Untold lives blog

30 April 2019

Records of homosexuality in 17th century England

Stephen Noble explores manuscript sources recording homosexuality in 17th-century England, using recently catalogued material in the Harley collection. 

There are difficulties in looking at the history of homosexuality through modern eyes. The term ‘homosexuality’ was coined in the 19th century and we cannot know how people from the past would identify with the language we use today.

The Buggery Act of 1533 criminalised homosexual activity between men and as a result, records of people self-identifying are rare. The records that remain tend to focus on the criminalised acts and not the feelings of those performing them, usually containing accusations or gossip using terms like ‘sodomite’, ‘ganymede’, ‘catamite’, ‘bardash’ and ‘tribade’. This also means that, as female homosexual acts were not specifically criminalised, records of male homosexuality are more prevalent. Lower literacy rates amongst women also plays a role in the relative lack of female perspective.

Harley MS 646 contains the autobiography of politician and antiquarian Sir Simonds D’Ewes. When D’Ewes writes about the corruption charges levelled at Sir Francis Bacon in 1621, he goes on to accuse Bacon of the ‘sinne of Sodomie’, and keeping ‘a verie effeminate faced youth to bee his catamite and bedfellow’. He includes a verse ‘Within this sty a hogg doth ly/That must be hang’d for Sodomy’ (‘hogg’ being a play on Bacon’s surname).

Excerpt from the manuscript Autobiography of Sir Simonds d’EwesAutobiography of Sir Simonds d’Ewes, Harley MS 646 f. 59v.

Interestingly, when the autobiography was published in 1845, the editor removed the accusation and changed the words of the verse from ‘sodomy’ to ‘villany’. A footnote states ‘D’Ewes here specifically charged Bacon with an abominable offence, in language too gross for publication’.

Satirical theatre and poetry played a large part in 17th-century literary culture. Sexuality was a common topic, including references to both male and female homosexuality.

Harley MS 7315 contains the poem ‘Venus Reply’, where Venus says that women ‘have got a new game/call’d Flatts…’ (‘game of flats’ being a euphemism for sex between women). The poet also writes of ‘Frogmore Frolics’, referring to rumours of what went on at Frogmore House, home at this time to Viscount Fitzhardinge, where the women are ‘for no Masculine lover’.

Excerpt from manuscript poem 'Venus Reply’'Venus Reply’, Harley MS 7315, f. 285v

In Harley MS 6913 is a poem containing the line ‘…that patient bardash Shrewsbury’, referring to Charles Talbot, 12th Earl of Shrewsbury. What prompts this accusation is not said, but one possible interpretation may be that in 1679, when the poem was written, Shrewsbury converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism.

In the English imagination, homosexuality was often linked with foreigners, especially Catholics and Italians (‘in the Italian way’ was another euphemism for sodomy). Perhaps the poet is using homosexuality as a metaphor and, by referring to Shrewsbury as a ‘patient bardash’, is implying that he had not truly changed his religious views?

Another example of this link between homosexuality and Catholicism in English satire is the play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery, one of the few remaining manuscript copies of which survives in the Harley collection.

Manuscript title page for ‘Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery’‘Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery’, here attributed to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, Harley MS 7312, p. 118

Whilst the play deals exclusively with sexual matters, the purpose was not to satirise Charles II’s sexual activities, but rather his toleration of Catholicism and his use of the Royal Prerogative. In Sodom, King Bolloxinion transforms his kingdom by legalising same-sex intercourse and, by the end of the play, becomes increasingly tyrannical. The playwright warns that allowing Charles II to use of the Royal Prerogative to transform religious toleration in England, and leaving his power unchecked, could have similar consequences.

Stephen Noble
Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Follow us on Twitter @BL_ModernMSS

Further Reading

Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)

Marie H. Loughlin (ed.), Same-sex desire in early modern England, 1550-1735: an anthology of literary texts and contexts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014)

Cameron McFarlane, The sodomite in fiction and satire, 1660-1750 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)

Image from The Life of the Buddha

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