which I have alluded Rochester broke out into the wildest escapades. His fantastic freaks were the amusement, as his epigrams were the terror, of the Court. He mimicked the Lord Chancellor in the King's presence; he played audacious tricks on the ladies who fluttered, butterfly-like, in the sunshine of royal smiles; he quarrelled with the courtiers, and, as in his quarrel with Lord Mulgrave (afterwards Duke of Buckinghamshire), bore himself in such a manner as to show that his once brilliant courage had been impaired by the excesses which were ruining his constitution. “He gave himself up,” says Bishop Burnet, “ to all sorts of extravagance, and to the wildest frolics that
# Pepys gives the following account of this boyish escapade (Rochester was then in his 18th year) :- May 28, 1665. To my Lady Sandwich's, where, to my shame, I had not been a great while. There, upon my telling her a story of my Lord of Rochester's running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallett, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at Whitehall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Hally, by coach ; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and footmen, 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 success) was taken at Uxbridge ; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry, and the Lord sent to the Tower. Hereupon my lady did confess to me, as a great secret, her being concerned in this story. For if this match breaks between my Lord Kochester and her, then, by ihe conseut of all her friends, my Lord Hinchingbroke (Lord Sandwich's son and heir) stands fair, and is invited tor her.”