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Black Shuck

Cambridge Ghost Tours


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A Debt to Pleasure - John Wilmot, 2nd of Earl of Rochester

By Black Shuck Cambridge Ghost Tours, Jul 3 2015 03:05PM

The 2nd Earl of Rochester?

No, he is not a ghost, neither here in Cambridge or elsewhere. His spirit rests peacefully it seems.

Come to think of it, he didn't even study at Cambridge (more's the pity for us!) - he went to Wadham College, Oxford and his country home was Adderbury, Oxfordshire. His family were Royalists and fought for the King in battles on the west side of England.

However, our team at Black Shuck Cambridge Ghost Tours are bringing John Wilmot, 2nd of Earl of Rochester, poet, playboy and all round naughty boy of the 17th century Royal Court to Cambridge. At least in the guise you see in the photographs. Our team member Tom has played Rochester many times, including in the famous play 'The Libertine' (you may also know the film version starring Johnny Depp as Rochester) on a UK tour and in London at the famous King's Head theatre. Our team also brought Rochester's poetry to life in an original show 'A debt to pleasure' at the Southwark Playhouse London - which we have adapted for our latest event in Cambridge. We can't let him rest in piece - we've been digging him up for the last ten years!

Just who was John Wilmot?

A thug, a rebel, a debauched mess - and the most brilliant poet to have ever lived.

Born in Oxfordshire in 1647, his father Henry was a dashing Cavalier and was created Earl of Rochester for his service to Charles II. By the age of 16, and at Wadham College, Oxford, John Wilmot was already known for his debauched lifestyle. Charles II took John under his wing (and gave him a hearty allowance) and he soon became the talk of the Royal Court in Restoration London.

His exploits became infamous - at 18 he kidnapped his rich wife-to-be and spent 3 weeks in the Tower of London for it. He showed his bravery by becoming a naval hero - and promptly returned to London to woo Nell Gywn and many actresses of the London stage. But as a poet, he had a love of acting and theatre, and trained his mistress Elizabeth Barry to become the greatest tragic actress of her age. He had life long friendships with Nell Gwyn and Aphra Behn, the first professional female playwright.

His lifestyle soon took a toll during his 20s, along with the 'merry gang' of the Royal court, each night was spent gambling, drinking with wine and women. He also delighted in rebelling against his friend, Charles II - including writing verse worthy of treason and smashing up the King's prize sundial on a drunken night where he infamously said "what.. does thou stand here to f**k time?" Things crashed to an all time low when his young friend was killed on another drunken binge by a night watch pikeman, and Rochester fled the scene rather than helping. Trying to flee from the King - Rochester set up as a Quack Doctor on Tower hill, using a fake Italian persona called 'Dr Bendo' who said he could cure your veneral diseases, by sleeping with women who were affected. Sometimes this was achieved by dressing in drag as 'Mrs Bendo' the doctor's wife!

Ironically by his 30s, Rochester was himself infected by various veneral diseases. This, and his alcoholism caused his death - at age 33.

His Libertine lifestyle influenced his poetry, but it isn't just swearing and naughtiness. The genius of Rochester is to mix the highest sentiment, most beautifully expressed with the most base of emotions, crude and cruel. His work is full of parody, especially of politics and over zealous love poetry of the day. It stands the test of time as hilariously funny. Rochester had a interesting connection to women, although known for his womanising ways, he maintained platonic friendships with intelligent women and supported their right to make a living in the arts by being their patron. Many of his poems are written from the point of view of a woman, expressing the gender frustration of the age. He was as much a sensitive, romantic poet and artist as a drunken hellbrand.

Sadly, Rochester was never taken quite as seriously as he should have been as a poet, due to his personaliity, as well as the dirty subjects and language in his poems. He was mostly unpublished in his own day, and much of his work destroyed as 'filthy' after his death. What was left went largely ignored - especially in the 19th century.

So what (if any!) is the Cambridge connection?

The 1920's saw a new interest in the Restoration era and and the work of Rochester - Ezra Pound the poet and writer compared him to more famous poets of his age. At King's College, Cambridge, the future editor of T.S Eliot's work (and room-mate!) - an undergraduate called John Davy Hayward published, whilst still at Kings College, the first complete edition of the works of the Earl of Rochester in 1923.

We believe Rochester's poems take on a new vibrancy when performed live - after all, he loved and wrote for the stage. So to hear and see them performed by our very own Rochester - Join us at the fantastic Cambridge corset shop Quiver on the 17th July for 'A Debt to Pleasure'. It's an interactive, immersive theatrical experience with alcohol (of course!) It will be as crazy and debauched as the earl himself - who wouldn't want to spend an evening in his company?

To buy tickets - (and for an early bird discount) go to

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