Criticising Rochester’s Oxford

3rd November 2014

News, Alumni news

Wadham historian and archivist Cliff Davies takes issue with Alexander Larman's portrayal of Restoration Oxford and its influence on the young Wadham student, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, published in Oxford Today.

"Popular history, helped by TV, has taken off in a big way in recent years. No historian should object to this. But many academics feel a distinct unease about what is produced, an unease often ascribed to ‘jealousy’ on their part of the fame and profits of the popularisers. Alexander Larman’s life of Rochester, Blazing Star, is an example. It has received respectful reviews. Its brief summary for Oxford Today, reproduced below, is a case in point. Lively, sensational, therefore readable, it is distinctly lacking in historical method. It ought, therefore, not to be acceptable to an audience by definition trained in critical thinking and a respect for ascertainable truth.

I must confess an interest. I have been working lately on Rochester’s boyhood and his time at Wadham, using among other sources the College’s own archives. The results will, I hope, be published in the decent obscurity of a learned journal. This is not the moment to pre-empt those findings. My present criticism is based on information which was readily available to him, and is primarily concerned with his methodology.

My principal criticism refers to his invocation of the well-known Wadham sex scandal of 1739. How on earth can events of eighty years later be relevant to a description of Wadham in 1660? To explain or illustrate the past by what was (then) the future – something unknowable to contemporaries and in no way predetermined or implicit in the situation of the time – is a cardinal sin for any history student. Larman’s purpose is plainly to use 1739 to stoke up a sensationalist account of Wadham’s alleged particular penchant for homo-erotic activity. Even if that were true, it could have no relevance for the situation in Rochester’s time.

In fact, he gets the 1739 situation wrong. What happened? Warden Thistlethwayte was accused of sexually assaulting an undergraduate. He was indicted to the assizes, but fled to Boulogne, resigning his post. There was then an attack by interested parties accusing a fellow, John Swinton, of similar practices which, rightly or wrongly, was rejected by the university authorities. These proceedings resulted in an entertaining and extremely vivid pamphlet, which in turn generated a good deal of verse which inevitably featured the ‘Wadham-Sodom’ rhyme. The reaction of the Fellows was one of extreme embarrassment and a determination to put these events behind them. There is absolutely no justification for Larman’s contention of Wadham ‘revelling in the nickname of “Sodom” ‘. Quite the reverse.

There is absolutely no justification for Larman’s contention of Wadham ‘revelling in the nickname of “Sodom” ‘. Quite the reverse.

Cliff Davies

These events are, then, used by Larman to create, retrospectively, an impression of Wadham in 1660. I do not deny that the general XVIIth Century situation – one of unmarried dons or private tutors in their twenties living in very close physical relationship to teenage or child students, even at times sharing a bed – was one likely to produce a good deal of homo-erotic sentiment or practice.

And that indeed may be reflected in Rochester’s case in the bi-sexuality of some of his verse. I am only saying that there is no evidence, good or ill, of Wadham's exceptionalism in this sphere. I am not ‘defending’ Wadham against an ‘accusation’ which many moderns might not regard as such. I am only concerned to quash what could become a myth on a par with (and as untrue as) the College’s reputation for long-term ‘left-wing’ politics.

A lesser example of Larman’s somewhat marginal relationship to the pursuit of truth is apparent in his treatment of Rochester’s tutor, Phineas Bury. In Blazing Star he appears as ‘a ridiculous and ineffectual figure’. This is based on Anthony Wood’s description of his love of coffee-houses and being too indulgent as proctor. Other sources show Bury making a contribution to astronomy, and to his being appointed by his former Warden , now Bishop, John Wilkins – no mean judge of ability – to responsible office in his diocese. No matter; gross mockery reads well, injustice to a reputation of some forgotten character is of little consequence if it helps entertain. But it is not history.

I am only concerned to quash what could become a myth on a par with (and as untrue as) the College’s reputation for long-term ‘left-wing’ politics.

Cliff Davies

An error of some consequence, this time one of understatement, is to describe Rochester’s father as a ‘staunch Royalist supporter’. Henry Wilmot was much more than that; a leading cavalier general, a diplomat in the royal cause, above all as the close companion to Charles II in his dramatic escape in disguise (oak trees and all that) after his defeat at Worcester in 1651. Charles’s relationship to the son of his bosom friend was close.

This accounts for the way Rochester at Oxford was treated by the university authorities almost like a royal prince in residence in their anxiety to live down their previous collusion with the Cromwellian regime. Indeed Rochester’s later ability to regain Charles’s favour after a series of outrages – including an allegation of the lengths to which Nell Gwynne had to resort to rouse him sexually – suggests that Charles treated him rather like a spoilt son to be indulged.

