Near the Royal Kitchens
And when the court finally returns to London in February they find: the mezereon-tree, which blossoms; crocus vernus, the yellow, the grey; primrose; anemones; early tulippa; hyacinthus orientalis; charmaïris; fritellaria. Not a week later, John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, is sworn a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, bringing the nineteen-year-old peer an annual salary of £1000. Duties include: dressing and undressing the King, serving meals in private, getting his majesty ready for bed, and occasionally sleeping on a pallet at the royal feet. Does the King suffer nightmares? Wilmot himself has been afraid of the dark since childhood. And he has also, since boyhood, had a troublesome bowel, so that “he sometimes could not have a stool for three weeks or a month together.” Or so wrote his doting tutor, Francis Giffard, who offered John early instruction in the wrath of vengeful God.
It was a pious household at Ditchley (the English name all their houses). John’s father Henry, the first Earl of Rochester, died fighting for Charles I’s return to the throne. John was therefore raised in the half-timbered Elizabethan manor house without a father and with a mother who was often from home; but there was always Aunt Isham with the falling sickness—and Aunt Joanna who treated it with powdered mistletoe—half-brothers who came and went and sometimes died, a lovely tenant’s daughter with a limp, and a series of schoolmasters anxious to lecture on sin. When Giffard, who’d trained at Cambridge, was finally installed as John’s tutor, he found a young man “ready to do anything that he proposed to him and very well inclined to laudable undertaking.” So how did such a promising youngster grow to be reprobate Rochester? Obviously, there were John’s years at Wadham College (famously referred to as Sodom itself): the classical poetry, the scholastic Latin, late evenings playing dress up. Still Giffard would be horrified when his charge, all grown up, penned “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” infamously claiming that his “all dissolving Thunderbolt”:
Stiffly resolv’d, wou’d carelessly invade
Woman or Boy, nor aught its Fury stayed’
Where e’re it pierc’d, a C - - t it found or made.
King Charles II, on the other hand, at whose feet Rochester now sleeps, in a stuffed chair with heraldic silk covering, is not so easily offended. While he does not share John’s particular tastes, he gladly cultivates his own lusty desires—for women, if not especially the Queen. In fact, given the King’s insatiable need to fuck, the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber—eleven in all—are intimately aware of his habits and partners, hurried through secret passageways day and night. A system of stone roots beneath the palace, these tunnels stretch out in all directions: towards Charring Cross, Cannon Row, the Thames. The most heavily trafficked originates near the Royal Kitchen, at a busy spot in The Court where the palace grounds are sliced by a public right-of-way. Here, the lady hurrying through is forced to raise high her skirts—embroidered with snails and artichokes—as she hops over puddles and moss. Her little feet, shod in little shoes of cork, with square toes, and gold shoe-roses, make pleasant plunking sounds on the wet stone floor. And as moist air from the kitchens sinks down into the passage—anchovies in claret, a fricassée of rabbits—the poor girl finds she is famished by the time she reaches the King.