Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Kings, Commoners, and Homosexuality in the 17th Century

By Donna Scott

Before we can discuss homosexuality in 17th century England, we must remember that we cannot use our modern lenses through which to view it. The outrage many of us might feel regarding the inhumane treatment toward this segment of the population is natural as a 21st century reader.  But we have to remember to frame it within the religious and political mindsets of the time. After all, history has repeatedly shown us that no one can escape persecution for one reason or another—religion, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual-orientation, or otherwise.

The term homosexuality wasn’t coined until 1869. Related terms such as gay and queer are fairly modern, both arriving into the English lexicon in the mid to late 20th century.  A gay house—or brothel—had little to do with gender and everything to do with immorality or promiscuity.  Sodomite, which has Biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah, had less to do with a person’s sexuality or gender role and more to do with his behavior. Although the term sodomite was most commonly used for male/male relationships prior to the late 19th century, it was also used to describe anyone who engaged in non-procreational sexual behavior, whether male or female. In early modern England, the words used to describe homosexual men were typically negative, as the acts associated with them were perceived as vile and deviant. In addition to those mentioned above, a long list of condemnatory adjectives was used in contemporary writings to describe the sin or vice: unnatural, detestable, unspeakable, filthy, unmentionable, wicked, foul, and abominable, just to name a few.

In England, the Buggery Act of 1533, which was passed by Parliament during King Henry VIII’s reign, proclaimed homosexual activity between men as a capital offense. Previously, such matters were dealt with by the church or ecclesiastical courts.  Naturally, due to the highly religious nature of the times, the fate of a perpetrator of sodomy or buggery was not especially pleasant. The Act states that convicted offenders should “suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their goods,  chattels, debts, lands, tenements, and hereditaments, as felons do according to the Common Laws of this Realm”. These punishments seem perfectly in line with Henry’s well-known interest in confiscating land and other possessions for his own benefit. Of course, losing one’s property was the least of the offenders’ problems. If convicted, death by hanging was a much greater concern.

Twenty years later when Queen Mary took the throne, she repealed the Act, believing that the matter was better left to the church and therefore returned it to the ecclesiastical courts to adjudicate. Subsequently when Elizabeth became queen, she re-enacted the Buggery Act and the crime of sodomy once again became a legal matter dealt with by the government. Regardless of whose hand was holding the gavel, openly gay behavior had to be hidden from watchful eyes, which meant sodomites had to devise ways in which their lifestyles remained discreet.

Of course, if one happened to be a king with such proclivities, this necessary discretion was almost impossible, considering the number of courtiers and servants who were continually present. That begs the question, with so many eyewitnesses, was a king more in danger of suffering the punishment decreed than a commoner? Scurrilous gossip about the bisexual habits of King James I of England abounded in his court, yet he remained untouched by the laws codified in the Buggery Act. Hypocritically, James continued until his death to impose harsh punishments against all subjects who participated in sodomy.

James I

In the early 1600s, it would have been difficult—not to mention dangerous—to accuse King James of being a sodomite, even though he was often openly affectionate with his many favourites, all of whom were young men. His queen bore him seven children, although only three survived their infancy, so the fact he impregnated his wife at least seven times was in clear juxtaposition to the argument he was a homosexual. They appeared married in every sense of the word. It was only after he and Anne argued about the raising of their eldest son Henry that their relationship began to sour and the question regarding his sexuality was brought into the limelight. At the same time, his attention strayed toward Robert Carr, a young blond athlete he met at a jousting match.  His outward affection toward the boy was quickly noticed by those around him, propagating further gossip. In 1607, Carr became a gentleman of the bedchamber, which required him to sleep within a close proximity to the king. Only after Carr was gifted an Earldom, did he become increasingly unwilling to do the king’s bidding and no longer joined the king at night. Consequently, this upset James and, for several reasons, Carr was exiled to the country and was quickly replaced with a new favourite, George Villiers.