There are lesser errors. Pembroke, not Wadham, was actually the youngest college in 1660. More seriously, Larman seems ambivalent as to whether ‘moral and intellectual decline’ set in with Puritan control of Oxford, or as a reaction against it. ‘That did not abate fully until centuries later’ is a statement so vague as to be meaningless. In spite of a mention of Wren, Larman ignores the amount of solid learning alongside scandal and debauchery uncovered in the relevant volume of the monumental History of the University of Oxford. I am sorry to sound like a disgruntled tutor tearing apart a student essay written in haste. But such essays should not feature in the University’s alumni magazine."

Written by Cliff Davies

Read Alexander Larman's article from 'Oxford Today'

For years, the reign of Charles II has been regarded as a strange couple of decades, chiefly defined by the Restoration of the king to the throne after the decade-long Commonwealth interregnum. The clichéd images of men in enormous wigs flouncing about trying to outdo each other in witty sayings and widespread street prostitution might have some basis in fact, but they have long overwhelmed the reality.

Now there is an ongoing reappraisal of the period, begun in 2009 by Jenny Uglow’s revisionist biography of Charles, A Gambling Man, and continued this year by two major drama series, both of which have attempted to offer an alternative perspective on the time. The first, New Worlds, is a long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed 2008 drama The Devil’s Whore, which dealt with a semi-fictionalised account of the dying days of the ageing Charles’s court, and the other, The Great Fire, is a major four-part series looking at the social infrastructure of London in 1666, even as the city burnt to the ground.

These attempts to reassess a strange and contradictory time, as rich in philosophical thought and literary achievement as it was in strong wine and hard living, are welcome, especially as we approach the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. It is also true that Oxford played a major part in both the intellectual and fleshly aspects of the day. Charles fled to Oxford in 1665, initially to escape the plague, setting up a satellite court complete with hangers-on and ladies of ill repute. One of the men who joined him there had only recently left the University himself, where his experiences had come to epitomise Oxford’s rapid change in miniature. Added to his growing notoriety – his arrival was delayed by his incarceration in the Tower of London for his attempted abduction of the woman who would become his wife – this would eventually lead him to become the most infamous figure of his age. This man was John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.

Rochester, who had inherited his title in February 1658 after the death of his father Henry, a staunch Royalist supporter, initially arrived at Oxford in January 1660, at the age of 12. Although this seems young today, it was considered entirely normal for young gentlemen-in-training to arrive at university then; John Donne had attended Hertford (then Hart Hall) from the age of 11 in the previous century. Rochester found himself in a topsy-turvy world, torn between the traditions of its past and a chaotic present.

The young Rochester matriculated at Wadham, which highlighted the contrast between old and new. At the time Oxford’s newest college, it had been founded in 1613 by the wealthy landowner Nicholas Wadham’s widow Dorothy, and had risen to eminence thanks to its former Warden, John Wilkins, who supported religious and social tolerance and founded the ‘experimental philosophical club’, which later became the Royal Society, during his tenure. His successor Walter Blandford was a skilful politician who also served on the commission that restored Royalists to their previous places in society.

Oxford had been strongly Royalist in the early years of the Civil War, with Charles I making his court there, and this had led to the University being regarded with much suspicion by Cromwell, who recognised its potential for intellectual dissent. He made various attempts to control it and purged undesirable figures. He even had himself made Chancellor around 1650, presumably to keep an eye on any outbreaks of potential sedition.

The result was that Oxford slid into a moral and intellectual decline that did not abate fully until centuries later. By Cromwell’s death in 1658, many of the University’s leading academics had been removed, and the atmosphere was Puritan. University discipline was strict; gambling and fornication were punished extremely severely by the proctors, and malefactors could expect expulsion, a heavy fine or even imprisonment. Drinking, whether alcohol or coffee, was forbidden on Sundays, and sermons and overt displays of religiosity were the norm. Had Rochester been a student a decade earlier, his life might have been very different.

Even when Rochester arrived in 1660, academic life remained straitened. As an MA scholar, Rochester, who wore a more distinguished gown to mark him out from non-aristocratic undergraduates, had to attend theological discussions every other week for two hours. He was expected to attend chapel regularly, with a restored Anglican, rather than Puritan, ethos, and sometimes the services began as early as 5am. He then had a short break for a rushed breakfast of cold meat and coarse bread before spending the time until lunch at lectures, or preparing for these lectures with his college tutor. Lunch itself – a plain meal of bread and cheese, washed down with weak beer – was a strict affair in which only Latin and Greek were allowed to be spoken, and then the afternoon was spent at a mixture of lectures and university events, before the evening saw the presumably exhausted Rochester attend chapel and then see his tutor for private prayers and to discuss the activities of the day. It was an existence that created young men who were ready for whatever the world would throw at them.

