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Sir Charles Sedley

Sir Charles Sedley, 5th Baronet (March 1639 – 20 August 1701), was an English noble, dramatist and politician. He was principally remembered for his wit and profligacy.[1]


He was the son of Sir John Sedley, 2nd Baronet, of Aylesford in Kent, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Henry Savile. The Sedleys (also sometimes spelt Sidley) had been prominent in Kent since at least 1337. Sedley's grandfather, William Sedley, was knighted in 1605 and created a baronet in 1611. He was the founder of the Sidleian Lectures of Natural Philosophy at Oxford.

Sedley was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, but left without taking a degree. There his tutor was the poet Walter Pope. The second surviving son of Sir John Sedley and Elizabeth, William, succeeded to the baronetcy in 1645.

Charles Sedley inherited the title (5th baronet) in 1656 when his brother William died. By his first wife Lady Katherine Savage, daughter of John, 2nd Earl Rivers he had only one legitimate child, Catherine, Countess of Dorchester, mistress of James II. The couple lived in Great Queen Street. After his first wife had been sent to a convent in Ghent on account of a serious mental condition, Sedley in vain tried to obtain a divorce.

He met Ann Ayscough, probably around 1670, by whom he had two illegitimate sons, William and Charles Sedley. William died in infancy, and the brother Charles was knighted by William III after the coronation in 1689 and created a baronet in 1702.[2] The relationship with Ann Ayscough lasted to the end of Sedley's life. Sedley died at Hampstead on 20 August 1701 and was buried at Southfleet Church on the 26th. The Sedley baronetcy became extinct on his death.[3]

Sedley is famous as a patron[4] of literature in the Restoration period, and was the Francophile Lisideius of Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy.[5][6] However, it was above all Sedley's wit that his contemporaries admired him for.[7]

Sedley was reputed as a notorious rake and libertine, part of the "Merry Gang" of courtiers which included the Earl of Rochester and Lord Buckhurst. In 1663 an indecent frolic in Bow Street, for which he was fined 2,000 marks, made Sedley notorious.

From the balcony of Oxford Kate's Tavern he, Lord Buckhurst and Sir Thomas Ogle shocked and delighted a crowd of onlookers with their blasphemous and obscene antics. According to Samuel Pepys, Sedley "showed his nakedness – and abusing of scripture and as it were from thence preaching a mountebank sermon from the pulpit, saying that there he had to sell such a pouder as should make all the cunts in town run after him, 1000 people standing underneath to see and hear him, and that being done he took a glass of wine and washed his prick in it and then drank it off, and then took another and drank the King's health." This behaviour provoked a riot amongst the onlookers and condemnation in the courts, where the Lord Chief Justice gave his opinion that it was because of wretches like him "that God's anger and judgement hang over us".[8]

Sedley 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 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.[5] The king had seduced his daughter and created her countess of Dorchester, whereupon Sedley said: "As the king has made my daughter a countess, the least I can do, in common gratitude, is to assist in making his Majesty's daughter (Mary) a queen". Sedley is also occasionally associated with a notorious gang of unbridled revellers who called themselves Ballers and who were active between 1660 and 1670. It was probably Sedley who wrote the Ballers' Oath on their behalf.[9]

Sedley's parliamentary career started in the 1660s but around 1677/78 he joined the Whig cause. When Charles II died in 1685, Sedley was illegally excluded from the parliament of his successor James II, which convened in May 1685. There can be no doubt that Sedley opposed the Catholic James and supported William of Orange in the crucial year of 1688.[10] Sedley was returned in the second Parliament of William, elected in March 1690. More speeches and parliamentary motions followed in 1690, including discussions on the Bill for regulating trials for High Treason, which sheds light on Sedley's political commitment after the Revolution. Sedley's speeches were included in the 1702 edition of The Miscellaneous Works. Sedley kept his seat in Parliament until his death in 1701.


Charles Sedley inherited the title (5th baronet) in 1656 when his brother William died. By his first wife, Lady Katherine Savage, daughter of John Savage, 2nd Earl Rivers, he had only one legitimate child, Catherine, Countess of Dorchester, who later became a mistress of James II of England. After his first wife had been sent to a convent in Ghent on account of a serious mental condition, Sedley tried in vain to obtain a divorce.

He met Ann Ayscough, probably around 1670, by whom he had two illegitimate sons, William and Charles Sedley. William died in infancy, and the brother Charles was knighted by William III of Orange after the coronation in 1689 and created a baronet in 1702. The relationship with Ann Ayscough lasted until the end of Sedley's life.


