The Fine Art of Poetical Slander: Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset
Guest Post by Susan Holloway Scott, author of
The Countess and the King
Heather has requested a guest post on one of Katherine Sedley’s least-favorite people, Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset and 1st Earl of Middlesex, Lord Buckhurst (1638-1706). I don’t know if Lord Dorset exactly qualifies as a villain, but he certainly made Katherine’s life miserable. His weapon of choice was one rarely used today – poetry – but in his deft hands, it inflicted as much suffering as a good many more lethal weapons.
When Katherine first met Lord Buckhurst (his title at the time), she must have been quite young. Buckhurst was one of the closest friends of her father, Sir Charles Sedley (1639-1701), and since Katherine was Sir Charles’s first-born, it’s possible Lord Buckhurst even sent the occasional handsome birthday remembrance. Buckhurst could afford it: not only was he heir to his father’s earldom, but also to his grandfather’s as well. Both titles came with substantial wealth, making Buckhurst quite the young lord of substance, if not a handsome one: even young, he was described as “fleshy”, and that’s the face that’s shown in his portraits. Intelligent and genial, he was educated privately by tutors and made his tour of the Continent, returning just in time for the coronation of Charles II, and the beginning of the rollicking good times of the Restoration.
And for an indulged young lord barely out of his teens, with handsome prospects and plenty of money in his pockets and next to no responsibilities to go with it, London in the 1660s was a fine place indeed to be. Sir Charles and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) were his favorite boon companions, along with several others who together became known as the Merrie Gang – a name that was not used as a complement by respectable folk.
Buckhurst and his friends soon became infamous for their drinking and debauchery, and even worse. In 1662, Buckhurst and several others were charged with the robbery and murder of a hapless tanner who happened to interfere with their shenanigans. They claimed self-defense, and because Buckhurst was a lord and the tanner wasn’t, they were acquitted. Another night, the very drunk Buckhurst and Sedley commandeered the balcony of a tavern, stripped off their clothes, and delivered a blasphemous sermon in the buff to the crowd below. For that they were tried for gross public indecency, but, as Rochester complained, Buckhurst “might do anything, yet was never to blame,” and Buckhurst went free, while the others received fines and brief imprisonment.
Mistresses were of course de rigueur for this crowd and the playhouse was the place to find them. In 1667, Buckhurst claimed Nell Gwyn, and together they spent the summer in a hired house in Epsom. Among the ever-changing guests were Sir Charles and nine-year-old Katherine. When the summer was done, Buckhurst parted with Nell, not only seemingly short-changing her on the “gift” he’d promised her, but also then ungallantly trashing her among his friends.
Perhaps Katherine, young as she was, remembered that. Nine years later in 1677, when she had grown and become a member of the court in her own right, Buckhurst – who was now Lord Dorset, having inherited the earldoms of Dorset and Middlesex – approached her with much the same offer. A clever man himself, he was attracted to Katherine’s already infamous wit. He asked her to become his mistress, adding the unappealing comment that since Katherine was no beauty, this might be the best offer she would get.
As can be imagined, she refused. As cannot be imagined – at least not to the fullest extent! – she probably really let him have it, as only she could. Because from that moment onward, Dorset despised her, and took every chance he had to slander her.
While it’s likely he flung choice insults in her hearing in public, the ones that remain to us were written as satiric poems. In addition to drunken debauchery, most Restoration courtiers prided themselves on having at least a passing knowledge of classical literature and were interested in current poets and playwrights as well; it was part of what separated Gentlemen from everyone else. Dorset not only knew the great John Milton, but he was also a patron of John Dryden as well Samuel Butler and William Wycherley. Like many gentlemen, Dorset tried his own hand at poetry, and one of his poems, To all you ladies now at land, written while he briefly served as a gentleman volunteer in the Dutch Wars, is still included in English lit anthologies.
But the poems he is most famous (or infamous) for are the ones directed at Katherine. Beginning with the first soon after her rejection of him in 1677, they continued to appear sporadically for years afterward, through her time as James II mistress, and even later, after her marriage to Sir David Colyear in 1703.
Although they were addressed to “Dorinda”, everyone at court knew Dorset meant Katherine. Copies were passed around for everyone to snigger over, as well as being memorized for dramatic readings for friends: not quite as speedy as Twitter, but whenever Dorset launched a new poem, its circulation was fast enough. They found their mark, too. For though Katherine bravely blustered back in public, she was privately deeply hurt by the poems, and she never could find a way to answer them effectively. Dorset was too powerful and respected, and there were plenty of others who disliked her, and were glad to see her slandered.
Besides, though cruel, the poems are clever, and must have been even more so when they were new. I’ve included most of them in The Countess and the King, and they’re easy enough to find online. Here’s a sample:
Dorinda’s sparkling wit and eyes,
United, cast too fierce a light,
Which blazes high but quickly dies,
Warms not the heart but hurts the sight.
Why did Dorset continue his poetical vendetta for nearly three decades? They weren’t the work of a thwarted, lonely ex-suitor: Dorset was married three times to ladies (beauties all) whom he professed to love dearly, and was the father of several children. He was generally a well-liked man known for his geniality and generosity – except for Katherine. His reasons for continuing to attack her are unknown today. Perhaps he found it only an amusing literary conceit. More likely, there must have been something about Katherine that made her scorn continue to eat at him, year after year. The old saying is that revenge is a dish best served cold, and after twenty-five years, Lord Dorset’s revenge must have been as cold, and as heartless, as ice. But for the rest of the story of Katherine Sedley, I hope you’ll look for The Countess and the King.
Many thanks to Heather for having me here as her guest today!
Here’s a link (http://www.susanhollowayscott.com/books/countesspreview.htm) to an excerpt from The Countess and the King on my website (http://www.susanhollowayscott.com/).
I hope you’ll also stop by my blog with fellow author Loretta Chase, where we discuss history, writing, and yes, even the occasional pair of great shoes: http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/.
Thank you SO much Susan for that wonderful post! Certainly today we wouldn't go around getting back at someone with poetry, but it appears to have been very effective back then!
Other events occurring during HFBRT today are:
Susie's review of Countess and the King at All Things Royal
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