At least, this was the reality for the poor students, who had no other option than to conform to the lofty ideals of godliness and a classical education, in the hope that it would equip them for roles in the clergy or as private tutors. The aristocratic students, who had no need to care about careers, blew off the requirements and regarded Oxford as a sort of exotic finishing school. They frequently had little interest in academic work and rebelled. The “strange effeminate age”, as the contemporary antiquary Anthony Wood later called it, saw the wealthy men dress in affected style, while the women of the town who fraternised with the undergraduates donned breeches. Unsurprisingly, in this place of cross-dressing lewdness, bisexuality, sodomy and drunkenness were rumoured to be rife. Colleges vied with one another to see which was the most debauched; the students of St John’s made it their mission to attend chapel drunk, while Balliol men were made “perfect sots” by their “perpetual bubbling”. It was said that three MA students of All Souls, an especially notorious college, were so drunk at the Mitre tavern that they frightened the hostess to death. One bishop’s son was found dead, with a brandy bottle held tight within his grasp.

The fellows were no better. Magdalen and New College were notorious for their buying and selling of places, and at least one University ceremony had to be postponed because the Vice-Chancellor was too hungover to officiate. Proctors, allegedly responsible for discipline, made it their business to be ‘known boon blades’ of the town, famous for their sexual and alcoholic prowess, and the tutors were ineffectual. Rochester’s own tutor, Phineas Berry, was more interested in drinking coffee in the newly founded coffee shops than he was in ministering to his students or keeping discipline.

Cromwell’s carefully nurtured home of Puritanism had become its opposite. Syphilis could easily be contracted from a prostitute in one of the city’s many whorehouses or alehouses, while Wadham itself later became notorious for homosexual activity, revelling in its nickname of ‘Sodom’. Rochester was caught up in the midst of this bacchanalia. He became acquainted with a Merton don, Robert Whitehall, a dubious figure who proudly boasted that he was “loined with sack and faced with claret”. The two had a close relationship, with Whitehall lending Rochester his academic gown so that his protégé could visit the taverns and return home undetected by the proctors. This amity came at a price, and it was widely believed that Whitehall, a bachelor, and Rochester were intimately acquainted, possibly as a result of coercion – although the two men enjoyed a friendship that lasted long beyond university, with Whitehall continuing to send Rochester gifts throughout his life.

Yet it would be wrong to think of Restoration Oxford as purely a place of alcoholic and sexual abandon. Christopher Wren was based in the city throughout the decade, eventually designing the Sheldonian Theatre in 1664. Created the Savilian Professor of Astronomy in 1661, it was during his time in Oxford that he first came up with a redesign for St Paul’s, which became a reality after the cathedral was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Wren and others like him were associated with Wadham while Rochester was a student. Oxford imparted a spirit of intellectual curiosity and a willingness to question the established order that would last for the rest of his short life. Dying at 33, his notorious existence encompassed everything from impersonating an Italian doctor in order to seduce women to virtually annual banishment for insulting the king, and none other than Samuel Johnson later sniffed that he “lived worthless and useless and played out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness”. It was possibly at Oxford that he contracted the syphilis that caused his death. Yet the University also inculcated an intellectual brilliance that would define his greatest poems and satires, leading him to challenge the established ideas of the day with wit and vigour. The charged atmosphere of the time led him to an interest in both philosophy and drama, the first of which dictated his great satires, most notably his masterpiece A Satire Against Reason and Mankind, and the latter of which led to a near-fascination with disguise and role-play. Of course, so did dressing in Robert Whitehall’s tattered academic gown.

It seems impossible that his brilliant career would have occurred without his wild years at Wadham. Today he remains a source of fascination, was portrayed by Johnny Depp in The Libertineand is proudly extolled by the college as a great alumnus – an indication that time is a great healer, and that respectability, like posterity, settles on the most unlikely candidates.

Alexander Larman (Regent’s Park, 2002) has published a new biography of Lord Rochester, Blazing Star, with Head of Zeus. His second book, a social history of the year 1666, will be published by them in autumn 2015.

Reproduced from Oxford Today, Vol 27, No 1, with kind permission of the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford.

Colleges vied with one another to see which was the most debauched; the students of St John’s made it their mission to attend chapel drunk, while Balliol men were made “perfect sots” by their “perpetual bubbling”.

Alexander Larman

Related news

Read Alexander Larman's response to this article

It is inevitable that, writing a biography of a historical figure as controversial and misunderstood as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, one will find disagreement from readers and critics alike. It would be remiss of anyone but the most thin-skinned writer not to expect a certain healthy argument with many of the conclusions that I have reached, and I have been enjoying a process of discussion in several of the public readings and talks that I have given on Rochester since the publication of my book, Blazing Star, over the summer.

Alex Larman's response