Queen Elizabeth I sat on the throne of England for forty-five years. One of the smartest things she did was to never name an heir until the very last minute, meaning she had no younger rivals and everyone was constantly sucking up to her. At first, everyone was like, “Well, she’ll obviously get married at some point and then her children will be her heirs” but the years went by and she didn’t get married and didn’t have children, so people started pulling out their convoluted Tudor family trees to figure out who the possible new monarch might be. With the entire Grey family more or less out of the picture due to Jane’s execution and Katherine and Mary Grey in prison (*long story, I’ll tell you later), it was becoming more likely that her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots might take over. But Mary QofS was Catholic, and the country was Protestant, so that wasn’t many peoples’ idea of a good option. So if you kept tracing your finger down the family tree but only looking at the Protestants, you’d land on Lady Anne Stanley. And that’s who we’ll be looking at today.

keira knightley
Due to a lack of portraits of Lady Anne Stanley, we’ll be using Keira Knightley as a visual stand-in for her. Keira’s strength of character and innate glamour suit Anne’s character, I think.

 

Backstory

Just for context, Lady Anne Stanley’s claim to the throne was through her father, the excellently named Ferdinando Stanley, the great-grandnephew of Henry VIII. Not only did Ferdinando have the best name of anyone in the 17th century, his family was also one of the most powerful in England. The Stanleys were old money land magnates whose areas of control included the entire Isle of Man, like, they were in charge of that entire island. They may not have been Princes and Princesses, but between the Tudor genes and the land ownership, they were just about as close to royalty as you could get. And they weren’t descended from royals on the Tudor side, but also their ancestor Thomas Stanley had been a husband to the coolest woman in the Wars of the Roses, Margaret Beaufort. Basically, they were the most upper of the upper crust, and anyone who managed to marry a Stanley was both really lucky and, usually, really rich themselves. Which brings us to Ferdinando’s wife, Alice Spencer.

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Cate Blanchett in Cinderella, serving up the sort of vibe Alice Spencer clearly would have had

Alice Spencer wasn’t as super rich as you may expect, given that she landed Ferdinando as a husband. But what Alice was, was fucking brilliant. The Spencers were a noble family, so she had a head-start in live in general, but the Stanleys were on such a higher echelon of wealth and influence it’s really pretty remarkable Alice managed this marriage. Thing is, Alice Spencer was incredibly ambitious and talented and successful and had the benefit of being the youngest of three daughters. Each of her older sisters married someone a little bit richer, which meant that the whole family’s reputation was elevated along with them. So by the time it was Alice’s turn to get married, the combination of her forceful personality and the Spencer family’s rising stock meant she got to join the most powerful borderline-royal family in the country. Together, she and Ferdinando had three daughters. Lady Anne Stanley was the eldest.

BUT. Things got telenovela-esque from the jump, because basically, a bunch of Catholics wanted to get rid of Queen Elizabeth I and make Ferdinando the King instead. As none of us have heard of England’s King Ferdinando, we all know that wasn’t going to work out, and Ferdinando wasn’t into the idea either. He flat-out turned them down, and they were like, “If you don’t help us with this plan, we will kill you Ferdinando!!” and then they did. He died in 1594 after being fed poisoned mushrooms, leaving Alice a 34-year-old widow with three young daughters. On top of that, her husband had just been murdered by Catholic mushrooms, so she had to use all of her charm and resiliency to ensure that the family wasn’t brought into disgrace and that she could continue to exert the power and influence of the Stanley name. She knew what she was doing because even before he died, she’d gotten Ferdinando to rewrite his will to name Anne his heir. But she hadn’t counted on Ferdinando’s dirtbag brother William to usher in the family’s next big drama.

