14. The end of the Earl of Castlehaven’s marriage finally challenged the idea that a wife’s body was her husband’s ‘property’
The 1631 trial of Mervyn Tuchet, the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, remains to this day one of the more unpleasant episodes of English history. It laid bare the abusive nature of many marriages, as well as the abuse that was rife in the houses of the rich and powerful. The case centered around Lord Castlehaven and his second wife, Lady Anne. The marriage was an unhappy one. She was significantly older than he was and the pair had little in common. According to some eyewitness accounts, they were both selfish and cruel. So it was no surprise when, in 1630, Castlehaven was accused of raping his wife and having ‘unnatural’ relations with his male servants.
In a trial by his peers, Castlehaven argued that a wife’s body was her husband’s property, and therefore he could do with it what he saw fit. Ultimately, the court convicted him of rape, as well as of ‘sodomy’, and he was sentenced to death. Significantly, the case was the first instance of an injured wife being allowed to testify in court against her husband. It may have only been a tiny step towards gender equality, but the Castlehaven case finally gave women in abusive marriages the right to prosecute their husbands under English law.