Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 2)

“Whereas the Lady Henrietta Berkeley has been absent from her Fathers house since the 20th of August last past, and is not yet known where she is, nor whether she is alive or dead; These are to give notice, That whoever shall find her, so that she may be brought back to her Father, the Earl of Berkeley, they shall have 200 Pounds Reward. She is a young Lady of a fair Complexion, fair Haired, full Breasted, and indifferent tall.”
— The London Gazette, September, 1682

The scandal that forms the basis of Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister was the illicit affair, and subsequent elopement, of Ford, Lord Grey of Werke, and the Lady Henrietta Berkeley, the younger sister of his wife. Although there were rumours about the affair, it became public knowledge when the above advertisement was placed, one of a series that ran across September and October of 1682.

Lord Grey was subsequently arrested and stood trial, along with various servant-accomplices, charged that they, “…did conspire the ruin and utter destruction of the lady Henrietta Berkeley, daughter of the right honourable George earl of Berkeley…and solicited her to commit whoredom and adultery with my lord Grey, who was before married to the lady Mary, another daughter of the earl of Berkeley, and sister to the lady Henrietta…” The already sensational trial took another turn when Henrietta, though as a woman and a minor not permitted to speak in court, nevertheless stood up and declared herself to be the wife of one William Turner and therefore no longer subject to her father’s authority. In spite of this, Grey was found guilty, only for the whole business then to mysteriously fade away – at least for him: the servants charged weren’t so fortunate. It is supposed that Grey bought his way out of trouble; something he had quite a talent for, as we shall see.

Although this scandal on its own merits would have been more than enough for a novelist like Aphra Behn to build on, the trial was neither the beginning nor the end of the business. For one thing, the matter fell squarely into the political division of the day: the Berkeleys were committed Tories, while Grey was not only a prominent Whig, but an open supporter of the Duke of Monmouth in his campaign to replace the Duke of York as heir to the throne.

(Oh, fun fact! – remember my mentioning that the only piece of legislation that Parliament managed to pass during the period of the Exclusion Crisis was the Habeus Corpus Act? Well, it turns out they wouldn’t have passed that, either, except that Lord Grey pulled off the 1679 equivalent of stuffing the ballot box. I’m not quite clear about how he managed it, but there were certainly shenanigans.)

Grey had first come to prominence during Monmouth’s “tour of the provinces”, the journey around England intended to build his popularity with the people. If the Earl of Shaftesbury was managing the business from London, as it was claimed, then Grey was the puppetmaster on the spot. However, after Charles prevented the passing of the Exclusion Bill by proroguing the Oxford Parliament in March, 1681, both Grey and Monmouth temporarily withdrew from the public eye, at least in the political sense.

The relationship between the two men was, and would remain, a peculiar one. For one thing, it was common gossip that Grey’s wife, Lady Mary, was Monmouth’s mistress. Opinions differed on the surrounding circumstances. Some held that Grey had pimped his wife to Monmouth in order to give himself a hold over the facile would-be king; others that he was genuinely deceived and, upon discovery, genuinely outraged. A third party suggested that there was no affair, and that Grey himself had started the rumours in order to give himself an excuse to banish his wife to the country, as he did late in 1680. Whatever the truth of the matter, what is indisputable is that the absence from the scene of Lady Mary paved the way for Grey’s pursuit and seduction of her seventeen-year-old sister, Henrietta.

While there’s little doubt that Aphra Behn was deliberately increasing the titilation quotient of her work by using the word “sister” in its title, she was within her rights to do so: under 17th-century law, the relationship between Grey and Henrietta was incestuous. The affair was carried on for a year before Lady Henrietta’s family discovered it. Her outraged parents then removed her from Berkeley House in London to Durdans, their country house near Epsom, but this attempt to keep her away from Grey failed. In another delightfully scandalising touch, one night Henrietta managed to escape from the house and elope with Grey, dressed only – or so it is said – in her nightgown.