A Family Of Strong Women

So, Ferdinando was mushroom dead, and his gross brother William was like, “I should inherit all of the land and money and property, not Ferdinando’s daughter!” And so he filed a lawsuit against Alice to try and have Ferdinando’s will overturned. Alice was like, “Hell yeah, bring it on,” and the two of them batted this around in the court system for literally years without either giving in at all. Finally Alice got tired of the whole thing and decided on a genius plan to get rid of William once and for all. And that plan was that Alice married an extremely powerful lawyer named Egerton, who became her husband AND her lawyer, and she won the lawsuit and William went away forever. Basically. What’s important here is that Alice’s three daughters bore witness to their mother’s strength, tenacity, and unrelenting strength of character. Alice Spencer was a pretty phenomenal role model for her daughters.

Not only was Alice brilliant at politics and legal matters, but she was also an incredible theatre producer/party planner. When Ferdinando died, she took over as patron of his theatre group, Lord Strange’s Men, which was a group that included a certain William Shakespeare if you’re wondering how culturally relevant they were. To celebrate her victory in court over her dirtbag brother-in-law, Alice threw a huge masque which was like a party-slash-theatre-performance that included members of the family taking on roles in the show. This was her way of being like, “Here we are, the Stanley women, unstoppable, having persevered through another of life’s challenges, don’t mess with us, and also enjoy this party!!”

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Michelle Pfeiffer in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, again emanating the sort of matriarchal power and masque fabulosity Alice Spencer would have had

Just as Alice herself had benefitted from her sisters’ successful matches, she set out to get the best possible husbands for her three daughters. Lady Anne Stanley, as the eldest and the heir to the Stanley family estates as well as possibly the next Queen of England, was the most valuable and so Alice set her sights as high as possible. Her first choice for Anne’s potential husband was the Prince of Muscovy (which was a place sort of where Russia is now), but unfortunately the negotiations didn’t work out. And then Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, naming Scotland’s James I as her heir. With Lady Anne Stanley no longer a potential Queen, Alice pragmatically refocused her husband-hunting on someone non-royal. And so it was that, in 1607, Lady Anne Stanley was married to a nobleman named Grey Brydges, Baron Chandos of Sudeley.

I mean.

Just take that in for a minute, because that glorious name deserves it. Grey Brydges, Baron Chandos of Sudeley. Not only did Grey have the most amazing name I have ever seen this side of Ferdinando Stanley, but he was also a super-popular and seemingly really cool guy. His nickname was “King of the Cotswolds” because he was so friendly and Meghan Markle-y to all the people who lived on his lands, walking around shaking hands and kissing babies, supporting local poets, and writing his own very cool poems and things. He was way older than Lady Anne, but that wasn’t a dealbreaker back then, especially when someone was nice and kind and had a name like Grey Brydges.

 

There aren’t tons of records about the next bit of Anne’s life, but we know she had about five children, and we can imagine she and Grey Brydges had a super time together reading books and writing books and choosing which theatre groups to sponsor and things like that. Then in 1621, after fourteen years of marriage and five children, Grey Brydges passed away, leaving Anne a widow. And everything started to go even more bonkers than ever before.

Countess of Castlehaven

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Keira Knightley in The Duchess, reflecting Anne’s mood of “Wheee! I’m a  hot young widow and I can marry whoever I want!”

Like her mother before her, Anne was a young widow — just about 40 years old. There were pros and cons to either remaining a widow or marrying again. As the dowager Baroness Chandos, Anne would have gained control of the Brydges family property and would have final say in her daughter’s affairs. Yet, without a husband, she had no political authority and had to submit to the will of her male relatives when it came to her own affairs. Taking a husband would, in a sense, bring her more freedom than she’d have as a widow. The man she chose seemed like a good match on paper — a widow with children of his own, a property owner who lived in a castle. Unlike her first marriage as a young woman, this one wasn’t at all about having children or continuing on a family lineage; it was basically all about property and finances and security.  When Anne got married the first time, she had been a young teenager and her mother had taken care of all the negotiations. As a 40-year-old woman, she decided (DISASTROUSLY, in retrospect) to sort out her next match for herself. From the very beginning, her choice of second husband was both controversial and terrible.

