Today in 1693, Charles, 4th Lord Mohun, was acquitted of murder by his fellow peers. Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in our Lords 1660-1832 section, shares this story of celebrity, political expediency, and the dangers of being an actress in the late 17th Century…
In December 1692 the young, but already dissolute Cornish peer, Charles, 4th Lord Mohun, was involved in a fracas arising from a botched attempt to kidnap the popular actress Anne Bracegirdle. Mohun was acting as accomplice to a young army officer (Captain Hill) who had taken a fancy to Bracegirdle and decided not to take no for an answer. Their plan to bundle her into a coach was thwarted by the intervention of several of Bracegirdle’s neighbours but principally by her fellow actor, William Mountford. In the ensuing scuffle Mountford was stabbed; he died shortly after.
Mohun’s accomplice made his escape, but Mohun himself was arrested and committed for trial. He took advantage of his privilege as a peer and demanded to be tried before the House of Lords. The affair caused a sensation as it contained all the requisite elements to command attention: the death of a popular celebrity actor; the attempted kidnap of another; and the involvement of an underage member of the peerage (Mohun was in his teens and had not yet taken his seat in the Lords). The ensuing trial proceedings that began on31 January 1693 proved one of the society events of the year. The Marquess of Carmarthen (Thomas Osborne) who presided as lord high steward was said to have invested in ‘the largest and finest coach’ and the ‘richest liveries’ for the occasion. The trial also attracted ‘a glorious appearance of ladies’, such that it was deemed ‘the fairest trial that ever was seen’.
At the heart of all this was Mohun, whose family had also had their share of tragedy. His father had succumbed to a wound sustained in a duel when Mohun was still a child and by the time he came to be tried for his role in Mountford’s murder Mohun had already been involved in a number of duels and brawls. He would eventually die in an equally high profile fight with the Duke of Hamilton some 19 years later.
On this occasion, Mohun’s role was more ambiguous. He had not struck the fatal blow but had, rather, been engaged in conversation with Mountford when Hill assaulted the actor. The prosecution case was simple: Mohun had been there to distract Mountford and was equally guilty under the law as Hill. This was the conclusion drawn by most of the judges and (tellingly) by the King and Queen as well. However, as well as both a private tragedy and social event, this was also a national, political affair. Mohun may have been young and not as yet a member of the House, but his father had been a good Whig and the young Lord’s future vote was not something that either party were keen to squander. Undoubtedly, some too were eager to offer a member of their caste a second chance. Besides, although the lawyers may have thought the case relatively cut and dried, the eventual result lay not with them but with the peers sitting on the case. It was telling that much of the debate on the first day of the trial centred on the role of accessories in cases of murder and whether a distinction was to be drawn between them and the principals. By 2 February one commentator was noting that two peers (Rochester and Nottingham) were believed to have concluded that Mohun was guilty, while another (unnamed) had let slip that ‘there is conscience as well as honour’. This being so, it was thought Mohun might well stand in need of a pardon before all was done. Certainly the hypothetical case put by Nottingham to the judges in an effort to have the law clarified was concluded by all to have been clearly murder.
Despite all this, on the evening of 4 February Mohun was found not guilty by an overwhelming majority. Only 14 (Nottingham and Rochester among them) concluded him guilty. The result proved quite as sensational as the trial itself had been. One newsletter commented bitterly that a commoner would not have been so fortunate; others debated the intricacies of an attempted appeal that it was thought Mountford’s widow intended to lodge but which was expected to be stifled by the Lords. Perhaps most intriguing of all was the conclusion drawn by Queen Mary herself, that the verdict was symptomatic of a rot at the very heart of society.
Mohun did not learn his lesson. He continued to brawl and only a few years later he was again arrested for another murder (of an apparently unrelated Captain Hill). On this occasion he was spared a trial, though, and took advantage of a royal pardon. Over the next few years he repaid his (Whig) colleagues’ trust in him by proving a dependable lieutenant in the House. He may well have been fulfilling precisely the same role when he took the field against the (Tory) Duke of Hamilton with fatal consequences for both.