A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven.
New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. xiv + 211 pp.
Genealogies, notes, and bibliography. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-19-512518-5 .
T.P. Gallanis , College of Law, Ohio State University.
Disorderly Earl of Castlehaven
monograph by Professor Cynthia Herrup of Duke University is the first
book-length study of an unusual seventeenth-century trial: the prosecution
of the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven on charges of sodomy and rape.
book is divided into five chapters, plus a short introduction and
conclusion. Chapter One ("A Household Kept unto Itself") sets the stage. It
describes Castlehaven's lineage and explains how he and his family came to
possess, among other things, a mansion house at Fonthill Gifford in Witshire
and an Irish earldom. It also recounts the growing signs, in the late 1620s
and 1630, of Charles I's distaste for the Earl and his family. In 1630,
labeled an "annus horrendus" by Professor Herrup (p. 22), Castlehaven's only
brother, a Roman Catholic, was imprisoned as a potential enemy of the state;
his sister, an eccentric Protestant prophetess, was banned from the King's
court; and the Earl himself (who had flirted with Catholicism but ostensibly
had returned to the English church) was stripped of his largest and and most
prestigious properties in Ireland. What explains the King's enmity toward
Castlehaven and his family? Professor Herrup mentions a number of causes,
including anti-Catholic prejudice (pp. 15-17) and disputes over land (p.
23), but she focuses the reader's attention on the contrast between Charles
I's morally upright and well-regulated household and the unruliness and
disorder that allegedly prevailed at Fonthill Gifford.
allegations of disorder lie at the heart of Chapter Two ("A Debauched Son of
a Noble Family"). The charges were brought initially by Castlehaven's eldest
son, Lord Audley, who complained to the Privy Council that the Earl intended
to disinherit him in favor of a servant, Henry Skipwith, on whom Castlehaven
had already lavished gifts worth 12,000 pounds; that Castlehaven repeatedly
encouraged Skipwith and other servants to have sexual intercourse with
Audley's wife; and that the Earl's wife and Skipwith were having a sexual
relationship with the Earl's consent. Over several months, members of the
Council interrogated Castlehaven, his family, and the servants at Fontill
Gifford. In the course of these examinations, additional charges against the
Earl emerged--namely, that he had committed sodomy with Skipwith and another
servant, and that he had engineered the rape of his wife. On 25 April 1631,
the whole matter came to trial, and the Earl was found guilty of sodomy and
Chapter Three ("A Verdict, But No Resolution") takes a thematic approach to
the evidence presented at trial. Herrup concentrates on three themes: first,
the responsibility of adult men to govern themselves and their households;
second, the duty of aristocrats to conduct themselves with honor; and third,
the obligation of Englishmen (and women) to show loyalty to their Protestant
monarch. Professor Herrup argues that Castlehaven's trial was less about the
specific charges of sodomy and rape and more about his failure to perform
these three duties. By being the head of a household overrun by "sly
servants and unruly women" (p. 74), by acting dishonorably and encouraging
dishonor in others (p. 79), and by having suspect ties to Roman Catholicism
and Ireland (p. 81), the Earl was easily portrayed as corrupt and,
therefore, guilty of something. Whether he was truly guilty of sodomy and
rape we may never know, and Professor Herrup repeatedly insists that this is
not the point of her book (pp. xiv, 5-7, 65, 153). Instead, she maintains,
it is the trial's social context that deserves our attention. As she
explains, "this [was] a case about much more than a single man or a single
family ... [instead, it] became a canvas upon which an entire palette of
social anxieties could be exhibited" (pp. 86-87).
Chapter Four ("A Household Broke Beyond Repair") provides a short narrative
of events after Castlehaven's execution. It traces the fortunes of the main
actors in the drama: Castlehaven's widow, his eldest son Lord Audley (who
became the 3rd Earl), and Audley's wife. The chapter also contains a
two-page account of some of the bit players, including Castlehaven's younger
children and a few of his servants.
Finally, Chapter Five ("Retellings") examines how later authors used the
Castlehaven story for widely different purposes. In books, pamphlets, poems,
letters, and diaries, the retelling and re-fashioning of the Earl's trial
has focused on themes as divergent as family, salvation, governance,
sexuality, lewdness, class, desire, madness, and victimization. And, as one
might expect, the retellings also differ widely on the ultimate question of
the Earl's innocence or guilt.
Professor Herrup has written a very interesting and thoughtful book. Other
scholars have briefly mentioned the moral contrast between Castlehaven and
his King, but Professor Herrup is the first to explore this fascinating
contrast in such detail.
criticism concerns the book's production. The copy sent to me had none of
the book's promised fifteen illustrations, nor did it have an index. If
these defects exist in other copies of the book, I hope that they will be
quickly corrected by the publisher.
See, e.g., Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy,
1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press, 1965),
pp. 667-68, and Kevin Sharpe, The Personal Rule of Charles I (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 188-192.
Call Number: KD372.C37H47 1999
Castlehaven, Mervyn Touchet, Earl of, 1592?-1631 -- Trials, litigation, etc.
Trials (Rape) -- England
Trials (Sodomy) -- England
Great Britain -- History -- Early Stuarts, 1603-1649 -- Sources
Citation: T.P. Gallanis . "Review of Cynthia Herrup, A House in Gross
Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven," H-Law, H-Net Reviews,
August, 1999. URL:
“[Herrup] 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…[She] 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.”
Margaret R. Hunt, review of A House in Gross
Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, by
Cynthia Herrup, Law and History Review 22 (Spring 2004): 183-184.