Monday, January 12, 2009

Question from Gervase - Homosexuals in Tudor England

Does anyone know if during the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I if any men or women were known homosexuals, and if so, how were they treated? Were they banished or allowed to remain active within the social activities without being made an example of prejudice?

[Ed. note - This was mostly covered in the thread below, but I don't think Gervase has been getting my direct emails about it, so I decided to go ahead and post it. Plus, this way any who wants to make additional comments can do so.]


Foose said...

There was at least one high-profile case in Henry VIII's reign, that of Walter Lord Hungerford, who was executed in 1540. According to Letters & Papers:

"[Attainder] of Walter lord Hungerford who, to comfort the said [William] Byrde [a vicar who called the king the greatest heretic of all] in his detestable opinions, caused him, 20 Oct. 28 Hen. VIII., to be arrested and brought to him at Farlegh, and did retain him as his chaplain for a quarter of a year; and moreover, 22 March 28 Hen. VIII. and since, has procured Sir Hugh Woodes, chaplain, and Dr. Mawdelyn, and one Mother Roche to conjure and show how long the King should live; and moreover has practised the abominable vice of buggery with Wm. Maister, Thos. Smith, and other his servants; who shall suffer death as a traitor and forfeit all possessions he has held since 22 March 28 Hen. VIII."

However, I don't know if Hungerford would have been brought up on charges of "buggery" if he hadn't also been "computing the day of the King's death" and hanging out with people who called the king a heretic. He had a weird family -- his stepmother was burned for murdering her first husband -- and had locked up his wife for years, repeatedly attempting to poison her. The additional charge might just have been added by the authorities to make him more detestable, and because in view of his other activities it would be believed. If he had been a quiet respectable sort of nobleman, perhaps his putative homosexual activity would have been overlooked or not even noticed.

Also, Cromwell was his patron, which couldn't have helped at the time, and Hungerford was executed along with him [this is in the aftermath of the Anne of Cleves debacle]. Observers at the scaffold thought Hungerford behaved as if he were mad, "in a frenzy." Madness does not get you off the hook in Tudor England, however.

Anonymous said...

I will assume that Gervase and other readers have read or will read the postings at the link to the previous thread provided by Lara, especially my discussion of the application of the terms "homosexual" and "homosexuality" in a 16th century context, and I will follow from there.

The issue actually ties nicely into the discussion in another recent thread regarding changes in canon law on marriage in England during the Henrician Reformation. Like marriage, sex and sexuality were matters of church (or "canon") law, not civil law, prior to the split with Rome. Civil anti-sodomy statutes were first passed in England in the early 1530s as Roman canon law was being replaced by English law.

Prior to the 1530s, sodomy cases in England were prosecuted in church courts as an offense against the divine order. The church was inconsistent in both its definition of sodomy and the vigorousness with which it prosecuted cases. Depending on the country and the degree to which Roman Catholic authorities were able to exercise direct power, sodomy might be defined in very limited fashion as only male-male anal intercourse ("buggery"). In other circumstances, the definition might be expanded to include virtually all forms of sex other than penile-vaginal, male-female intercourse within marriage. In other words, heterosexual oral sex within marriage was, in certain places at certain times, considered "sodomy" and was illegal. Even bestiality was sometimes considered a form of sodomy.

(The US State of Georgia's anti-sodomy statute in effect from the 1700s until the 1980s specifically stated that any sexual contact other than "male-female, penile-vaginal intercourse in the male dominant position and that occurs within a legal marriage" was considered "sodomy" and punishable by up to 20 years in prison. All US sodomy statutes were overturned in 2003 as a result of Lawrence vs Texas.)

After the early 1530s, sodomy in England became a civil matter rather than an ecclessiastical one. It was thereafter considered an offense against public order.

Cases involving only a charge of sodomy are all but unheard of in England during the Tudor period. In almost every case involving sodomy, including the one noted by Foose, other charges were levied first (in this case, heresy and forecasting the death of the monarch), with sodomy charges "piled on" as accusations of non-normative sexual activity were uncovered while investigating the original, unrelated charges. Foose is absolutely correct in speculating that Hungerford's sexual proclivities probably would have been overlooked had he not become involved in a scandal stemming from some other transgression. And as I noted in another thread on illegitimacy, the issue for the Tudor era was not what one did sexually in private, but whether or not it resulted in public scandal.

