The Madness of the Mohuns

Violence was not uncommon among the early modern aristocracy, but the behaviour of the Mohun (pronounced ‘Moon’) family – Barons Mohun of Okehampton – was shocking even to contemporaries. In the next blog for our Revolutionary Stuart Parliaments series, Dr Patrick Little from our Lords 1640-1660 project explores the family weakness for mindless violence…

Oil portrait painting of Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun. He has a long grey wig on, is wearing a white undershirt with a gold shirt on top. He is wearing a blue jacket with silver buttons. In his left hand he is holding a gold snuff box that has a photo in it.

Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun
by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1707. (c) NPG

John Mohun, 1st Baron Mohun, was proud of his ancestry, boasting descent from the Mohuns of Dunster, who had arrived with the Conqueror, and this pride may have contributed to his irascibility. His career was marred by constant rows with his father, Sir Reginald Mohun, over the patrimonial estate and, latterly, by a massive falling out with his political ally, Sir James Bagg – the man who had secured his peerage in 1628. Anger did not become violence, as far as we know. There was one incident in the 1630s, when Mohun trod on the toe of Mountjoy Blount, 1st earl of Newport at an important court function, but that may have been an accident. His elder son, John, had less self-control. In July 1637 John Mohun and his followers – including his father’s chaplain, the wonderfully named Obadiah Gossip – reacted to a traffic jam on Ludgate Hill by starting a brawl in which the Irish peer Lord Lumley was stabbed. Young Mohun was sent to Fleet Prison to cool off.

John’s early death in 1639 meant that the title passed to the younger son, Warwick Mohun, who became 2nd baron in 1641. Warwick was politically unreliable, initially fighting as a royalist but deserting the king before the end of the civil war, pledging allegiance to Oliver Cromwell in 1656 and then trying (and somehow managing) to persuade the Restoration House of Lords that he had been loyal to the Stuarts all along. He was also accused of involvement in numerous acts of violence, including encouraging his servants to beat up the estate workers of a rival, and in 1646 parliamentarians raised concerns that he ‘had killed divers men in cold blood and therefore should not be admitted to his composition’ (Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memoirs ii. 114). Ominously, in May 1653 he was arrested as the principal in a duel.

His father’s bad luck and miscalculation left Charles, 3rd Baron Mohun, in financial difficulties. Charles was only 16 when he succeeded in 1665. In his short life he acquired an unenviable reputation as a wife-beater, a drunkard and a brawler. In November 1676 he agreed to act as a second to William Cavendish (later 4th duke of Devonshire) behind Southampton House, not far from the current History of Parliament offices. Although the duel ended without bloodshed, a subsequent row led to a fight in which Mohun was run through the abdomen with a rapier. Although seriously wounded, the baron hung on for nearly a year, dying in September 1677, at the age of 28.

The succession of the infant 4th baron, also Charles, brought the madness of the Mohuns to its ultimate crisis. Even as a teenager, the new Lord Mohun was notorious for drunkenness, gambling and ever-increasing acts of violence. In 1692 he was accessory to the murder of an actor: he was tried in the House of Lords but acquitted. In the mid-1690s he was involved in random assaults, another duel in St James’s Park, and a murderous brawl in a tavern. Interactions with his creditors could also turn violent. In 1699 he was again tried by his peers after the death of an army captain in a duel, and again acquitted. Thereafter Mohun seemed to have settled down, becoming a useful ally for the Whigs under Queen Anne. But boorishness was part of his DNA. His final duel had a political edge, as Mohun was provoked into challenging the Tory 4th duke of Hamilton (James Douglas) in November 1712. They met in Hyde Park, and in the sword-fight that followed both men were killed. The 4th baron was the last – the line died with him.

A mezzotint (copperplate) print of James Douglas and Charles Mohun duelling with swords. The backdrop is a faded Hyde Park. There is a figure towards the front of the print pointing at the duel.
James Douglas, 4th Duke of Hamilton; Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun, Unknown artist, 1712 or after. (c) NPG

Various reasons for this constant resort to violence can be posited. The Mohuns seem to have been particularly prickly when it came to their honour. They were relative newcomers to the nobility, frustrated by their inability to move up from the lowest rank of the peerage, and in later generations, by a lack of cash; but they were also conscious that their ancestry was second to none. It was a bitter irony that the 4th baron, who seemed at last to be achieving some success politically, was cut down before he could re-establish the family’s fortunes.

Another likely factor is that most of them came to the title at a tender age – the 2nd baron was 21, the 3rd was 16, the 4th only six months old. These youngsters entered an aristocratic milieu that was dissolute and violence-prone, with the habitual carrying of swords encouraging lethal escalation in even the most minor of disputes. Bearing in mind the chronic lack of self-control common to all the Mohuns, hereditary mental instability cannot be ruled out as a third factor.

Two more general points. It is noteworthy that the House of Lords protected its own, even in the most trying of circumstances, with the 2nd baron being welcomed back in 1660 and the 4th baron enjoying repeated acquittals for the most heinous of crimes. This seems to have given a degree of security for hot-blooded nobles and their sons, who could challenge each other with apparent impunity. The scandalous death of the 4th baron had one more-or-less positive consequence, however. In the years that followed, duelling with swords fell out of fashion, and honour was usually satisfied with less accurate and (marginally) less lethal weapons: pistols.

P.L.

Further reading:

V.G. Kiernan, The Duel in European History (Oxford, 1988)

Andrew Thrush (ed.), House of Lords, 1604-1629, (Cambridge, 2021)

Ruth Paley (ed.), House of Lords, 1660-1715, (Cambridge, 2016)

Find more blogs from our Revolutionary Stuart Parliaments series here.

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