In 1628, on the steps of the English House of Commons, preacher John Harris thanked God for keeping “the nameless vice” out of England. He apparently believed, quite seriously, that there was no homosexuality in the kingdom.
His naïveté might be understandable. Whereas French priests felt that the best tactic for fighting “sodomy” was to mention the “unmentionable sin” as often as possible to make sure everyone knew it was a sin – and the colonial government of New France had its “morality” laws nailed to the wall of every room in every tavern in the colony – the English chose the opposite tactic. As early as 1400, a set of instructions for priests forbade them from mentioning homosexuality from the pulpit.
The theory went that if the English were not exposed to the concept of homosexuality, it wouldn’t catch on. Thus, even the preachers self-censored. The denial was total, and the few sodomy trials that reached the courts in the Early Modern Age didn’t seem to make much of a dent on public consciousness. Even as late as 1885, British explorer (and closeted homosexual) Sir Richard Burton could still claim that the climate of some countries encouraged homosexuality. He called this region of homosexuality “the Sotadic Zone,” and this zone carefully avoided England (but included Spain, the south of France, Italy, Greece, the entire Arab world, China, Japan – and all of Canada except some of the islands now in Nunavut).
Awareness of lesbianism came even more slowly. In the 20th century, a lord chamberlain of Great Britain could say, “We are well aware of the male homosexual problem in this country, which is of course minor, but to our certain knowledge there is not one lesbian in England.”
There’s no evidence that this wilful blindness reduced actual homosexuality, but it did take the glare of the public spotlight off of the “sodomites.” This is probably why trials for “buggery” were much rarer in England than in France. The public simply wasn’t trained to see them, and if they’d heard of the “unnameable sin” at all, most assumed it was something that happened in Italy.
England and Scotland did have occasional trials for homosexuality, though. In 1570, Scotland burned two servants at the stake for it, John Swan and John Litster. England favoured hanging to burning for commoners. Unlike in France, nobles could get the death penalty for “buggery” if they drew too much attention to themselves. Mervyn Touchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, was beheaded after he ordered his male lovers to rape his wife. Castlehaven was beheaded – the traditional death penalty for nobles – more for having had sex with men than for his other crimes. His lovers, both commoners, were hanged.
Kings, however, were largely out of the reach of the law. King Edward II’s love affair with a commoner named Piers Gaveston did raise eyebrows, but Edward was killed more for his politics than anything else.
We probably know more about James I’s male lovers than about those of any other English king. George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was the great love of the king’s life. When puritan politician James Oglander commented on the king’s affair with Buckingham, James replied that, “Christ has his John and I have my George” – suggesting that Christ and John the Baptist were lovers. James’ spending on his boyfriends angered the puritans so much that it nearly triggered a civil war.
None of this stopped James I from insisting that “buggery” be punishable by death in his realm, when certain judges had begun using a loophole in the law to hand out more compassionate sentences. He simply didn’t imagine himself as having anything in common with the commoners and occasional lord who were brought before the executioner. That kind of collective identity had begun to form in some quarters — such as in molly house culture and among some libertine poets in France — but it would be a long time before an aristocrat could see themselves as allied to a common sodomite.
Meanwhile, the bisexuality of Protestant champion William III (better known as William of Orange) has recently drawn the attention of modern historians. He managed to keep it fairly quiet in spite of a very public dispute between two of his male lovers — William Bentinck and Arnold van Keppel — when he was losing interest in Bentinck in favour of Keppel.
(William of Orange was a particular favourite historical figure of Canadian Protestants in the 19th Century, and the Orange Lodges, which were a centre of Protestant social and political life in Canada were named in his honour.)
In spite of this litany of kings, if you were to ask an English person in the know in the 1600s where you would be most likely find “sodomites” in that country, they wouldn’t have pointed to the nobles or the churches – as the French would’ve – but to the teachers in their colleges and the actors on their stages.
And it’s going to be to these teachers and actors that we turn to next.
Sources: See the third instalment of what was originally meant to be a single piece.