Sir Charles Sedley



Allan Pritchard, ‘Editing from Manuscript: Cowley and the Cowper Papers’, in Editing Poetry from Spenser to Dryden, ed. A.H. De Quehen (New York & London, 1981), pp. 47-76.

Sola Pinto

The Poetical and Dramatic Works of Sir Charles Sedley, ed. V. de Sola Pinto, 2 vols (London, 1928).

Sola Pinto, Life

V. de Sola Pinto, Sir Charles Sedley 1639-1701: A Study in the Life and Literature of the Restoration (London, 1927)


Sir Charles Sedley — reputedly one of the wittiest (as well as one of the most scandalous) of the Restoration courtiers — has left a body of plays, poems and other works, none of which, however, is known to survive in his own hand. Unlike his equally notorious crony the Earl of Rochester, there is no evidence of an especially wide circulation in manuscript of any of the works attributed to Sedley, although it is not impossible that some, including lost or unrecognised verses by him, did have a certain currency in Court circles in his younger days.

The main group of surviving examples of Sedley's handwriting is his letters, ten of which can be recorded at present (SeC 126-135), all but one entirely autograph. A few other documents bearing Sedley's signature, including his will (*SeC 143) can also be recorded (SeC 136-144).


As with so many Restoration poets, relatively few of Sedley's works saw the light of print during his lifetime, but were largely gathered up, with varying degrees of editorial competence, in posthumous editions of so-called collected Works (most notably in 1702, 1707 and 1722: see Sola Pinto). Unlike some of his cronies and contemporaries, however — such as the Earls of Rochester and Dorset — Sedley appears severely to have restricted the circulation of his poems, with the result that comparatively few of them can now be found in contemporary manuscript copies. Among literary texts, perhaps the only recorded manuscript that can be associated directly with Sedley or his family is a songbook owned by his daughter Katherine before she became Lady Dorchester. This contains Henry Bowman's setting of one poem by Sedley himself, the Song ‘Drink about till the Day find us’ (SeC 35).

A version of Sedley's Song ‘Not Celia that I juster am’ (SeC 40) is among the papers of the Newdigate family, with whom he had connections (his illegitimate son Charles (d.1701) secretly married Frances Newdigate in May 1695, and Sedley was obliged to make peace with her irate father Sir Richard Newdigate). More important, apart from a later, though interesting, collection chiefly derived from printed sources (the ‘Dunton MS’, SeC Δ 1), the only substantial manuscript collection of poems by Sedley hitherto recorded is that compiled by Dame Sarah Cowper (see SeC Δ 2). Since Sedley certainly had dealings with the Cowper family; since, from the evidence of her diary, Dame Sarah had access to at least some autograph writings by Sedley (see below); and since her texts in this miscellany (which contain variants from early printed sources) were evidently derived from one or more manuscript sources (possibly, through her friend Martin Clifford, from manuscripts of the Duke of Buckingham), this is clearly a source worth editorial consideration.

The two known substantial manuscript collections of poems by Sedley, described in the entries below, and with the delta numbers originally supplied in IELM, are:

Bodleian, MS Rawl. poet. 173. (‘Dunton MS’: SeC Δ 1). Includes twelve poems by Sedley and one of doubtful authorship.

Hertfordshire Record Office, D/EP F 36. (‘Cowper MS’: SeC Δ 2). Includes 26 poems by Sedley plus two copies of a poem of doubtful authorship.

The Canon

Sedley's posthumously published Miscellaneous Works (1702), a more or less respectable collection of Sedley's (often later) translations, epigrams and miscellaneous writings, supplements the smattering of texts printed in various earlier publications and miscellanies to establish what might be considered an ‘official’ canon of Sedley's works. More than one commentator has had occasion to notice, however, that there seems to be little here to support the kind of reputation for wit that Sedley is known to have enjoyed among his contemporaries. There is thus a high degree of probability that a number of Sedley's earlier, and no doubt more scandalous poems, were deliberately excluded from these publications, and are either now lost or perhaps unattributed among the huge body of anonymous manuscript verse of the Restoration period. There seems to be good reason at least to consider seriously any positive ascriptions to Sedley which do surface among manuscript sources.

For present purposes the canon provisionally accepted here is based on that established in Sola Pinto, though with some additions. Three additional items have been incorporated in the entries below with moderate confidence. One is To Corrina sick (‘Apollo whose kind influences produce’), an apparently unpublished poem by ‘Sr C.S:’ known only from the probably reliable ‘Cowper MS’ (see SeC 73). Another is The Oath of the Bawlers at the Dog-and-Partridge (‘Wee to this Order none receaue’) by ‘Sr. C.S.’ which has been confidently assigned to Sedley by David Vieth (see SeC 19). The third is the bawdy Song ‘In the Fields of Lincolns Inn’, a poem which David Vieth has argued may possibly be by Sedley and which is therefore accorded a place in ‘Poems ascribed to Sedley on doubtful authority’ (SeC 99-104). The ‘Haward MS’, which contains the attribution to ‘Sr Charles Sidley’, is generally accepted as a reliable source. This is a consideration which might be borne in mind in assessing the possible validity of the qualified ascription given in that manuscript to the equally bawdy poem Dildoides (BuS 19-36) which is sometimes ascribed to Sedley.

