John Wilmot: The Man Behind “The Libertine”

The real John Wilmot is a mysterious one. His story is often told from contrary sources; therefore, this article brings together collected data on Wilmot’s life, as well as the one portrayed in the film The Libertine.

No matter the questionable behavior, there are aspects of Wilmot’s character that make it hard to resist liking him; and in the end, he died with a clean slate.

John Wilmot by Peter Lely 1677. Copyright Lydiard House / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lieutenant-General, Henry Wilmot earned the title of 1st Earl of Rochester from King Charles II in 1562 for his dedicated work in the military. In 1647, his wife Anne gave birth to their son John on April 1st, most befittingly. When Henry died in 1658, his son inherited the title of 2nd Earl of Rochester. Since Henry Wilmot had already secured such a positive reputation, the King made sure that John had an education and military experience; however, by age 13, John had become reckless and outspoken.

Reputation

The King would banish Wilmot from court many times throughout his life, but he always forgive him in the end. King Charles treated John like a son.

One can plainly see that Wilmot never wanted to do things to please authority figures; so, he rebelled every chance he had, caring about pleasure, first and foremost.

Wilmot had a group of familiars for fifteen years that would come to be called the Merry Gang by fellow poet, Andrew Marvell. He also wrote that Wilmot was “the best English satirist.”

Scottish philosopher and historian, Gilbert Burnet composed the book SOME PASSAGES ON THE Life and Death Of the Right Honourable JOHN Earl of ROCHESTER, Who died the 26th of July, 1680. Written by his own Direction on his Death-Bed [The University of Michigan Library]. Burnet captures Wilmot’s risky behavior, his alcoholism, and how he seemed to get in his own way because of his addition, and love of all things pleasure:

…And the natural heat of his fancy, being inflamed by Wine, made him so extrava∣gantly pleasant, that many to be more diverted by that humor, studied to engage him deeper and deeper in Intemperance: which at length did so entirely subdue him; that, as he told me, for five years together he was continually Drunk: not all the while under the visible ef∣fect of it, but his blood was so inflamed, that he was not in all that time cool enough to be perfectly Master of himself. This led him to say and do many wild and unaccountable things: By this, he said, he had broke the firm constitution of his Health, that seemed so strong, that nothing was too hard for it; and he had suffered…

Burnet, Gilbert. SOME PASSAGES OF THE Life and Death OF JOHN Earl of Rochester., p.12.
Portrait of Gilbert Burnet after John Riley, circa 1689–1691. Public Domain.

Marriage and Family

King Charles II wanted the 18 year-old Wilmot to marry heiress Elizabeth Malet; unfortunately, her rich family was not thrilled about the idea of their daughter marrying someone so poor. In 1665, Wilmot’s mother Anne helped in the abduction of Elizabeth. The attempt failed, and King Charles sent Wilmot to the Tower for three weeks, until he could give a heartfelt apology in writing.

After additional service to the King, Wilmot eloped with Malet in January of 1667, disobeying her parents. This piece of his life is not part of the film; although there is a conversation between the two about the event in one of the first scenes. Their marriage produced four children: Charles Wilmot, 3rd Earl of Rochester (1671–1681), Lady Anne Wilmot, Lady Elizabeth Wilmot, and Lady Malet Wilmot.

Portrait of Elizabeth Malet, Lady Rochester. Three quarter length, seated, wearing a brown dress and holding roses. Peter Lely. Public Domain.

Theatre, Love, Achievement, and Tragedy

Wilmot’s devotion to actress Elizabeth Barry is a major focus in The Libertine. Historically, the actress had been fired from the stage on a few occasions. It was Wilmot’s willingness to train her in 1673 that transformed her into one of the most celebrated actresses of her time. Two years later in 1675, Barry became his mistress. A daughter was born from their union in 1677, named Elizabeth. Sadly, their daughter would only live for about twelve years. Wilmot would come to resent Barry for her success, causing their relationship to fall apart after being together for five years.

Elizabeth Barry copy after Sir Godfrey Kneller exhibited in 1833. Public Domain.

The Works of John Wilmot

Wilmot wrote multiple works, criticizing the government and King Charles, including Satyre on Charles II. The poem paints Charles as a hypocrite: taxing his hungry people, and using the money for his many mistresses; all while claiming to be a great ruler.