His reputation as a wit and dissolute was partially responsible for the Sedleys of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair.[1]



His most famous song, "Phyllis is My Only Joy", is much more widely known now than the author's name.[5] While Sedley chiefly produced light amatory verse and pastoral dialogues in the 1670s, he turned to satirical epigrams in the 1680s and 1690s. His Epigrams: or, Court Characters are modelled on the works of Martial. In his epigram "To Nysus", for example, Sedley describes the function of satire and emphasizes the aggressive mode of satire: "Let us write satyr than, and at our ease / Vex the ill-natur'd Fools we cannot please."[11] At the same time, Sedley translated other specimens of ancient poetry, such as Virgil's Georgics IV, the eighth Ode of the second Book of Horace and three elegies from Ovid's Amores. Dryden included Sedley's translations from Ovid in the Miscellany of 1684.

A number of his poems have been set to music: "Phyllis is My Only Joy" in a glee by John William Hobbs (1799–1877),[12] "Not, Celia, that I Juster Am" in a solo song by the English composer Elizabeth Turner (1700–1756),[13][14] and "Hears Not My Phillis" (Knotting Song, Z.371) in a solo song by the English composer Henry Purcell (1659–1695).[15] In 1692 Sedley wrote the birthday ode for Queen Mary, "Love’s goddess sure was blind", which was also set to music by Purcell.[16] The poem was printed in The Gentleman’s Journal of May 1692.[17]


His first comedy, The Mulberry-Garden (1668), sustains Sedley's contemporary reputation for wit in conversation. The best, but most licentious, of his comedies is Bellamira: or, The Mistress (1687), an imitation of the Eunuchus of Terence, in which the heroine is supposed to represent Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, the mistress of Charles II. While The Mulberry-Garden exuberantly praises the achievements of the Restoration, Bellamira displays a dark cynicism which has to be accounted for within a changed historical context. His two tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra (1677) and The Tyrant King of Crete (1702), an adaptation of Henry Killigrew's Pallantus and Eudora, have little merit. He also produced The Grumbler (1702), an adaptation of Le Grondeur of Brueys and Palaprat.[5] However, many contents of Sedley's posthumous edition are spurious.[18] Apart from the prologues of his own plays, Sedley wrote at least four more prologues to comedies, the best-known of which was written for Shadwell's Epsom Wells.[19]


  • Pompey the Great (1664); adaptation and translation of Corneille's La mort de Pompée (1644); together with Charles Sackville (later Earl of Dorset), Sidney Godolphin, Edmund Waller, and Sir Edward Filmer.
  • The Mulberry-Garden (1668); party modelled on Molière's L'École des Maris (1661).
  • Antony and Cleopatra (1677)
  • Bellamira: or, The Mistress (1687); partly modelled on Terence's Eunuchus
  • Beauty the Conquerour: or, The Death of Marc Antony (posthumous 1702)
  • The Miscellaneous Works of the Honourable Sir Charles Sedley (London, 1702).
  • The Works of the Honourable Sir Charles Sedley, 2 vols (London, 1722).
  • The Works of the Honourable Sir Charles Sedley, 2 vols (London, 1776).
  • (possibly by Sedley) The Tyrant King of Crete; shortened version of Henry Killigrew's Pallantus and Eudora.
  • (possibly by Sedley) The Grumbler; translation of a French farce Le Grondeur
  • The Poetical and Dramatic Works of Sir Charles Sedley, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto. 2 vols (London, 1928; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1969).
  • Sir Charles Sedley's "The Mulberry-Garden" (1668) and "Bellamira: or, The Mistress" (1687): An Old-Spelling Critical Edition with an Introduction and a Commentary, ed. Holger Hanowell, Münster Monographs on English Literature (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2001).



