Our new season is now open: Spring 1677 !
The Merry Gang flourished for about fifteen years after 1665. The coin was phrased by another satiric poet. Basically it is a collection of English wits, who joined in lewd debauchery: a lot of heaving drinking, a battle of wits often expressed through poetry (limmericks, lampoons, the like, but also satirical plays) but also in highly philosophical discourse and of course passionate sex. They could also display rowdy behaviour like fighting, even duelling, pulling each others hair during an argument, dropping their pants to deliberately shock people etc.
Some elements in the Merry Gang were more romantic or more intellectual than others, but all considered having a (married) mistress a very normal thing. Adultery was a standard, not a sin. They operated in the highest circles of society, often with royal support and had no lack of power. Members were often part of the privy council or had other means of influencing the King.
The libertine behaviour of the Merry Gang, condoned by the King is often viewed as a reaction to the Civil War and the period of exile. Many young men grew up with nothing to do while waiting on the King to have his crown returned. They fled in merry making, which was also likely to upset their opponents the most. The Puritans were so strict that they closed the theaters and even forbid dancing. It was a dark sombre period. The Restoration in contrast was merry, allowing a lot of things between consenting adults.
This is not to say that everybody in English society approved of the Merry Gang. In fact political opponents of the King as well as Catholics and Puritans often attacked the King on the existence of this libertine behavior. Especially since some of the Kings Mistresses were rather costly.
Who formed the Merry Gang?
An incomplete listing:
- Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of Saint Albans ~ He was a consummate courtier, a man of dissolute morals, and much addicted to gambling. Lord Chamberlain 1671–1674
- Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset and 1st Earl of Middlesex ~ Something in his character made his follies less obnoxious to the citizens than those of the other rakes, for he was never altogether unpopular, and Rochester is said to have told Charles II that he did not know how it was, my Lord Dorset might do anything, yet was never to blame.
- John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave -was the author of An Account of the Revolution and some other essays, and of numerous poems, among them the Essay on Poetry and the Essay on Satire. It is probable that the Essay on Satire, which attacked many notable persons, "sauntering Charles" amongst others, was circulated in MS. It was often attributed at the time to Dryden, who accordingly suffered a thrashing at the hands of Rochester’s bravoes for the reflections it contained upon the earl. Mulgrave was a patron of Dryden,
- Henry Killigrew -the younger brother of the dramatist Thomas Killigrew. Henry was chaplain and almoner to the Duke of York
- Sir Charles Sedley, wit and dramatist, Sedley is famous as a patron of literature in the Restoration period, and was the Lisideius of Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy. An indecent frolic in Bow Street, for which he was heavily fined, made Sedley notorious. He was member of parliament for New Romney in Kent, and took an active and useful part in politics. A speech of his on the civil list after the Revolution is cited by Macaulay as a proof that his reputation as a man of wit and ability was deserved. His bon mot at the expense of James II is well known. The king had seduced his daughter and created her countess of Dorchester, whereupon Sedley remarked that he hated ingratitude, and, as the king had made his daughter a countess, he would endeavour to make the king's daughter a queen.
- William Wycherley, dramatist. Wycherley was obliged to be a loose liver. However, his nickname of "Manly Wycherley" seems to have been earned by his straightforward attitude to life. The Country Wife, produced in 1672 or 1673 and published in 1675, is full of wit, ingenuity, high spirits and conventional humour.
- George Etherege, dramatist, a poetical beau, is temperament is best known by the names his contemporaries gave him, of "gentle George" and "easy Etheredge."
- George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, playwright, the kings best friend who grew up in his household, flamboyant, practical joker
- Nell Gwyn, actress, Kings Mistress, "pretty witty Nell". She starred in many Restoration comedies and was famous for her impersonations and mimericky even when she stayed at court. Her house at Pall Mall was often the scene for the Merry Gang to get together. Among her best friends are Monmouth, Rochester and Buckingham.
- Barbara Villiers Duchess of Cleveland, former mistress of the King.
