Johnny Depp and the Libertines: The history behind his new role

What was it about the 17th century that made it so mucky? What in heaven's name gave rise to the Earl of Rochester and his hellish rhymes? And what were the consequences of such unbridled obscenity? As Johnny Depp dons Rochester's peruke in Hollywood, A C Grayling reveals the world of the original libertines
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The Independent Culture

Rochester was a poet of great talent, a brave naval officer, a rampantly intemperate bisexual, a harvester of maidenheads, a pimp and bawd for his King, a Hooray Henry repeatedly involved in duels and brawls (at least one of which resulted in the murder of a citizen of London) - and he died a victim in 1680, aged just 33, of accumulated doses of both gonorrhoea and syphilis.

Charles II's reign is known as the Restoration because Charles was restored to the throne in 1660 after the republican Commonwealth period of Cromwell's rule. But it was the opposite of a restoration in moral terms. In England under Cromwell, an austere and pleasure-denying form of Puritan Christianity set the dominant standard of behaviour. The Restoration brought to England a royal court that had taught itself very different manners and morals during its exile in France. The effect on the aristocracy, which had chafed under the restraints of Cromwell's years, was electrifying. Back on top socially and politically, enjoying revenues of estates distrained from the regicides who had toppled Charles I, and given the licence of Charles II's own example as an energetic womaniser and reveller, the leading members of Charles's court let themselves go - and with a vengeance.

If proof were needed of the power of the arts to influence public sentiment and behaviour, Restoration theatre with its witty, bawdy plays, and the magnificent portraits in oils of the king's mistresses - among them the actress Nell Gwyn, the nymphomaniacal Lady Castlemain, and Louise Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth - would surely provide it. Rochester added a further dimension with the explicit obscenity of his poetry and his own excursions into playwriting, most notably his Sodom. One of his best-known poems, "A Ramble in St James's Park", begins: "Much wine had passed with grave discourse/ Of who fucks who and who does worse". In his "Song of a Young Lady to her Ancient Lover",he has the Young Lady say, "Thy nobler part, which but to name/ In our sex would be counted shame,/ By Age's frozen grasp possessed,/ From his ice shall be released,/ And soothed by my reviving hand,/ In former warmth and vigour stand."

In Sodom Rochester satirises the court of Charles II under stinging pseudonyms: the King himself appears as Bolloximian, his wife, Queen Catherine, as Cuntagratia, Lady Castlemain as Fuckadilla, the King's brother (and later James II) as Buggeranthus, Louise Keroualle as Clytoris, and Louis XIV of France as Tarsehole the King of Gomorrah. Some of Rochester's contemporaries were outraged by his free use of language; his defenders claimed that since obscenities are too gross to inflame desire, Rochester's real purpose was to restrain venal appetites by disgusting them before they could have ill effect. This implausible suggestion has the stamp of Rochester's own cheerful wit about it.

A well-known indication of the times is provided by Samuel Pepys's diary, in which the assiduous civil servant's perpetual peccadilloes with mistresses and prostitutes are faithfully recorded. Yet in comparison to the hell-raising aristocrats among whom Rochester moved, Pepys was a model of virtue. When Rochester returned from his Grand Tour as a very young man, the circle of dissolutes he joined had as its nucleus the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Buckhurst, Sir Charles Sedley and Sir Henry Savile, all already experienced rakes, and nine-tenths along the road to perdition. He quickly outpaced them all.

They were all members of the Ballers' Club, dedicated to drink and debauchery. Sex was a principal feature of the members' activities. Sexual exhibitions and demonstrations, orgies, and naked dancing with the girls at Lady Bennett's brothel - which was the club's headquarters - figured among other delights. But none of the Ballers had Rochester's skill as a deflowerer of virgins, because none of them had his looks and charm. He was soon famous for the ease with which he got girls into bed. Part of his motive for doing so was to provide the King with fresh pleasures, for he not only deflowered virgins but thereafter taught them tricks and amorous arts which he knew, as a Lord of the Bedchamber who had often conducted the King's mistresses and whores to the royal bed, would be to Charles's taste.

