In the last of her ‘Sex at Court’ posts, Laura examines attitudes to homosexuality at the medieval court – was Edward II really ‘England’s first gay king’? In the end, all that really mattered was power…
The phrase, ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ is a line from the poem Two Loves, by Lord Alfred Douglas. It was used in the late nineteenth century as a euphemism for homosexuality, including at the trial of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency.
Homosexuality as a specific type of sexual identity is another nineteenth-century social construct. Throughout the Middle Ages, men and women may have satisfied their physical desires with members of the same sex, and/or had their deepest and most fulfilling emotional relationships with members of the same sex. But they would not have thought of themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ or ‘bisexual’. These are all much later ways of categorising sexual desires and behaviour.
In popular history, Edward II has been anachronistically cast as ‘England’s first gay king’. The king did have intense, affectionate and emotional relationships with successive male ‘courtly favourites’. Contemporaries complained of the king’s ‘immoderate’ and ‘excessive love’ for Piers Gaveston, a boyhood friend. Gaveston was besieged, kidnapped and murdered by several English barons in 1312.
Yet Edward also had at least one illegitimate son, Adam, named in a wardrobe account of 1322 as Ade filio domini Regis bastardo (‘Adam, bastard son of the lord king’). Adam was probably born around 1307. By his wife, Isabella of France, Edward became the father of four healthy Plantagenet heirs. Piers Gaveston also fathered both legitimate and illegitimate children, at exactly the period when his closeness to the king was causing so much political controversy.
It may be difficult to put a modern label on the relationship between Edward II and Gaveston, but we know that contemporaries did speculate on the king’s possible sodomy. In 1334, Adam Orleton, the bishop of Winchester, was accused of publicly calling the king a sodomite, in a sermon preached at Oxford in October 1326. He strongly denied the charge, and it would have been an incendiary claim to make in public, whatever people might have thought in private.
It may be difficult to put a modern label on the relationship between Edward II and Gaveston, but we know that contemporaries did speculate on the king’s possible sodomy.
The term ‘sodomy’ is also a complex one in a medieval context. As Robert Mills highlights in his book, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages (University of Chicago Press, 2015), medieval references to the ‘sodomitic sin’ (sodomiticum peccatum) usually referred to anal intercourse between males. Yet they could encompass a much wider variety of ‘sins against nature’ (contra naturam). A sin against nature might be defined as any act of fornication that failed to lead to human reproduction within the bond of marriage. Oral sex, for example, and other forms of sexual activity that ‘wasted’ semen, could all be classed as sodomitical ‘sins against nature’. These kinds of sexual excess were thought to have terrible consequences, unmaking a man and producing a homo effeminate or vir evirate– an effeminate, unmanned man.
In the world of the court, the dreadful sin of sodomy could also be a powerful political weapon. After all, courtiers were almost all men, and lived side-by-side in intense competition with each other. Every ambitious man at court wanted to get as close as possible (both physically and emotionally) to the king, and the power and favours at his command. Men aspired to a ‘sworn brotherhood’ with each other, modelled on the covenant sworn between David and Jonathon in the Bible. This could lead to affectionate, fraternal behaviour between them that their excluded rivals might well have cast as ‘unmanly’, ‘effeminate’ or ‘sodomitical’.
This was especially the case if your ‘brother’ was the king. Kings were not supposed to be equal to anyone. The idea of a king desperate to fulfil the desires of his ‘brother’ (or his wife), a needy, weak and ‘unmanly’ king who would not do what was best for his kingdom, but only what would satiate his own personal desires, was what really turned the stomachs of medieval courtiers.
So what of Edward II and the charge of sodomy? In his fascinating essay, ‘The Sexualities of Edward II’, the historian Mark Ormrod discusses the contemporary speculation surrounding Edward II’s sexuality in detail. Ormrod outlines how accounts of Edward’s death in Berkeley Castle in 1327, apparently killed by a red-hot poker being inserted into his anus, or the complaints of his ‘unnatural’ relationship with his last courtly favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, helped articulate some of the fundamental political problems of Edward’s kingship. Casting the king as a sexual deviant and degenerate, prone to debauchery and licentiousness (among a range of other failings) helped chroniclers to explain his disastrous reign- and justify his deposition in 1327. The rex effeminatus is a rex inutilis (‘useless king’) and must be removed from power in the same way.
So while there may often have been sex at the medieval court, with all the permutations and partners that one can think of, what really mattered in the end was power.