The Swinging Sixties, Seventeenth-Century Style: Wine and Excess in Restoration England, c. 1660–85
The Swinging Sixties, Seventeenth-Century Style: Wine and Excess in Restoration England, c. 1660–85
Wine in Restoration England
Alcohol consumption tends to go through phases. Right now, in the early 2020s, many people are drinking in moderation in sharp contrast to the 2000s when cheap credit and an economic system which was a complete house of cards unleashed a wave of hedonism across western society. Something similar happened in the 1920s, the famed Roaring Twenties of cabaret, jazz and whiskey, followed by the sober 1930s. The same holds true of earlier centuries. Here we examine one of these periods of excess in England and the place of wine within it. Let’s head back to the Swinging Sixties…the 1660s that is.
The Puritanical Commonwealth
Like all periods of social excess and libertinism, the 1660s were preceded by a dour, puritanical age afflicted by political and social crises. In the late 1630s the Stuart realms ruled by Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, were plunged into disorder when the king’s Scottish subjects rebelled against the crown in defence of their religious liberties.
In the early 1640s the problem was compounded by the outbreak of a separate rebellion in Ireland and then parliament in England decided to launch a civil war against King Charles. The result, after a decade of bitter conflict in which parliament eventually emerged victorious, was that King Charles was executed on the 30th of January 1649 and an English republic, known as the Commonwealth of England, was established.
The Commonwealth was ruled in the beginning by parliament and after a few years by Oliver Cromwell who was appointed as a kind of early modern military dictator. Cromwell and those who controlled parliament were generally Puritans, a scion of Protestantism in England which was extremely pious and the adherents of which believed that the government should impose high moral standards on people.
Under the rule of the Puritans in the 1650s black, sombre dress became de rigueur, excessive drinking or any form of social flamboyance was strictly curtailed and Cromwell even placed heavy restrictions on Christmas celebrations, though the common notion that he banned the festival of Christ’s birth entirely is not accurate. Nevertheless, the 1650s were an unhappy time for many people.
That would all change in the 1660s. On the 3rd of September 1658 Cromwell died. He was succeeded as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth by his son Richard, but the younger Cromwell had neither the ability nor the influence amongst the nobility and parliament to hold England’s experiment in republicanism together. Within a year many of the country’s leading aristocrats and some senior MPs at Westminster were in contact with the deceased King Charles I’s son and ostensible heir, Charles Stuart, who was in exile in the Low Countries, waiting to reclaim the throne he viewed as rightfully his should the opportunity arise.
It did in 1659 when these nobles and politicians came knocking. Within a few months an agreement had been reached whereby the monarchy would be restored in England, Scotland and Ireland, but with considerable restrictions on Charles’s power as monarch. Parliament would continue to exercise a great deal of power in an arrangement which would make Britain a constitutional monarchy rather than an absolute monarchy. With this agreed, Charles crossed the English Channel and on the 29th of May 1660 was restored as King Charles II.
The lighter social environment of Charles’s reign was on display the day of his coronation, the 23rd of April 1661. As Samuel Pepys, a leading government official of the day and a celebrated diarist, described it, London’s fountains flowed with wine that day as the government ensured everyone who crowded into the capital for the event had enough to drink.
And this set the tone for the 1660s, aided in great part by the personality of the king. [Text Box 1] Wine and beer were drunk in great measure at court and amongst the burgeoning middle class of London and the other towns. Even the Great Fire of London in 1666 only temporarily slowed the party, and the Restoration period, during the 1660s and 1670s is generally synonymous with excess.
A Drunken Parliament
One might have assumed that such excess as there was, only extended to the king and a feckless group of aristocrats surrounding him. But this was not the case. While alcohol consumption on an almost daily basis in lieu of clean drinking water was common in the seventeenth century, the amount of wine being drunk by members of parliament was striking. It was central to elections and to the day-to-day operations of both the House of Commons and the Lords. Much of this was undertaken in three taverns which lay within the complex of buildings around Westminster named ironically as Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, though Purgatory also went by the name Alice’s after its proprietor.
There was legendary drinking sessions at these celestial taverns, principally led by members of the House of Lords. James, third Baron Lovelace, was a frequenter of the Westminster watering holes and was said in the 1670s to have been perpetually drunk since his days as a student at Oxford, an admirable feat given that he had left Oxford in 1661. Philip Herbert, seventh earl of Pembroke, was acquitted of murder in 1678, and is said to have celebrated his newfound freedom by drinking 22 large glasses of wine in a tour of Westminster’s taverns.
This was also the period in which the first stirrings of a parliamentary party system began to emerge in England, with the supporters of a strong parliament forming one group known as the Whigs, and the supporters of a strong monarchy becoming pejoratively known as the Tories after the name for an Irish wild woodsman. These could be identified in Heaven, Purgatory and Hell by their tipple of choice. The Tories drank claret imported from Bordeaux, while the Whigs were partial to port.
