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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
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Primarily located on the British Isles off the northwest coast of Europe, the United Kingdom is composed of four distinct countries: England, Wales, and Scotland on the island of Great Britain, as well as Northern Ireland. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are federated with the United Kingdom. Scattered overseas territories, including Bermuda and Gibraltar, constitute the last vestiges of the British Empire.

Excluding overseas territories, the United Kingdom had a population of more than 60.2 million individuals in 2005.

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Wales was brought under control of England during the thirteenth century, and the two countries were unified into a single legal jurisdiction by acts of 1536 and 1542. Ruled by the English monarch since 1603, Scotland was formally unified with England and Wales in 1707. Brought under British control by the early seventeenth century, Ireland was officially incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1800. Although most of Ireland gained independence in 1922, the six counties of Ulster, comprising Northern Ireland, remain part of the United Kingdom.

Despite political unification, Scotland and Northern Ireland constitute distinct legal jurisdictions from England and Wales. Significantly for glbtq history, the laws regarding sexual behavior often have been different in each of the jurisdictions.

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance. In the early twenty-first century, the United Kingdom has become an international leader in the recognition and protection of the rights and freedoms of glbtq individuals. Recent laws affirming the equality of gay and lesbian citizens, however, represent a significant shift in government policies.

Historical Background

As is the case with many other nations, significant gaps remain in our understanding of queer life in the United Kingdom in earlier periods. Before the late nineteenth century, most of the secure documentation is negative in intention, mostly concerning enforcement of criminal penalties against male homosexuals. Thus far, most published studies have focused on male homosexuals, and much less attention has been given to lesbians, bisexuals, and individuals.

As Jeffrey Weeks has emphasized, acts that are considered queer today may have been regarded very differently in other social and historical contexts. For ease of reference, modern terms--including gay, lesbian, homosexual, and queer--are employed throughout this essay, but this usage is not intended to imply that historical constructions of sexuality and gender are identical to those of our era.

As John Boswell has shown, English manuscripts of the Early Middle Ages contain numerous satirical and condemnatory references to same-sex love. However, a few prominent British clerics, including Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033/4-1109) and Saint Aelred of Rielvaux (ca 1110-1167), celebrated passionate male friendships.

Appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, Anselm prohibited publication of the decree of the Council of London of 1102, which included provisions for the punishment of priests found guilty of . Anselm's letters to his friends and students appropriate the intensely passionate language of lovers to evoke the fusion of souls in spiritual endeavors. Nevertheless, Anselm strongly supported the ideal of priestly chastity in numerous pronouncements, and there is no evidence that he physically expressed the love that he clearly felt for several of his close associates.

Saint Aelred was unambiguous in his declarations of love for other men. A friend of King David of Scotland and an advisor to Henry II of England, Aelred was one of the most influential ecclesiastics of his generation. While Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx (1147-1167), Aelred wrote Spiritual Friendship, in which he explained that Biblical accounts of David and Jonathan and of Jesus and John the Evangelist established the sanctity of male friendships. In other writings, Aelred openly acknowledged the physical expressions of his love for Simon, a monk who died shortly before 1143. Although celibate in his later years, he never condemned physical manifestations of love and allowed monks to hold hands and otherwise show their love for one another.

Aelred's exuberant valuation of same-sex friendship was exceptional for his era. Because accusations of sodomy were made to discredit rivals, it is necessary to be cautious in accepting references to homosexual activity as accurate. Nevertheless, the consistency of accounts of the love of King Richard I, known as the Lion Hearted (1157-1199), for other men suggests that they may have a basis in fact.

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Top: Mervyn Touchet, Earl of Castlehaven, was executed in 1631.
Above: Cross-dressers Frederick Park (left) and Ernest Boulton became notorious after their arrest for sodomy in 1869. They were not convicted.

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