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Born at Ditchley, in Oxfordshire — Educated at Oxford - Becomes, a
Favourite with Charles II. — Early and continued Dissipation — His Quarrel with Lord Mulgrave -- Burnet's Account of his last Illness Death and Burial at Spilsbury, in Oxfordshire — His Character as a Poet.
John Wilmor, afterwards Earl of Rochester, the son of Henry, Earl of Rochester, better known by the title of Lord Wilmot, so often mentioned in Clarendon's History,' was born April 10, 1647, at Ditchley in Oxfordshire. After a grammatical education at the school of Burford, he entered a nobleman into Wadham College in 1659, only twelve years old ; and in 1661, at fourteen, was, with some other persons of high rank, made Master of Arts by Lord Clarendon in person.
He travelled afterwards into France and Italy; and, at his return, devoted himself to the Court. In 1665 he went to sea with Sandwich, and distinguished himself at Bergen by uncommon intrepidity; and the next summer served again on board Sir Edward Spragge, who, in the heat of the engagement, having a message of reproof to send to one of his captains, could find no man ready to carry it but Wilmot, who, in an open boat, went and returned amidst the storm of shot.
But his reputation for bravery was not lasting; he was reproached with slinking away in street quarrels, and leaving his companions to shift as they could without him ; and Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, has left a story of his refusal to fight him.?
He had very early an inclination to intemperance, which he
· His mother was Anne, daughter of Sir John St. John, of Lyddiard, Wiltshire, and widow of Sir Francis Henry Lee, of Ditchley. She survived her celebrated son. His father died in 1657.
? He had a quarrel with the Earl of Rochester, which he has perhaps too ostentatiously related, as Rochester's surviving daughter, the Lady Sandwich, is said to have told him with very sharp reproaches.-JOHNSON: Life of Sheffield.
totally subdued in his travels; but, when he became a courtier, he unhappily addicted himself to dissolute and vicious company, by which his principles were corrupted, and his manners depraved. He lost all sense of religious restraint; and, finding it not convenient to admit the authority of laws which he was resolved not to obey, sheltered his wickedness behind infidelity.
As he excelled in that noisy and licentious merriment which wine incites, his companions eagerly encouraged him in excess, and he willingly indulged it; till, as he confessed to Dr. Burnet, he was for five years together continually drunk, or so much inflamed by frequent ebriety as in no interval to be master of himself.
In this state he played many frolics, which it is not for his honour that we should remember, and which are not now distinctly known. He often pursued low amours in mean disguises, and always acted with great exactness and dexterity the characters which he assumed.
He once erected a stage on Tower-hill, and harangued the populace as a mountebank; and, having made physic part of his study, is said to have practised it successfully.
He was so much in favour with King Charles that he was made one of the gentlemen of the bedchamber, and ranger of Woodstock Park.
Having an active and inquisitive mind, he never, except in his paroxysms of intemperance, was wholly negligent of study: he read what is considered as polite learning so much, that he is mentioned by Wood as the greatest scholar of all the nobility. Sometimes he retired into the country, and amused himself with writing libels, in which he did not pretend to confine himself to truth. 3
His favourite author in French was Boileau, and in English Cowley.*
3 In the country Lord Rochester lived a blameless life; but he used to say (as Aubrey tells us) that " when he came to Brentford the devil entered into him, and never left him till he returned to the country again, to Adderbury or Woodstock Park."- MALONE: Dryden, ii. 145, Additions, &c.
This is not in Aubrey's · Lives,' as printed, but Malone had access to Aubrey's MSS., and meditated a publication from them.
* That Cowley was his favourite author in English is stated by Burnet, but
Thus in a course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps yet more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard to every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness ; till, at the age of one-andthirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay.
At this time he was led to an acquaintance with Dr. Burnet, to whom he laid open with great freedom the tenor of his opinions, and the course of his life, and from whom he received such conviction of the reasonableness of moral duty, and the truth of Christianity, as produced a total change both of his manners and opinions. The account of those salutary consequences is given by Burnet in a book entitled 'Some Passages of the Life and Death of John, Earl of Rochester,' 5 which the critic ought to read for its elegance, the philosopher for its arguments, and the saint for its piety. It were an injury to the reader to offer him an abridgment.
He died July 26, 1680, before he had completed his thirtyfourth year; and was so worn away by a long illness that life went out without a struggle."
Burnet is contradicted by Dryden-a better authority on such a point. Lord Rochester said of Cowley, though somewhat profanely, “Not being of God, he could not stand.”- Preface to Fables, 1700.
5 8vo. 1680. “ Nor was the King displeased with my being sent for by Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, when he died: he fancied that he had told me many things of which I might make an ill use; yet he had read the book that I writ concerning him, and spoke well of it.”-BURNET: Ovon Times, ii, 288, ed. 1823.
6 I asked if Burnet had not given a good life of Rochester? Johnson: We have a good Death ; there is not much Life.- Boswell by Croker, p. 559.
7 He was buried in the north aisle of Spilsbury Church, in Oxfordshire, but without a monument or inscribed stone to distinguish his grave. He ran away with, 26th May, 1665, and married 1666-7, Mrs. Elizabeth Mallet, of Enmere, in Somersetshire, a great heiress, by whom he left a son and three daughters. The son Charles, third and last Earl of Rochester, survived his father scarcely two years, and was buried 7th Dec., 1681, by his father's side. Elizabeth, the second daughter, married the third Earl of Sandwich, and died at Paris, 2nd July, 1757, seventy-seven years after her father. She had much of her father's wit. See Prior's verses on Wilmot's daughter in ‘Drift,' i. 110. “He was a graceful and well shaped person,” says Burnet, " tall and well made, if not a little too slender.”