‘Dost thou stand here to fuck time?’
June 25th, 1675, was a warm early summer’s day in London like any other. The fashionable men and women attended the scandalous comedies at the playhouse, plotted assignations, or drank imported French wine in the most popular taverns, often to excess. And the evening had certainly seen rare sport amongst ‘the merry gang’, as the loose assembly of poets, rakes, dilettantes and sportsmen who had royal favour were sardonically referred to as by Andrew Marvell.
They consisted of a motley variety of pleasure-seekers, who all had a certain amount of favour with Charles II. Some of them were regarded as little more than entertaining court jesters, such as Thomas Killegrew, Master of the Revels and manager of the King’s Company of players. Others, such as Charles Sackville, the sixth earl of Dorset, were welcomed at court for their aristocratic lineage, and their excesses, which would have resulted in banishment – or worse – were tolerated, even enjoyed by the king.
If you were one of the merry gang’s supporters or familiars, you could count upon introductions to the finest whores and company in town, the best wine that a tavern could provide, and even royal patronage. If you feared their coming, as Pepys did, you closed the doors when you heard their drunken singing and shouting, and hoped that you were not caught up in the trail of devastation and mess that they casually scattered behind them. Their behaviour, which often included lewd pantomimes of buggery, genital exposure, and casual violence against strangers, scandalized many, and only the king’s intervention had saved them from reprimand or arrest.
The clear leader of the ‘merry gang’, however, was a man quite different from the rest. As avowed a sensualist, tavern-botherer, whoremaster and libertine as any of them, an observer might have noticed something different about him. Perhaps it was the slightly feminine quality to his face, with full, generous lips and mild, dark eyes that seemed to hint at a submerged kindness, even as the effects of years of drinking or sexual abandon took their toll. Or maybe it could have been a sense of innate decency on his part that led him to say, late in his life, that ‘he should do nothing to the hurt of any other’ in pursuit of what he termed his ‘natural appetites’. Then again, with the merry gang in full, headlong bacchanalia, such niceties might well have gone unnoticed.
This man was John Wilmot, 2nd earl of Rochester, poet, aristocrat and rake. By 1675, he had acquired countless titles, including Gentleman of the Bedchamber, King’s Gamekeeper for Oxfordshire, Deputy Lieutenant of Somerset and Ranger and Keeper of Woodstock Park. Never mind that these titles were mainly as fantastical and meaningless as the promised pensions that were attached to them, or that Rochester’s short but already eventful life had seen him ‘become debauched’ at university, serve his country with gallantry in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, end up in the Tower of London for attempting to abduct his future wife and embark on a grand love affair with the leading actress of the day. He was in royal favour, young, reputed to be one of the most handsome men in Europe, still possessed of some remnants of his health, and embarrassingly drunk.
The rakes and bravoes headed into the Privy Garden at Whitehall. Most of them had the run of the place; some of them even lived there. All were regular visitors to court, and had dined with the King that night. They could have counted on plentiful food and wine, much scurrilous gossip as to who fucked who – and who did worse – and the sense of being a tiny, gilded elite in one of the strangest and most volatile times in English history. Most of them may not have cared, or noticed.
Rochester, however, was all too aware of what was happening around them, and wrote vicious, brilliant and glittering satires on the world that he lived in. After his death, he would be described by Hazlitt as someone whose ‘contempt for everything that others respect almost amounts to sublimity.’ He could have hated himself for becoming a caricature of a privileged yet vacuous wastrel. Had he checked his actions, he might have thought of his wife Elizabeth and young children, living in virtual poverty in Oxfordshire, pining for their ever-absent husband and father as they endured run-ins with his domineering and pious mother Anne. But more glittering prizes awaited.
Charles II was a man much given to ostentation, and the crown jewel in his collection was a large, ornate sundial set with a complex design of glass spheres, on which portraits of the royal family were engraved. It had been constructed a few years earlier by Reverend Francis Hall, professor of mathematics at Liege University, and was rumoured to be the most expensive and elaborate instrument of its kind in Western Europe. It was commonly regarded as the king’s pride and joy, and took up a prominent position in the garden. A sensible or moderate man would have admired it from a distance, and then steered well clear. Rochester, a figure who took pleasure in throwing himself headlong into the search for new experience, had no intention of doing any such thing.
To the horror of the assembled throng, he drew his sword and threw himself at the sundial, apparently taking exception to its phallic shape. According to one source, he was heard to yell ‘What! Dost thou stand here to fuck time?’ (Another, more restrained account had him say ‘Kings and kingdoms will tumble down, and so shall thou.’) He then set about destroying the elaborate structure. Emboldened by alcohol and the adrenaline of transgression, his work was soon finished. The priceless object lay in ruins over the garden. Returning to their drink-sodden senses, the terrified bravoes ran away from the now-roused watch, in desperate hope that their transgression would not be noticed.
It was no good. When Charles discovered the destruction of his beloved toy, he became apoplectic with rage, leaving court immediately to attempt to calm himself, much to the consternation of his hangers-on, who had no idea where he had departed to for ten days; it eventually proved to be a short cruise on the royal yacht. But for the famously relaxed and easy-going monarch to have been moved to such anger boded ill for all of the merry gang, and Rochester in particular. He fled from court immediately in disgrace, departing his latter-day Eden in order to return, syphilis-riddled tail between his legs, to the country. While he had been banished before, and allowed to return before, the king’s rage towards a man he had regarded as a surrogate son was unparalleled. Rochester, when what must have been an almighty hungover had abated, might have thought that he had finally overstepped the mark and lost Charles’ favour forever.
Yet he was never cowed for long. And it would not be much time until a mysterious doctor, apparently hailing from Italy, would set up shop in Tower Street, one of the murkier parts of London, specializing in a variety of cures for ailments and illnesses, including infertility. He soon became one of the most popular of all the cranks and mountebanks, with many a great lady queuing up for his distinctly personal attentions. The good doctor was named Alexander Bendo, and his appearance in town shortly after Rochester’s banishment was no coincidence…