Let us at once distinguish the masses from the classes. The sexual riot of the Restoration ran through the court to the upper middle class and the “people about town” who frequented the theatres. The morals of the unrecorded commoners were probably better than under Elizabeth, for economic routine kept them steady, they did not have the means to be wicked, and they still felt the stimulus and surveillance of their Puritan faiths. But in London, and above all at the court, the release and reaction from Puritan restraints engendered an hilarious promiscuity. Young aristocrats uprooted from England, and at loose ends in France, left their morals behind them in their exile, and brought a fluid chaos with them on their return. Avenging years of oppression and spoliation, they turned against the dress and speech, the theology and ethics, of the Puritans all the acid of their wit, until no man of their class dared say a word for decency. Virtue, piety, and marital fidelity became forms of rural innocence, and the most successful adulterer (as in Wycherley’s Country Wife) became the hero of the hour. Religion had literally lost caste; it belonged to tradesmen and peasants; most preachers were put down as long-faced, long-eared, long-winded hypocrites and bores. The only religion fit for a gentleman was a polite Anglicanism wherein the master attended Sunday services to lend support to a chaplain who kept the villagers in fear of hell, and who said grace with due brevity from the foot of the master’s board. It became more fashionable to be a materialist with Hobbes than a Christian with Milton, a blind old fool who took Genesis as history. Hell, overdone for the past twenty years, had lost its terrors for the possessing classes; heaven, for them, was here and now, in a society freed from social rebellion and moral inhibitions, under a court and King that gave the example and set the pace in lechery, gambling, and merriment.
There were several good men and women at the court. Clarendon was a man of principle and conduct until his daughter allowed herself to be seduced, whereupon he lost his head and recommended that she should lose hers. The fourth Earl of Southampton and the first Duke of Ormonde were decent men. There were some sincerely religious men among the Anglican clergy, even in the hierarchy. The Queen, and Lady Fanshaw, and Miss Hamilton, and, later, Mrs. Godolphin, dared to be good. There were doubtless others, lost to history because virtue makes no news.
The higher the rank, the lower the morals. The King’s brother James, Duke of York, seems to have exceeded even the royal allotment of mistresses. 101 While still in exile in Holland he had found his way to the bed of Anne Hyde, daughter of the Chancellor. When she became pregnant she begged him to marry her; he procrastinated, but finally made her secretly his legal wife seven weeks before she gave birth (October 22, 1660). On hearing of the marriage Clarendon, according to his own autobiography, 102protested to the King that he had known nothing of this alliance; that “he had much rather his daughter should be the Duke’s whore than his wife”; that if they were really married, “the King should immediately cause the woman to be . . . cast into a dungeon”; and that “an act of Parliament should be immediately passed for cutting off her head, to which he would not only give his consent, but would very willingly be the first man that should propose it.” Charles shrugged the matter off as much ado about nothing. Probably the Chancellor knew that Charles would not take him at his word, and spoke with such Roman severity to offset any suspicion that he had arranged the marriage in order to make his daughter a queen. Anne, however, died of cancer in 1671, aged thirty-four.
While motherhood distracted his wife, James made a mistress of Arabella Churchill, whose brother accepted the situation philosophically as favoring his advancement in the army. To aid Arabella and Anne the Duke took some supplementary bedmates; Evelyn was especially disgusted by his “bitchering” with Lady Denham (1666). 103 James’s conversion to Catholicism made no apparent change in his morals. “He was perpetually in one amour or another,” wrote Burnet, “without being very nice in his choice; upon which the King once said he believed his brother had his mistresses given him by his priests for penance.” 104 The liaison with Arabella continued as an organ tone during these variations; it survived the death of Anne, and James’s marriage (1673) to Mary of Modena.
We should add that there were some admirable qualities in the Duke of York. As Lord High Admiral (1660–73) he toiled to overcome the disorder in the navy, due to the poor pay, victualing, and training of the seamen; and he conducted himself with courage and skill in the engagements with the Dutch. He attended ably and faithfully to the tasks of administration. He never wavered in his affectionate fidelity to his brother, and waited patiently through a quarter of a century before succeeding him on the throne. He was frank and sincere and easy of access, but too conscious of his rank and authority to be popular. He was a firm friend but an unforgiving enemy. His mind was rather laborious than keen; and he was suicidally immune to advice.
Close below him at the court was George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham. Son of James I’s assassinated favorite, he fought for Charles I in the Civil War and for Charles II at Worcester; and the restored King made him a privy councilor. Handsome and witty, genial and generous, he for a time dominated the court with his charm. He wrote a brilliant comedy, The Rehearsal, and dallied with alchemy and the violin. But his face and his fortune ruined him. He passed from one woman to another, indulged in disgraceful frolics, and squandered his rich estate. Desiring the Countess of Shrewsbury, he challenged her husband to a duel; she, disguised as a page, held Buckingham’s horse while he fought; he killed the Count; the happy widow embraced the victor, who was still covered with her husband’s blood; then they returned in triumph to the victim’s home. 105 Buckingham was dismissed from office (1674), abandoned himself to degeneration, and died in poverty and disgrace (1688).
His rival in figure, wit, revelry, and decay was John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester. John received the master’s degree at Oxford at the incredible age of fourteen (1661), was admitted to the court at seventeen, and became gentleman of the bedchamber to the King. At nineteen, needing money, he made love to a rich heiress; finding her dilatory, he kidnaped her, suffered imprisonment, won the lady’s sympathy, then her hand, then her fortune. Charles repeatedly banished him from the court, and repeatedly let him return, relishing his wit. Like Buckingham, Rochester was an expert mimic. He delighted to disguise himself as a porter, a beggar, a merchant, a German physician, and so successfully that he deceived his closest friends. As a physician he pretended to effect difficult cures through his knowledge of astrology; he attracted hundreds of patients and cured several; soon the ladies of the court came to him for treatment, and even those who had known him well failed to recognize him. 106 In nearly all these disguises he pursued women, quite disregarding their rank, and they pursued him. He amused himself by writing satirical obscenities, ruined his health with liquor and lechery, and boasted of having been drunk uninterruptedly through five years. He died in poverty and penitence at thirty-three.
