Rochester was born in Ditchley, Oxfordshire, and educated at Wadham College, Oxford. Having carried out the Grand Tour, he became the toast of the Restoration court and a patron of the arts. He married an heiress, Elizabeth Malet, but had many mistresses, including the actress Elizabeth Barry. Shortly before his death, he had a change of heart, largely thanks to the influence of Bishop Gilbert Burnet.
Rochester's most famous verse concerned King Charles II of England, his great friend. In reply to his jest that:
"He never said a foolish thing, and never did a wise one",
Charles is reputed to have said:
"That is true -- for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers.