Utrecht nobleman and regent
The sodomite trials of 1730 involved men of all walks of life. The best known and most distinguished of them was the nobleman Frederik Adriaan baron van Reede van Renswoude. Although he had a reputation as a man-eater long before 1730, he was not prosecuted. However, he felt compelled to withdraw from the public eye.
Born in Utrecht on February 22, 1659, Van Renswoude was one of the most powerful noblemen in the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. As a 19-year-old he was already a diplomat in Paris, after which the political and administrative positions followed each other in quick succession: member (1684) and later president of the Knighthood of Utrecht, deputy in the States General (1684), deputy on behalf of the States General at the army (1705), member of the provisional Anglo-Dutch administration of the conquered Spanish Netherlands in Brussels (1706) and plenipotentiary of the States of Utrecht during the peace negotiations in Utrecht (1712-1713).
Van Renswoude was immensely wealthy, mainly due to his marriage in 1685 to Maria van Duyst van Voorhout. The couple owned capital houses on top locations in Utrecht (on the Drift, later Janskerkhof) and The Hague (Korte Vijverberg), the castle Renswoude (usually their summer residence) and an estate in Cleves.
Van Renswoude was known as a bon vivant. All his positions required him to travel a lot, move in a variety of circles and rarely pass up the opportunity to engage in sexual contacts with other men. He often used the intermediary services of molly houses’ landlords and other intermediaries. As lord of Renswoude Castle, he would have ‘treated’ many farm boys, while he could always fall back on his favorite servants who, according to contemporaries, were remarkably well dressed.
In 1711 Van Renswoude came into disrepute as a deputy in Brussels for the first time after an affair with a young Southern Dutch nobleman, the Marquis van Laverne. Two years later, during the peace negotiations in Utrecht, he is said to have carried out the ‘dirty work’ in the company of the many foreign ambassadors who then stayed in the city for months.
To those aware of his reputation, it should come as no surprise that his name turned up several times in interrogations during the great sodomite persecutions of the 1730’s and subsequent years.
The wine merchant Barend Blomsaet (ca 1669-1730), who was one of the first to be arrested in Utrecht, confessed only after severe torture that he had been dealing with men for more than 25 years. While awaiting the execution of his death sentence, he wrote notes in prison that he smuggled out through his wife. In it he mentioned the names of other sodomites, because he was furious that the high-ranking lords and their contacts had not been targeted. This was especially true for Van Renswoude and Jan van Swanenburg, who, according to him, had sodomized each other a hundred times.
Others also mentioned Van Renswoude as a perpetrator of sodomite practices. Yet he was missing from the long list of names of those involved that the Utrecht court drew up and sent to courts in other regions. The Court of Holland in The Hague then applied the same class justice and Van Renswoude remained unaffected. Researcher Leo Boon suspects that the court mainly wanted to prevent reputation damage and popular anger: ‘Judging Utrecht’s highest nobleman would have shaken the foundations of the state system throughout the country.’
In the meantime, the secret life of Van Renswoude was out in the open. He complained to the States of Utrecht that “dirty and infamous discourses” (dirty and nasty talk) were circulating about him and that “the mean” (the people) in The Hague “threatened to cut him to pieces.” as soon as he returned to town. Presumably in May 1730 he had already left The Hague to find a safe haven, first in Cleves and then at his castle in Renswoude. Because he was himself the highest judge, no one could harm him. He resigned his position as a member of the States General and continued to live a withdrawn life. More than a year after all the commotion, he resurfaced in Utrecht, where he died in 1738 in his house at the Janskerkhof. His wife survived him by sixteen years. Her name still lives on in Utrecht in the Fundatie van Renswoude, founded with the money from her inheritance as a training institute for technically and artistically gifted boys from children’s homes.
Maurice van Lieshout