Appendix XX: Rakes, cuckolds and sexual deviants

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Rakes, cuckolds, and sexual deviants

Dissipation and sexual incontinence is a rather more common feature of the biographies than those aspects of moral delinquency which involved material gain by nefarious means. Despite the pious and even prudish atmosphere of the post-Revolution court, under Queen Mary and Queen Anne, the early appearance of evangelicalism, and the emergence of a movement for ‘moral reformation’ in public life, the rakehell did not die out as a social type, but indeed continued to flourish. The evidence used in the biographies to categorize Members in this way is of course mostly hearsay. Moreover, the vitriolic political propaganda of the period not only focused on sexual peccadilloes but was perfectly capable of elaborating its accusations with invention. However, there is a level of consistency, and a popular assumption of truth, in the notoriety attracted by some Members which invests these stories with a degree of credibility.

There can of course be no definitive list of rakes, given the variable quality of biographical information available. Some of the more colourful figures of previous reigns appear to have carried on into a disgraceful old age, among them Sir Henry Dutton Colt, 1st Bt., ‘Jack’ (John Grobham) Howe, Richard Savage, Lord Colchester, Richard Jones, Lord Ranelagh, and the Wharton brothers, Thomas and Goodwin, the former combining a predatory sexuality with a breathtaking disregard for the proprieties of orthodox religion, the latter redeemed from a routine of drink and debauchery by his discovery of the kingdom of the fairies. On the other hand, Sir Charles Sedley, 5th Bt., a former drinking-companion of the 1st Lord Rochester, repented of his sins and underwent a religious conversion. Thomas Wharton’s vices were very publicly catalogued by his political enemies, including Swift. His fellow Junto Lord Somers (Sir John) suffered a similar campaign of vilification, which concentrated on his alleged sexual promiscuity (he never married). Other prominent political figures with bad reputations included the Whig lord keeper (later lord chancellor), William Cowper, who was popularly supposed to be a bigamist; Hon. Henry Boyle, who cuckolded his own cousin; and the Tories Thomas Coke, Thomas Mansell (II), and the ‘man of mercury’ Henry St. John II, all of whom boasted of their amorous escapades in their own correspondence. Cowper’s family, like the Whartons, was multiply dysfunctional: his brother Spencer stood trial for rape and murder. Interestingly both sets of brothers were brought up in strongly Presbyterian households by domineering fathers, the same circumstances which produced the Williams brothers of Llangibby in Monmouthshire, Sir John and Sir Hopton, 2nd and 3rd baronets respectively. The younger generation of rakes also included the theatrical manager Henry Brett, Richard ‘Black Dick’ Cresswell, Sir Thomas Reade, 4th Bt., General Richard Sutton, Hon. John Sydney, and the younger James Craggs, who once attempted to rape a household servant while a guest of the Marlboroughs. Sir Alexander Cumming, 1st Bt., was cited for adultery in a Scottish church court; Sir John Germain, 1st Bt., the co-respondent in the Norfolk divorce case, was successfully sued for ‘criminal conversation’ by the 7th Duke of Norfolk for ‘enticing away’ his duchess; and Hon. William Montagu eloped with the wife of another Member, John Lewknor, who also brought divorce proceedings against his wife and an action for damages against her lover. Somewhat less conclusive is the evidence against Sir Thomas Skipwith, 2nd Bt., who was satirized by Mrs Manley as the indefatigable womanizer ‘Sir Peter Vainlove’; and John, Lord Mordaunt, who was rejected by the Duke of Marlborough as a prospective son-in-law on the grounds that ‘I have heard that he is what they call a rascal, which can never make a good husband’.

Among the vices associated with sexual immorality under the umbrella term ‘debauchery’ were excessive drinking, and gambling, either at the tables or the racecourse. The Commons included two professional gamesters, the Dutchman Sir John Germain, and Thomas Boucher, both of whom made their fortunes with dice and cards. There were also innumerable amateurs, who lost their fortunes in the same way. The most spectacular were probably Edmund Denton and Edward Dunch, both of whom had the misfortune to come under the influence of Thomas Wharton, Edward Foley, the black sheep of a godly family, John Dolben, Hon. Carr Hervey, Sir Edward Hungerford, and Sir John Walter, 3rd Bt.

Other victims of debauchery were the deceived husbands whose marriages were undermined or destroyed by their wives’ infidelity. Not all coped as effectively as Lewknor, or Alexander Denton I, who secured £5,000 damages against the man his wife had run off with, and, more important, absolute control for himself over the errant wife’s substantial inheritance. Sir John Coryton, 2nd Bt., patiently suffered his wife’s ‘familiarity’ with their steward; Lord Brandon his wife’s adultery with Lord Colchester; Henry Lord Hyde an uncousinly betrayal by Henry Boyle; Alexander Popham his cuckolding by Lord Romney (Hon. Henry Sidney+); Charles Powlett, Marquess of Winchester I the ‘dalliance’ between his wife and John Radcliffe*; Robert Price his wife’s impregnation by Thomas Neale*; and Thomas Hanmer II, in old age, the elopement of his young wife with the son of one of his closest friends. None were perhaps quite as complacent as Lord Ranelagh (Richard Jones), who, on drawing back his bedcurtains to disclose Lady Ranelagh and Lord Coningsby (Thomas) in flagrante delicto, merely turned away and left them in peace (though subsequently he made more fuss when Coningsby asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage). The wife of Sir George Barlow, 2nd Bt., eloped after the birth of their second son, but was not pursued. What could happen if the aggrieved husband did seek redress was unhappily illustrated in the case of Hon. Benedict Leonard Calvert, who moved unsuccessfully in the Lords for a divorce from his adulterous wife, and exposed himself to ridicule without material gain; or Sir Richard Atkins, 2nd Bt., who was drawn into a series of duels by his incorrigible lady.

Given the legal position of homosexuality at this time, it is not surprising to find few traces even of allegations of homosexual behaviour in the biographies, despite the presence of a thriving homosexual subculture, especially in London. Veiled hints were made of the sexual proclivities of James Stanhope, and of the Junto lord (and Stanhope’s future ministerial partner) Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer). Certainly in Sunderland’s case, there would seem to have been some fire behind the smoke. The single documented example of homosexuality, actually of a bisexuality since the Member concerned was also renowned for his escapades with women, was Richard Cresswell, who in 1716 was arrested in Genoa on 38 counts of buggery with a local boy whom he had ‘dressed up’. Examples of deviance within a heterosexual context are equally rare: the young Alexander Luttrell supposedly perpetrated an ‘outrage’ on Lady Lovelace during his undergraduate days, though the nature of the outrage remains unclear; while Sir Christopher Hales, 2nd Bt., if a contemporary verse is to be believed, was briefly notorious for having administered a spanking to his mistress Mrs Pallavicini.

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton

End Notes