Charles II was a consistently good patron to Rochester, despite being offered severe provocations at times to be otherwise. Part of the reason was that Rochester's father, the first Earl, had been a staunch champion of Charles II's cause during the Cromwell period, and had fought bravely for him in both military and political ways. He died before Charles became King. Charles therefore had a debt of gratitude to his son. Secondly, Rochester's delightful witty conversation made him a jewel in company, and he was much loved by the Court. Thirdly, his usefulness as a procurer of sexual pleasures for the King was a service Charles did not want to lose.

So even when Rochester fell foul of the law, Charles intervened to save him. And Rochester certainly needed saving. He tried to abduct an heiress (this earned him several days in the Tower of London - he later married the lady and her great dowry), he fought several duels (highly illegal), boxed someone's ears in the King's presence (an act technically counting as treason; the escapade earned Rochester a brief exile in France), and was somehow involved in the death of a watchman who had tried to arrest him among a rowdy gang of drunk aristocrats.

After a while, though, Rochester began to test the King's patience with his lampoons and satires. One of them so enraged Charles that he banished Rochester from his presence for several weeks. As before, Rochester was soon back in favour. But the incident did not teach Rochester his lesson. He continued his increasingly unacceptable acts of lèse-majesté, with the inevitable consequence of a breach at last. His poetic comparisons between Charles's penis and his sceptre might be forgivable - perhaps, indeed, flattering - but the little poem that finally turned the King against Rochester was the now well-known "God bless our good and gracious King/ Whose promise none relies on/ Who never said a foolish thing/ Nor ever did a wise one."

Charles claimed that when he was drinking and debauching with his favourite courtiers, they could say what they liked and he would not take offence. But the truth was that he did take offence, and this little verse proved a poison pellet. Shortly afterwards Rochester gave the King an excuse to withdraw his patronage: following a drunken revel, Rochester smashed a beautiful and priceless sundial in Charles's privy garden. He was never again to bask in the King's approval.

The immorality, or at least amorality, of the Restoration has led to it being called a "libertine" period. Charles and his courtiers had acquired the habit of thinking and acting as they pleased while in exile in France, by which time thinking and acting as one pleased had become the kind of hedonistic excess exemplified by Rochester. But libertinism had not started that way. Indeed, it had not started as a form of sexual and alcoholic licence at all.

The word "libertine" was first applied in the 1550s to a sect of Protestants in northern Europe who, with unimpeachable logic, reasoned that since God had ordained all things, nothing could be sinful. They proceeded to act accordingly. Their views were regarded with horror by both Catholics on one side and Calvinists on the other, for whom the word libertine therefore came to mean depravity and debauchery in the highest degree. This is now the standard meaning of the term. By association it also came to apply to anyone suspected of rejecting religion. In the early decades of the 17th century that was indeed the word's main meaning, and it was taken to denote anyone with an interest in science and philosophy.

The reason for the 17th-century application of the term libertine to people with intellectual interests (whether or not they were also atheists which was far from invariably so - many of those with scientific interests were believers) was that orthodox Christians assumed that advanced thinking must lead to dissolute morals. This non sequitur was so fixed in the public mind by the late 17th century that in order to maintain a distinction between immoralists and people of a scientific bent, the word libertine was reserved to the former and the latter came to be called "free thinkers" or "philosophes" instead.

In the reigns of Charles II in England and Louis XIV in France, morals and language were equally free (moralisers would say: coarse and degraded), so that those who were libertines in the intellectual sense were also quite likely to keep several mistresses, visit brothels, and lard their talk with profanities and oaths, all of which was perfectly acceptable to everyone other than the prim among their contemporaries. It is no accident that the Duke of Buckingham had a handsomely appointed chemistry laboratory in his house, and Rochester himself was a student both of chemistry and medicine in the intervals between seducing women and boys.

There would almost certainly have been no libertinism, and therefore no Rochester, without what some historians call the "libertine crisis" in France in the 1620s. This was a significant episode for many reasons, one of which is that it marked a crucial moment in the birth of the modern world. Of course, this parturition took much bloody and painful struggle over a much longer period, starting with Luther and the theses he nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. But the 1620s have a special significance because it was the decade that saw the last gasp of reactionary religion's efforts to stop the new world of science and philosophy coming into being.

