Competency Hearings During the Regency

I had a reader send me a question about a particular book, which I will not name nor provide the author’s name, for I do not call out others on a public forum, unless it is in a positive manner. In it, a duke suffered a stroke, and the incident affects him physically, but not mentally. The reader wanted to know what I knew of these type of hearings during the Regency and early 1800s, for in the story the duke is sent to an asylum. I will tell you the reader had nothing but good things to say of the story, speaking of how it touched her emotions deeply, but this one hiccup bothered her.

First, I must say, this is not an area in which I have completed much research. However, based on what I know of the time period, I would not think a duke would be placed in either a public or private asylum if he still had his faculties about him, though, as authors, we often extend reality to fit our stories. Gosh, I have written so many “coincidences” to move a story along, I should be ashamed of myself. Yet, I am not. So, again, I do not mean this as criticism, for, although I have used “coincidences” galore, I understand how the reader with a working knowledge of the history of the time might have difficulty on this point. A duke simply was not treated like other members of the aristocracy or of the gentry. That being said, as it was easy to commit an ordinary person to an asylum for there was lots of corruption at that time, a duke, in my opinion, was not “ordinary.” Dukes were lord lieutenants, members of the Privy Council, hereditary gentlemen, and holders of ceremonial or regular offices. Dukes were not so easily tossed aside.

It seems to me, if he were competent enough to write out his responses, an asylum would not be the appropriate place for him. Yet, as I said above, there were lots of bribes and corruption in the system at that time, so a traitorous family might have had him placed aside, though he would still be the duke. History Is Now Magazine ~ The image above is a scene entitled In the Madhouse, painting eight of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. In the scene we can see the inside of Bethlem Hospital (‘Bedlam’), the foremost criminal lunatic hospital of its day. The painting was produced in the 1730s. The hospital’s roots can be traced as far back as the thirteenth century, while in the Georgian era, it housed many people who were classed as insane by the authorities. The image itself shows us a picture of chaos inside the hospital, with dark figures lurking who are undertaking all sorts of weird and wonderful activities.

In most cases, I believe he would have been kept at home, probably with attendants, as well as his personal servant. The question would remain: Could he read and comprehend papers and could he still communicate?

I do have a bunch of notes from a class I took from the ever fabulous Louis Cornell as part of one of the Romance Writers of America’s Academe classes. I am sharing them in no particular order:

**The important thing to remember is the laws concerning certificates of lunacy and commissions of lunacy changed a great deal after 1823. Before that, whilst the procedures appeared fair and above board on paper, there was a great deal of room for bribery, abuse of the system, and outright graft and greed.

**From the late eighteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century there WERE cases where unscrupulous family members or even solicitors used the system to get their hands on the estates and monies of wealthy cits, peers, and yes, even men ranking as high as a duke.

**One did not have to be a family member to petition the Lord Chancellor to call a Lunacy Commission. However, one did have to inform the subject’s next of kin.

Once the Lord Chancellor read the petition and decided to convene a commission, that commission would consist of one to three (sometimes more) legal representatives. They would conduct the commission. A jury of up to 23 men would be convened to hear the evidence of the case. These men would be gentlemen, professionals, and peers of the subject. With this many people involved and so much power in play (MP’s often sat on these commissions) the chance for bribes and old grievances to be used against a subject were rife.

**Lunacy and competence were two different things. A person might be declared incompetent and still be allowed the freedom to live his life. His incompetence would result in a guardian or a board of trustees to oversee the person’s finances, etc. Questioning in a competency hearing might include asking the person to do math in his head, or to explain contracts of business, or to recite what his estate’s crop yields were last year. So a man who had suffered a stroke might be seen as incapable of doing these tasks. Remember the medical world and especially the mental health world was at a crossroads in the Regency – some thought of mental illness as a spiritual failing and the other of mental illness as an actual physical of psychological issue. Get the right men on the jury and a stroke victim could be seen as incompetent as a person born with brain issues and learning disorders.

**A certificate of lunacy issued by a physician could suffice to have a person locked up in an asylum. But there were ways to secure a release. However, it took a commission of lunacy to lock a person up and deprive them of his civil rights. This would have been harder to override.

**Yes, locking a duke up in an asylum would be hard, but not impossible, especially if the duke were locked up in a private asylum with a good reputation and those involved in petitioning for the lunacy commission were able to prove the duke was dangerous to himself or others.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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