The Tudor Society

What was the legal and social status of male homosexual relationships in Tudor and Elizabethan England?

Thank you to Rioghnach for asking this question. The full question was "What was the legal and social status of male homosexual relationships in Tudor and Elizabethan England? In general; within the clergy and religious houses; and within the Royal Courts?" Historian Owen Emmerson has kindly answered it.

The legal status of gay relations over the 118 years in which the six monarchs of the Tudor dynasty ruled is a tale of two spheres which shifted enormously.1 For 52 of those years - during the reigns of Henry VII, Mary I and for the majority of Henry VIII’s reign - homosexuality was deemed a sin and, as such, was subject to the scrutiny of the Catholic church’s courts.2

After 1533, most of the Tudor monarchs persecuted gay men not through the church but in the criminal law courts. The great schism that led to the Henrician Reformation was the arena in which the crime of homosexuality shifted from Church to State. The counter-reformation provided a five-year respite from state persecution, before the Elizabethan period in which the Act against homosexual relations was restored. The social status of gay relations during this period was far less a point of change than continuity by comparison. Certainly not for those executed by the state, but rather those who continued to engage in gay relations and for whom the law was never applied. Just as we know of the sexual activities of Eleanor/ John Rykener during the Medieval period, Tudor and Elizabethan culture touched upon homosexuality and reflected the existence of gay relations throughout society.3

One of the critical dates in queer history was 1533 when Henry VIII and his minister Thomas Cromwell grabbed power from the church to obtain an annulment from the king’s marriage with Katherine of Aragon.4 The Reformation parliament introduced An Acte for the punishment of the vice of Buggerie, making the previously ecclesiastically adjudicated matter of gay sex the concern of the criminal law.5 Homosexuality and deviant sexuality more broadly were not merely policed: sex could be utilised as an additional, often spurious charge to tarnish the reputation of individuals charged with crimes of treason. It was also a desirable tool, for the crime of ‘buggery’ - with a man or animal of either sex - was not only a hanging matter, it presented the crown with the tempting prospect of confiscation of all the accused men’s assets, including monastic and church property, as well as private individual’s wealth. Henry’s male heir, Edward, amended this aspect of the act of 1533 in 1548, ensuring that widows and heirs could inherit.

There was, however, a period of Tudor history where gay men were not prosecuted. When Henry’s eldest daughter Mary proclaimed herself Queen over her brother Edwards heir, Jane, she repealed Henry and Cromwell’s act, and for the five years that she occupied the throne, men conducting gay relationships or relations were not subject to criminal prosecution.

From 1553, homosexuality would be policed to varying degrees until the 21st century. Henry VIII’s act would go on to be amended several times, but apart from during the five-year counter-reformation, homosexuals would be executed until 1835. The law may well have prevented some men from engaging in the desires that they felt, yet homosexual acts continued in several arenas across society, and throughout the Tudor and Elizabethan period. Although the state made ‘buggery’ a capital offence, and executed individuals accused of sexual relations between men, love, and desire found a way. Domestic service was an arena where gay sex could occur, mainly as master and servant slept in the same chamber, and communal sleeping was commonplace. Taverns, farms, alehouses, the theatre, the church, the army and navy, universities and the royal courts were all similarly potential arenas in which gay relations could flourish.6 Many gay men were persecuted, some like Walter Hungerford lost their lives, yet even if society writ-large didn’t condone gay sex and thought it sinful, the works of Jonson, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Guilpin tell us that gay men were recognized and reflected in popular culture throughout the Tudor period.

For further reading, see:

  • Bray, A, ‘Homosexuality and the signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England’ in History Workshop, No. 29 (Spring, 1990), pp. 1-19.
  • Bray, A, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 1st ed. (Gay Men’s Press, 1982).
  • Goldberg, J (ed.), Queering the Renaissance, 2nd ed. (Duke University Press, 1994)
  • Spencer, C, Homosexuality: A History, 2nd ed. (Fourth Estate, 1995), pp.149-168
  • Warnicke, R. M, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Owen Emmerson is a social and cultural historian. His work is situated within the field of the history of emotions, analysing the experience and expression of human feeling across time and space. His doctoral research focuses on childhood corporal punishment in Britain. His past research includes the religious beliefs of the Boleyn family, Anne Boleyn in Popular Culture, the history of post-war sexuality, and the ‘V-Bomb’ campaigns during the Second World War. He works at Hever Castle as a castle supervisor, and his next project will be a collaborative study with Claire Ridgway on the history of Hever Castle from 1271 to the present day.

