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


  1. thanks for posting..sent to all my social media

  2. "We must remember that we cannot use our modern lenses through which to view it." That's the challenge of historical writing put in a nutshell, isn't it? Conveying difference without being arrogant about it.

  3. Sorry, but the assassination of Villiers had precisely nothing to do with any supposed relationship with James VI/I (whether or not this happened or not), as the author implies.

  4. Englisc: weaponwifstra - an armed woman.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.