George Villiers

With almost 27 years between them, Villiers caught the king’s eye with his sweet disposition and his lithe dancing and fencing. Courtiers exchanged glances as he, a mere gentleman, rapidly rose through the ranks of nobility, finally to be presented with the title of the 1st Duke of Buckingham. Their public display of affection—kissing and caressing—was performed carelessly and the public’s opinion of them both subsequently plummeted.  To this day, scholars argue as to whether or not their relationship ever became physical. In 1617, James was brought before the Privy Council and defended his love for Villiers as something pure, not “defective”. Yet, several of the king’s love letters to Villiers dated 1620-1623 mention his great affection as if they were a romantic couple:  “. . . that we may make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter; for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you.” Those historians who purport James and Villiers did have a physical relationship, point to the presence of a secret passageway James had built that connected him to Villiers’s bedchamber. They also offer Villiers’s own words in a letter dated years later. He’d questioned, “whether you loved me now….better than at the time which I shall never forget at Farnham, where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog”. Their affection for one another remained until James’s death in 1625. Ultimately, neither was punished under the laws against sodomy.

George Villiers’s letter to James I
in which he affectionately refers to
himself as the king’s slave and dog

To the contrary, had that amount of evidence been presented at the Old Bailey against a commoner, he would have undoubtedly been accused and convicted of the crime of sodomy and, ultimately, executed. In the 17th century, there are only a few recorded instances of criminal trials, but scholars agree that this might be due to the fact that out of self-preservation, homosexuals had become adept at hiding their personal relationships and sexual behaviors from the rest of society, knowing the punishment was death.

Painting depicting King James with Queen Anne perched above others.
  George Villiers stands below next to his wife, while King James reaches out for his hand.

Interestingly, lesbianism, or sex between women, was not considered illegal at the time. There are very few recorded legal cases of lesbian activity, however some cases identifying women cross-dressing as men were recorded in the 1700s and later. Women were subjected to the Buggery Act only if their non-procreational sexual participation was with a man.

Unlike the five English kings before King James I and one after him (and a queen) who were suspected of being either homosexual or bisexual and survived the accusations, their lovers often paid the price with their lives. Some, like Villiers, were stabbed by angry countrymen and others were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Today, flanked on either side of James’s tomb in Westminster Abbey are two of his great loves—his cousin Esme Stuart who was 24 years his senior and he adored from the time he was 13 and, of course, George Villiers.


Donna Scott is an award-winning author of 17th and 18th century historical fiction.  Before embarking on a writing career, she spent her time in the world of academia.  She earned her BA in English from the University of Miami and her MS and EdD (ABD) from Florida International University.  She has two sons and lives in sunny South Florida with her husband.  Her first novel, Shame the Devil, received the first place Chaucer Award for historical fiction and a Best Book designation from Chanticleer International Book Reviews.  Her newest novel, The London Monster, will be released in January 2021.

Facebook: Donna Scott
Instagram: DonnaScotttWriter
Twitter: D_ScottWriter

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Painted Churches Of England

By Karen Warren

We tend to expect the interior of a Norman English church to be dull grey stone, the only colour provided by the light flooding through the stained glass windows. However, these churches would have looked very different in the Middle Ages.

In those days the church was central to community life. Everyone, whether peasant or nobility, attended church on a Sunday, as well as for important rites such as baptisms and weddings. When they stepped inside the door they would be greeted by a feast of colour. It would seem as if every available surface – not just walls, but pillars and arches too – had been decorated [1].


Many of these paintings would have been pictures of well known biblical scenes, or they would have illustrated aspects of medieval Catholic theology, such as heaven and hell, or bands of angels. There would also be pictures of the saints, and a whole range of symbolic images including animals and flowers [2]. To get an idea of the effect, have a look at the stained glass windows in an old church and try to imagine the walls and pillars all covered with similar images.

Why were churches painted in this way? The easy answer is that church buildings were designed for the glorification of God. For the vast majority of people it was the most splendid building they would ever enter, and no time or expense was spared in its construction and decoration. It is possible that wealthy parishioners commissioned paintings for the walls, or bequeathed money for that purpose.

These pictures are popularly described as “the poor man’s Bible”. Many people of the time were illiterate and only the clergy had access to Bibles (which in any case were written in Latin). The theory is that the church paintings had an educational value, telling stories and imparting information to those who could not read it for themselves.

