Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Question from Angie - Homosexuality in Tudor England

Question about Tudors and homosexuality- Just out of curiosity, what were the Tudor attitudes in regards to homosexuals? I know the most important thing was procreating to ensure the throne, but still. Also, are there any documented cases of homosexuality as it relates to the monarchy, and if so, what was the punishment for this so-called "crime?" Some of those punishments are quite brutal!


PhD Historian said...

A good question with a complex answer. First, the term "homosexuality" is not really applicable to people in England in the 16th century, since the term was not invented until the 19th century. The term used by Englishmen in the Tudor period was "sodomy" and/or "sodomite," and sometimes "catamite." Sodomy as a legal category of sexual offensive could and did include what would today be called male-male homosexuality (but NOT female-female), bestiality, and some forms of heterosexual intercourse, especially heterosexual anal intercourse. Laws against sodomy did not come into existence in England until the 1530s, coinciding with Henry VIII's break with Rome. Sodomy was made a capital offense and therefore potentially punishable by death, with the form of execution varying according to the social standing of the condemned. But I have done some archival research in this area and have found no evidence of any court cases involving male-male sexuality in the century prior to the reign of James I (a. 1603). The most notorious of these was the trial of the Earl of Castlehaven (see Cynthia Herrup's excellent book, "A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven). The "attitude" of individual members of the Tudor dynasty towards "alternative sexuality" is unknowable, but was probably consistent with that of the majority of the population: officially condemned when it resulted in public scandal, but often tolerated if kept private, especially if the "offender" was a person of wealth and social status. I am not aware of any of the immediate descendants of Henry VII being accused of same-sex sexuality prior to Lord Darnley in Scotland (husband of Mary Stuart) and his son James VI of Scotland and I of England. James VI & I, however, is believed by many historians to have had numerous male lovers, including George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Most historians acknowledge that the relationship between James and Buckingham was "unusual," though some contend that it was non-sexual. The surviving correspondence between the two suggests to me that the relationship was intensely passionate, at minimum, and almost certainly sexual to some degree. As for other English monarchs who are thought to have engaged in same-sex sexual expression, the list includes (but is not limited to) Henry II, Richard I, Edward II, James I, and Anne. The younger children of monarchs who may have experienced same-sex attraction is much longer and extends to the current Queen's family.

Anonymous said...

phd historian gives a good review of same-sex relationships in the 16c., in particular with monarchs. The literature of the time--poems and, later, plays--provide interesting depictions and commentaries on same-sex desire. Shakespeare's Sonnets are the more famous examples but there are plenty others--including and especially histories, plays, and stories about Edward II and his favourite, Gaveston. Two good books that discuss both historical context and literature are Paul Hammond's Figuring Sex Between Men from Shakespeare to Rochester and Valerie Traub's The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Sexual relationships between women were referred to as tribadism, with the woman who sought such encounters called a tribade. There were no legal consequences for tribadism, partially because it was hard to prove and partially because men couldnt believe it was a widespread phenomenon.

PhD Historian said...

Anonymous brings up a very interesting point that I overlooked: the strong presence of homo-erotic imagery in poetry and plays of the Elizabethan period, despite the utter absence of criminal prosecutions for same-sex behavior in the same period. This suggests to me a fairly high degree of tolerance of homosexuality in the late 16th century. I might refer the original questioner to the modern film "Edward II," directed by Derek Jarman. It is a screen adaptation of the play of the same name written by Christopher Marlowe in about 1593 or 1594. While the original play was certainly less visually graphic than is the Jarman film (which contains a fair amount of gratuitous male nudity and sexuality), the language in the film is entirely Marlowe's and a good indication of how sex between men and monarchs might have been perceived in England in the 1590s. Regarding the de facto legal acceptance of lesbianism in the early modern period, many historians of sexuality have argued that the legal system failed to criminalize sex between women not because they could not believe it was widespread, but instead because it posed no imminent threat to the male-dominated social hierarchy. Sex between men required one of the male partners to be penetrated, which was perceived by contemporaries as a surrendering of his "natural" masculine role in favor of a subordinate feminine one, a violation of the established order. In other European countries where sodomy was actively prosecuted, the passive penetrated male partner often received a harsher punishment than did the active pentrating one, especially if the passive partner was an adult (see Helmut Puff's "Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland"). Sex between women did not result in any male violating his gender role, and as a result sex between women was perceived as considerably less threatening to patriarchally influenced gender constructs.