The Greatest Rake of the Seventeenth Century
As notorious as the carryings on of Lovelace, Pembroke and others might have been at Westminster, no one was as infamous in Restoration England for his excessive drinking and carousing as John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester. Yet his prodigious consumption of wine was matched by his abilities as a poet. Andrew Marvell, one of the great metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century Europe, deemed Rochester to be the greatest satirist of the age.
Wilmot’s poems reflected his lifestyle and wine was paramount to them. Thus, ‘Upon Drinking a Bowl’ begins “Cupid and Bacchus my saints are, May drink and love still reign,
With wine I wash away my cares.” In ‘A Ramble in St James’s Park’ Rochester begins with the solemn line, “Much wine had passed, with grave discourse”, before relating his drunken conversations about lechery and fornication at the Bear tavern in London, followed by a stroll through St James’s Park to clear his head. Such poems would have scandalised much of society and in Victorians times Rochester’s poems were banned.
Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Wilmot’s writings were solely about drunken excess. His best known work, A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind, is a learned critique of rational inquiry in favour of the senses, one which drew on the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and poets, Epicurus and Lucretius. It was written though in 1674 as Rochester’s abilities were beginning to wane. By the end of the decade he was suffering from alcoholism and a range of sexual transmitted diseases, the latter eventually killing him in 1680 at just 33 years of age.
Wine the World of Samuel Pepys
An altogether more sober individual in Restoration London was Samuel Pepys, whose famous diary spanning the length of the 1660s provides a fascinating insight into the world of wine in Restoration England. Pepys was a senior administrator with the British Royal Navy and also a long-serving member of parliament. His detailed diary, which he assiduously kept, is one of the foremost sources for the political and social history of London in the 1660s.
We have already seen that Pepys noted that London’s fountains were made to flow with wine on the day of King Charles’s coronation in 1661. Later that evening Pepys and his wife were accosted by a bunch of drunken strangers in the city and for a time they all stood around and drank numerous toasts to the king and others in the realm. Pepys was struck by the level of ‘frolique’ and also that men and women were drinking together so openly, something which had been a rare sight in public spaces during the Puritanical 1650s.
This was just one of the earliest references to wine in Pepys’s lengthy diary. A search of the online version of the diary today returns 335 entries for wine in the nine years Pepys kept his diary for. The scale of drinking was impressive. Early on in his prodigious journaling Pepys recorded that on the 16th of January 1660 he had a beer for breakfast, but this was rather tame compared with his nightcap which consisted of a pint of wine at the Golden Lion by Charing Cross in central London.
Pints of wine were not unusual in Pepys’s world. Three weeks later he met his cousin Roger Pepys and they headed to a Rhenish wine-house called Priors, not far from Whitehall, where Pepys worked for the government. There they had a ‘pint or two’ of wine with a dish of anchovies and purchased three or four dozen bottles of wine in preparation for Roger’s wedding.
And so it continues through Pepys’s diary. But he was not a rake on the scale of Rochester. Pepys’s drinking was just standard for the most part during the seventeenth century. Moreover, there are signs of his connoisseur-like qualities. For instance, an entry for the 7th of July 1665 reveals Pepys’s pride in his growing cellar, which featured claret from France, wines from the Canary Islands and Malaga in Spain, sack wine (an early modern name for white port) and unnamed other white wines.
As a naval administrator Pepys traded in wine by the mid-1660s and there are references to him tasting wines from around Western Europe to deliberate on whether to import some into England. As such, we have in his diary reflections on the wine trade, along with the nature of socialising and drinking in Restoration London.
The cases of John Wilmot and Samuel Pepys are just two of the more well-known examples of Restoration figures who left behind considerable evidence of their drinking, profligate in Rochester’s case and considerable in Pepys’s. But it was ultimately not to last. A new sobriety arrived to the English royal court in the 1690s following the deposition of King James II, Charles’s brother who succeeded him in 1685, and the succession of William of Orange as William III. By the early eighteenth century the taste for coffee and tea was growing and there was a world to be conquered by Britain’s now unchallenged navy. Sore heads like those found in the 1660s and 1670s would not be seen again for quite some time at the royal court.
Charles II, ‘The Merry Monarch’
Much of the excess and libertinism of the Restoration period was driven by the character of King Charles II himself. Charles became King of England, Scotland and Ireland on his thirtieth birthday, having spent many years in exile in France and the Dutch Republic. He was fond of wine, drinking and socialising, and these mixed well with his notorious womanising. Charles had a string of mistresses who were prominent at his court throughout the 1660s and 1670s, on top of which he engaged in casual flings and was known to visit London’s high-end brothels.
