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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
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Eighteenth-century prison lists in London contain numerous references to working-class women arrested for marrying other women. Throughout the century, magazine articles about "female husbands" attest to a popular fascination with this phenomenon. The series published in London Chronicle in 1755 presented the theme of two female partners with an unusual degree of sympathy.

In a bestselling pamphlet entitled Female Husband, published anonymously in November 1746, Henry Fielding presented a highly fictionalized account of the experiences of Mary Hamilton, arrested two months earlier for attempting to dupe other women into marriage. Although Fielding emphasized the sincerity of Hamilton's love for other women, he endorsed the severe punishments that she received, including a series of four public whippings that permanently scarred her flesh.

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Female cross-dressing enjoyed great popularity on the stage; women played "breeches parts" in approximately one-fourth of the plays produced in Britain during the eighteenth century. One of the best-known actresses specializing in these roles, Charlotte Charke (1713-1766), claimed that she had worked at various male occupations before taking up acting.

Enforcement of Sexual Laws in the Early Nineteenth Century

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was renewed commitment to enforce the law against sodomy rigorously and to secure severe penalties for homosexual acts. Scholars have speculated upon the reasons for the harsh enforcement of the law, but they have not reached a consensus. Among the factors most often cited is the increasingly imperialistic disposition of British society, which encouraged suppression of any types of behavior (such as displays of affection) that might be identified as feminine or weak. It is interesting that the change in enforcement patterns occurred simultaneously with the growth of institutions, such as boarding schools and clubs, that fostered male bonding.

By 1810, eighty percent of men convicted of sodomy were executed, compared with fewer than fifteen percent of those found guilty of other capital offenses, including murder. Police began to employ undercover agents in a systematic effort to locate and entrap homosexuals, and they made raids on establishments frequented by these men.

For example, in 1810, the police arrested almost thirty men in a raid of the White Swan (nicknamed the Vere Street Club), a popular London tavern that functioned as a meeting place for sexual outsiders, primarily men who engaged in same-sex sexual activities, but also female sex workers and their clients. At the conclusion of the widely reported trial, six men were found guilty of "attempted sodomy," a charge used for homosexual acts when penetration could not be established.

All of those convicted were imprisoned for terms of one to three years and forced to stand in the pillory at the Haymarket. Lamenting that these men could not be hanged, newspapers encouraged readers to hurl objects at them while they stood in the pillory. Referring to another case in September 1810, the General Evening Post celebrated the deaths of several sodomites from similar mistreatment.

The military regarded sodomy as a more serious crime than mutiny or desertion. In 1811, members of the royal family were among the many witnesses of the elaborately staged execution of Ensign John Hepburn and drummer Thomas White, convicted of sodomy. After a highly publicized naval scandal, four crew members of the Africaine were hanged in February 1816 for this crime. If penetration could not be proven, sailors suspected of homosexual acts were routinely punished by 1,000 lashes.

Responding to public outrage about the difficulty of imposing the death penalty on homosexuals, Home Secretary Robert Peel in 1826 proposed that the requirements for evidence in the law against sodomy be modified. In accord with his ideas, the Offenses against the Person Act of 1828 stated that it was not necessary to prove internal emission and that "carnal knowledge" would be established simply if anal penetration had been attempted.

However, the death penalty was not applied after the 1830s in sodomy cases. In 1861, the sodomy law for England and Wales was revised, and the death penalty was replaced by prison sentences, ranging from a minimum of ten years to life.


Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824) embodied the Romantic ideal of the courageous and handsome hero. Despite the adulation he received, he abandoned his native country because he could not abide the sexual constraints that dominated British society of his era.

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