There are 9 comments Go To Comment

  1. R

    Walter Hungerford was ironically put on the same scaffold as Thomas Cromwell as some kind of insult for his own crimes of heresy and treason. Hungerford had also raped his own daughter and committed other terrible acts. Just what the King was trying to say isn’t clear but it was obviously meant to make Cromwell out as the worst type of character possible. The Buggery Act could have been used against some of the men accused with Anne Boleyn according to the theories of Professor Warnicke who believes they were targeted for sexual deviance. However, there is no contemporary evidence that we know of to back modern ideas that George Boleyn or Francis Weston or anyone else accused of adultery with Anne were homosexual. They could well have been, they could all have been having relationships with each other all the time, but we don’t have any evidence and Henry would surely have taken action if they were guilty of what then would certainly have been very much frowned upon as sexual sins.

    In the Medieval period, any sexual activity outside of marriage was a sin, but homosexuality was viewed differently depending on were you lived. In some countries it was published with imprisonment, penance or confinement of a religious nature, in others it could carry the death penalty. However, the distinct sexual preference of being homosexual was not necessarily seen as clearly as it is today. Men may have sexual relations with other men, yet marry and have children, as society expected. They may experiment just as young men may do today, but for most of their life remain straight. A text from the time shows a much more fluent and flexible attitude as well as blurred definition of sexuality and sexual practices. Illustrations show relationships between men, although few between women exist. It is also wrong to deduce sexual preference from general sleeping behaviour because as the article says, beds were scarce and expensive and people of the same sex shared a bed out of necessity and out of friendship and favour. Having our own beds is a modern thing and we are lucky in that respect. Servants also shared a room or even a bed with their master or mistress in order to guard them or provide essentials during the night.

    From 1533 onwards, however, in England, homosexual practice was harshly punished. Homosexuality remained outlawed until the 21st century, but in other countries it is still illegal and does even carry the death penalty or castration. The film The Naked Civil Servant tells the true story of Quinten Crisp, a gay man who was persistently persecuted during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when homosexuality was still illegal in England.

    1. C - Post Author

      The two men were closely associated and I suspect that executing them together was another way of blackening Cromwell’s name.
      I know that Hungerford was cruel and abusive to his third wife, Elizabeth, and that she even reached out to Cromwell for help, but I’ve never heard of the rape allegation, do you have a source for that.

      I respect Retha Warnicke, the depth of her research is incredible, but I have to completely disagree, in the strongest terms possible, with her sexual heresy theory regarding the men involved in Anne’s fall in 1536. As you say, there is no contemporary evidence for it and “buggery” is not mentioned in any of the indictments. To add that to the charges against George, for example, would have been the perfect way of blackening the Boleyn name – incest AND buggery.

      I’m so glad that times have changed, although we still have so far to go.

      1. R

        Hi Claire, hope you are well. According to most sources he was accused of employing a priest to make magic and witchcraft against the King and another chaplain, connected to the Pilgrimage of Grace, to make prophecies and unnatural vices. Reading about his life with his wife, Elizabeth accused him of terrible abuse as part of an attempt to divorce him.

        The accusation about his abuse of his daughter comes from Charles de Marillac writing a letter on 29th July, 1540, that Walter Hungerford was_ “Attainted of sodomy of having forced his own daughter and having practiced magic and invocation of devils” He also suggested that the story may have originated with Elizabeth, along with the abuse allegations. It was obvious that the other charges were added to the “buggery” charges to further blacken the name of the accused.

        I completely agree with you on the theories of Retha Warnicke on the Fall of Anne Boleyn. It just didn’t make sense.

        1. C - Post Author

          Thank you so much, RTL, I have Marillac’s dispatches so I’ll find that letter.
          Hungerford is an interesting Tudor character who is often glossed over, with not many people knowing that Cromwell was executed alongside him.

