Last Updated 25 May 2020

A House in Gross Disorder

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A sex scandal – that too accompanied by charges of sodomy, doesn’t sound theoretically convincing enough to be lauded as the chief antagonist of a book that would elaborate the manners of the early seventeenth century English society.

The heinous nature of the scandal and the noble family it badly marred collectively demanded a thorough and scrupulous historical documentation that would serve as a bold yet honest evidence of the truth in times of secrecy and puritanical approaches. In A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, Cynthia Herrup takes up a bold task of chronicling an emperor’s debauchery and the subsequent fall from grace.

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On the surface, the book vividly records a tale of sodomy, rape, corruption and revenge. But Herrup goes beyond the notions of conventional morality, and excites the readers with an insightful telling of how a man of noble origin was incriminated by a system which was essentially naïve and passive.

Moreover, the case of the 2nd earl of Castlehaven directly implies the latent anxieties involved with the very structure of power, which can be applicable to modern societies as well. Mervin Touchet, the earl of Castlehaven, was charged with serious offenses of actuating the rape of his own wife and of performing sodomy on one of his servants.

This case received so much public attention that researchers have later on found evidential grounds to address to a number of social, religious and ethical issues involving the hindsight of power and authority, tyranny, deviance, legal entailments of suppression, and the inevitable implications of patriarchal domestic setups.

A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven captures the nature of governance that prevailed in the royal court of Castlehaven prior to the grisly events, and how it brought about the condemnation and beheading of the earl in 1631. In a way, the author discusses and explains the situations that led to the debauchery and disorder in the Castlehaven household.

It is to be clearly understood that Cynthia Herrup does not merely tell us a shameful event, but she actively engages our consciousness and awareness about the relevance of such an event in contemporary society by collating key points concerning sex, able governance and the role of a transparent and competent legal system. Hence the main thesis argument Cynthia Herrup tries to propagate in the book is not what happened, but why it happened.

The Touchets settled in the Castlehaven in 1620 and immediately exercised their sovereign power in the locality. There was an underlying wave of nobility and religious leniency about the way the head of the household directed both the internal as well as external affairs.

Despite being an old family dating back to the times of the Norman Conquest in England, the Touchets never really went out to establish a fortunate identity for themselves, partly because of their inheritance and injudicious trends of marriage.

Eventually it was the convicted earl’s father George Touchet who understood that “the surest path to wealth and status was a combination of service, supplication, and judicious marriage.” (p. 10) His expertise as a soldier and good administrator was well circulated, fetching him widespread recognition.

But his son’s escapades, as Herrup wants us to show, are not to be confused with his own status or credibility. Stuck in a perpetual state of dynamics in terms of religion, politics and law, the stage was almost set for the ensuing chain of events that would bring ignominy to the Castlehaven family. An act of sodomy, according to the Christian convictions, was extremely degrading and morally reproachable offense.

Long before the Castlehaven case, the English society was unrelenting in despising such activities. As history has it, the aristocrats in the Elizabethan times were frequently accused with similar charges, the most notable being in the cases of the Earls of Oxford and of Southampton. Due to the passive nature of the mass acceptance of crimes such as rape and sodomy, majority of these cases lay under cover and never really attracted too much attention other than a reviled broadcasting.

Even men hailing from blue-blooded families had the grit to stand up to the charges brought against them – presumably for testifying to their self-confidence and beliefs in a patriarchal supremacy. But according to the prevalent Protestant notions, sodomy was typically an un-English crime usually committed by the Italians and the Turkeys who were believed to have very little sense of self-restraint and moral values.

But Mervin Touchet was neither an Italian nor a Turkey, nor was he supposed to be stripped off the conventional Protestant values. So the logical question remains – why did he engage in such treachery?

Herrup attempts to guide us through the convoluted system of monarchy that somehow isolated many of the young earls in the beginning of their tenures. Lack of traceability in terms of peer connections and the general tenor of mistrust and passivity at the core of the family seemed to generate a deficient measure of ethics for the accused person in contention here.

Five chapters are assigned to this book, making the task of unfolding the events and their interpretations a smooth one. The first chapter recounts the history of the Castlehaven’s ancestry, their land acquisitions, and how the premonitions were about to unveil themselves.

From the perspective of a historian, this chapter is thoroughly required for the sake of critical research. Herrup introduces in this chapter the obvious difference that prevailed in the moral domains of two of the earls of Castlehaven, resulting in the disorderly affairs at Fonthill Gifford.

The second chapter directly goes into the central topic of the book, e. g. the allegations of assistance in rape and sodomy brought against the 2nd earl.

From informative contexts, this chapter abounds in charges that eventually incriminate the earl on the ground of circumstantial as well as concrete pools of evidence. It was Lord Audley who first brought the disturbing charges against the earl, stating that he was purposefully denied of his inheritance as the earl had an unusual propensity to one of his servants Henry Skipwith.

This set the ball in motion as allegations of sexual perversion and provoked acts of sexuality started raining. The Privy Council intervened into the matter and questioned most of the family members, including the accused ones. Finally in 1631, charges against the earl were found legitimate after a prolonged trial and he was convicted of rape and sodomy.

Herrup inducts the evidences to support her arguments in the third chapter. The first thematic construct involves the obligation for men to control their emotive responses for the greater good of their families and loved ones. No doubt it was completely taunted by the Castlehaven to doom his own fate.

The second important argument concerns the faculty of self-respect and honor in dealing with potentially unruly confrontations. This too lacked in the case of the 2nd earl of Castlehaven. The third argument, same as the second one, brings into the forefront of consideration the need to remain firm to sacred religious beliefs.

All the three aforementioned arguments can be exemplified in a nutshell. As the head of a domestic setup infested with "sly servants and unruly women" (p. 74), Touchet engaged in disgraceful activities and supported the same in others (p. 79), and he was alleged to have questionable associations with Roman Catholicism and Ireland (p. 81). Hence the earl was comfortably drawn as debased and therefore, shamefaced for some reason.

For the readers, it is virtually impossible to decipher the extent of his guilt, and that is precisely what the author tries to say in the book. It is basically a trial which is to be closely examined in the contemporary social context of deviance, homosexuality, tyranny and power games. So it may easily be inferred that this book is for a select band of readers – those with idiosyncratic viewpoints and a commanding grasp over the Elizabethan history of England.

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