Richard Taylor [3] is sceptical of this idea, pointing out that the images would have been meaningless to anyone who did not already know the story. However, he argues that the pictures would have reinforced the message being delivered from the pulpit. They would also create a shared religious experience: anyone moving to a different part of the country would have recognised the scenes depicted in the local church.

A particular feature of medieval wall paintings is that the characters are always dressed in medieval clothes rather than the clothing they would have worn in biblical times [4]. This may simply be due to a lack of knowledge of (or interest in) the customs of earlier times. However, I would also suggest that a medieval parishioner who saw images of religious figures resembling him or herself would be more likely to identify with those people – and thus with the Christian faith – than they would have done with more remote images. (A similar phenomenon can the observed in the mystery plays – annual enactments of biblical stories – in which Old Testament characters are given distinctly medieval concerns and attitudes.)

Given the ubiquity of the medieval wall paintings, you may wonder why so few are visible today. The blame for this lies largely with the Reformation of the Church in the 16th century. The Church of England under Henry VIII remained broadly Catholic in its religious belief, although not its affiliation. However, Henry’s son Edward VI (and his advisors) had a more protestant vision for the church, and regarded any decoration as idolatrous. The wall paintings were either scraped away or whitewashed over, often to be covered by religious texts. The damage was largely done by the time of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans a hundred years later, but they destroyed any remaining ecclesiastical artworks.

For centuries people forgot that church walls had ever been decorated. It was not until the Victorian era that churches began to be restored, and the paintings were revealed as old whitewash was removed from the walls. Unfortunately, many were damaged as the paint was chipped away.


However, modern restoration techniques have enabled some paintings to be recovered almost in their entirety. New paintings are being discovered all the time, and ways have been found to preserve them as they are uncovered [5].

Surprisingly, there does not seem to be a comprehensive list of all the churches with wall paintings in England, although English Heritage has a map of all the painted walls in its care, including many churches and abbeys [6]. One of the most impressive examples in a church still in use is that of St Peter and St Paul in Pickering, North Yorkshire. East Anglia has many fine painted churches, including St Mary’s at Houghton-on-the-Hill (where the church itself was not rediscovered until 1992).


Finally, the tradition of decorating church walls did not entirely die out in the Middle Ages. The Norman church of St Michael in Garton-on-the-Wolds in East Yorkshire was completely repainted with biblical scenes in the 19th century. More modern examples include the Bloomsbury Group murals in the Berwick Chapel in East Sussex, and the artist Stanley Spencer’s paintings at the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire.


[1] Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti, p4
[2] Richard Taylor, How to Read a Church
[3] Richard Taylor, ibid, p2
[4] Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, p78
[5] Historic England, Wall Paintings: Anticipating and Responding to Their Discovery
[6] English Heritage, Save Our Story – Wall Paintings 

Photographs all by the author:
1. The Martyrdom of St Edmund at Pickering Church
2. Victorian wall paintings at Garton on the Wolds
3. The Last Judgement, Houghton on the Hill


Karen Warren is a travel writer, novelist and book reviewer. Her first novel, Shadow of the Dome, is loosely based on real events in 13th century Mongol China, and was published by Lume Books in 2017. She is currently working on her second novel, based in England and South Africa. This is a contemporary history but has a smattering of the Middle Ages…

Karen writes travel articles for a number of outlets including her own site WorldWideWriter. She is also a book reviews editor for the Historical Novel Society.

Author website:

Link to Shadow of the Dome on Amazon

Link on publisher website -

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Temperance Flowerdew

By Denise Heinze

There’s no telling what advice Temperance Flowerdew, one of the founding mothers of Jamestown, may have given her teenage daughter, Elizabeth, on her deathbed.  Historical records provide only a bare bones chronology of Temperance’s life, and no written record exists in her own hand.  Yet, it’s easy to imagine this shrewd and enterprising woman instructing Elizabeth to “Marry well, or not at all.”  Born in Norfolk to landed gentry in the 1580s, Temperance no doubt understood that her fate depended heavily upon the man with whom she’d share a marriage bed. On that score, lightning for the resilient Flowerdew struck not once, but twice.