 

Meet Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven! He was thirteen years younger than Lady Anne, which is fine and no big deal, but he was also way below her in terms of money, family influence, power, and basically everything. Like yes, he had a castle, but it wasn’t a very good one and yes, he had a title, but it was an Irish title and English people didn’t much care for Irish people back then. And on top of all that, Castlehaven had links to people of the Catholic faith, which was one of the worst ways to be during this highly contentious period of English Protestantism. So he was a) not as rich or powerful, b) had ties to Ireland, c) had ties to Catholic people, which should have been three strikes against him for this particular situation. But wait there’s more!! Because Mervyn was enough of a gigantic asshole that people back then — the people of seventeenth-century England, people who routinely threw their feces out of windows on top of other peoples’ heads and then were like “why are we all dying of dysentery??” — were like, “Oh, that guy? He’s… pretty much a dick. His whole family basically sucks, especially his bonkers sister.”

Meet Mervyn’s sister, Eleanor Davies! Eleanor was a poet, pamphlet writer, and prophetess. Her husband didn’t like these hobbies of hers and was like “Eleanor, I’d appreciate if you would stop printing poems and prophecies in pamphlets.” In response, Eleanor put on a widow’s outfit and, in front of her husband, was like, “”I prophecize that you will DIE VERY SOON!!!” and then, he did. In fact, Eleanor was so intense about her prophecies that she was kicked out of the royal court because her predictions were too disturbing. She obviously sounds amazing, but you can maybe see how this was one more excuse for everyone to think her and Mervyn’s family was kind of messy. Like to someone like Alice Spencer, who was still around producing plays and being influential, this was not a family to get married into.

timothy dalton
This is Timothy Dalton in a blond wig from the movie Mary Queen of Scots, who is the grossest man from a costume drama I could think of to stand in for the odious Mervyn Touchet in this story

And yet, Lady Anne Stanley must have seen something in Mervyn that she liked. Maybe his castle, maybe his money, maybe just the fact that having a husband was seen as an admirable thing for a widow to do and would provide her some security. For whatever reason, in 1624 she married him. To solidify their new blended family, she then arranged for her own 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth Brydges to Mervyn’s 19-year-old son, James Touchet. This is some mixed-up olde timey Brady Bunch shenanigans, I know, and even back then it wasn’t super common. But sometimes when two families got married, they’d do this next-generation stepsibling marriage too, just to sort of cement the union between families. In fact, Alice Spencer had done the same when she married Egerton — marrying one of Anne’s sisters to Egerton’s son.

But something about the marriage between the teen step-siblings did not go well. Shortly after the marriage, James abandoned his stepsister/wife and his whole family and just ran off to leave the Castlehaven family home. In retrospect, this was A CLUE that something REALLY WEIRD WAS GOING ON IN THAT HOME. AND WHAT WAS GOING ON. WAS. SO. AWFUL.

Here we go.

 

House of Horrors

In 1530, six years after Anne and Mervyn’s wedding, Mervyn’s estranged son James filed charges against his father. And what charges were those, you might ask? Well, James Touchet claimed that his father was trying to disown him and keep him from his inheritance. Ugh, inheritance drama again, this was just unrelenting among the rich people back in the day. But unlike the court struggles between Anne’s mother and uncle, James’s situation was… well. Unique.

In his petition to the court, James claimed that he had abandoned his stepsister/wife Elizabeth years before because — and feel free to stop reading now if you want — his father Mervyn had forced the twelve-year-old Elizabeth to have a sexual relationship with one of Mervyn’s favourite male servants. Allegedly, Mervyn’s goal with this was for Elizabeth to become pregnant with a son, and to have that son become Mervyn’s new heir so James wouldn’t inherit anything. There is a lot to unpack with this, so I’ll begin by saying that just because a 12-year-old got married back then did not mean that she was expected to have children right away. In fact, usually very young brides hung out with their families until they were in their later teens/early 20s because when young girls have babies, they tended to die. So James may not have been having sex with his 12-year-old stepsister/wife due to her very young age but Mervyn really wanted this heir to happen, which is why he coerced Elizabeth to have sex with Mervyn’s male servant.

It gets worse.

