Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Long live Queen James

A review of King James and the History of Homosexuality by Michael B. Young
(New York University Press, 2000)

King James I & VI (1566–1625) has long been seen as one of the great queens of history, sometimes dismissed as a wanton fool, sometimes praised for his “gay pride”. When the Privy Council rebuked him for kissing and fondling his favourite George Villiers so openly in public, James defended himself with the words “Christ had his John, and I have my George.”

Michael Young, Professor of History at Illinois Wesleyan University, brings solid historical scholarship to bear upon an issue that is all too often monopolized by cultural and social theorists in Departments of Literature. Young skilfully integrates sexual history with political history to show how James’s homosexuality provoked a specifically homophobic politics. James’s virtues – his love of peace and his scholarship – were taken as signs of effeminacy and homosexuality. Queen Elizabeth was praised as being kinglike, and James was criticized as being queen-like. Contemporary political satires attacked James’s pacifist foreign policy by interweaving images of effeminacy, effeteness and sexual inversion with images of a topsy-turvy political world. James’s foreign policy was criticized as being effete and pacifist, and such political criticism was combined with criticism of his effeminate favourites.

Queen Anne facilitated these attacks from her counter-court, encouraging those eager for war with Spain, and encouraging their son Prince Henry to be fervently militaristic. Mother and son bitterly resented James’s homosexuality. Prince Henry died prematurely in 1612, but one disastrous legacy of James's reputation as an effeminate peacemaker was that James’s second son, Charles, did everything he could to avoid being thought queer like his father. Charles, with a deep revulsion for his father’s lifestyle, defined himself as the opposite of his father and became a warrior-king and a model of uxorious heterosexuality. Charles pursued war until the Treasury could no longer sustain it. At court, he created an iconography of domestic married bliss.

James had indiscreet relations with men from his youth. His contemporaries recognized not only that he loved men, but that he actively disliked women. They recognized that “his persistent involvement with other males was damaging his marriage” to Queen Anne. The increasingly bad relations between James and his Parliament were due not simply to his reckless extravagance, but also to their homophobia. They objected to his personal behaviour, particularly to his wanton behaviour with his circle of favourites. The arrival of his boyfriend Robert Carr as Gentlemen of the Bedchamber in 1607, for example, also marked the separation of James and Queen Anne.

Young establishes that there can be no doubt that James loved his primary favourite George Villiers (later made Duke of Buckingham). None of James’s contemporaries doubted that James had given his heart to Villiers and Villiers had given his body to the King. With the exception of offspring, Young says, “there is at least as much evidence indicating that James had sex with his male favourites as there is evidence that he had sex with his wife.” His relationships were physical, not platonic, and his contemporaries were not at a loss for words to comment on this. There is not only abundant hearsay and circumstantial evidence, but also concrete evidence in some of James’s letters to Carr and Villiers – and also evidence that he felt no shame or embarrassment in requiring their sexual services. James addressed Villiers as “my sweet child and wife” and signed himself “thy dear dad and husband”, and Villiers in turn likened James to his “mistress”.

James probably would not have married but for the need to produce heirs. Anne did get pregnant every other year before they ceased having sexual relations (i.e. the last sixteen years of their marriage), but James can hardly be called “bisexual” since his clear preference was for sex with men. James condemned sodomy in one of his books, but he probably did not think of himself as a “sodomite” because the evidence suggests that he engaged in mutual masturbation rather than anal intercourse. In any case, James was a notorious hypocrite. Others, however, did think of him as a sodomite.

Young rightly treats the case of James as an important test for assessing the accuracy of modern theories of homosexual history. Much of Young’s argument refutes the reductionist and sometimes doctrinaire claims of gay historian Alan Bray. Young’s solid historical scholarship demonstrates that a distinctively modern view of homosexuality was already well established by the early seventeenth century. Young specifically disagrees with Alan Bray’s view that in seventeenth-century England sodomy was seen as a sin practised by monsters. In fact it was viewed as, yes, a sin, but a sin practised by ordinary men. The demonizing rhetoric of the Church was not employed so often as a down-to-earth rhetoric of “unnatural” “vice” or “perversion” or “deviation”, and something to be ridiculed. People other than the clergy employed code words to talk about homosexuality, e.g. “Ganymede” as a mythological epithet for a homosexual boyfriend. And political attacks used code words such as “minions” and “favourites”. In other words, Jacobean homophobia was grounded not only in Christian beliefs, but in conventional morality, often politically motivated – largely the same sort of homophobia found today.

