John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, died on July 26, 1680, aged 33 years old. It had been, how can I put it, an eventful life.
The son of Anne St John and her second husband Royalist hero Henry, Viscount Wilmot, John was a bit of an embarrassment to his mother.
It wasn’t just the lewd poems or the bawdy plays, his dismissal from court or the drinking and whoring that upset her. It wasn’t even the attempted abduction of his future, fabulously rich heiress, wife to be Elizabeth Malet that made her raise her eyebrows. Well actually it was, but what really upset her was that he wouldn’t renounce all of the above on his death bed – and boy did she try hard to persuade him.
John was born at Ditchley, Oxfordshire and at the age of just 12 was sent to Wadham College, where it was said he ‘grew debauched.’ These things happen! Having picked up his MA three years later, John went off on the obligatory Grand Tour, which probably finished off the debauchery tuition.
Following the abduction attempt, John married Elizabeth Malet. The couple had four children – a son who died young and three daughters.
Back home in London he was the toast of the Restoration Court. He frequented the theatre, gave acting lessons to his mistress Elizabeth Barry and wrote a lot of very rude poetry.
But it was the death bed renunciation of his lifelong atheism that was the real best seller and remained in print for two hundred years – a cautionary tale for any young man about to embark upon a life of excess.
John died at his home in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, his body so ravaged by his lifestyle that it was unknown whether it was the effects of alcoholism or venereal disease that eventually killed him.
John’s portrait, attributed to Peter Lely, hangs in the Dining Room at Lydiard House.