James also alleged at this time that his stepmother/mother-in-law Anne Stanley was licentious and had sex with servants and took lots of lovers which like: whether that’s true or not, what business is that of yours, James? But basically James was like, “My father is a gross dirtbag who is also trying to steal my inheritance, I want my inheritance, please help me out with this, olde timey lawyers.”

But the Privy Council, which is who he went to talk to, were like, “Never mind your inheritance, what the literal fuck is going on at the Castlehaven family home?” And they rode their horses and carraiges over there, Special Victims Unit style, to interrogate a bunch of people and get to the bottom of all this fuckery. They had NO IDEA what they were going to find out. Again, you may want to stop reading now.

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This is the house from the movie Crimson Peak, which sets the mood for what we’re about to learn about the Castlehaven family home

If you’re still here, buckle your seatbelts.

The SVU squad interviewed all the men they could find, including servants, and all the noblewomen, because female servants were thought to be “unreliable” and not worth interviewing because EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS IS HORRIBLE. So, they were like, “Elizabeth, you are now eighteen years old. Your absentee husband said that when you were twelve years old, your stepfather/father-in-law forced you to have a sexual relationship with a male servant, in order to become pregnant, can you confirm or deny?” And Elizabeth was like, “Yes. That’s all true.” And they were like WHATTTT and she was like, “Also, FYI, Mervyn held my mother down and made a male servant rape her, too.” And they were like, “Even for the SVU team, this is a bit much.”

So they brought in Lady Anne Stanley and she was like, “Yes, that’s all true. When we first got married, Mervyn wanted to watch me having sex with other men and I was like, no. Sidenote: he’s been having sex with male and female servants aka raping them due to the inherent lack of consent between an employer and his employees vis-a-vis sexual relations, and also he has peepholes all over the place and just like, makes random people have sex with each other, and he watches them. Also, he forced his own teenage daughter — not my teenage daughter, who he made have sex with a male servant, this is another teenage girl — to marry one of his male servant lover/victims. Also, right after Mervyn forced a male servant to rape me while he (Mervyn) held me down, I tried to kill myself, but the servant-rapist stopped me. His name is Giles Broadway.”

Now, that’s a lot to take in for you and for me and it was for the SVU team, too. They were like, “OK, some of this has to be fake because how could this much horrible stuff all be happening??” So they went to Giles Broadway, like, “Is  it true that Mervyn Touchet made you rape his wife Anne Stanley while he held her down, and then she tried to stab herself to death, but you stopped her?” and Giles Broadway was like, “Yes. That is all correct.”

The SVU squad were like, “OK, we have to charge somebody with something here, because this shit is nightmarishly horrendous, but who do we charge, and with what? Can we call it a crime to just be a huge piece of shit who makes people have sex with other people?” No, they could not. That was not a crime. In fact, the way that being charged with things back then worked was that nobody was ever charged with just rape. Like, say someone kidnapped someone and then raped them: they’d be charged with kidnapping and rape. Or if someone raped and murdered somebody, same thing, they’d be charged with both. But rape on its own was not seen as a crime that could be prosecuted. PLUS, rape charges were usually only filed when it was a lower class man raping a higher-class woman, and then it was more about breaking the laws of the class structure rather than violating a woman’s body. And even then, when accused rapists were put on trial, they weren’t often convicted for literally the same reasons as now: it’s all he-said/she-said and men were believed more often than women.

So, in the instance of the various Castlehaven Family Situations, the first and easiest charge for them to figure out was to accuse the servant Giles Broadway for raping Anne Stanley. He was a servant, she was a noblewoman, and Broadway had admitted to doing it. They also charged Mervyn with orchestrating this rape as well as for sodomy, and let’s put that into context now too.

In the seventeenth century in England, there was no word or understanding of the concept of homosexuality. There was sex that could lead to babies, and sex that was just for pleasure’s sake. And sodomy, the legal term at the time, meant having sex for pleasure instead of to make babies. Anal sex between men was considered sodomy, as was oral sex between anyone, anal sex between a man and a woman, basically anything that wasn’t a penis ejaculating into a vagina was sodomy, and thus illegal. The charge was basically, you have no self-control and were driven by base and carnal impulses, which was against the law, because the law was very Biblical at the time. And, similar to rape charges, sodomy was usually added onto something else just to besmirch the character of the accused. So for Mervyn to be charged with rape and sodomy was a pretty rare thing.