With less confidence, a few other poems which have been ascribed to Sedley, and not included in Sola Pinto, are given entries below among ‘Poems Doubtfully Ascribed to Sedley’.

The frequently copied satire Timon, which is generally attributed to Rochester and is so recorded below (RoJ 472-81), is also sometimes attributed to Sedley. In Harold Love's view, it too may well have been written by Sedley.

On the other hand, two poems which Sola Pinto includes among his ‘dubia’ can be rejected from the canon with reasonable confidence. The first is Advice to Lovers (‘Damon, if thou wilt believe me’) [Sola Pinto, II, 148-9], which, incidentally, appears in the ‘Dunton MS’ (SeC Δ 1, ff. 71v-2r) ascribed to ‘Sr. Ch: Sedley’. Other evidence points clearly to its composition by Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset (see DoC 8-17). The second is A Fable (‘In Æsop's tales an honest Wretch we find’), first published in Poems on Affairs of State (London, 1705), and reprinted in Sola Pinto, II, 151. This poem was quite certainly written by Matthew Prior, whom Sedley probably patronised at one time, and it has accordingly been included in The Literary Works of Matthew Prior, ed. H. Bunker Wright and Monroe K. Spears, 2nd edition, 2 vols (Oxford, 1971), I, 181-2 (and see the discussion in II, 878-9). These editors collate manuscript texts of the poem among papers associated with Prior or his secretary Adrian Drift in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat House (Prior Papers, Vols. XXVII, f. 71r, and XXVIII, f. 130r, the latter with emendations in Alexander Pope's hand) and at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. They also collate texts at Longleat (Portland papers, Vol. XI, f. 23r); British Library (Stowe MS 222, f. 124); and University of Nottingham (Portland MS Pw V 44, pp. 384-5). Yet further manuscript texts can be found at the Longleat library (Portland Papers, Vol. XIX, f. 142r), in the ‘Dunton MS’ (SeC Δ 1, f. 1r), in the ‘Cowper MS’ (SeC Δ 2, pp. [165] and [179]); in the British Library (Harley MS 6914, f. 93v, and Harley MS 7600, f. 111r); at the Clark Library, Los Angeles (fC6978M3 [19—] bound [a quarto page, unnumbered]); in the Brotherton Collection at Leeds University (MS Lt. q. 48, f. 11r); at the University of Minnesota (MS 690235f, p. 266); in the National Library of Wales (Margam & Penrice A. 114); in the Northamptonshire Record Office (W(A), Misc. Vol. 20, f. 57), at the University of Texas at Austin (Ms (Killigrew, T) Works B Commonplace book, f. 148r); and at Yale (Osborn MS c 111, p. 12; Osborn Poetry Box XIII/73; Osborn Poetry Box XIV/179, p. 1; and Spence Papers, Box VII [copied by Jonathan Swift]).

Dramatic Works

Sedley may possibly merit more attention today by virtue of his plays than by his verse. While no doubt he shared certain of his works with a few select friends — he showed The Mulberry Garden to the Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, for instance, when ‘it was in loose sheets’ (Sola Pinto, Life, p. 106) — there is no evidence of any wider circulation of his plays in manuscript. The only relevant work is the comedy The Grumbler, which was printed, with a separate title-page dated 1719, in Sedley's Works (London 1722), a posthumous edition that includes much spurious matter. Sola Pinto consigns it to ‘Works ascribed to Sedley on doubtful authority’ (II, 103-41). Oliver Goldsmith's later adaptation of this play for David Garrick survives among the Larpent plays in the Huntington (SeC 118).


A few contemporary manuscript copies are recorded of a small number of prose works, on political and other subjects, ascribed to Sedley, some of them apparently unpublished (SeC 112-16). To these items should be added some texts or synopses of certain of Sedley's later addresses in the House of Commons — most notably his influential and widely circulated speech on 31 March 1690 attacking the bill for raising money for the civil lists, a speech afterwards published in 1691. For a few manuscript copies of speeches by him, see SeC 119.8-125. For an account of Sedley's speeches and parliamentary career, see Sola Pinto, Life, pp. 175-201.

