Charles Sedley

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Sir Charles Sedley (portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller)
Sir Charles Sedley (portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller)

Sir Charles Sedley (March 1639 – August 20, 1701), English wit and dramatist, was the son of Sir John Sedley, Bt, of Aylesford in Kent and Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Henry Savile (Bible translator). The Sedleys (also sometimes spelt Sidley) had been prominent in Kent since at least 1337.

He was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, but left without taking a degree. 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.

His first comedy, The Mulberry Garden (1668), hardly 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 the duchess of Cleveland, the mistress of Charles II. His two tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra (1667) 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.

In 1663 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 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 a queen".

By his first wife Lady Catherine Savage, daughter of John, 2nd Earl Rivers he had an only legitimate child, Catherine, countess of Dorchester, mistress of James II. He married (bigamously) Catherine Ayscough, by whom he had a son, Charles Sedley.

See The Works of Sir Charles Sedley in Prose and Verse (1778), with a slight notice of the author. For a modern edition of Sedley's comedies, see: Holger Hanowell, "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" (Peter Lang: Frankfurt a. M. 2001).

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