When I was in grad school, I explored the possibility of doing my PhD dissertation on sodomy in Tudor-Stuart England. I was amazed at the total lack of cases in which sodomy was the only charge. There simply were not any. That suggests to me that sexual behavior of whatever kind ... whether male-male, male-female, female-female, or otherwise ... and perceived offenses associated with sexuality were not a high priority for Tudor-era society. There is a substantial and growing body of academic literature suggesting that legal proceedings based only on sexual offenses, without other non-sexual offenses also being charged, tend actually to decrease during times of national stress. That is, sexual offenses are often overlooked in times of war, active religious revolution, political instability, etc. Conversely, they tend to increase during times of relative peace and political-economic stability. Since the Tudor period was one of massive religious, economic, political, and social unrest and instability, it seems almost logical that there were so few (none) prosecutions for sodomy alone. Attentions were focused on issues of higher priority, with sodomy charges being brought only when that particular offense was made public through an investigation of charges related to those other, higher-priority concerns.

I would recommend that Gervase and others interested in the topic go to the Royal Historical Society's online Bibliography of British and Irish Studies ( and search under the keywords "sexuality" or "sodomy" or "homosexuality" for the latest books and articles on the topic. The search engine allows you to limit your search to a specific historical period, e.g., 1500-1603. While there is not a huge amount of material available, it is growing daily as scholars begin to look into an area from which they were usually barred prior to the 1980s.

Foose said...

Someone less exalted than Hungerford was the schoolmaster Nicholas Udall, who wrote a play Ralph Roister Doister that often turns up in surveys of English literature. In 1541 he was convicted of sodomy with his pupils and sentenced to a year, although he could have been hanged (he had influential friends, although his chief friend Cromwell was dead by then). However, it seems this was only an interruption in what seems like a reasonably successful career -- he went on to other school positions and it's thought that his play was performed before Queen Mary Tudor.

I don't know if there was a political angle to Udall's conviction. He seems to have been charged only with sodomy. Perhaps he was prosecuted only because he was preying on his pupils and parents complained. But this is different from simply being homosexual and engaging in sexual activity with "consenting adults" (I'm not sure Tudor people had this concept, but they probably did differentiate in practice between adults who engaged voluntarily in "unnatural vice" and minors who might expect to be subject to corporal punishment from their schoolmaster, but not sexually victimized).

Anonymous said...

Foose, there was no concept in the Tudor period of "consenting adults," at least not in any way that approaches the sense in which the phrase is used today. Any two persons engaging in illegal or illicit sexual activity were not absolved of committing a criminal offense simply because they acted voluntarily. If a person acted in a way that was prohibited by either civil or canon law, they were liable before the law ... if the authorities chose to pursue enforcement. Fornication, adultery, same-sex behavior ... any sex outside of a recognized marriage was technically illegal and could be punished, even if the parties involved acted of their own volition. The giving or withholding of consent mattered only in cases of rape, though the non-consenting female was still often assumed to be guilty of some other offense that incited the rape (witchcraft, loose morals, being a nag, refusing to marry, etc).

And again, there simply was no concept of "being homosexual" in Tudor England. Society in that era had not yet conceived of the notion that some people might prefer sexual contact with those of the same sex-gender. Virtually all men were assumed to be attracted sexually to women, and vice versa. When they violated that expectation, it was invariably assumed to be the result of some transient temptation or abberant circumstance, and not an aspect of the person's innate character or personality.

Bearded Lady said...

Foose and PhD Historian,
Both threads are really interesting. Question to add on - Is it possible that in Hungerford’s case and in cases like his concerning nobles that the REAL charge was buggery and the treasonous accusations were tacked on as a clever excuse to get rid of someone with a supposedly despicable vice? I was just thinking that if Henry VIII truly despised “sodomites,” he might not want to draw attention to any behavior that would disgrace his court? Treason didn’t seem to hold the same stigma.

Anonymous said...

