Elite Homes and Royal Residences
Many castles, palaces and grand country houses across England have their own LGBTQ heritage. Some of the most notorious events recorded in England’s queer past happened in these places that were both domestic homes and centres of power.
Edward II and Piers Gaveston
Edward II (1284-1327) was king of England from 1307 until he was deposed and murdered in 1327. He was accused by chroniclers of ‘illicit and sinful unions’. It is unclear whether his sin was sodomy, or privileging men including Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser at court, which created tensions that led to his downfall.
Piers Gaveston is often described as Edward’s ‘favourite’. The word suggests sexual desire, but also the power dynamics of a relationship with the sovereign.
A sandstone memorial called Gaveston’s Cross was erected in 1823. It marks the spot near Warwick where Gaveston was thought to have been beheaded in 1312 by the king’s enemies. An inscription on the monument describes him as ‘the Minion of a hateful King’ beheaded ‘by Barons as lawless as himself.’
Following his removal from the throne in 1327, Edward was imprisoned in Berkeley Castle. He is reputed to have been murdered there by the insertion of a red-hot poker into his anus. Edward’s tomb is in Gloucester Cathedral.
Scholars now doubt the truth of the red-hot poker. It is unclear whether chroniclers sought to connect the method of Edward’s murder with accusations of sodomy, and whether they used these associations for their own political motives.
Accusations of Edward’s ‘illicit unions’ could have referred to a variety of sexual and political activities. The king’s history is complicated further because medieval men also shared beds and kissed each other as established tokens of political regard and respect. Today, however, it is impossible to disentangle Edward’s life from this story of his murder. Many queer men grew up knowing this history, and associating it with violence they might encounter.
Queen Anne (1665-1714) was also known to have female favourites at court. One in particular was Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, with whom she spent a great deal of time at Kensington Palace. They shared a long and passionate friendship that was eventually marred by political differences, jealousy and blackmail. Tensions reached a new height when Anne grew close to Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Masham.
Churchill did not take kindly to being replaced as Anne’s favourite. She accused Anne of having an unnatural relationship with Masham. Satirical pamphlets compared Anne and Masham to Edward and Gaveston. It is not known whether Anne had a sexual relationship with either Churchill or Masham but the rumours surrounding them show how damaging accusations of same-sex activity could be. Despite the break up of their relationship, Sarah commissioned a statue of Anne for her home at Blenheim Palace after the Queen’s death.
An archbishop’s wife
Victorian England was profoundly religious. Women and men believed love came from God and many found it hard to make a distinction between spiritual and sexual longings.
Wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and mother of five children, Mary Benson (‘Ben’) experienced guilt as well as joy in her sexual friendships with women. In 1878 she wrote in her diary:
‘Once more and with shame O Lord, grant that all carnal affections may die in me, and that all things belonging to the spirit may live and grow in me.’
All the Benson children preferred same-sex relationships and none married. Mary’s son E. F. Benson was a popular author of the early 20th century. His ‘Mapp and Lucia’ books, published from the 1920s, satirised his neighbours, the townsfolk of Rye. Benson lived in Lamb House in Rye, earlier occupied by novelist Henry James, also a figure in the pantheon of gay and lesbian writers.
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