Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Book Review

Cynthia B. Herrup, A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi + 216. $13.95, paper (ISBN 0-19-513925-9).
The Castlehaven case was the most notorious sex scandal of early modern England and one of the most famous in all of English history. In 1631 Mervin Touchet, 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, was tried and convicted in a full-dress trial in Westminster Hall for inciting and assisting in the rape of his wife and committing sodomy on one of his manservants. Soon after he was beheaded. The basic facts of the case are well known, not least because it is the only trial for rape and sodomy to be found in the entire thirty-three volumes of William Cobbett's magisterial State Trials. But, as Cynthia Herrup shows in this fascinating and closely researched little book, the case raised a huge number of questions in its own time and in ours about testimonial evidence, the power of reputation, the responsibilities of patriarchs of households, and even the authority of kings.
Castlehaven came from an ancient family (at least one Touchet had come over with William the Conqueror), and he, and even more his wife, enjoyed numerous connections based on blood, marriage, or affinity to the men who would later form the jury of his peers. By the same token, the family's reputation was, by the 1630s, considerably less than pristine. Castlehaven's brother and son were both recusants; the former had not too long before come under suspicion of treason. His sister, Lady Eleanor Davies, was a well-known prophetess with a penchant for predicting the deaths of figures of authority; by the time of her brother's trial, she was no longer welcome at court. Various family members (including Davies) were embroiled in unseemly lawsuits. Castlehaven himself was in every way a mediocrity, a man whose sole talent seems to have been his ability to antagonize close relations.
But mediocrity is seldom enough to get one beheaded, and there are many puzzles to the Castlehaven case. First, Castlehaven was tried for two crimes—rape (actually, in his case, abetting a rape) and sodomy—that very seldom led either to indictment or conviction. As Herrup puts it, "Both felonies were much denounced, but little prosecuted, often vilified, but rarely punished" (27). The case against Castlehaven was also extremely weak by the standards of the day, relying as it did upon the evidence of women, servants, and minors—widely considered to be unreliable witnesses. Indeed, only a bare majority of the jury—all aristocrats—ultimately voted to convict (unanimity was not required to convict in the seventeenth century), and not long after efforts were made to limit the extent to which the Castlehaven case could be used as a precedent. What then explains his conviction and execution? What was it about Castlehaven that convinced people in high places to overlook long-standing conventions of evidence and to risk undermining the power of patriarchal headship by crediting the testimony of inferiors?
Herrup is far too good a legal historian to think that one can ever know one way or another whether Castlehaven was guilty as charged. What she does do is to explore why it was that the Crown and a good many of the jurors felt required to make an example of Castlehaven; why, in short, Castlehaven was so feared. In the process, she illuminates a world of seventeenth-century elite assumptions about men, families, sexuality, and aristocracy and about the fragile structures that held them all in check.
One of the people to whom Castlehaven owed his downfall was Charles I, who early became convinced of Castlehaven's guilt and aggressively pursued his conviction. In part this was because Castlehaven's very public attachment to his male favorites recalled Charles I's father, James I's, own behavior. But, as Herrup convincingly argues, it had a good deal more to do with the king's and others' conviction that Castlehaven's behavior struck at the central justifications for patriarchal rule. Castlehaven deliberately sought to corrupt and pervert the orderly transmission of property and power—among the main raison d'êtres of aristocracy—by disinheriting his son, liberally rewarding his favorites, and encouraging a footman to have sex with his (Castlehaven's) own wife. He incited rather than sought to control the passions of his subordinates. He defied God. In sum, his actions tarnished the image, honor, and legitimacy, in earth and in heaven, not just of household heads and the peerage but of all secular authority.
The gravity of that perceived threat—and, by implication, the precariousness of the status quo—is shown by the fact that, despite a trial riddled with procedural irregularities (and in which he steadfastly maintained his innocence), Castlehaven nevertheless became one of the few English peers ever to be executed for sexual crimes. The point, of course, is that what look like sexual crimes to us were literally matters of national security, and then, as now, national security can seem to some to justify a great many departures from conventional norms of justice. Both at the time and later, there were many doubts about the verdict and still more about the punishment, doubts that seem to have focused less on whether justice had been served than on whether the response worked to undermine rather than to shore up social order. Castlehaven himself claimed that he had been arraigned and convicted "upon as weak evidence as ever a nobleman was condemned" (94), and many at the time worried that no patriarch, however eminent, would any longer be safe from denunciations by his inferiors. Eighteen years later, Castlehaven's most exalted critic, Charles I, would himself discover the truth of that claim.
Certain crimes can profoundly shake a whole people's beliefs about themselves. A House in Gross Disorder is, despite its title, not just about one extravagantly dysfunctional family. To contemporaries it suggested a much greater threat, and as they moved with (perhaps) unseemly haste to neutralize the danger, they revealed a great deal about themselves. Cynthia Herrup has given us a seat at that long-ago trial and has shown us, with uncommon sensitivity, both why seventeenth-century elites found the whole affair so disquieting and what that shows posterity about the core values that animated their lives.


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