- Hortense Mancini , former mistress of the King, eloped with the King's daughter
- John Wilmot , Earl of Rochester, poet and playwright, famous for his sharp satire and dark debauchery
- Alexander Merriweather Fashion leader , cavalier, He is unmarried and lives in a fancy townhouse. Younger brother of Baron Merriweather and distant cousin of the Duke of Newcastle.
The Younger Generation
A group of woman called the Godiva's have challenged the Merry Gang, condemning them for growing to focused on the sexual, and being unoriginal in their sexual focused debauchery. They have pleaded for more subtlety, true wit, carefree behaviour and a return to older Libertine values such as questioning puritanism and proper society by ridiculing their attempt to control behaviour. Among them are:
The King and the Merry Gang
Is King Charles II a member of the Merry Gang? He certainly was host, patron and attendee, but kept a deliberate distance, on occasion fining those members who had gone too far in their debauchery or locking them in the Tower. His Majesty however was famous for taking great delight in those that pleased him and allowing a most care free manner around his person, most likely a residue of the time of exile when he was no king and near commoner at that. Unlike his brother, he could take a joke and would often laugh at the gentle lampoons on his person.. though as Rochester found out.. there was a limit to what he would allow. After a satiric poem against Charles, painting him as a monarch just following his prick, the earl found himself banned from court for a considerable time.
Alternatives to the Merry Gang in Age of Intrigue
Are they the only circle at court, setting the standards? Not at all. If you prefer less debauchery and more subtlety, give these guys and girls a wide berth and instead go for, i.e.:
2) Politics - while overlapping slightly, there are some hotheaded politicians such as Shaftsbury, who are more focused on the rights of the people over the crown and consider the Kings indulgence of the Merry Gang a mark against him.
3) Science - there is a growing group of intellectuals that are not out to debauch and you can be part of it. Look for members of the Royal Society. Philosophy, Astronomy and Medicine are the top choices.
Is the Merry Gang not too public with debauchery?
Any action taken in public will lead to scandal, no matter if you are part of the Merry Gang or not. Sedley and Rochester ran around naked over the Strand, ending in the fountain and were fined heavily for this rowdy behaviour. Buckingham was forced by the King to pay compensation for destroying an unmarried ladies reputation he was seen kissing passionately (with the intent for more).
However, most of the gatherings and outings of the Merry Gang were not public. An attempt at discretion was made by holding them in a different part of the palace, at Nell Gwynn's house at Pall Mall or by wearing masks when going out. No matter that everybody knew who was attending and what was going on, social etiquette dictated that the pretence kept in tact that nobody knew.
Please realize that though some members of the Merry Gang spoke frank, they did so for shock effect and seldom when ladies were present. The gatherings often comprised of a lot of imbibing of drinks and substances, gambling, tomfoolery, parlour games, poetry, philosophical debate and witty repartee. Safe for a kiss, or a veiled suggestion to withdraw to somewhere more private it was unlikely that there was anything more sexual.
What does this mean for the reputation of those attending?
Life is unfair. For the men it means that they are acknowledged by the wits of the time, and in consequence His Majesty, to be worthy to partake in their pleasures as a social equal on account of their wits. It will not damage their political ambitions and might even further it, unless that person was planning in supporting the Catholic or Puritan cause which was more prudish.
For the ladies it depends on their status. Unmarried ladies can be seen attending but not giving in. Pretty adornments. Those that make different choices need to be assured of a supportive family (who might for instance hope for a title or eventually a good marriage, and in the mean time rich rewards).
Married ladies were encouraged to partake if such was their inclination. Their marriage was a good front to society, observing all forms. Any bastards often were recognized by the real father (the King recognized at least 13 children) and such would not cause them to be forced from court in scandal (but they would have their confinement during late pregnancy). What will her husband think of any adultery? Society made fun of cuckolds, or "men with horns on". They were considered naive and weak. However some husbands turned away their face discreetly because of the rich rewards in which they of course shared, such as titles etc. Or it gave them the freedom to likewise share the bounty without having to face a nagging wife. Other men left their wives however, as did Palmer after years of humiliation due to the rather publically known affairs of his wife Barbara Palmer-Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland.
Widows were already considered to be "merry", or in modern words "easy" with a tendency to promiscuous relationships. They were independent with their own income and so could do as they liked, without society frowning too much.