There were so many others like him at the court that Pepys, himself no amateur in adultery, wondered “what will be the end” of “so much . . . drinking, swearing, and loose amours.” 107 Or, as Pope was to phrase it in his Essay on Criticism, not with full justice to the King:
When love was all an easy monarch’s care,
Seldom at council, never in a war,
Jilts ruled the state, and statesmen farces writ;
Nay, wits had pensions, and young lords had wit; . . .
The modest fan was lifted up no more,
And virgins smiled at what they blushed before. 108
It was taken for granted that wives were as unfaithful as husbands; these demanded fidelity only from their mistresses. 109 The memoirs of Count Philibert de Gramont, written in French by his brother-in-law Anthony Hamilton, read at times like a roster of roosters, a concatenation of cuckolds as seen by the Count in his happy exile at Charles’s court.
Hours were given to dancing, horse races, cockfights, billiards, cards, chess, floor games, and gay masquerades. Then, says Burnet, “both the King and Queen” and “all the court went about masked, and came into houses unknown, and danced there, with a great deal of wild frolic.” 110 Play was often for high stakes. “This evening,” says Evelyn, “according to custom, his Majesty opened the revels . . . by throwing the dice himself in the privy chamber . . . and lost his £ 100. (The year before, he won £ 1,500.) The ladies also played very deep.” 111 The example of the court in gambling and promiscuity spread through the upper classes. Evelyn speaks of the “depraved youth of England, whose prodigious debaucheries . . . far surpass the madness of all other civilized nations whatsoever.”112 Homosexuality flourished, especially in the army; Rochester wrote a play entitled Sodomy, which was performed before the court. A number of brothels for homosexual prostitution apparently existed in England. 113
Love marriages were increasing in number, and we hear of some pretty instances, as of Dorothy Osborne with William Temple. This proved a happy marriage; yet Dorothy wrote: “To marry for love were no reproachful thing if we did not see that of the thousand couples that do it, hardly one can be brought for example that it may be done and not repented afterward.” 114 Swift, writing to a young lady about her marríage, speaks of “the person your father and mother have chosen for your husband,” and adds, “Yours was a match of prudence and common good feeling, without any hindrance of the ridiculous passion” of romantic love. 115 “My first inclination to marriage,” Clarendon recalled, “had no other passion in it than an appetite to a convenient estate.” 116
Theoretically the husband had full control over his wife, including the dowry she brought him. In all classes the husband’s will was law. In the lower classes he used his legal rights to beat his wife, but the law forbade him to use any stick thicker than his thumb.117 Family discipline was strong, except in upper-class London; there Clarendon complained that parents had no manner of authority over their children, nor children any obedience or submission to their parents, but “everyone did what was good in his eyes.” 118Divorce was rare, but might be allowed by act of Parliament. Bishop Burnet, like Luther and Milton, thought that polygamy might in certain cases be permitted, and offered this plan to Charles II because of the Queen’s sterility; but Charles refused to further humiliate his wife. 119
Crime continually threatened life and property. Thieves, cutpurses, and pickpockets congregated in gangs and sallied forth at night. Dueling was forbidden by law, but it remained the privilege of a gentleman; and if the killing was done according to rule, the victor usually escaped with a brief and courteous imprisonment. The law struggled to discourage crime with what seems to us barbarous punishments; but perhaps sharp measures had to be used to penetrate dull minds. For treason the penalty was torture and death; for murder, felony, or counterfeiting the currency, hanging; the wife who killed her husband was to be burned alive. Petty larceny was punished by whipping, or the loss of an ear; striking anyone in the King’s court incurred loss of the right hand; forgery, cheating, false weights or measures, invited the pillory, sometimes with both ears nailed to the board, or with perforation of the tongue with a hot iron; 120 usually the spectators enjoyed witnessing these punishments, 121 and crowded in holiday spirit to see a prisoner hanged. Under the Merrie Monarch there were ten thousand persons in jail for debt. Prisons were filthy, but wardens could be bribed to provide some comforts. Punishments were more severe than in contemporary France, but the law was more liberal; there were no lettres de cachet in England, and there were habeas corpus and jury trial.
Social morality shared in the general laxity. Charity was growing, but the forty-one almshouses in England may have been merely another side to the greed of the strong. Nearly everyone cheated at cards. 122 Corruption was above normal in all classes. Pepys’sDiary smells with corruption in business, in politics, in the navy, and in Pepys. Business firms watered their stock, falsified their accounts, and charged exorbitant prices to the government. 123 Funds voted to the army or navy were diverted in part into the pockets of officials and courtiers. High officers of state, even when their salaries were ample and paid, sold titles, contracts, commissions, appointments, and pardons on such a scale that “the regular salary was the smallest part of the gains.” 124 Heads of government like Clarendon, Danby, and Sunderland grew rich in a few years, and bought or built estates far beyond their salaries. Members of Parliament sold their votes to ministers, even to foreign governments; 125 on some votes two hundred members were “taken off” the opposition by ministerial lubrication. 126 In 1675 it was estimated that two thirds of the Commons were in the pay of Charles II, and the other third in the pay of Louis XIV. 127 The French King found it quite feasible to bribe members to vote against Charles whenever Charles deviated troublesomely from Bourbon policies. As for Charles, he repeatedly accepted large sums from Louis to play the French game in politics, religion, or war. It was the gayest and most rotten society in history.