Henry, Lord Wilmot, 1st Earl of Rochester, 1612-58

Cavalry commander in the King's army who was exiled for secretly negotiating with Parliament. He became a close friend of Charles II and accompanied him on his escape after the battle of Worcester.

Portrait of Henry, Lord WilmotHenry Wilmot was the third son of Charles, 1st Viscount Wilmot (d.1644) and his wife Sarah, daughter of Sir Henry Anderson. Henry became a soldier in the Dutch service (1635-39), and served alongside George Goring and Sir Charles Lucas at the siege of Breda in 1637, where he was badly wounded. He returned to England in 1639 and was appointed commissary-general of the King's cavalry in the Bishops' Wars. At the battle of Newburn (August 1640), Wilmot led a charge against the advancing Scottish infantry, but his inexperienced troops were routed.

Elected MP for Tamworth in the Long Parliament (November 1640), Wilmot was a member of the group of militant Royalists that attended Queen Henrietta Maria. He was expelled from Parliament in December 1641 for alleged complicity in the Second Army Plot, in which a group of Royalist officers was suspected of plotting to seize the Tower and occupy the City of London in the King's name.

On the outbreak of the English Civil War, Wilmot was re-appointed commissary-general of horse in the King's army. He fought in the successful cavalry skirmish at Powick Bridge, but soon quarrelled with Prince Rupert. Like Rupert, he left the battlefield to chase fleeing Parliamentarians at Edgehill. In December 1642, Wilmot and Lord Digby led a troop of dragoons in a daring attack on the town of Marlborough in Wiltshire. The Cavaliers fought street by street to overpower the defenders, then plundered the town. The victory opened a line of communication from Oxford to the south-west and gave control of the Wiltshire cloth and wool trade to the Royalists.

Promoted to lieutenant-general of horse and raised to the peerage as Lord Wilmot of Adderbury (29 June 1643), Wilmot commanded the cavalry force sent from Oxford to relieve Sir Ralph Hopton's beleaguered Royalist army at Devizes. Wilmot's victory over Sir William Waller at Roundway Down in July 1643 destroyed Parliament's entire western army. Early in 1644, Wilmot was left in command of the cavalry of the Oxford army while Prince Rupert was away on campaign. He took part in the Oxford campaign and the battle of Cropredy Bridge in July 1644, where Waller was once again defeated.

Wilmot's involvement in court politics faltered after the Queen's departure for France. He alienated the King's powerful civilian advisers Lord Digby and Lord Culpeper by attempting to raise support in the army for their dismissal. In August 1644, Wilmot secretly attempted to negotiate a treaty with the Earl of Essex in the hope of persuading the King to make peace with Parliament. When this came to light he was arrested at the head of his own troops and dismissed from his command. But Wilmot was popular with the Royalist cavalry, and his arrest resulted in a near-mutiny. Rather than have him court-martialled, the King decided to send Wilmot into exile along with Lord Percy, who was also implicated in the conspiracy. He went to France, where he attended the Queen once again. In October 1647, he was wounded in a duel with his enemy Digby.

Wilmot found favour with the Prince of Wales and was appointed a gentlemen of the bedchamber when the Prince succeeded as Charles II in 1649. He supported the Royalist alliance with the Covenanters, accompanying Charles on his expedition to Scotland in 1650 and during the subsequent invasion of England in 1651. He was with Charles throughout the Worcester campaign and went on the run with him for six weeks during his legendary escape through England after the battle.

Wilmot became one of Charles' closest friends during his exile, and received the first peerage granted in Charles II's reign when he was created first Earl of Rochester in December 1652. Rochester used his charm and diplomatic skills to raise funds for the Royalist cause from various German princes during 1653-4. He was sent to England in 1655 to command an uprising planned by the Royalist conspirators of the Sealed Knot, but the plan failed ignominiously with Penruddock's Uprising of March 1655. Rochester was fortunate to escape back to the Continent.

In 1656, Rochester was involved in negotiating the alliance between Charles and the Spanish, which resulted in Royalists fighting for Spain in the Anglo-Spanish War against England and France. He took command of the Royalist regiment of foot that later became the Grenadier Guards, but he died of fever on campaign at Sluys in Flanders in February 1658.

Henry Wilmot married twice. His first marriage (August 1633) was to Frances Morton, daughter of Sir George Morton of Clenston, Dorset. She died before 1644, when he married Anne Lee, widow of Sir Francis Henry Lee. Their son, John Wilmot (1647-80), who succeeded as the second Earl of Rochester, became a noted poet and libertine at the Restoration court.


C.H. Firth, Henry Wilmot, first earl of Rochester, DNB, 1900

Ronald Hutton, Henry Wilmot, first earl of Rochester, Oxford DNB, 2004