Anonymous said...

phd historian,
Good points that I left out. Thanks.
In addition to the issues involved with penetration, there were also concerns about the patronage a male could award his lover. Edward II's barons centered much of their criticism of Gaveston on the fact that he was a low-born foreigner whose intimacy with the king brought him unprecedented wealth and power. These political concerns added to the anxiety surrounding same-sex male relationships.
Forgot to add my name to the first post...

Lara said...

(Posted by Lara on behalf of the original submitter)

Hi! First of all, I would like to thank you for all your help with my question on homosexuality in Tudor England (though it wasn't called that at the time.)

On an unrelated note, I came across a couple websites that may be of interest to anyone wishing to delve more deeply into Tudor England.
Gives great indepth bios of all the monarchs.
gives extremely detailed info on many aspects of daily life in Tudor times.
Enjoy the adventure!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Laura, I was ill and in the hospital in November and part of December so I missed the question and responses. Sorry to have to have you reprint the commentaries, but I thought it a very interesting question.

permian350 said...

Homosexuality has been around since the beginning of recorded history. Kinsey seems to have been right, about 10% of the male population is born homosexual. In 1901 10% of the men in New York City self-reported as homosexual. 100 years later the same survey was taken out of curiosity. The expectation was that because of the liberalization of American mores, the sexual revolution and all, more than 10% of the men would self-report as homosexual. But lo and behold the same 10% classified themselves as homosexual. That coincides with the figure that zoologists have come up with, 10% of the male population of most mammalian and some bird species, e.g., penguins, are born homosexual. Apparently we have another constant of nature on our hands.

But homosexuality among the knights of William the Conqueror's Court was so rampant that the Pope shot off a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury ordering him to stop excommunicating men for sodomy else he'll end up excommunicating the whole Court, resulting in the Church having no influence. Homosexuality didn't go away because of its made a crime. Marlowe was openly homosexual--"Who loves not tobacco and boys is a fool."--and yet had the most powerful men in England as his patrons. Shakespeare's love sonnets to a young man are another indication of male-male love, albeit it's not clear that Shakespeare had sex with the object of his affection. Perhaps he was merely imitating the more notorious Marlowe because we know that Shakespeare had an inferiority complex to Marlowe, imitating the latter disastrously in the beginning of his career. All of the great love poetry in English literature has been written, not to women, but to men. Sorry, girls.

I understand and in a way sympathize with the religious homophobes' hysteria over controlling homosexuality. That's the purpose of stigmatizing it, to keep men away from each other. For more than 10% of the knights at the Court of William the Conqueror were having sex with each other.

The problem is that men enjoy the same plumbing and brains. Sex between men thus runs a lot smoother than sex between men and women. Men instinctively know how to give each other pleasure, know what each other is feeling at any moment. Arabs have a saying, women are for children, men are for pleasure. Women have to be educated to please a man and vice versa. If sex between men is not stigmatized then we will end up with most heterosexual men having sex with men, as the President of the Czech Republic said is already occurring in his country, and which makes him worry about its future.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not for stigmatizing homosexuality, as the Tudors did. That's stupid. I was just stating what may happen when the stigmatization is removed, that's all. The fact that the Tudors felt obliged to criminalize homosexuality indicates that it must have been widespread enough to warrant being criminalized. I don't think Marlowe was a rare exception.

steve king said...

To some degree the first part of your question might be answered by a trawl through eccelesiastical court cases that survive from the Tudor period. At base level, i.e. among the rural communities and away from the more refined social layers it seems possible that sexual cases of this sort should have been at least recorded, and their outcomes noted,as sodomitical practices short of buggery were in the hands of the Church. But it may also be true that little actually WAS brought to court, and that when it was, the true nature of the act may have been shrouded in obfuscation. We wouldn't have known about the many proletarian child-marriages in Chester in Tudor times without the researcher's recourse to ecclesiastical records though, and that took place in the 19th century ! Is anything left?