          1. R

            Your welcome, Claire, I don’t know much about him, but the Hungerford family played some important roles in the Wars of the Roses. He is well worth a bit of research.

            Yes, the whole concept of being gay as we know it didn’t exist, but as a forbidden sexual practice, same sex ‘relationships ‘ or behaviour was certainly punished one way or another. In Florence there was a public box that you could renounce someone for various crimes and one common one was to make an allegation of sexual deviance, which could be anything outside of marriage, but same sex relations was one that cropped up again and again. I am not sure was the penalty was but it must have been severe as it appears those accused were terrified. Some historians have speculated that Edward iv had a brief relationship with the Duke of Somerset. However, he went on to be the father of several children and his weakness was fancy women, not other men. There is also the usual claims that Edward ii was probably what we might call today, bisexual in that he had long term relationships with both men and women. He was of course married, as this was expected, he had five healthy children with Isabella the Fair, but he had two dominant male partners. The first, Piers Gaverson he was most probably the lover of, the second Hugh Despenser the Younger he was more under the thumb of and the relationship may have been abusive, recent biographies have suggested. It wasn’t because of their sexual conduct that the men were disapproved off, however, but their unusual and heavily political influence over the King, which brought resentment from the nobles whose jobs they took. It was their sexuality which was exploited and other crimes added to make them look even worse when they were captured, given an illegal trial and brutally killed. Hugh Dispensers execution, the first in England of its kind, was seen as a reference to his alleged sexual deviance. It’s certainly a subject that requires further study.

  2. S

    An interesting but too brief article. But I must point out a few critical issues. First, the word “homosexual” and even the concept of homosexuality were entirely unknown in 16th-century Europe. So too the idea of “gay relations/relationships” simply did not exist, at least not in the way in which those terms are used today. I might also caution against any temptation among readers to interpret the author’s statement that “men conducting gay relationships or relations were not subject to criminal prosecution” during a certain period to mean that they were to some degree tolerated or allowed. That is certainly NOT the case. The reality is that very few prosecutions solely for same-sex behavior were actually brought forward during the entirety of the Tudor period. As the author notes, charges of sodomy or buggery were instead more commonly attached to longer indictments of other, usually non-sexual, charges in an effort to further impugn the character of the accused rather than being levied as a stand-alone indictment. Examples of charges of buggery or sodomy being brought as a stand-alone charge during the Tudor period can almost be counted on one hand. The complex reality is that persons of the 16th century simply did not view sex, sexuality, and sexual behavior in the same ways that the modern world does. The issue was grounded less in actual sexual behavior than it was in personal character, reputation (a.k.a. “social credit”), and social roles/expectations. Consider, for example, that same-sex behavior between women was simply not addressed in either canon or civil law in England. In other words, women “being gay,” whether the relationship was sexual or non-sexual, was never illegal. So why was engaging in same-sex sexual contact illegal for men? As noted above, the answer lies in social roles and expectations. So while this article is an intriguing start, the subject is a very complex one that deserves more than a few hundred words.

    1. C - Post Author

      Hi Stephan,
      Thank you so much for your comment. The whole idea of the “Expert Answer” section is for them to be brief answers to members’ questions, rather than detailed articles, and I ask the experts to just write a few hundred words, but I agree that this topic deserves further examination, perhaps in our magazine. One could certainly write a book on it!

    2. O

      Thanks for your interesting feedback. You’re certainly correct that ‘homosexual’ is both a modern word and concept. It was employed here simply because it was the word of choice in the question I received. I was also careful to state that Mary’s reign bought respite from “criminal prosecution”, and this certainly wasn’t intended to indicate that queer men weren’t socially persecuted during this period: they most certainly were.

      I would very much like the opportunity to expand on this subject further in the future. In the meantime there is a dearth of recent research on this subject if you would like some further reading?

      Many thanks again for your feedback.



  3. R

    Interestingly, Queen Mary I repealed the 1533 Act although it was reintroduced in 1562_by Elizabeth I.

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What was the legal and social status of male homosexual relationships in Tudor and Elizabethan England?