As a result, while he never produced a legitimate heir, his wife, Catherine of Braganza most likely being barren, he had upwards of twenty illegitimate children (the exact number is unclear and Charles probably wasn’t sure himself). Somewhat confusingly, four of these were all called Charles as they were sired with four different women. His court reflected his sexual and social libertinism. No surprise then that he became known as ‘The Merry Monarch’. Yet he was not be trifled with either.
Charles was restored in 1660 on the promise that he would not seek vengeance against those who had killed his father, the infamous ‘regicides’ who signed his death warrant in the late 1640s. But despite this vow, Charles had these same men hunted down and killed in the years following his accession, in some instances sending out agents to find them as far away as North America. ‘The Merry Monarch’ indeed, but one who was not to be considered a soft touch as king.
Robin Eagles, ‘Parliamentary Intoxication: The uses and abuses of alcohol from the Restoration to the death of Anne’, Unpublished paper at the History of Parliament Trust.
Crawford Gribben, ‘The End of the English Republic’, in History Today, Vol. 68, No. 10 (October, 2018).
John D. Patterson, ‘Rochester’s Second Bottle: Attitudes to Drink and Drinking in the Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’, in Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1981), pp. 6–15.
Dayne C. Riley, ‘“The Vice of the Time”: Wine, Libertinism and Commerce in the Age of Charles II’, in Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring, 2021), pp. 3–21.
Henry B. Wheatley (ed.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys (London, 1893).
On this Day
29 May 1660 – On in this day in 1660 the monarchy was restored in Britain and Ireland after an eleven year abeyance when England briefly became a republic. On that early summer day in 1660, King Charles II ascended the throne which had been vacated when his father, Charles I, was executed early in 1649. Charles II’s accession brought to an end years of austerity imposed by the Puritans who dominated parliament. In its place came ‘the Merry Monarch’, Charles being a fan of wine and sexual liberality, siring upwards of twenty illegitimate children during his lifetime. And Charles’s personality rubbed off on the realm. The 1660s and 1670s became a period of excess and frivolity as Londoners and people throughout England celebrated the end of the dour 1650s. Wine was drank everywhere, something which was not a new development, but which was done on a scale which was unusually high. Thus, we find that certain parliamentarians became notorious for their drinking at three Westminster taverns ironically named Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, while the most celebrated poet of the day, John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, was also its most rakish.
26 May 1703 – On this day in 1703, the celebrated English diarist and naval administrator, Samuel Pepys, died in Clapham in Surrey at 70 years of age. Pepys was an important political figure during a long career of over forty years in which he was one of the Royal Navy’s most senior bureaucrats, while he also sat in the English parliament for many years. But, he is most remembered today for his diary, which covered the years from 1660 to 1669. It is usually remarked on for its detailed account of the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and other major events of the day, but Pepys’s diary also provides a window into the drinking culture of Restoration England. Barely an entry goes by without Pepys referring to his morning beer or a pint of wine being consumed as a nightcap. Furthermore, the growing bourgeois tendency to have a well-stocked cellar is in evidence in his diary and Pepys makes mention of having a wide range of vintages from France, Spain and as far afield as the Canary Islands. As such Pepys’s diary is an underappreciated source for viticultural history in the early modern period.
Want To Read More? Try These Books!
 Trevor Royle, Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638–1660 (London, 2005).
 Ronald Hutton, Charles II: King of England, Scotland and Ireland (Oxford, 1989); Crawford Gribben, ‘The End of the English Republic’, in History Today, Vol. 68, No. 10 (October, 2018).
 Henry B. Wheatley (ed.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys (London, 1893), entry for 23 April 1661; N. H. Keeble, The Restoration: England in the 1660s (Oxford, 2002).
 Robin Eagles, ‘Parliamentary Intoxication: The uses and abuses of alcohol from the Restoration to the death of Anne’, Unpublished paper, at https://www.dhi.ac.uk› uploads › sites › 2017/05 [accessed 8/2/23].
 John D. Patterson, ‘Rochester’s Second Bottle: Attitudes to Drink and Drinking in the Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’, in Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1981), pp. 6–15.
 Alexander Larman, Blazing Star: The Life and Times of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (London, 2014).
 Stephen Coote, Samuel Pepys: A Life (London, 2000).
 https://www.wrongsideoftheblanket.com/charles-ii-and-his-court [accessed 9/2/23]; Derek Wilson, All the King’s Women: Love, Sex and Politics in the Life of Charles II (London, 2003); Dayne C. Riley, ‘“The Vice of the Time”: Wine, Libertinism and Commerce in the Age of Charles II’, inRestoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring, 2021), pp. 3–21.
 Stephen Coote, Samuel Pepys: A Life (London, 2000); Henry B. Wheatley (ed.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys (London, 1893).