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Trans and Gender-Crossing Histories

There are rich histories of people crossing gender throughout English history that resonate for trans and genderqueer  identities today. Gender-crossing people appear in court records, popular broadsheet ballads and newspapers. In most cases they were tried and punished for crimes such as theft and fraud, rather than for cross-dressing. Men arrested for passing as women were often assumed to be prostitutes.

Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton wearing women's clothes.
Fanny and Stella (Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton) often dressed in women's clothes. They were arrested for outraging decency by dressing as women and conspiring to commit felonious crimes in 1870 © Public Domain http://tinyurl.com/gmzm4mb

We don’t usually have enough evidence of how gender-nonconforming people understood their sense of self and their motivations for challenging and crossing gender. Still, in the past as in the present, people expressed their gender across a broad spectrum.

Roman Britain

The earliest LGBTQ location identified by Pride of Place is Cataractonium, present-day Catterick in North Yorkshire. Archaeologists there uncovered the grave of a 4th century AD ‘gallus’. Born male, a gallus became a priestess of the goddess Cybele by self-castrating, cross-dressing and taking a woman’s role to demonstrate commitment to Cybele.

Reconstruction portrait of a Roman gallus
Reconstruction portrait of a Roman gallus, based on the human remains and jet jewellery excavated at Catterick, Yorkshire. Born male, a gallus became a priestess of the goddess Cybele by self-castrating, cross-dressing and taking a woman's role © Historic England IC159/004

The Cataractonium gallus was excavated with jet jewellery and other female accessories that suggested a priestess’s status. This social and cultural role sheds light on the gender diversity that existed in Roman Britain.

38 jet beads making up a single bracelet
38 jet beads making up a single bracelet, located on the left arm of the Catterick gallus skeleton. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust :: http://yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/ :: CC BY-SA 4.0

Eleanor/John Rykener, 1395

In December 1395,Eleanor/John Rykener was arrested in women’s clothing having sex with John Britby in Soper’s Lane near Cheapside in the City of London. After Rykener was determined to be a man, he was accused of ‘committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice’. See a translation of the legal process document 1395, originally written in Latin.

Map showing Soper Lane, London
Soper Lane, London where Eleanor/John Rykener was arrested in 1395. Agas Map of London, 1561. Public Domain

Questioned by the authorities, Rykener described working as a prostitute in Bishopsgate, London and as far away as Oxford and Beaconsfield, having had sex as a man and a woman with both sexes. Rykener’s story defies a specific identity, but is among the clearest examples of gender nonconformity in medieval England.

Plea and Memoranda Roll for the case of Johannes Rykener
Plea and Memoranda Roll for the case of Johannes Rykener. London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (COL/AC/17/0817)

Chevalier d’Eon

A resonant 18th-century example is the gender nonconforming Chevalier d’Eon. D’Eon (1728-1810) was a French spy, diplomat and soldier. He lived the early part of his life as a man, and in later years she lived as a woman.

Portrait of 'Charlotte-Genevieve-Louise-Auguste-Andree-Timothee D'Eon de Beaumont'
Portrait of 'Charlotte-Genevieve-Louise-Auguste-Andree-Timothee D'Eon de Beaumont', c. 1786 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Chevalier dressed in women’s clothes and signed her name as Mademoiselle d’Eon on a calling card when living at 38 Brewer Street in London’s Soho.

Chevalier d'Eon's Calling Card
Chevalier d'Eon's Calling Card. The address is given as 38, Brewer Street, Golden Square (London) and the card was signed by Mlle (Mademoiselle) D'Eon © The National Archives, FO 95/604/4

In 1787, d’Eon took part in a fencing match at Carlton House, London, home of the Prince Regent, later George IV. D’Eon fought against the Chevalier de Saint-George, who was of African and French parentage. D’Eon won the match, which was depicted in art, engravings and satire.

Painting of a fencing match between Monsieur de Saint-George et Mademoiselle La chevalière d'Éon de Beaumont
Fencing Match between Monsieur de Saint-George et Mademoiselle La chevalière d'Éon de Beaumont at Carlton House on 9 April 1787. Engraving by Victor Marie Picot, based on the original painting by Charles Jean Robineau. Public Domain http://tinyurl.com/hpo5lpu

Famous cross-dressers

Cross-dressing stories were reported and sometimes celebrated in ballads and broadsheets.

Mary Hamilton became well known as ‘The Female Husband’ after marrying several women in the 18th century. As Dr Charles Hamilton he had married his landlady’s niece, Mary Price, in Wells, Somerset in 1746.

But three months later, Mary Price discovered the deception and Hamilton was prosecuted at Taunton Quarter Sessions court hearings. Price had ‘thought the prisoner a Man, owing to the Prisoner’s using certain vile and deceitful Practices, not fit to be mentioned’. Hamilton was convicted under the vagrancy act and sentenced to public whippings in four Somerset towns plus six months imprisonment.

Some female-to-male gender crossers were hailed as heroic if they had fought in war. Hannah Snell spent three years in the late 1740s as a soldier and sailor, passing as a man.

Portrait of Hannah Snell
Hannah Snell, who enlisted under the name of James Gray, 1789 © Wellcome Library, London

Back from the wars she built on her public recognition, performing at Sadler’s Wells theatre for a while. She later opened a pub in Wapping, reputedly called The Female Warrior.

Mary Ann Talbot took part in battles during the French Revolutionary Wars during the 1790s and received various injuries. To raise money, Talbot’s memoirs were published in 1804 as The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Ann Talbot, in the Name of John Taylor.

After revealing her biological sex as female, Taylor/ Talbot was sent by the magistrates to a lodging in Shoe Lane, London, with ‘a strict injunction…to break …the masculine habit to which I was so much used.’  This was only partially successful. Talbot/ Taylor continued to dress as a sailor and drink with former messmates, ‘the brave fellows at the Coach and Horses’, opposite Somerset House.

Portrait of Mary Ann Talbot/John Taylor
Mary Ann Talbot/John Taylor, who took part in battles during the French Revolutionary Wars during the 1790s and received various injuries © National Portrait Gallery

Trans & Gender Crossing Photo Gallery

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Political satire depicting Chevalier d'Eon and Saint-George, the Price of Wales (later George IV) and George Hanger
  • Chevalier D'Eon, 'Carola Genovefa Louisa Augusta Andrea Timothea D'Eon de Beaumont', as Minerva
  • Anne Bonny and Mary Read dressed in men's clothes, and pursued lives as pirates
  • Single piece armlet
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