John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, was born on All Fools’ Day, 1647, at Ditchley in Oxfordshire on the estate that had belonged to his mother’s first husband, Sir Henry Lee. Rochester’s father, Lord Wilmot, was a royalist general; witty, restless and hard-drinking, he was with the exiled court in Paris, and hardly saw his son. In consequence Rochester was brought up by his mother, who was tough-minded and a not uncommon example of well-born female piety. Although his exposure to the Bible and Prayer Book would continue through the daily routine of biblical study and prayers at his school, it was probably she who so impressed those texts on his memory that he would remember their cadences on his deathbed.
Rochester spent part of his childhood in Paris, but most of it in Oxfordshire. He was tutored by his mother’s chaplain, attended Burford Grammar School, and went up to Wadham College at the age of 12. He was at Oxford when King Charles came back to England, and he grew debauched there with the active encouragement of Robert Whitehall, a fellow of Merton college. (His more formal education would in any case have ended when he left Burford Grammar School: post-Restoration Oxford was not a place where young gentlemen were expected to study.) He took his degree of Master of Arts in 1661, and for the next three years he travelled in France and Italy with a Scottish physician as his tutor. He arrived back at the court which was to be the centre of his life on Christmas Day 1664, with a letter for Charles from his sister in Paris.
Described by his biographer Gilbert Burnet as ‘tall and well made, if not a little too slender’,1 Rochester quickly gained a reputation for easy grace and wit. He was the youngest member of his set apart from Sir Carr Scroope and John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave. He was later to quarrel with both men, facts recorded substantially in his poetry.