Contrary to claims made by Bray, most of James’s contemporaries who attacked James for loving men did not construe him as a hideous monster nor employ medieval “sodomitical discourse”. The contemporary discourse about James’s love for other men was actually very similar to modern discourse. For example, effeminacy “was an integral part of Jacobean discourse about sexual relations between males”, and Young examines numerous tracts which portrayed James as a queen or queer in terms familiar today. Young refutes the claim of some gay historians (such as Alan Bray and Alan Sinfield) that effeminacy in seventeenth-century England was not seen as being linked to homosexuality. Although there were relatively infrequent uses of “effeminate” to mean that a man was excessively attracted to women (i.e. heterosexual!), in the large majority of cases it meant exactly what it means today, and was nearly always associated with homosexual men. Men such as King James, whose ideal was the adolescent youth such as Villiers, noted for his beauty, his hairless cheeks and long slender legs.

Many of the people who attacked James for loving men, even the most venomous, may have been foul-mouthed scandalmongers exploiting salacious gossip – just as they would today – but they did not use a medieval paradigm of horrid sodomy. As Young says, “There is no suggestion of devils, witches, papists, monsters or total moral depravity.” Sir Anthony Ashley, for example, simply placed James in an abstract class of homosexual men: “those that naturally hated women”. Sometimes James was luridly compared to the Emperor Tiberiuis, noted for his sexual perversions on the island of Capri. More often he was the subject of innuendo. All in all, he was simply branded as a queer rather than a sodomite. Sir Edward Peyton in 1652 was quite straightforward in his language, saying that “James was more addicted to love males than females . . . and sold his affections to Sir George Villiers, whom he would tumble and kiss as a mistress.” One of James’s contemporaries, Francis Osborne, in 1658 protested that what James and his favourites got up to in private “exceed my expressions no less than they do my experience”, but he did not call it sodomy or a sin against nature, but acknowledged that it was “love, or what else posterity will please to call it.” Young convincingly shows that what James’s contemporaries recognized, though they lacked the word for it, was what posterity has called homosexuality.

Young criticizes earlier historians for trying to evade the issue of James’s homosexuality, and he also criticizes modern gay historians for constructing a gulf between modern homosexuals and early modern sodomites. “The more we learn about the earlier seventeenth century, the narrower the gulf between then and now will appear.” Young notes that the “history of homosexuality is a relatively new field of study in which the hypotheses of a few early scholars have tended to become doctrinaire viewpoints, several of which look less persuasive after examining the case of James VI and I.” He shows that Alan Bray’s approach is reductionist, leading to theoretical dogmas that later and less able scholars have tried to force onto the evidence. He presents a very detailed step-by-step argument with, and substantial refutation of, Bray’s line of reasoning. The theory that homosexuality is an “invention” of the eighteenth, or nineteenth, or twentieth century is shown to be a gross error. Young finds virtually no evidence to support the claim that a “gender revolution” occurred in the eighteenth century, or that bisexuality was the norm in earlier periods, or that a bipolar construct of heterosexual and homosexual did not exist until modern times. Many theories quite unsupported by evidence continue to be cited today as if they were textbook fact, but they are not. Many historians, gay or otherwise, have exaggerated change at the expense of contintuity.

In sum, Young finds no corroboration for the alleged gulf between modern and early-modern homosexuals and prejudices against homosexuals. His exhaustive review of contemporary pamphlets, diaries, letters, memoirs, plays, dictionaries and literary sources reveals continuities rather than radical shifts in mentalities, and reestablishes the common humanity between gay men today and the men who loved one another in the early seventeenth century.


(Part of this review was originally published in Gay News in July 2001. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

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