His most famous poem is A Satyre Against Mankind Written by a Person of Honour. In the poem, he points out our hypocrisy as humans. We think that we can achieve perfection, intellect, and status. On the contrary, we are all fools. The poem is humbling for the reader. It makes one question their own opinion of themselves in relation to other animals.

Dr. Bendo: Miracle Worker

One of John’s friends was killed during a fight late one night in 1676. John left to Tower Hill, taking on the identity of his own creation, “Doctor Bendo.” He convinced the public that he was knowledgeable in gynecology and offered remedies to help with women’s infertility, including the donation of his own sperm. In addition, he assumed the identity of “Doctor Bendo’s wife” in order to inspect women’s bodies without causing disputes with the women’s husbands.

Wilmot’s Illness

At age 33, Wilmot was dying. There are debates about which disease(s) killed him. The most commonly believed is complication due to Syphilis. Of course, due to his excessive drinking, it is possible that alcohol added to his condition, as well. Others argue completely different opinions such as complications from Bright’s diseaseThe Libertine shows his slow descent into death through Syphilis-related disease.

Deathbed

In life, Wilmot was disliked by many. Toward the end, some of his enemies became admirers after an apparent conversion to Christianity on his deathbed. This part of his life is portrayed in the film. Considering his longtime association with atheism one can assume that he did not really agree with religion, even as he was dying. Luckily, we have Gilbert’s book of Wilmot’s last conversations before he died. According to the book, Wilmot explains that he views God as a being that humans can never fully understand, and therefore should not try to.

In his miserable state, he rejected his past. Although he was embracing Christianity, it did not come off as a classic repentance. He was viewing his past as a mistake because of how it lead to his current life; therefore, his goal was not merely to get right with a Christian deity by trying to be a good follower; instead, he wanted to be a good person. His general values of pleasure before all else were still present; however, tamed down. He no longer believed they should be indulged to the point of negatively affecting anyone.

…He believed there was a Su∣pream Being: He could not think the World was made by chance, and the regular Course of Nature seemed to demon∣strate the Eternal Power of its Author. This, he said, he could never shake off; but when he came to explain his Notion of the Deity, he said, He looked on it as a vast Power that wrought every thing by the necessity of its Nature: and thought that God had none of those Affections of Love or Hatred, which breed pertur∣bation in us, and by conse∣quence he could not see that there was to be either reward or punishment. He thought our Conceptions of God were so low, that we had better not

think much of him: And to love God seemed to him a pre∣sumptuous thing, and the heat of fanciful men. Therefore he believed there should be no other Religious Worship, but a general Celebration of that Being, in some short Hymn: All the other parts of Worship he esteemed the Inventions of Priests, to make the World be∣lieve they had a Secret of In∣censing and Appeasing God as they pleased. In a word, he was neither perswaded that there was a special Providence about humane Affairs; Nor that Prayers were of much use, since that was to look on God as a weak Being, that would be overcome with Importunities. And for the state after death, though he thought the Soul

did not dissolve at death; Yet he doubted much of Rewards or Punishments: the one he thought too high for us to at∣tain, by our slight Services; and the other was too extream to be inflicted for Sin. This was the substance of his Specu∣lations about God and Reli∣gion…

Burnet, Gilbert, SOME PASSAGES OF THE Life and Death OF JOHN Earl of Rochester, pp. 52-54.

The Libertine

Modern portrayals of John Wilmot continue to be produced. One example is the 2004 film adaptation of Stephen Jeffreys‘ play The Libertine, starring Johnny Depp, John Malkovich, Samantha Morton, and Rosamund Pike.

John Wilmot is one of the darkest characters Depp has had to portray, but when he speaks of his knowledge from researching Wilmot he has good things to say about the misunderstood man. The experience of making the film took a bit of a toll on Depp as he had to endure a lot of dirty circumstances to capture the time period, as well as the conditions. Equally as grim were the psychological aspects of Wilmot, since his life was anything but healthy. One thing is certain, Depp’s ability to make even the most controversial characters loveable is one of his talents as an actor. Perhaps, Wilmot would have approved.

“I did my best to bring to life a guy that I had read about and tried to do him some justice. He’s had a tarnished image and has been written off as a has-been for centuries – a debauched, drunken satirist, hedonistic. Those things might have been ingredients but there was far more to him than that.”

Johnny Depp
BBC Interview
2005

Note: This was originally written and published on HubPages in 2014 by the author. This is a revision by the same author.

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