In fact the "libertine crisis" began when, in 1619 at Toulouse, an itinerant teacher of philosophy and medicine called Giulio Cesare Vanini was burned at the stake. His crime was "atheism" (but also, by implication, homosexuality). His name became a byword throughout Europe for atheism and the "naturalism" that accompanied it - that is, the view that nature is the ultimate reality and source of all things.

Vanini started as a monk, studying theology and medicine in Italy before travelling throughout Europe, working as a tutor or secretary in noble households. He got into trouble for homosexuality and for killing a man in a brawl, and therefore escaped to England for a time, where he abjured his Catholicism. On returning to France he earned his keep by giving private lessons. In Toulouse, an ardently orthodox city, one of his pupils denounced him for teaching that men had no souls but died as other animals did, and that the Virgin Mary was an ordinary woman who needed to have sex in order to get pregnant. The city authorities decided that he was attracting too many youths to his lectures, so to get rid of him they put him on trial and condemned him to death. While being led to the stake Vanini cried out in his native Italian, "I die cheerfully as befits a philosopher!"

The Europe-wide chorus of vilification that rose around Vanini's name took its cue from a violently hostile pamphlet written by a Jesuit called François Garasse. As a result of the Vanini affair a mood set in which expressed the fear of the old world at what the dawning new world was doing to established certainties. Vanini's execution was followed by a number of other high-profile attacks on "libertine" thinkers. One was the execution in Paris in 1622 of Jean Fontanier, an occultist who taught mystic doctrines he had learned while travelling in the East. In 1623 the poet Theophile de Viau was arrested on suspicion of atheism, tortured, tried, and condemned to death; but in 1625 his sentence was commuted to banishment, almost certainly because he was well-connected among the French aristocracy, and admired by Paris's cognoscenti.

There is much in common between de Viau and Rochester; the former is practically a French prototype of the latter. The fact that the proximate cause of de Viau's trial was his "obscene" poetry and suspicions of homosexuality might appear to suggest that charges of atheism were polite masks for attacks on obscenity and homosexuality. In reality, the latter were taken to be expressive of atheism, or identical with it. For how -so the reasoning went - could anyone soil his hands with either if he were a person of true Christian faith? Rochester was likewise believed to be an atheist, and much was made of the fact that when he lay dying in agony from the effects of venereal disease he supposedly "re-converted" to Anglicanism.

But whereas the libertines of the 1620s in France risked arrest and execution for the impieties implied by their erotic poems and sexual practices, in England a mere generation later not only were such things no longer criminal, but actually the norm at the King's court. How things had changed! The freedom of thought that had been won by the rejection of the old world of religious orthodoxy had spread itself into freedom of action - a process that the more tight-lipped among us will deprecate, pointing at Rochester's fate as due punishment. The rest of us might give thanks that the scientific revolution which opened minds and hearts also led to the antibiotics which, had they existed in Rochester's day, would have saved him.

There has been no other period in British history in which morals were quite as they were in Rochester's day. To a large extent the sexual freedom enjoyed today is comparable, and the acceptance of homosexuality is even greater; while the louche lifestyles of Kate Moss and Pete Doherty seem positively Rochester-like.

But the licence accorded those with position and wealth in Restoration society gave them a degree of latitude, and an immunity from consequences, which would now (if discovered) not be tolerated. This means that the aristocratic roués and rakehells of Restoration England could do almost anything they wanted and get away with it, very often under the protection of the King himself, and that is why their excesses were so great. In this one respect, things are now much better than they then were.

I doubt, though, whether they are better in all other respects, for a lot of what history has called debauch is really just fun. Rochester, at least, certainly managed to have his share of it. m

A C Grayling's latest book is 'Descartes' (Free Press £20). He will be appearing at the Ways With Words literary festival in Southwold, Suffolk (01803 867373) on Saturday. 'The Libertine' is released on 18 Nov