Bearded Lady, that is a very intriguing line of thought. But on reflection, I would have to say that it seems less likely than it might appear at first blush.

Since "buggery" was punishable by death, "tacking on" a charge of treason did nothing in terms of "get[ting] rid of someone." Buggery/sodomy "got rid" of them already. Adding treason was "over-kill." And the second charge of treason did not replace or conceal the first charge of buggery/sodomy.

But were people charged with treason instead of buggery/sodomy in order to keep the "despicable vice" secret and to avoid tarnishing the reputation of Henry and his court? Almost certainly not. As today, capital punishment was thought by Tudor-era legal theorists to have an instructive effect ... execution of a person convicted of a specific crime "deterred" others from committing the same crime. If the goal of laws and of capital punishment was to prevent future crimes of the same type, what purpose did it serve to hide buggery/sodomy and then execute offenders in that category based on some other charge?
Execution for treason = prevention of treason.
Execution for buggery/sodomy = prevention of buggery/sodomy.
But execution for treason did not offer a lesson to those who might be considering buggery/sodomy.

No, too much cause-effect linkage was thought to exist between crimes, punishments suited to those crimes, and preventing future crimes. Henry and his legal system would not have wanted to "hide" an offense involving "the vice that dare not speak its name," because hiding it offered no public moral lesson and therefore did nothing to prevent the crime from occurring again.

And in terms of real consequences, I believe that treason carried a greater stigma than did buggery/sodomy. Treason involved a threat to the person of the monarch himself, wheras buggery/sodomy did not. Conviction for treason entailed loss of all property, loss of all titles, loss of the right to make a will, etc. ... as well as death for the person committing the crime. Buggery/sodomy likewise cold result in death, but if it was the sole charge it did not automatically entail loss of property or titles. If stigma is judged by severity of punishment, treason was greater than buggery/sodomy.

Foose said...

I think Retha Warnicke explored the theme of "unnatural vice" and its association with black magic with her book on Anne Boleyn. Hungerford, in casting the king's horoscope or hiring someone to do it, was dabbling in sorcery and sorcery was strongly linked to transgressive sex acts (the Devil likes it naughty!). Warnicke suggested that Anne may have had a deformed fetus in her last miscarriage, which might have reinforced her popular reputation as a witch, and the sexual excesses she was charged with, including incest, became more credible as a result. Warnicke also suggested that Anne's brother may have been engaging in homosexual activity with others of her circle. There is not a whole lot of evidence about George Boleyn, though.

The Duke of Buckingham, though, also was charged with casting Henry's horoscope with an eye to the succession, but I don't think any sexual charges were brought against him. Wolsey would probably have been the one deciding on the specific charges, and I don't think accusing people of sexual irregularity was his style (although I could be wrong). Buckingham was a great aristocrat stemming from the old royal family and a leading member of the conservative faction; there there was a lot of feeling among the nobles that Wolsey had brought him down out of jealousy. Wolsey might have felt that adding sex charges (especially if there was no real evidence) to treason would be going too far.

Bearded Lady said...

Phd Historian and Foose– Thanks for your insight. I learn so much for these questions.

My crazy line of thought was that keeping the appearance of a virtuous court outweighed deterring the behavior. In other words, would Henry set an example out of members of the lower class by executed THEM for buggery, but get rid of the vice at his own court secretly (using treason as a cover-up)? Was buggery a crime that was viewed as a vice of the lower class? Using a modern word – did this “stereotype” exist?

After reading your post, it’s my understanding now that this type of selective punishment would never have worked for the reasons that you have already stated. For one, if a noble was practicing sodomy, it would be very difficult to keep it secret. And by not punishing that noble, it undermined the punishment’s ability to act as a deterrent in the very place it most rankled Henry...right under his nose. Only punishing the lower class would have almost been like saying – it’s ok to practice sodomy if you are a noble.

Foose – an interesting point by Warnicke that sort of pertains to this discussion. Warnicke seems to think that the idea of “courtly love” has become exaggerated from historians reading too much into what only occurred on pen and paper and not real life.

Foose said...

