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.