Charles Sackville: a poet in motion

Since its inception in 1348, the Order of the Garter has never been awarded to people of great literary, musical or artistic achievement.  This is partly because other honours exist for such people.  Had Shakespeare been a favoured courtier or politician as well as a playwright, then maybe he would have been considered for the Garter, but his great plays alone would not have qualified him for admission to the Order.  Having said this, a good many of the Garter knights had interesting cultural hinterlands, especially those with the means and the leisure time to pursue other interests.  Some were gifted musicians and writers, others dabbled in art or poetry.  More importantly perhaps, some were generous patrons of the arts in general.

The name of Charles Sackville (1643-1706) may not ring many cultural bells today, but he was a talented poet, examples of whose works can be found in 20th century anthologies such as The Oxford Book of English Verse.  He was probably born in Essex (one of thirteen children), into a middling aristocratic background, his mother being the daughter of the Earl of Middlesex.  His father later became Earl of Dorset, and Charles was to inherit the earldoms of both counties.  Like many young men of his social status, he had a private education, and spent time abroad with his tutor, returning to England after Charles II’s restoration in 1660.

In Charles II’s first parliament, he had a seat as MP for East Grinstead in Sussex, but this was a mere sinecure as he had no real interest in politics.  Rather, he made his reputation at court through his wit and general gaiety, which readily appealed to the raffish king.  It seems he was something of a rake and a libertine too, being a close friend of Sir Charles Sedley (1639-1701) and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), two leading exponents of the decadent life. He enlisted briefly in the navy in 1664 without seeing action, but the same year wrote: “To all you ladies now at land”, which quickly became popular, being reprinted as a broadside ballad.  Its salty, slightly saucy flavour is very much in tune with the spirit of Restoration England.  Here are two sample verses:

   Let wind and weather do its worst,
   Be you to us but kind;
   Let Dutchmen vapour, Spaniards curse,
   No sorrow we shall find:
   ‘Tis then no matter how things go,
   Or who’s our friend, or who’s our foe –
         With a fa, la, la, la, la

  But now our fears tempestuous grow
  And cast our hopes away;
  Whilst you, regardless of our woe,
  Sit careless at a play:
  Perhaps permit some happier man
  To kiss your hand, or flirt your fan –
         With a fa, la, la, la, la

During 1667, he was briefly the lover of Nell Gwyn (1651?-1687), before she was acquired for higher amorous duties by the king.

His luck ran out in 1685, when Charles II died without an heir and was succeeded by his brother as James II.  The new king did not favour Charles, being unable to forgive the lampoons which he had written concerning his mistress Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717).  So for a time he was absent from the royal court.  But when James II was ousted in 1688, he found favour again under the new king, William III, who made him a privy councillor and lord chamberlain too.  In 1692, he was installed a Knight of the Garter, the ultimate recognition for a loyal courtier.

He was married three times and enjoyed extramarital dalliances as well, which produced up to four illegitimate children.  His third marriage, to his housekeeper Anne Roche in 1704, was seen at the time as evidence of mental and physical decline.  A combination of high living and generous patronage damaged the value of his estate.  He died at Bath on 29 January 1706, and was buried at Withyham in Sussex.  His wealth at the time of his death has been described as “very large, but mortgaged”.

His surviving body of verse is not large, largely because much of his work was circulated in manuscript and never printed.  But his extant lyrics, both courtly and libertine, have lasting merit and were praised in their time by his more distinguished contemporaries Dryden and Pope.  Charles Sackville was certainly a man who lived life, sometimes in dissolute ways, but he was also remembered with affection by those to whom he gave generous help.

Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.