Between 1533 and 1861 (except when it was repealed during the brief reign of the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor) homosexual acts in England and Wales were punishable by death (by parliament not the Church). Until intensive research into the first century of the Buggery Act 1533 which imposed the death penalty has been carried out we’ll never know for sure how extensive the prosecutions for homosexual acts there really were. Most court records are buried deep in archives.
It is only in
exceptionally sensational cases that individuals are identified. There was
probably no more sensational a case as that of the crimes of Sir Mervyn Tuchet,
2nd Earl of Castlehaven (1593-1631). His case revealed a catalogue of sexual
abuse which lingered in the public memory for over 200 years. In the perverse
justice system that Parliament created with the Buggery Act created, it was not
the rapes and sexual abuses he perpetrated that led to Castlehaven’s execution
but the consensual gay acts he had with other man.
Life seemed to be going
well for Mervyn when he inherited his title from his father 400 years ago this
February. Raised in his English family’s Irish estates and castles he had chosen
to live in his ancestral properties in England. He was knighted in 1608 by King
James I (or “Queen” James, as he was often referred to). Castlehaven inherited
his maternal grandfather’s estates in 1611 (he was named after his grandfather
Sir James Mervyn). He then married a coheiress of an extremely wealthy London
alderman which brought him more estates. He finally inherited the rest of his
Irish estates from his father and a cousin.
Life then began to take a
different turn beginning with the death of his wife in around 1622. Castlehaven
remarried not long afterwards to Lady Anne, Dowager Baroness Chandos
(1580-1647). Virtually from the first day of the marriage Castlehaven exhibited
unusually aggressive sexual behaviour.
To say the Castlehaven
family was dysfunctional is an understatement. Accusations flew around between
father and son, husband and wife, and master and servant. At the centre of it
were the activities of the earl himself. First of all, here’s a simple family
tree of some of the principal family members involved in the case. This may
help to unclutter the jumble of relationships.
The marriage to Lady Anne
was not a love-match. It was for money. Anne was 12 years older than Castlehaven
and they never got on well. On the night following their wedding Castlehaven
persuaded several of his servants to parade in front of her, genitals exposed,
and the new countess was expected to praise the man with the biggest.
On several following
nights Castelhaven invited a couple of servants, Henry Skipwith and John
Antkill, into bed with him and his wife. When he wasn’t spending the night with
his wife and his servants he was with prostitutes and serving boys, according
to the countess.
John Antkill was of
impoverished gentry stock. He became Lord Castlehaven’s page and rose to become
manager of some of the estates before being elected to parliament in 1621. He
was the first servant whom the countess accused the earl of forcing upon her.
Castlehaven tried to convince her, and fail, that it was no sin to sleep with
another man he had chosen for her. And if he couldn’t convince her he was
equally unsuccessful in convincing her daughter (his step-daughter) Elizabeth
Brydges to do so as well.
Elizabeth Brydges had
married her step-brother, Castlehaven’s son and heir, when she was 15 years
old. This was not unusual in aristocratic circles at this time. Again, it was a
dynastic move and not a love-match. Like her mother the countess Elizabeth and
her husband didn’t get on well. But she did seem to find some love in the
household in the form of Henry Skipwith.
Henry Skipwith was
Castlehaven’s favourite servant. They often slept together and “slept”
together, and sometimes Skipwith slept between Castlehaven and the countess.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the countess became pregnant by
Skipwith. Unhappily, the child “disappeared” and Skipwith blamed the countess
of having something to do with it and despised her from then on. That’s when
Castlehaven decided to couple Skipwith with his step/daughter-in-law to make
his own son jealous. It worked.
Castlehaven’s son and heir
James, styled Lord Audley, often argued his father over religion, a hot topic
in England in those days when Catholics and Protestant were always at each
other. Lord Audley was also jealous of the favours and money he poured on his
servants Antkill and Skipwith. Forced into the marriage with his new
step-sister while they we both just teenagers was no road to happiness. His
only positive hope was his eventual inheritance. His succession to the earldom
and titles was legally secure, but succession to the estates and wealth was
not. Castlehaven could give them to whoever he wanted. When Skipwith began
sleeping with the Audley’s wife (even though the couple were so incompatible
that they only lived in the same house for a few months after marrying) Audley
began to fear that he would become a penniless peer and Skipwith would inherit
his estates. Castlehaven had hinted as much.
Undaunted by the family
disputes he was fostering and the sexual liaisons he was orchestrating and
forcing, Castlehaven continued with his devious crimes. When not doing so he
was happily having consensual sex (apparently) with another servant called
Florentius (or Lawrence) Fitzpatrick.
And then Giles Broadway
arrived on the scene. He was another poor country lad who became a servant. One
night as they lay in bed together Castlehaven claimed he had become too old to
satisfy his lusty wife, despite being 12 years younger than she was (he didn’t
seem to have a problem satisfying his male servants). He encouraged Broadway to
sleep with her, and even suggested he marry her after his death. Broadway
agreed. So days later Broadway was invited into Castlehaven’s marital bed and
while the earl held his wife’s arms firmly to stop her from struggling Broadway
In November 1630 James,
Lord Audley, had had enough of his father’s abusive behaviour and reported him
to the authorities. Castlehaven was arrested and put on trial for sodomy and rape
in April 1631. Various family members and servants gave evidence against him,
but the outcome was not in doubt. The Buggery Act of 1533, under which he was
charged, offered only one punishment if found guilty – death. And, indeed, the
earl was beheaded on 14th May.
Skipwith and Broadway were
also tried and convicted on the evidence they gave at the earl’s trial and they
were both executed in July 1631.
The Castlehaven case
became the subject of pamphlets and ballads for several centuries. It would be the
sex case everyone mentioned whenever another gay scandal emerged – until the
arrest of a certain Oscar Wilde in 1895.