Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Queen James and His Courtiers

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Long Live Queen James

While riding through the bustling streets of London from 1603 to 1621, one was liable to hear the shout "Long live Queen James!" King James I of England and VI of Scotland was so open about his homosexual love affairs that an epigram had been circulated which roused much mirth and nodding of the heads: Rex fuit Elizabeth: nunc est regina Jacobus—"Elizabeth was King: now James is Queen."

Very few official biographers still tenaciously maintain that there is no "real" evidence that James's friendships were merely intimate. The question of whether or not James actually slept with his favourites is dealt with by Lady Antonia Fraser in her biography of King James in an eminently reasonable manner: "In sexual matters, it is generally better to assume the obvious, unless there is some very good reason to think otherwise." And for Lady Antonia Fraser anti-gay prejudice is no good reason to think otherwise. Her biography is a sympathetic reappraisal of James's personality and statesmanship. She quite simply accepts James's homosexuality and never regards it in itself as a detriment to either himself or his country, though she reasonably regrets that his favourites were not always the wisest of counsellors. Her assessment that most of James's life was a "search to recapture the golden youthful quality of his early passion" for Esmé Stuart, the only bright spot in an otherwise bleak childhood deprived of affection, is probably quite accurate, and she is certainly correct that his dominant quality was "an inability to resist love."

Portrait of King James I&VIJames would have laughed his more prudish biographers to scorn, for, like Oscar Wilde addressing the jury, in 1617 James addressed the venerable Privy Council with an official affirmation of his right to love men:

I, James, am neither a god nor an angel, but a man like any other. Therefore I act like a man and confess to loving those dear to me more than other men. You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George.
What is the background to this astonishingly early defence of homosexual love?

First loves

When Jamie was a lean and lanky Scots lad of fourteen, he fell in love with the elegant French courtier Esmé Stuart—Seigneur d'Aubigny, Earl of Lennox. Or, as the Scots chronicler Moysie would delicately put it, "he conceived an inward affection to the Lord d'Aubigne, and entered in great familiarity and quiet purposes with him." A more fervid clergyman put the matter more bluntly: "the Duke of Lennox went about to draw the King to carnal lust." As with the less royal class of men and boys, I suspect that the princely lad seduced the courtier.

Be this as it may, Lennox, who according to a contemporary description was a man "of comely proportion, civil behaviour, red-bearded, and honest in conversation," brought charming French manners, music, and gaiety into James's austere Highland surroundings. Whether Lennox loved James for himself or for his royal patronage we do not know, though inevitably there is some fawning in all regal love affairs. Like Sir Francis Bacon much later, Lennox rose to wealth and power and nobility, and inevitably aroused the jealousy of others who coveted his position. A conspiracy of nobles was formed against him, and in 1582 James was abducted by his would-be protectors, Lennox was ordered to leave the country on pain of death, and the two lovers never saw each other again.

In the meantime, James at least had been able to arrange for George Gordon, sixth Earl of Huntley to marry Lennox's sister Lady Henrietta Stuart in 1588. This marriage of convenience was convenient because it made it easier for Huntley to be elevated to the rank of Captain of the Guard, and he proceeded to lodge himself in the King's own chamber (as bodyguard, of course). Another Scots chronicler, Fowler, commenting on this irregular barracking, concluded that "it is thought that this King is too much carried by young men that lie in his chamber and are his minions."

James was not particularly monogamous, and Fowler adds that "the King's best loved minion" was Alexander Lindsay, Lord Spynie, the boy nicknamed "Sandie" whom James appointed as his Vice-Chamberlain. Another minion of the early 1580s was Francis Stewart Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, whom James nonchalantly kissed and embraced in public, causing great scandal. After a time, however, Huntley took advantage of the King's kind generosity by plotting to capture and dethrone James—for which he was convicted of treason and executed.

Carr—straight-limbed and cunning

A rather strange episode marks the beginning of James's love for perhaps his most devoted lover, Robert Carr. Carr was a handsome Scots lad who came to England in 1603 to run beside the royal coach as a page-boy. But the masters of court ceremony decided that ordinary footmen would be more fashionable than the ancient custom of running page-boys, so he was packed off to the Highlands with £50 for his journey. Being a persevering lad, Carr nevertheless returned to London in 1607 to seek his fortune, and during his participation in a festival tilt he fell from his horse and broke a leg. By happy chance—or kind Fate—James was present at the tournament, and recognized the former page, who handily fell off his horse directly in front of the royal box. James ran out to the field—astonishing the onlookers—and tenderly cradled Carr in his arms, withall a touching moment. James ordered the finest medical attention for Carr and often visited his bedside during the recuperation.