To the sum of Sedley's miscellaneous and lost writings may be added those mentioned c.1701 in Dame Sarah Cowper's diary (Hertfordshire Record Office, D/EP/F29-35). She there supplies information about Sedley's bigamous second marriage in 1672, commenting, ‘This I saw under Sr Charles's own Hand’, and also records: ‘I have in my custody a prayer compos'd by him, seemingly devout, and a sermon he made to confute Father Elliot, ingenious enough, but with what sincerity he did either, I can make no conclusions’ (quoted in Pritchard, pp. 63-4).

Sedley's Library

Sedley is known to have had a considerable library (he boasted to a judge in 1663 that he had read more books than him). At least part of this library was sold at auction, after his death, at Tom's Coffee-House in London on 23 March 1702/3. A printed catalogue is in the British Library (S.C.389 (1)). Unfortunately, the auction included, without discrimination, ‘part of a Library of a Late Eminent Divine’. On the rough-and-ready assumption that the numerous theological books in the catalogue are likely to have belonged to the divine, while most of the ‘light’, verse, classical and dramatic literature would have been Sedley's, Sola Pinto prints (Life, pp. 324-44, with comment) ‘a selection from the catalogue containing some of the books’ — 246 in all — which he considers ‘may have been Sedley's’. These include works by Dryden, Milton, Sidney, Ralegh, Donne, Burton, Denham, Katherine Philips, Filmer, Locke, Charles Cotton, and Halifax, among others. Besides adding to the very small number of surviving library catalogues of notable seventeenth-century writers, this list is interesting, inter alia, for the several titles of works which it shares with the brief extant list of books owned in his later years by Sedley's crony, Sir George Etherege (see The Library, 6th Ser. 10 (June 1988), 122-44). In any event, Sedley's library was totally dispersed, and none of his books is known today.


For various other documents relating to Sedley and his family, see Sola Pinto, Life (esp. p. 305 et seq.). They include letters written by his mother, Elizabeth, 21 June 1629, in the National Archives, Kew (Sola Pinto, Life, pp. 305-6), and by Charles Sedley the Younger, to Sir Richard Newdigate, 16 July 1695, about his elopement with Newdigate's daughter (Warwickshire County Record Office, Cr 136/B464: Sola Pinto, Life, pp. 213-14).

Another item apparently relating to the Sedley family is ‘The Lady Sedley her Receipt book, 1686’, a quarto book of some 140 culinary recipes and medical prescriptions, on 75 pages, now in the Royal College of Physicians (MS 534). This would seem, on the face of it, to have belonged to, if not compiled by, Sir Charles's wife, Catherine (née Savage, c.1640-1705). After showing symptoms of insanity, however, she was consigned to a convent at Ghent in the 1660s for the rest of her life. Another possibility is that it was owned by Ann Ayscough (d.1708), whom Sedley bigamously married in 1672. The manuscript is discussed by a later owner, Leonard Guthrie, in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 6 (1913), 150-69.

Yet other items relate to Sedley's daughter Katherine (1657-1717), Lady Dorchester, whom Evelyn aptly described on 13 June 1673 (when she was fifteen) as ‘none of the most virtuous but a witt’, and who was best-known in her own time as one of James II's mistresses. Some of her letters, among the Sackville Papers and in the British Library, as well as references to her in French diplomatic papers, are edited in Sola Pinto, Life, as his Appendix III (pp. 345-62). A letter by her, to ‘Mr Nellson’, 12 May [1686], in which she noted that the Queen ‘thinks much better of me then I deserve’, is in the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS Add. 1087). A poem possibly by her, beginning ‘As Phrazier one Night at her Post in ye Drawing Room stood’ and now found in two manuscripts at Yale (Spence Papers, folder 108, and Osborn MS c 188, p. 69), is discussed in David Vieth, ‘A “Lost” Lampoon by Katherine Sedley?’, Manuscripts, 6 (1954), 260-4. For satires on her by the Earl of Dorset, see DoC 173-209.8.

A verse satire on Sedley himself (beginning ‘Go let the fatted Calf a Victim burn’) by one of his protégés, Charles Montagu (1661-1715), Earl of Halifax, is preserved in Montagu's autograph draft in the British Library (Add. MS 28644, ff. 57v-9r). It is printed in Sola Pinto, Life, as his Appendix V (pp. 311-14).

Some notes on Sedley made by William Oldys (1696-1761) and Joseph Haslewood (1769-1833) in certain of their annotated books in the British Library (C.28.g.1, pp. 485-8, and C 45.d.17) are printed in Sola Pinto, Life, pp. 318-23. Notes on Sedley by George Thorn-Drury, KC (1860-1931), literary scholar and editor, are in the Bodleian (MS Eng. misc. d. 347, f. 99r), as is his interleaved and annotated exemplum of the 1776 edition of Sedley's Works (Thorn-Drury, d. 19-20).

Peter Beal