Why we need to stop looking for sex: letters and LGBT+ royal history

“How do you know?” 

I’ve been asked this a lot recently when I’ve been talking about LGBT+ royal history. I’m glad to be asked it, because it gets to the heart of studying LGBT+ identities in the past. In this blog, I’d like to talk about the evidence and assumptions, which tell us a lot about sexuality in the past, and today. 

All history is built on the traces and survivals people in the past have left us. Think about your life: how much of it could a historian in 300 years’ time piece together? Do you keep all your letters? Archive all your emails? Keep receipts for everything you’ve bought? Do you keep a diary, and what do you write in it? What about the things that never get written down? Every day you’ll have conversations, some mundane, some life changing. Do you record these or are they lost forever? 

It’s the same with people in the past. We only know them from the traces of evidence made at the time, which have survived to our own day. We’ll never know what was lost, and even more, we’ll never know what was whispered from one person to another – secrets that were never meant to be repeated, let alone written down. 

I’ve been telling the stories of James VI and I, Queen Anne, and Lord Hervey as part of Historic Royal Palaces’ work to bring alive the LGBT+ histories of the special places we look after. So, what evidence do I have to include these three in this history? All three left letters to people of the same sex who they loved, and these are wonderful sources, but do they actually tell us that these three people were LGBT+? 

Carved stone portrait relief of King James I in the Council Chamber of the Queen’s House at the Tower of London

Many people have looked to the letters for evidence of physical sexual activity. 

James VI and I’s male favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham wrote to the king: 

There is a difference betwixt that noble hand and heart, one may surfeit by the one, but not by the other, and sooner by yours than his own; therefore give me leave to stop, with mine, that hand which hath been but too ready to execute the motions and affections of that kind obliging heart to me. 

It looks like Villiers has experienced a ‘surfeit’ of feeling by the ‘motions’ of James’s hand, reflecting the ‘affections’ of James’ heart. Historians have debated the meaning of this letter; with some suggesting that it proves a physical sexual relationship, with others less sure, suggesting it could be a joke. 

Princess Anne of Denmark (later Queen Anne), Willem Wissing, 1683-1702

A phrase from a 1706 letter from Queen Anne to Lady Sarah Churchill is often quoted to demonstrate the strength of the Queen’s romantic feeling for Sarah, who she addressed as Mrs. Freeman: 

… for though you are never so unkind, I will preserve a most sincere and tender passion for my dear Mrs Freeman… 

The phrase ‘sincere and tender passion’ sounds intensely romantic to modern ears, yet the historian Ophelia Field has pointed out that Sarah also uses the word ‘passions’ to describe her feelings for her mother and daughter. We have to work hard to lose our modern understandings of words to work out their meanings 300 years ago. 

Lord Hervey wrote to his great love, Stephen ‘Ste’ Fox, in 1727: 

You have left some such remembrance behind you that I assure you (if ’tis any satisfaction to you to know it) you are not in the least Danger of being forgotten. The favours I have received at Your Honour’s Hands are of such a Nature that tho‘ the impression might wear out of my Mind, yet they are written in such lasting characters upon every Limb, that ’tis impossible for me to look on a Leg or an Arm without having my Memory refresh’d. 

Is Hervey suggesting that Ste has left physical marks on his body from a passionate romantic encounter? Or that the memory of Ste’s touch has left an indelible mental impression? The letter is open to interpretation, but the strength of the sentiment communicates strongly. 

By now we can see the problems we can run in to when we use letters as sources to identify LGBT+ orientations and identities in people in the past. James VI and I, Queen Anne and Lord Hervey lived in a different age, and as is often said, sexuality was understood differently then. Written records from court reports to pornography attest that same-sex sex was widely experienced and understood in the time of James VI and I, Anne and Lord Hervey. Today we think of sexuality as something you are, but in the past it was something you did, or felt. For this reason, projecting our modern ideas of sexuality on to people in the past just doesn’t work. 

The problem is much bigger than this though. 

In so much research to find evidence of LGBT+ people in the past we look for evidence of physical sexual activity as a gold standard. It seems to be the perfect evidence. We need to stop doing this, because there is so much more to sexuality and sexual identity than sex. 

Think about your own life. If you are in, or have ever been in, a close romantic relationship with someone, you will know that sex is only a part of love and relationships. Companionship, emotional attraction, shared values or a sense of humour all contribute to the emotional bond. Also, thinking about the evidence we leave for history, how often do we write down or record sexual encounters? Some people might confide to their diaries or their friends, but I expect that most people today won’t leave behind the kind of evidence for future historians that we expect people in the past to have left for us. Until very recently same-sex sex between women was taboo, and between men a capital offence. Is it any wonder people didn’t leave an incriminating written record even if they did have same-sex physical encounters? 

Instead, we need to understand people in the past in their own terms. We know that same sex love and desire and many experiences of gender have existed in every human society. If we really want to understand people in the past we need to look at what the evidence that survives tells us, rather than looking for experiences that match our modern expectations. 

In 1623, James VI and I, near the end of his life, finished a letter to the Duke of Buckingham, who was 26 years younger than him, with the lines: 

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. And so God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband. 

James takes on the role of father and husband to the younger man. The strength of feeling is clear to us, but its expression is different to our modern understanding of romantic love. We also shouldn’t forget that this relationship was based as much on politics and power as shared feeling. Buckingham rose through the ranks of society and the aristocracy thanks to James’s patronage. 

Similarly, Anne as a princess wrote to Lady Sarah Churchill in 1692: 

I had rather live in a cottage with you than reign empress of the world without you. 

Anne reveals her intense emotional and practical reliance on Sarah, but I suspect that the politically ambitious Sarah wouldn’t have shared Anne’s view. Anne was far more useful to Sarah as a ruler than as a companion in a cottage. 

The Rt Hon John Lord Hervey of Ickworth, English courtier, political writer and memoirist, by John Faber Junior, 1741

Lord Hervey’s poem to Ste Fox from early in their relationship expresses his feelings for the young man: 

Thou dearest Youth, who taught me first to know 

What Pleasures from real Friendship flow; 

Where neither Interest nor Deceit have part, 

But all the Warmth is Nature of the Heart 

Hervey’s sentiments are beautiful, but before we apply modern labels to him, we should remember, that he, like James and Anne, also had a successful heterosexual marriage. With all these examples we should remember that we only see the evidence that has survived. James, Anne and Lord Hervey only wrote letters when they were apart from the people they loved, the words they spoke in private together are lost to us forever. We only see an incomplete picture. We tend to think that everybody in the past is straight, unless we have definitive proof otherwise. However, this proof may not exist, or it may look very different to what we were expecting. We need to listen to the evidence of the past with an open mind. 

Sexuality in the past was governed by its own culturally defined rules, laws and understandings that are different to our own. Our current perceptions of LGBT+ identities are also changing and will be different in the future. Attempting to enforce rigid categories of sexuality and gender on to people in the past doesn’t work, just as it so often doesn’t work for people today. Instead, we need to take the evidence, and understand that queer people and queer experiences existed everywhere in the past. The answer to the question “how do you know?” lies in the evidence from the past. That evidence just might look different to what we were expecting. 

Matthew Storey,
Curator (Collections)

One thought on “Why we need to stop looking for sex: letters and LGBT+ royal history

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We promise never to sell your data to any third parties. For more details, take a look at our customer promise and privacy policy.