The two returned to London and hid themselves in lodgings. If the marriage between William Turner and Henrietta was real (and there is some question about that), it must have happened around this time. Either way, it is believed that Turner was a manservant of Grey’s, who allowed himself to be used to facilitate his master’s affair. And in the wake of Henrietta’s disappearance, Lord Berkeley began advertising for his daughter in the London newspapers.

(The remark about Henrietta’s breasts disappeared from subsequent ads, by the way.)

The events that followed the trial are obscure, but when Lord Grey came into public view again, it was as a party to the Rye House Plot. After the Oxford Parliament, the Exclusionists essentially fell apart. The next two years were comparatively quiet, but political violence erupted again in the middle of 1683, when – or so it is alleged – a Whig / republican plot to assassinate both Charles and James was uncovered. The brothers were visiting Newmarket for the races and were supposed to return to London, passing Rye House, from where the attack was to be launched, on the 1st of April. However, a fire at Newmarket sent them home early, and so the plot was thwarted. As with all such plots, which don’t actually happen, it’s impossible to know the full truth. Some historians believe in the reality of the plot, while others contend that it was an invention, or at least a beat-up, by Charles and James to rid themselves of their remaining Whig opponents. Quite probably, it was “a little from Column A, a little from Column B”.

In any event, there was a round of arrests and convictions. Monmouth, who was implicated, got away to the United Provinces (we assume he was allowed to go), but William, Lord Russell, Sir Thomas Armstrong and Algernon Sidney were executed, while the Earl of Essex committed suicide in the Tower of London. Another of the condemned, our old friend Lord Grey, managed to escape from the Tower before his execution: an event involving guards who just happened to fall asleep or be looking the other way, and a boat that just happened to be on the Thames; Grey’s extremely deep pockets strike again. However it was contrived, when Grey fled to the Continent in July of 1683, he took Henrietta Berkeley with him.

It is not at all clear what happened to Henrietta after that, although at some point she seems to have crept back to her family, to live out her life in obscurity and disgrace. Curiously, when she died in 1710, it was declared that she was never married. Possibly the Turner story was a lie to help protect Grey, or possibly there was an annulment. Or possibly the Berkeleys simply preferred to pretend that the whole thing never happened.

In complete contrast to his former lover, Lord Grey returned spectacularly to the public scene during the long-anticipated and ultimately futile Monmouth Rebellion, which finally took place in June, 1685, four months after James succeeded his brother. It was an abysmal failure, an outcome that many blame upon the incompetence, or the cowardice, or even the treachery of Grey, who was put in charge of Monmouth’s cavalry. Monmouth was convicted and executed as a traitor, along with many of his followers, after the “Bloody Assizes” of Judge George Jeffreys. During the autumn of 1685, some 200 people were executed for their involvement in the Rebellion, and a further 800 transported for life.

Lord Grey, however, was not among them…

[To be continued…]

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5 Responses to “Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister (Part 2)”

  1. Lud, he’s starting to sound as unaccountably good at wiggling out of things as Thomas Blood – who was caught red-handed stealing the Crown Jewels, and not only pardoned by Charles I but given a small estate in Ireland!

  2. “Weaselling out of things is what separates us from the animals. Except the weasel.”

    And in Grey’s case, I’m very sure it didn’t separate him at all from the weasel. (Stick around: this guy makes Thomas Blood look like an amateur.)

  3. Again, very, very useful. Incidentally, you got me thinking about and posting on Aphra today–appropriate for MLK’s birthday, given the role that Oroonoko would go on to play in the anti-slavery movement (even though it is not against slavery per se–just the enslavement of Oroonoko).

  4. Lovely post on Oroonoko, Robin! It certainly isn’t a straightforward anti-slavery tract, despite its understandable adoption as such by the abolitionists. However, I’m four years off having to get my own thoughts in order on the subject – by which I hope I mean four years chronologically, not four years temporally! 🙂

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