The Gay Guide to Westminster Abbey

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.


On St Valentine's Day, 1995, a memorial stained-glass window in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, was unveiled to the memory of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), one hundred years to the day after the opening night of his play The Importance of Being Earnest. He is but one in a long line of queers who have been commemorated in this famous London landmark.

This grandiose pile is a pleasantly depressing monument to death, or, more precisely, to our ancestors' sometimes ludicrous grasps for immortality by means of the most delightfully ostentatious tombs. I have always considered its funerary sculpture to be a perfect example of high camp, and in any case it is moderately diverting to find out where lie the mortal remains of our gay forbears.

Poets' Corner

A modest stone in the Poets' Corner in the South Transept, for example, commemorates Lord Byron (1788-1824), great romantic poet, author of Don Juan, and indefatigable lover of diverse Greek youths. The Poets' Corner also boasts a handsome medallion for the (suppressed?) gay poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771), with a tasteful epitaph composed by his friend William Mason. And — but of course — a monument to the immortal William Shakespeare (1564-1616), a striking structure which the gay aniquary Horace Walpole aptly termed "preposterous" when it was erected by subscription in 1740.

The bones of gay dramatist Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) — who lived with his lover John Fletcher on the Bankside in Southwark — lie near the tomb of Dryden. The latest gay poet to be honoured in the Poets' Corner is W.H. Auden (1907-1973), and in the musical section there is a stone honouring the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

If we make our solemn way thence to the Great Nave, we will come upon the effigy of one of the gayest of monarchs, King James I (1566-1625), whose tomb was lost and not rediscovered until 1869. On His Majesty's left is the magnificent tomb of his lover George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628). (On his right is the tomb (with huge bronze figures representing Hope, Truth, Charity and Faith) of Ludovic Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox (1574-1624), son of one of his earliest lovers, Esme Stuart.)

It is not always easy to get into the Abbey. Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822), who had gone insane and cut his throat after homosexual blackmail, finally was buried near the North Entrance to the North Transept, but at his funeral mourners had to fight their way through a rioting mob.

The Queer Mystery of the Abbey is the whereabouts of the remains of Samuel Foote (1720-1777), the Restoration dramatist who was once as popular — and as witty — as Oscar Wilde, and whose reputation, like Wilde's was blasted by homosexual scandal. But his staunch admirers, determined to claim for him a respectable niche in the Abbey, buried him by torchlight in an unmarked grave somewhere along the North Walk of the Cloisters — tread softly!

Stolen Jawbone

Other gay or bisexual notables interred in Westminster Abbey include King William III (1650-1702), buried in great simplicity in the South Aisle of the Chapel of Henry VI, and his boyfriend William Bentinck (1649-1709), buried in a vault nearby; and King Richard II (1367-1400), whose tomb in the Ambulatory used to be partly open until a Westminster schoolboy stole his jawbone in 1776 (it was returned in 1906).

Other probable gay men memorialized herein include Charles George Gordon or "Chinese Gordon" (1833-1885) — a bronze bust in the Belfry Tower; Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806) — a monument over the west door of the Nave; and Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) of Rhodes Scholarships fame — South Aisle. A fair number of the monks and abbots entombed in the building they loved best were no doubt gay, though the proof be buried with them. And of course there is an honourable gay share among those grey marble slabs which pay homage, for example, to "all those who served the Crown in the Colonial Territories."

Mortality, behold and fear
What a change of flesh is here!
Think how e'en the gayest bones
Sleep within these heaps of stones.


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "The Gay Guide to Westminster Abbey", Gay History and Literature, updated 9 January 2012 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/westmin.htm>.

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