  1. ^ a b Harden, Edgar F. (ed.), Selected Letters of William Makepeace Thackeray, p. 150.
  2. ^ Burke's Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies, p483
  3. ^ Burke's Extinct and Dormant Baronetcies
  4. ^ See The Mulberry-Garden" and "Bellamira, ed. Hanowell, pp. xxxi-xxxii.
  5. ^ a b c d Chisholm 1911.
  6. ^ Frank L. Huntley, "On the Persons in Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy", in: Essential Articles for the Study of John Dryden, ed. H. T. Swedenberg Jr. (Hamden, Colorado, 1966), pp. 83–90.
  7. ^ The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, Vol. V, p. 288 and Vol. VIII, p. 71. See also the presentation of Sedley in Gerard Langbaine, An Account of the Dramatick Poets. The English Stage: Attack and Defense 1577–1730, ed. Arthur Freeman (New York and London, 1973).
  8. ^ Fergus Linnane (2006). The Lives of the English Rakes. London: Portrait. pp. 24–25.
  9. ^ David M. Vieth, "Sir Charles Sedley and the Ballers' Oath", in: The Scriblerian and the Kit-Cats, 12 (1979), 47–49.
  10. ^ Pinto, Sir Charles Sedley: A Study in the Life, p. 203
  11. ^ "Poetical and Dramatic Works", ed. Pinto, Vol. 1, p. 52, ll.7-8.
  12. ^ 1
  13. ^ 2.
  14. ^ Yelloly, M. (1 February 2005). "'The ingenious Miss Turner': Elizabeth Turner (d 1756), singer, harpsichordist and composer". Early Music. 33 (1): 65–80. doi:10.1093/em/cah041. ISSN 0306-1078.
  15. ^ "Hears not my Phillis how the birds 'The Knotting Song', Z371 - Hyperion Records - CDS, MP3 and Lossless downloads".
  16. ^ Wood, Bruce (2009). Purcell: An Extraordinary Life. London: ABRSM. p. 144. ISBN 9781860962981.
  17. ^ Purcell studies. Curtis Alexander Price. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. 1995. ISBN 0-521-44174-9. OCLC 30518192.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  18. ^ See Sir Charles Sedley's "The Mulberry-Garden" (1668) and "Bellamira, or: The Mistress" (1687), ed. Hanowell, p. xxiii
  19. ^ Pierre Danchin, The Prologues and Epilogues of the Restoration 1660-1700, 4 vols (Nancy, 1981).


External links

14 Annotations

First Reading

TerryF  •  Link

Sedley, Sir Charles (b. 1639; d. 1701). “The Mulberry Garden” (1668); “Antony and Cleopatra” (1677); “Bellamira” (1687); “Beauty the Conqueror; or, the Death of Mark Antony” (1702); “The Grumbler” (1702); “The Tyrant King of Crete” (1702). All the above are dramatic. His complete works, including his plays, poems, songs, etc., were published in 1702.…

"Sir Charles Sedley (March 1639 - August 20, 1701), English 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". His most famous song, 'Phyllis is my only joy', is much more widely known now than the author's name.[...] The best, but most licentious, of his comedies is "Bellamira; or The Mistress" (1687), an imitation of the "Eunuchus" of Terence, in which the heroine is supposed to represent the duchess of Cleveland, the mistress of Charles II.…

'Phyllis is my only joy'

Phyllis is my only joy,
Faithless as the winds or seas;
Sometimes coming, sometimes coy,
Yet she never fails to please;
If with a frown
I am cast down,
Phyllis smiling,
And beguiling,
Makes me happier than before.

Though, alas! too late I find
Nothing can her fancy fix,
Yet the moment she is kind
I forgive her all her tricks;
Which, though I see,
I can't get free;
She deceiving,
I believing;
What need lovers wish for more?

-- Sir Charles Sedley…

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.VIII. The Court Poets.§ 10. Sir Charles Sedley.…

Pedro  •  Link

Sir Charles Sedley.

One of the “Wits”

Much of the colourful era which surrounds the Restoration Court in the popular imagination is derived from the behaviour of the “Wits”, rather than the more powerful ministers. This little group that flourished for about 15 years after 1665, included John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, Henry Jermyn, Lord Buckhurst, John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, Henry Killigrew, Sir Charles Sedley, and the playwrights Wycherley and Etherege, as well as Buckingham.

(Fraser...King Charles II)

Peter Daly  •  Link

Why are we not permitted to read what Sam wrote originally? Are we not old enough? The full details provide a true picture of the character of the "wits" at Charles' court. Sedley is the man who, in his own interests' persistently thrust his daughter into the bed of a royal lover and no excess of his could surprise.

jeannine  •  Link

"Why are we not permitted to read what Sam wrote originally?"
The version of the diary that is posted on this site is the Wheatley version which was published in the early 1900's. This is the most recent version to date that is outside of the copyright laws time period restriction. The more modern version of the L&M translation has the "full details" of Sam's original script and was published in a time period where the actual language was more "accepted" by the general public. In fairness to Wheatley he did a magnificent job and most likley published some "risque" selections given the time period, culture, etc. that he was living in.
Now about being old enough to read it--you did get a permission slip from your parents to be here didn't you? The rest of us young, hip kids had to...