Finding a suitable mate, critical under normal circumstances, became a matter of life and death when Temperance found herself alone, possibly widowed, in a mud and stick outpost on the edge of nowhere. It was the summer of 1609 when Temperance arrived at Jamestown, along with a flotilla of nine ships called the Third Supply.  Stocked with goods and over 600 passengers, the convoy was sent by the Virginia Company of London to re-invigorate its investment, a bruised and battered colony in the throes of starvation, disease, and political in-fighting. Records show that Temperance may have been married at the time of the journey to Richard Barrow, but no mention is made of him again in relation to her life.  For all intents and purposes, once in Jamestown, Temperance was on her own.

Another ten months would pass before she met her future husband.  That Temperance survived until then is nothing short of remarkable.  The settlement, which was depending on the Third Supply for food and a regime change, got neither.  About a week out from landfall, the flotilla was hit by a hurricane.  While seven of the nine ships managed to make it to Jamestown, the most crucial one, The Sea Venture, disappeared, taking with it the bulk of the supplies, a second improved charter, and new leadership.  It also took a young captain, Sir George Yeardley, the man Temperance would eventually marry.

Foundation of a cottage at New Towne, a town
that grew quickly just east of the fort. *

Without The Sea Venture, Jamestown limped into winter and nearly perished.  Of the several hundred colonists in the settlement, only 60 made it to spring.   How Temperance managed to stay alive is a mystery.  It is only in the exploits of her husbands, and in public documents, that we know anything about her at all.


During a 2018 archeological dig at the original Jamestown site, a body was unearthed. Such findings are not unusual.  The 400-year-old settlement is a graveyard of sorts for the many early settlers who perished there.  What made this discovery so remarkable was its location, in a grave underneath the chancel of the second-oldest Jamestown church.  Only persons of high repute would be afforded such an honor.

But who?

Evidence points to a singular figure in the history of Jamestown, George Yeardley.  London-born into humble beginnings, Yeardley would become one of the most prominent figures in colonial Virginia.  It was a miracle of sorts given that he almost never made it there. The second son of a tailor, he served in the military as a young man under Sir Thomas Gates.  Later, in June 1609, he sailed with Gates to Jamestown in The Third Supply.  When the hurricane hit, The Sea Venture was thrown off course and beached in Bermuda.  Shipwrecked for nearly ten months, the crew and passengers, all of whom survived, would eventually make it back to Jamestown by crafting two smaller vessels from the ruins of The Sea Venture.   Some time after he arrived, George would marry Temperance.  It was a fortuitous match.

A view of the James River from the original site.

Yeardley was a man of firsts for reasons both noble and ignominious. The first colonial governor of Virginia, Yeardley instituted English jurisprudence and convened the inaugural General Assembly.  He negotiated with native tribes, with a vision to include them in the burgeoning democracy.  He married Temperance, who became not just a wife but his trusted business partner.  After his death, she was wealthy in her own right, and thus a 17th Century woman apart, one with actual power.  A successful planter, Yeardley put in tobacco.  The crop, he and others surmised, would ensure the economic viability and hence survival of the colony.  To harvest it, Yeardley bought human beings for labor, becoming the first slaveholder in America.  It is a startling entry in the otherwise sterling ledger of Yeardley’s life.  And yet, even here he becomes a first--embodying the glaring contradiction at the heart of the American experiment in freedom.


A traditional English-style mud and stud building
frame reconstructed at the original site.

For her part, Temperance not only enjoyed the fruits of her husband’s endeavors, but capitalized on them.  At one juncture she witnessed the will of John Rolfe, unheard of for a woman.  She accompanied George to the court of King Charles, no doubt acting as a de facto ambassador on behalf of Jamestown and her husband.  To ensure her legacy, she had George designate her as the sole executor of his estate.  After his death, she continued to manage the plantation, including most likely the slaves George had purchased.  Just months before she married again, she may have negotiated an early iteration of a pre-nuptial agreement in which she and her three children would retain rights to Yeardley’s property.  It was a bold and audacious move, as the man who became her next husband was arguably the most powerful in Virginia at the time, Sir Frances West.


