Saturday, 16 May 2020

Homosexuality and Britain’s Stuart Monarchs, 1603-1714

Dr Tony Claydon
Professor of Early Modern History

Three Stuart rulers have been suspected of having had homosexual relationships, both at the time they were ruling, and in subsequent comment and scholarship. The case for James VI and I (king of Scotland from 1587, and king of England 1603-1625) seems the most convincing. Strong evidence (in the form of personal letters, and comment by courtiers on the king’s behaviour in public), appears to suggest sexual relations between the king and two of his courtiers. First, there was Robert Carr, the royal favourite from 1607 until his scandal-driven fall from grace in 1615; and George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham, who displaced Carr in James’s affections almost immediately. It is true that platonic male friendships in the early modern period could exhibit closer physical contact than we are used to today, and that the rhetoric used to describe such friendships has shifted in the intervening four hundred years. It is therefore right to be cautious before assuming that expressions of love and desire, or descriptions by others of intimate bodily connection, automatically prove what we would call homosexual activity. However, some of the sources are very difficult to interpret any other way, and the historian Michael Young has ridiculed the determination of some scholars to deny homosexuality in the face of the facts as we have them reported. 

The case of William III (reigned 1689-1702) is more problematic. He was certainly widely accused of homosexuality. He had come to the throne in the ‘Glorious’ revolution of 1688-9, which had displaced the previous king, James II, and the ejected monarch’s supporters, the Jacobites, levelled charges against William that he was sleeping with his two favourites. First there was William Bentinck, his long-standing friend from the Netherlands; and then Arnold Joost van Keppel, the handsome courtier who became close to the king from the mid 1690s. But, one might think, Jacobites would say this. The accusation of homosexuality was part of a wider polemical campaign, denouncing William for a litany of crimes, including tyranny, usurpation, treason against the nation’s interests, and bloodlust in pursuing his war with France. It is true that Bentinck warned William that his closeness to Keppel in the last years of his reign was being noticed and was giving the king a reputation for unnatural sexual behaviour. But, again, one might think he would say this. Bentinck was, by this time, the displaced favourite. He was disappointed and jealous having been ousted from a position of influence and as the monarch’s best friend and confidant. William’s chief of propaganda, Bishop Gilbert Burnet, idolised the king, but he did say in later memoires that William was blemished by a secret vice ‘of one sort’. This is suggestive, but Burnet never expanded what he meant, and may just have fallen for court gossip. Most of the rest of the evidence is circumstantial: there may have been no smoke without fire, or perhaps there was so much smoke that the lack of clear fire is telling.

The case of Queen Anne (reigned 1702-1714) is similar to William’s. She exchanged passionate letters with her childhood friend Sarah Churchill, who became duchess of Marlborough, and later with the courtier Abigail Masham. But these were less explicitly physical in their references than the correspondence between James and his likely lovers; and as was noted above, the language of ordinary affection in the early modern world can seem more erotic to twenty-first century eyes than its original authors intended. Popular pamphlets alluded to lesbian practices at court. But by the early eighteenth century the print industry had mastered the art of libellous character assassination, and - as the 2018 film The Favourite made clear (it was far more accurate in depicting general political atmospheres, than portraying unimpeachable historical detail, especially about royal sexual activities) - this was an age of deep and hostile faction, where one side would say almost anything about another. Churchill and Masham were from the opposed Whig and Tory parties, and so may have been caught in the vicious partisan crossfire of the era. Also, as with Bentinck, Churchill may have fanned rumours about her successor to the queen’s favour out of chagrin at her loss of place. As with William, there may well have been homosexual relations in the modern sense, but the direct evidence for such activity is questionable. 

What are the deeper historical lessons of this brief survey of Stuart homosexuality? At a first and most human level, in so far as physical sex occurred between monarchs and someone of the same gender in the Stuart age - or even if some of the relationships stopped at deep non-physical love - it is a reminder of variety and ambiguity of human emotion, even at court. It can be difficult to categorise people’s sexualities into neat slots, especially with patchy source records; the ways we talk about love and sex have shifted radically since the early modern era, and it is worth noting that all the monarchs we have covered, and all the favourites, contracted heterosexual marriages, whatever their private proclivities. Many of those marriages worked at the political level, and some were personally successful too. William III was utterly distraught when his wife Queen Mary II died; Sarah and John Churchill were a formidable team; Robert Carr appears to have been prepared to murder to be with the woman of his choice (this was the scandal that ended his career). Second, the common accusation of homosexuality levelled at monarchs reminds us of the highly personal nature of rule in the Stuart era. This period has been presented as being marked by the rise of parliament, the press, and the power of the people exercised through a vigorous public sphere. This is true to an extent, but the efforts put into establishing the monarch’s personal affections, and advertising any perceived defects in them, remind us that this was a world in which politics still mostly happened at court, political action centred on a still very influential monarch, and the individual personalities of courtiers still very much mattered. The ruler’s personal reputation for virtue was essential for their rule, and attacks on it were serious. People needed to know who the monarch was close to, the basis of that relationship, and how to undermine the standing and respect given to rivals or enemies. Finally, though, the trajectory of discussion of royal sexuality may indeed point to a period where a wider public was becoming more important. James VI and I’s sexuality was mainly discussed in a narrow and elite circle, which played factional games of access, exclusion, and libel to gain influence. By Anne’s time, however, discussion was in a widely read press, and was a tool of mass political parties with supporters in every community in the land.

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