jeannine  •  Link

Footnote from Grammont (Spoilers)
"NOTE 111
Sir Charles Sedley was born about the year 1639, and was educated at Wadham College, Oxford. He ran into all the excesses of the times in which he lived. Burnet says, "Sedley had a more sudden and copious wit, which furnished a perpetual run of discourse; but he was not so correct as Lord Dorset, nor so sparkling as Lord Rochester." -- History of his own Times, vol. i. p. 372. He afterwards took a more serious turn, and was active against the reigning family at the Revolution; to which he was probably urged by the dishonour brought upon his daughter, created Countess of Dorchester by King James II. [The following well-known anecdote refers to this circumstance. Sedley was one day asked why he appeared so inflamed against the king, to whom he was under so many obligations? "I hate ingratitude," he said, "and therefore, as the king has made my daughter a countess, I will endeavour to make his daughter a queen." Referring to the Princess Mary, wife of the Prince of Orange, who, by the success of this great outbreak, was called to the throne under the name of William III.] Lord Rochester's lines on his powers of seduction are well known. He died 20th August, 1701.
[Among other numerous frolics related of Sir Charles Sedley, that which took place in June, 1663, when he was in company with Lord Buckhurst, Sir Thomas Ogle, &c. at the Cock Tavern, in Bow Street, Covent Garden, as recorded by Anthony Wood (see his Life, p. 53, and his Athenæ, vol. iv. p. 732), is the most notorious. "His indecent and blasphemous proceedings there raised a riot, wherein the people became very clamorous, and would have forced the door next to the street open; but being hindered, he and his companions were pelted into the room, and the windows belonging thereunto were broken. This frolic being soon spread abroad, especially by the fanatical party, who aggravated it to the utmost, by making it the most scandalous thing in nature, and nothing more reproachful to religion than that; the said company were summoned to the court of justice in Westminster Hall, where, being indicted of a riot before Sir Robert Hyde, lord chief justice of the Common Pleas, were all fined, and Sir Charles to the amount of 500l. Sir Robert Hyde asked him whether ever he read the book called The Complete Gentleman, &c., to which Sir Charles made answer, that set aside his lordship, he had read more books than himself, &c. The day for payment being appointed, Sir Charles desired Mr. Henry Killegrew, and another gentleman, to apply themselves to his majesty to get it off; but instead of that, they beg'd the said sum of his majesty, and would not abate Sir Charles two-pence of the money."…

Paul Chapin  •  Link

The knight is young

Sedley is 6 years younger than Sam, and already in 1663, when Sedley was 24, Sam referred to him as Sir Charles. None of the sources I could find stated when he was knighted. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography may do so, but unfortunately I don't have the necessary subscription to find out.

Paul Chapin  •  Link

Michael, it seems to follow from your note that the baronetcy carried with it the privilege of being called "Sir ___." If so, I've learned something. I have always thought that the Sir-title (sorry) came only with knighthood, which was conferred on individuals and not inheritable, unlike a peerage, which would carry the epithet "My Lord ___." Am I right that I am wrong?

Michael Robinson  •  Link


"Although the origin of this title has been the subject of learned speculation, it is not known for certain why it was selected as that of "a new Dignitie between Barons and Knights" created by James I. The object of its institution was to raise money for the crown, ... When it was instituted, in May 1611, the king, to keep the baronetage select, covenanted that he would not create more than two hundred, ... these qualifications were before long abandoned. As an inducement to apply for it, it was made to confer the prefix of "Sir" and "Lady" (or "Dame"), and was assigned precedence above knights, though below the younger sons of barons. ..."…

Cum grano salis  •  Link

Rank of Barons and little Barons was in vogue,[monies dothe take precedence] if thee look at the House of Lairds and Commons [those that not be of true peerage] there be many a 'sir' sitting in the Commons as they be not accepted in the vpper strata of society yet with all the given Privileges of the truly dubbed.
as shown at this site, the two levels of privilege.…

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

SEDLEY, (Sir Charles) a poet of mediocrity, whose works display no ingenuity, but have, as the duke of Buckingham says, "the art of insinuating loose principles in decent language." Charles II, and the earl of Rochester have greatly over-rated this gentleman's talents: the former having said, "That Nature had given him a patent to be Apollo's viceroy," and the latter, making him "an oracle among the poets." He sat in several parliaments, and James II. conferred on him many favours; he nevertheless took a part in the Revolution, which was out of resentment at the king's having an amour with his daughter, whom he created countess of Dorchester. When Sir Charles was asked why he appeared so warm in the Revolution, he answered, "from a principle of gratitude: for since his majesty has made my daughter a countess, it is fit I should do all I can to make his daughter a queen." Sedley, though possessed of pleasing talents, was a very dissolute character. He was born in 1639, and died in 1701.

---Eccentric biography, 1801

Bill  •  Link

SEDLEY, Sir CHARLES (1639?-1701), wit and dramatic author; of Wadham College, Oxford; entered parliament after the Restoration as one of members (barons) for New Romney; achieved notoriety as a fashionable profligate; wrote two tragedies and three comedies, besides prose pieces and poems (collected in 'A New Miscellany' and in a 'Collection of Poems,' 1701).
---Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome. S. Lee, 1906.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.


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