Born in 1586 in Salisbury, Wiltshire, West was the second son of a baron, rising through the ranks in various military and government positions, eventually accepting an appointment as the second colonial governor of Virginia.  In marrying West, Temperance most likely had taken account of his status as governor, and his pedigree, a boon to her children’s social standing.  She may also have intuited a danger sign--West’s propensity to outlive his wives.  He survived his first wife, herself a three-time widow, and would bury Temperance in short order.
Memorial Church, built in 1907 above and
near the second Jamestown church.

Temperance’s instincts to protect her assets served her well.  Less than a year into her marriage to West, she died and West sued to wrest control of Temperance’s estate away from the surviving children. He did not succeed.  Eventually, West took a third wife but his luck had run out.  This time around, instead of marrying a widow, he would leave one behind.


For hundreds of years, Temperance Flowerdew has been a footnote in American history.  The fact that she married two prominent men is perhaps the only reason she made it into the history books at all.  And yet, true to form, she knew matrimony was, for her, the only way in.   It was how she would carve a niche for herself in life, and ensure a legacy after her death, until such a time as posterity would catch up and, for better or worse, recognize her for who she was.   

* All photographs by, and copyright of, the author.

A Land as God Made It by James Horn
Jamestown, the Buried Truth by William Kelso
The Jamestown Project by Karen Kupperman


Denise Heinze, a former literature professor and a PhD graduate of Duke University, writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She is the author of a scholarly work on Toni Morrison, and the eco-thriller Sally St. Johns. A descendant of Louisa May Alcott, she lives in North Carolina.

The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew is published by Blackstone Publishing 29th September 2020

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Departure of Rome from Britain

By E S Moxon

In the 4th Century the senior administration of Britain sat in Gaul. Military command had become regionalised with whoever sat over the Eastern Empire based in Constantinople and the Western Empire was ruled from Rome. Meanwhile the Christian church was gaining power and, depending on the religious leanings of who sat on the throne, persecutions were weighted against Pagans (including the old Roman pantheon of gods) or Christians.

The start of the demise of Roman rule in Britain isn’t easy to pinpoint, however it could have begun with the death of Constantine in AD337. For three months there was no rule in Britain while his 3 sons (Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II) squabbled over who would rule what and where. A military revolt arose in Constantinople refusing any successor but a son of Constantine and other members of the Imperial family were murdered to ensure this. For Britain, little changed as Constantine II emerged as Senior Augustus in control of Britain, Gaul and Spain.

Emperor Constantius II on Amethyst

This was not enough for Constantine II, who launched a failed attack on Constans’ domain in Italy during AD340. Then when Constans was killed by conspirators in AD350, a Germanic mercenary named Magnetius was proclaimed Augustus. Using frontier reinforcement troops in Britain (leaving these posts lacking in defence), Magnetius challenged Constantius II (Augustus of the East in Constantinople) and was victorious. Magnetius ruled for three years, allowing Pagan worship in Britain, until his defeat in Gaul at the hands of Constantius II.

This allowed Constantius to declare himself sole Augustus of the entire Roman Empire, ruling both eastern and western frontiers. He reintroduced the death penalty for Pagan worship or sacrifice. The religious barometer swung back to Christianity once more. Sympathisers of Magnetius were punished severely and many villas became abandoned as high officials fled. These sumptuous places became home to squatters or servants’ families left behind.

City of Constantinople 

The religious barometer swung back to Paganism around AD355 when Constantius gave his young cousin Julian rule of Britain and Gaul. The new Caesar was passionate about literature and the ancient Roman gods. There is no mention of Christians being persecuted during this time, so we must assume that both old and new faiths co-existed and were freely worshipped. It seems Julian was perhaps an idealist, attempting to embrace the past and the future.

Admired by his troops for being an extraordinary general, he quickly drew disfavour from Constantius who resented his younger cousin’s popularity. The family quarrel led to a military revolt against Constantius, who died before the cousins could meet in battle and the troops declared Julian sole Augustus. In response to this, possibly feeling brave, Julian came out as a devoted Pagan and restored Roman observances of the old pantheon.