So, Mervyn was charged with arranging the rape of his wife AND for having sex with male servants. As noted above, any sex Mervyn had with any servants or any gender would today be considered rape because of the power imbalance; none of the servants were in a position to consent. But because the law was having sex for non-procreative purposes is against the law, the man Mervyn had been having sex with was also arrested for sodomy. His name was Lawrence FitzPatrick, and he’s a victim here too.

The Castlehaven Trial

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Keira Knightley in The Duchess

Like so many assholes before and since, Mervyn tried to play the whole “I didn’t do anything but even if I did it wasn’t bad” thing. He was like, “My son James and my wife Anne are conspiring against me but also when I raped Lawrence FitzPatrick there was no penetration so it’s not rape-rape, and also Anne was asking for it because she was so horny all the time so when I made Giles have sex with her it wasn’t rape it was sex but also there was no penetration and also she enjoyed it.”

 

God bless them, the judges were like, “Mervyn, go fuck yourself. Whether there’s penetration or not, it’s sex. And even if a woman is straight-up a whore, she can still be raped.” And so Mervyn was like, “OK, but a wife can’t testify against her husband in court though right” and the judges were like, “Know what? YES SHE CAN, we’re setting legal precedent RIGHT NOW and we’re going to let Anne Stanley be the first woman to ever testify against her husband in a rape trial in court in England.”

Y’all. This is HUGE. Remember how female servants weren’t questioned because of misogyny and patriarchy? Similarly, women were not allowed to testify in court. But Anne Stanley was so powerful and her family was so important, and Mervyn was such a piece of shit, they were like, “We’ll allow it.” Lady Anne Stanley became the first-ever woman to testify against her husband in a rape trial in England, setting precedent for countless women after her. It’s a shitty sort of glass ceiling to break, but she did, and good for her. Now, maybe because women testifying was still so NEW and WEIRD, Anne didn’t appear herself in the courtroom, but rather prepared a statement that was read out loud on her behalf. This was super smart, as it allowed the all-male jury to focus on her words, and not be weirded out by seeing a WOMAN in COURT. Her daughter Elizabeth also prepared a statement, which was read out loud. Just by having their testimony read out loud, the two women had broken new legal precedent.

Oh and speaking of the all-male jury, it consisted of TWENTY SEVEN NOBLEMEN. Remember how many connections Anne Stanley and her family had, going back to like the founding of England itself? Between all her family’s various marriages and ancestors, she was at least slightly related to something like ten of the twenty-seven men. And remember Anne’s mother, the formidable Alice Stanley? Alice went full Kris Jenner on this situation, manipulating and leveraging every favour she’d ever done for anyone, ensuring that the jury would side with her daughter and granddaughter. And while Anne Stanley had been having this telenovela life, Alice’s other two daughters had been bulding up their own portfolios of important contacts and connections, and they pitched in too. It was the Stanley Women Against The World, and by now I think we all know who was going to win. The Stanley Women!!

cate blanchett cinderella
Holliday Grainger, Cate Blanchett, and Sophie McShera from Cinderella, serving up Alice Stanley and her daughters fighting to restore their family honour realness

MEANWHILE, remember Mervyn’s bonkers sister Eleanor? She was by now fully into her career as freelance poet/prophetess, and printed up a bunch of pamphlets saying “ANNE STANLEY IS A WHORE AND MY BROTHER IS INNOCENT AND WIVES SHOULDN’T BE ALLOWED TO TESTIFY AGAINST HUSBANDS #NOTALLMEN” which didn’t help things among the common folk. Like, the noble people all thought Mervyn was a piece of shit, but the everyday people, out throwing their poo on each others’ heads, were like, “Hmm, Anne Stanley sounds like kind of a conniving bitch”. But who cares, they weren’t on the jury.

