One of the comedies of the time tells the courtier that "he must dress well, dance well, fence well, have a talent for love-letters, an agreeable voice, be amorous and discreet - but not too constant." To graces such as these the rakes of the Restoration added a shamelessness and a brutality which passes belief. Lord Rochester was a fashionable poet, and the titles of some of his poems are such as no pen of our day could copy. Sir Charles Sedley was a fashionable wit, and the foulness of his words made even the porters of Covent Garden pelt him from the balcony when he ventured to address them. The Duke of Buckingham is a fair type of the time, and the most characteristic event in the Duke's life was a duel in which he consummated his seduction of Lady Shrewsbury by killing her husband, while the Countess in disguise as a page held his horse for him and looked on at the murder. Vicious as the stage was, it only reflected the general vice of the time. The Comedy of the Restoration borrowed everything from the Comedy of France save the poetry, the delicacy, and good taste which veiled its grossness. Seduction, intrigue, brutality, cynicism, debauchery, found fitting expression in dialogue of a studied and deliberate foulness, which even its wit fails to redeem from disgust.
Wycherly, the popular play-wright of the time, remains the most brutal among all writers of the stage; and nothing gives so damning an impression of his day as the fact that he found actors to repeat his words and audiences to applaud them. Men such as Wycherly gave Milton models for the Belial of his great poem, "than whom a spirit more lewd fell not from Heaven, or more gross to love vice for itself." The dramatist piques himself on the frankness and "plain dealing" which painted the world as he saw it, a world of brawls and assignations, of orgies at Vauxhall, and fights with the watch, of lies and double-entendres, of knaves and dupes, of men who sold their daughters, and women who cheated their husbands.
But the cynicism of Wycherly was no greater than that of the men about him; and in mere love of what was vile, in contempt of virtue and disbelief in purity or honesty, the King himself stood ahead of any of his subjects.
It is however easy to exaggerate the extent of this reaction. So far as we can judge from the memoirs of the time, its more violent forms were practically confined to the capital and the court. The mass of Englishmen were satisfied with getting back their May-poles and mince-pies; and a large part of the people remained Puritan in life and belief, though they threw aside many of the outer characteristics of Puritanism. Nor was the revolution in feeling as sudden as it seemed. Even if the political strength of Puritanism had remained unbroken, its social influence must soon have ceased. The young Englishmen who grew up in the midst of the civil war knew nothing of the bitter tyranny which gave its zeal and fire to the religion of their fathers. From the social and religious anarchy around them, from the endless controversies and discussions of the time, they drank in the spirit of scepticism, of doubt, of free inquiry. If religious enthusiasm had broken the spell of ecclesiastical tradition, its own extravagance broke the spell of religious enthusiasm; and the new generation turned in disgust to try forms of political government and spiritual belief by the cooler and less fallible test of reason.
The children even of the leading Puritans stood aloof from Puritanism. The eldest of Cromwell's sons made small pretensions to religion. Cromwell himself in his later years felt bitterly that Puritanism had missed its aim. He saw the country gentleman, alienated from it by the despotism it had brought in its train, alienated perhaps even more by the appearance of a religious freedom for which he was unprepared, drifting into a love of the older Church that he had once opposed. He saw the growth of a dogged resistance in the people at large. The attempt to secure spiritual results by material force had failed, as it always fails. It broke down before the indifference and resentment of the great mass of the people, of men who were neither lawless nor enthusiasts, but who clung to the older traditions of social order, and whose humour and good sense revolted alike from the artificial conception of human life which Puritanism had formed and from its effort to force such a conception on a people by law. It broke down, too, before the corruption of the Puritans themselves. It was impossible to distinguish between the saint and the hypocrite as soon as godliness became profitable.
Even amongst the really earnest Puritans prosperity disclosed a pride, a worldliness, a selfish hardness which had been hidden in the hour of persecution. The tone of Cromwell's later speeches shows his consciousness that the ground was slipping from under his feet. He no longer dwells on the dream of a Puritan England, of a nation rising as a whole into a people of God. He falls back on the phrases of his youth, and the saints become again a "peculiar people," a remnant, a fragment among the nation at large. But the influences which were really foiling Cromwell's aim, and forming beneath his eyes the new England from which he turned in despair, were influences whose power he can hardly have recognized. Even before the outburst of the Civil War a small group of theological Latitudinarians had gathered round Lord Falkland at Great Tew. In the very year when the King's standard was set up at Nottingham, Hobbes published the first of his works on Government. The last royalist had only just laid down his arms when the little company who were at a later time to be known as the Royal Society gathered round Wilkins at Oxford. It is in this group of scientific observers that we catch the secret of the coming generation.
From the vexed problems, political and religious, with which it had so long wrestled in vain, England turned at last to the physical world around it, to the observation of its phenomena, to the discovery of the laws which govern them. The pursuit of physical science became a passion; and its method of research, by observation, comparison, and experiment, transformed the older methods of inquiry in matters without its pale. In religion, in politics, in the study of man and of nature, not faith but reason, not tradition but inquiry, were to be the watchwords of the coming time. The dead-weight of the past was suddenly rolled away, and the new England heard at last and understood the call of Francis Bacon.