The libertine takes a liberty

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This week, author and journalist Eugene Byrne goes back to the reign of the Merry Monarch, Charles II, and his relationship with John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, the man who claimed he never spent a single day of his adult life sober

The story

John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) , the most famous rake and wit at the court of Charles II is supposed to have once scrawled the following on the door of the king’s bedchamber:

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Here lies our sovereign lord the king
Whose word no man relies on;
He never says a foolish thing
Nor ever does a wise one.

The king, though, gave as good as he got, replying that it was true, “For my words are my own, and my actions are those of my ministers.”

The truth
 

Presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings and the middle ranks of management … all need to learn sooner or later what the Merry Monarch knew. That you take all the credit for success, but when things go wrong, you pass the blame on to your underlings.

One such minster, George Savile, First Marquess of Halifax, said of Charles: “He lived with his ministers as he did with his mistresses; he used them, but he was not in love with them. He showed his judgment in this, that he cannot properly be said ever to have had a favourite.”

What’s perhaps more surprising about this story, though, was the way in which His Majesty tolerated such rank disrespect from Rochester. If this story is exaggerated or untrue (and there’s no reason to believe it is), it is certainly the case that the earl was frequently in trouble with the king. He was sent to the Tower for kidnapping an heiress (with a view to matrimony; he succeeded) and was banished from court for satirising the king as a sex maniac.

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The earl had plenty of adventures before dying at the age of 33, presumably from one or more sexually-transmitted diseases, or from the effects of his proud claim not to have spent a single day of his adult life sober. Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 play The Libertine, later filmed starring Johnny Depp as Rochester and John Malkovich as Charles, paints a very credible picture of their relationship.