The trial took literally ONE DAY, and the entire jury was like, “We’re unanimous in saying that Mervyn is a piece of shit who is guilty of orchestrating the rape of Anne Stanley and is also guilty of sodomy aka sex for non-reproductive purposes, and so we sentence him to death, the end, we all need to go and like wash our brains out with bleach after all this, the end.” The world became a slightly better place on May 14, 1631, when Mervyn Touchet was beheaded GOOD RIDDANCE!!!!!!

One month later, Giles Broadway and Lawrence FitzPatrick had their trials for rape and sodomy, respectively. Both men withdrew their previous confessions, claiming they’d been tricked into thinking they had immunity when they didn’t, but they were servants so nobody cared what they had to say. And, again, Anne Stanley testified — this time in person! She stood up there in front of everyone and re-told what had happened to her, and then was like, “Because I’m a Christian woman who is also forgiving, I would like to look Giles Broadway in the eye and show him how benevolent I am,” and the jury was like, “Wow, she’s so gracious and wonderful, that makes Giles seem like even more a piece of shit,” and of course both men were found guilty because: they were servants, nobody gave a shit about them.

Lawrence FitzPatrick, again, is such a victim here and Giles sort of is, too, because they worked for Mervyn and had to do what he said. BUT ALSO, from up on the scaffolds, both men were like, “Anne Stanley is a devious manipulating sex monster! This is all her fault! We and Mervyn are all innocent! Women are terrible, especially her!” so like, fuck these guys. They were both hanged on July 6, 1631.

Epilogue

Do you know what Alice Stanley did after all this was over? She threw a motherfucking MASQUE PARTY to celebrate their victory, and the remind everyone that the Stanley Women Could Not Be Defeated.

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The ball scene from Anna Karenina, a spiritual representation of Alice Spencer’s “yay the trial is over!” masque party

Alice commissioned the playwright John Milton to write a masque called Arcades, which was performed by her grandchildren (Anne’s nieces and nephews). Lady Anne Stanley’s name had been dragged through the mud, as had that of her daughter Elizabeth Brydges, but by throwing this party Alice was indicating to everyone that everything was back to normal now. With this party, life officially moved on for the Stanley family. In fact, three years later, Anne’s brother-in-law was appointed to the prestigious role of Lord President of Wales, showing that the Castlehaven affair had not affected the political power of the Stanley women. As ever, a masque was thrown to celebrate this news, for which Milton wrote Comus — a famous masque about the importance of chastity, which was sort of a subtweet to everyone that despite the Castlehaven thing, the Stanley Women were still proper sorts of people.

Not only did Alice work to smooth things over through party planning and a full-on charm offensive, she also ensured that Anne Stanley and Elizabeth Brydges’s reputations were restored. Similarly to how Anne had emphasized her personal graciousness while testifying, Alice leaned into her femininity by being like, “I would love nothing more than to have Anne and Elizabeth come and live with me but I can’t do that until the King gives them both pardons” and you may be like, what do they need pardons for, they were literally victims?? But the thing is that the whole patriarchal system had been upended by allowing Anne and Elizabeth to testify, and Alice knew things couldn’t go back to normal until that balance was restored. And because she was a genius, eventually the King agreed and both Anne and Elizabeth were officially pardoned for having had anything to do with anything.

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Keira Knightley in Colette, embodying Anne Stanley’s later in life attitude of “Come at me, life”

In Alice Spencer’s will, she named Anne’s son George Brydges as her heir and left instructions to leave a large amount of property and items for Anne. Anne’s two sisters died at around the same time, leaving Anne to live out the final decade of her life as the only remaining Stanley woman of the tightly-knit foursome they had once been.

Lady Anne Stanley passed away in 1647, aged 67 and her daughter Elizabeth Brydges passed away in 1678, aged about 70. Their final grave sites are unknown.

References

Herrup, Cynthia B. A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Wilkie, V. J. (2009). “Such Daughters and Such a Mother”: The Countess of Derby and her Three Daughters, 1560-1647. UC Riverside. ProQuest ID: Wilkie_ucr_0032D_10044. Merritt ID: ark:/13030/m5nk3hvp. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0pg50988

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