There is also a quite a trove of accusations of homosexuality pertaining to the monasteries during the 1530s. The visitations by Cromwell's agents Layton and Legh report back such scandals as:

Monastery of Repyngdon alias Repton.—Thomas Rede, sub-prior, and three others, named as sodomites per voluntarias pollutiones ...

Garadon.—5 names noted as sodomites, one with 10 boys.

Thurgarton.—10 sodomites, some with boys. Incontinence

But there was a strong motive for these commissioners to find evidence of such activity, since it could be used to discredit the religious houses (however, this doesn't disprove the allegations). Also, I can't find reports of follow-up trials of these individuals, so perhaps they were never tried.

This fits well with Phd historian's argument that no one was ever tried specifically for homosexuality, and that evidence of homosexuality was used to further discredit those already compromised.

Also, I wonder if there may have been a cultural connection between education and homosexuality. Sorcery - the old religion - Udall's schoolmaster profession -- they all involved Latin and formulaic learning, perhaps there was some perceived link to "unnatural" sexual practices ...?

Anonymous said...

Foose, you continue to raise the most fascinating and challenging questions!

I cannot imagine, at least not off the top of my head, any connection between "Latin and formulaic learning" and "unnatural sexual practices" being perceived within Tudor society and culture. If such a link had been perceived in the 16th century, would not educational authorities have removed Latin from the curriculum and replaced the educational techniques of formulaic repetition with some other teaching method in an effort to stamp out "the unnatural vice"? As it is, every English "public" ("private," in American-ese) school boy continued to learn his Latin by means of rote repetition, memorization, and recitation well into the early 20th century, just as he had done since the 1530s and before. And while boys in state ("public" in American-ese) schools may not have learned Latin, the teaching methodology was still rote repetition, memorization, and recitation.

Interestingly enough, "buggery" remained a culturally perceived problem among "public school" boys right up until recent years. Yet no one ever seems to have perceived that the basis for the "problem" lay not with the curriculum or teaching methods, but with the way in which hormonally-active pubescent boys were housed during the education process. "Buggery" and sodomy continue to be a "problem" in any rigidly enforced same-sex living environment, ranging from schools to prisons to seminaries.

Anonymous said...

Oh, another thought, Foose. In those accounts of monastic visitations during the Dissolution, are there not also multiple accusations of keeping of wives and concubines, fathering (or mothering) of illegitimate children, whoredom (in convents), even bestiality?
It is my understanding that a very wide variety of sexual allegations were leveled at monastic and conventual houses, perhaps less because the houses were guilty of the practices than because it had become by the 1530s a standard, even stereotypical, criticism or charge to be levied against those houses as symbolic representatives of an institutional church that was perceived as fundamentally corrupt.

Jacks-A-Million said...

Wasn't Anne and Mary's brother George possibly a homosexual?

Anonymous said...

George Boleyn was accused of a great number of crimes in connection with Anne Boleyn's fall from favor, including same-sex acts with other men. But bear in mind that he and Anne were accused of incest, as well. When Henry VIII wanted to get rid of someone, all kinds of charges were thrown at them. Many of those charges were false. Did George Boleyn eve in his short life have sexual contact with another man? We will simply never know for sure. Was he "homosexual," in the modern sense of that very modern word? No.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Sir Francis Bacon alleged to have been homosexual?
Jolie Moira Jessalyn Dawson

Anonymous said...

It seems apparent that Boleyn senior was quite the jack of club in Henry VIII' court. Not only did he deliver the goods on the Boleyn sisters, but also the dresser in William Carey, a man whose portraiture was of considerable good looks.

Yet, the King liaisoning with his dressers wife? For real. King Henry would know about the element of the Lion's Share.. and a man knows the extent of endurance he will deliver for his master, while other men wouldn't be able to share their wives without being emotionally detached.

King Henry VIII obviously saw the logic in assigning lovers as consorts to his queens if he was hoping to accelerate the reproductive process in getting a male heir to the throne. Eight children is a day's work for a man, hence offspring is not really an indicator to orientation but rather proclivity in lifestyle that wielded certain admiration from a variety of members within his own court.. even if the stakes could prove deadly one way or another in a world of satire found in mainstream cultural gossip as national pastime.