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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
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Scholars continue to debate whether the later medieval king Edward II (1284-1327) actually engaged in homosexual activities, but there is little doubt that powerful English barons were unsettled by the exceptional closeness of his relationships with Piers Gaveston (executed 1311) and Hugh Despenser. By 1322, the king had entrusted Despenser with a significant amount of political authority. In 1326, Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, led a successful rebellion against Edward and Despenser, whom they captured and executed in 1327. Edward was killed by having a red-hot poker inserted into his anus, and Hugh's genitals were cut off before he was beheaded.

From Sin to Crime

Homosexual acts were condemned with increasing severity in the later half of the thirteenth century. The two most important English legal codes of the era proscribed death for male-male anal intercourse: burial while still alive, according to Fleta, or burning at the stake, according to Britton (essentially a translation of Fleta into the vernacular). The inadequacy of medieval legal records makes it impossible to determine the extent to which these penalties were enforced. However, pervasive repression and fear are suggested by the virtual disappearance of overt themes of same-sex love from literature and by the fervor with which individuals defended themselves against rumors of sodomy.

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In 1533, Henry VIII classified sodomy as a secular felony to be punished by execution by hanging and loss of all material goods. Henry's action can be understood as a maneuver in his war against the Catholic Church because it removed an important legal mater from ecclesiastical control and it was used to discredit clerics who were accused of practicing sodomy. In 1547, the first year of the rule of Edward VI, the sodomy law was repealed, but it was reinstated the following year with provisions intended to ensure more rigorous standards of evidence and to eliminate the financial rewards previously granted to those who reported incidents of sodomy.

Asserting that sexual offenses were a spiritual offense, Mary Tudor repealed the sodomy law in 1553. Claiming that crimes against nature had increased under Mary, Elizabeth I reclassified sodomy as a secular felony in 1559, and, in 1563, she eliminated the reforms made under Edward in order in order to achieve her goal of swifter prosecution of supposed offenders.

Sodomy was classified as treason against the Crown in a court decision of 1607. In the third part of his influential Institutes of the Laws of England (completed 1628), the prominent legal authority Sir Edward Coke emphasized the importance of the 1607 decision in establishing sodomy as treason, but he also characterized homosexual acts as heresy and sorcery.

The earliest recorded procedures against a man for homosexual acts under secular law took place in 1541 when the Privy Council brought charges of sodomy against Nicholas Udall, author of one of the earliest English comedies. Although Udall was confined to prison, he was freed after a few months. However, not all men convicted of sodomy were treated as leniently as Udall.

For instance, Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven, and two of his servants were executed in 1631 for homosexual acts and for the rape of Lady Castlehaven. Both Charles I and his subjects eagerly followed the lurid testimony given by numerous witnesses at the trial conducted by the House of Lords throughout April and May. The diverse charges brought against Castlehaven and his accomplices indicate the fluidity of sexual categories in the early modern era and the difficulties involved in imposing strict concepts of sexuality on the period.

According to testimony at the trial, the Earl engaged in intercrural sex and masturbation with his servants, but he did not attempt anal intercourse. Departing from legal precedents, the Lords maintained that charges of sodomy could be applied even if penetration did not occur. Their decision generally was not followed by later justices, who usually enforced the death penalty only if anal intercourse had occurred. In 1781, a legal ruling established that men accused of sodomy could be executed only if both anal penetration and internal emission of semen were proven.

Held in 1640 in Cork, the trial of John Atherton, Anglican Bishop of Waterford and Lismore (Ireland) and of his Proctor and supposed lover, John Childe, also attracted national attention. Published shortly after the executions, a sensationalistic pamphlet, The Life and Death of John Atherton, featured a woodcut, representing Atherton and Childe hanging from the gallows. Because it shows both men with full beards, the illustration effectively (but probably unintentionally) challenged the widespread stereotype of the sodomite as an older man taking advantage of young boys.

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