Debauchery

(c) Dillington House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Wilmot portrait by Peter Lely

After years of religious oppression under Cromwell and the puritans Britain was ready to release its pent up frustrations with gusto in the Glorious Revolution.  The restoration of Charles II to the monarchy in 1660 opened the doors to theater, dance, music and art.  Into this world stepped the famous libertine John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester.

Born April 1st 1647.  His father was a famous brave dashing cavalier and smuggled the young Charles out of England.  John had an up and down beginning to his career.  “Debauched” in Oxford, aged 13.  He tried to elope with a rich wife and was imprisoned in the Tower.  He volunteered to fight in the Navy and redeemed himself with heroism in battle.  His wit made him highly entertaining and favoured at court.  His pranks got him in trouble and rose to the level of treason and got him banned from court.

A famous rake in his day, the poem below gives a sense of his style.  He lived and wrote about overt sexuality.   He died aged only 33.  He is described as being drunk for 5 years in the company of what Andrew Marvell called “The Merry Gang”.  This was a gang of noble young blades who engaged in a feast of debauchery in the Court of King Charles.  It is thought that Wilmot died suffering from a variety of venereal diseases including Syphilis and Gonorrhea.

Because of his  lax moral character Wilmot was largely ignored in the Victorian era when poetry had a great flowering.  It was not until the 1920’s that he was re-admitted to polite society.

A Song Of A Young Lady To Her Ancient Lover ; by Lord John Wilmot

Ancient Person, for whom I
all the flattering youth defy,
long be it e’er thou grow old,
aching, shaking, crazy cold;
but still continue as thou art,
Ancient Person of my heart.

On thy withered lips and dry,
which like barren furrows lie,
brooding kisses I will pour,
shall thy youthful heart restore,
such kind show’rs in autumn fall,
and a second spring recall;
nor from thee will ever part,
Ancient Person of my heart.

Thy nobler parts, which but to name
in our sex would be counted shame,
by ages frozen grasp possest,
from their ice shall be released,
and, soothed by my reviving hand,
in former warmth and vigour stand.
All a lover’s wish can reach,
for thy joy my love shall teach;
and for thy pleasure shall improve
all that art can add to love.
Yet still I love thee without art,
Ancient Person of my heart.

Guy Fawkes Day

King Billy landing at Torbay

King Billy landing at Torbay

Nov 5th is celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day in the UK.  These days many people simply call it “Bonfire Night” and in truth that is probably a better name for it.

The burning of bonfires was, and in Ireland still is, a tradition associated with Halloween.  Celebrated on Oct 31st in Ireland the original feast of halloween was the Celtic Pagan New Year.  The feast was celebrated on the third harvest.  Harvest 1 is the grain (Lughnasa) involving summer bonfires.  Harvest 2 (Fomhair) is the fruits, nuts and vegetables.  Harvest 3 is Samhain, the blood harvest, when the breeding stock were selected for over-wintering and the losers were slaughtered and preserved.  You can see how all this flowing blood translated into our modern view of Halloween.

The Christian church did its best to transmogrify pagan rituals into Christian counterparts.  One area where the Catholic church failed utterly was with Halloween.  It persisted as a pagan celebration despite the best efforts of the church.

In England the protestants had better luck subverting the pagan rites.  Two events contributed to this.  Firstly the Gunpowder Plot when Catholic rebels tried to blow up the houses of parliament on Nov 5th 1605.  The Catholic rebel Guy Fawkes was found in possession of the gunpowder, was arrested and tortured.  Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered he avoided that terrible end by leaping from the scaffold and breaking his neck.

Fawkes became a protestant symbol for the catholic rebels, a convenient whipping boy.  Effigies of Fawkes were burned on the Halloween bonfires, making it a more protestant celebration than heretofore.  However, given the puritan nature of Protestantism at that time we must question how overt these celebrations could be,

Nov 5th became solidified as bonfire night when William of Orange landed in England on Nov 5th 1688 launching the Glorious Revolution.  Bonfires greeted William in his progress through the land, and the more relaxed mores of Britain permitted overt celebrations.

In Northern Ireland, by contrast, the bonfires are lit on the 12th of July, when William arrived there.