Aberlemno Pictish Cross

By AD367 a quarter of the Roman army was Germanic in origin (and therefore most likely Pagan). Britain was now being harassed from all sides by the Picts, Saxons, Scotts and Attacotti. To compound things, troubles in the Eastern Empire meant garrisons from Britain were removed to assist. Once again this depleted the frontier defences of Britain during a period of intense attacks by several foes. These foes were opportunists and seized their moment. The Franks and Saxons invaded Gaul, while Picts, Scotts and Attacotti attacked Britain, causing Roman officials to abandon their posts.

Over the next twenty-five years Rome battled the mercenaries, attempting to regain control and restore Roman rule in its splintered Western Empire. Valentian ruled the Imperial family until his hanging in AD391, but lost control of Britain with the arrival of Magnus Maximus in AD383, who led a victory against the Picts and Scotts (something Rome had failed to do) and invaded Gaul, setting up a court at Trier where he was baptised Catholic. His defeat came at the hands of Theodosius in AD388 when they were defeated at Aquilea. Before his death in AD395 Theodosius ordered repairs along Hadrian’s Wall and the construction of watch-towers along the north-eastern coast. He also tried to help the Christian diocese to recover.

Hadrian's Wall

By now the Pennine and Welsh forts were abandoned. Britain must have been a bleak and savage place, with Germanic mercenaries billeted in towns and control being snatched repeatedly from the hands of the Imperial Roman family. In AD392 Eugenius, Arbogastes and Flavianus arrived on the scene. Theodosius battled Eugenius in AD394 and won, no doubt refusing to allow usurpers to undo all his hard work on frontier fortification. As a result of Eugenius’ defeat, Arbogastes and Flavianus committed suicide.

The descendants of Theodosius, Arcadius and Honorius, were both Augustus, with the latter ruling into the beginning of the 5th Century. What then of the fate of Britain? After such turmoil, could Rome hold onto her and rule successfully? It appeared so for a while at least. Following the demise of Theodosius in AD395, his sons took over. In AD398 they repelled a joint Pict/Scott invasion with their western troops, who were mostly Germanic mercenaries, those called ‘foederati’. These barbarian troops were at the forefront of guarding Britain, along Hadrian’s Wall and the east coast shore forts. However, despite their military successes, Fate frowned on Rome.

Stilicho negotiating with Goths

In AD401 the Goth, Alaric came over the Alps and had Rome securely in his sights. Stilicho, a ‘magister militum’ who had married a niece of Thoedosius, wintered in the Danube desperately trying to recruit additional barbarian troops. This was to no avail. With almost no financial assistance from Honorius it had been hard to raise men to the cause. The barbarian army revolted against Stilicho and crossed back over the Rhine.

Meanwhile in Britain, they had had revolts of their own. The army made a Romano-Briton named ‘Gratian’ their leader, who was swiftly disposed of and replaced with Constantine III who moved to Gaul before the barbarian Germanic army of Stilicho could cross the Channel. The barbarians turned south. By AD407 Constantine III had taken back Gaul with his son and took Britain in AD408, forcing Honorius to accept Britain as a prefecture under Gaul in AD409. But there was more upheaval to come.

Alaric and his Goth army sacked Rome in AD410. In a panic to raise troops, all garrisons from Britain were recalled. This caused a civil war to erupt as several sought the title of Augustus and were forced to raise their own armies to fend off barbarian attacks. They ejected Roman officials from their offices and by AD413 no attempts had been made by Rome to bring Britain back under the rule of Honorius. Rome had certainly fallen, at the very least, in Britain.


“Roman Britain” by Martin Millett (English Heritage)

“Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain” by Peter Salway

“Britain AD” by Francis Pryor


E S MOXON has had a lifelong passion for history and writing. A childhood filled with family visits to ancient burial sites and stone circles fuelled her imagination. Inspired by classic medieval tales and Norse sagas, Elaine imagined herself inhabiting these Dark Ages and exploring the landscapes in her mind and continues to do so through her novels.

Tales of the Wulfsuna