After his full recovery, Carr was appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber. A courtier wrote of their relationship:

The Prince constantly leaneth on his arm, pinches his cheek, and smoothes his ruffled garment. Carr hath all favours; the King teacheth him Latin every morning [and Greek every night?]. I tell you, this Scottish lad is straight-limbed, well-favoured, strong- shouldered, and smooth-faced, with some sort of cunning and show of modesty.
When James himself fell ill with the gout, Carr proved his devotion by personally attending upon his every need and nursed him back to health. James wrote to Carr, "I must confess you have deserved more trust and confidence of me than ever man did."

Although Carr became a wealthy Confidential Secretary to James, and eventually the Earl of Somerset, he never received excessive power, and his love seems to have been quite genuine. Fate hath its reversals, however, and later Carr also fell in love with Lady Frances Howard, and James graciously arranged for their marriage in 1613. Unfortunately Lady Frances conspired towards the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury and many in her circle were implicated, though scholars still are not sure who was guilty besides Lady Frances. Carr was convicted by the courts and sentenced to death, but James issued a royal pardon, and Carr was sent off to the country to spend the remainder of his life in disgrace and semi-poverty.

Buckingham—James's "wife"

But James was fickle, and soon found another favourite in George Villiers, whose rise was spectacular. This son of a penniless Leicestershire squire was introduced to James in 1614. It is now believed that their first sexual union took place in August 1615 while they were spending a few days together at Farnham Castle. Many years later, Buckingham wrote to James asking "whether you loved me now . . . better than at the time which I shall never forget at Farnham, where the bed's head could not be found between the master and his dog." Buckingham jokingly called himself James's dog, as in a letter addressed to "Dere Dad and Gossope" (gossip, from godparent, meaning chum) and closing "Your most humble slave and servant and dog Steenie." He began as a royal cupbearer, and became a Viscount in 1616, and the Earl of Buckingham in 1617. His relationship with James resulted in the 1617 moral debate in the Privy Council. Sir John Oglander testified before the Council that
The King is wonderous passionate, a lover of his favourites beyond the love of men to women. He is the chastest prince for women that ever was, for he would often swear that he never kissed any other woman than his own queen. I never yet saw any fond husband make so much or so great dalliance over his beautiful spouse as I have seen King James over his favourites, especially Buckingham.
Despite the remonstrations of the Council, in 1618 Villiers became a Marquess, in 1619 Lord High Admiral, and finally in 1623 the Duke of Buckingham. In 1623 Théophile de Viau (1590- 1626) in France addressed an obscene poem "Au marquis du Boukinquan," relating that
Apollo with his songs
Debauched young Hyacinthus
Just as Corydon fucked Amyntas,
So Caesar did not spurn boys.

One man fucks Monsieur le Grand de Bellegarde [a friend of Viau],
Another fucks the Comte de Tonnerre.
And it is well known that the King of England
Fucks the Duke of Buckingham.

Portrait of George Villiers, Duke of BuckinghamBuckingham was generally regarded as the most beautiful man in Europe, with his dark chestnut curly hair, a pointed beard of golden brown, clear skin, fine chiselled features, dark blue eyes, and the graceful carriage of the ideal courtier. The King, naturally enough, was George's constant companion, and his love was without qualification, as he says in a letter to Buckingham:

I naturally so love your person, and adore all your other parts, which are more than ever one man had, that were not only all your people [i.e. Frenchmen and relatives] but all the world besides set together on one side and you alone on the other, I should to obey and please you displease, nay, despise them all.
A large number of love-letters from James to Buckingham, extending over a period of nearly ten years, are some of the earliest examples of what might be considered a homosexual literary genre, since most love-letters between men before and since that time have been either destroyed or suppressed. [See my anthology My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries.] They are quite worthy of our attention, as is this excerpt from one of the last:
I desire only to live in the world for your sake, and I had rather live banished in any part of the world with you, than live a sorrowful widow-life without you. And so God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.
James in these letters commonly addressed Buckingham as "Only sweet and dear child," "Sweet Steenie gossip" (Buckingham was nicknamed after St Stephen, who was reputed to have had the face of an angel), "Sweet heart" and "Sweet child and wife," and signs himself "Thy dear dad," "Thy dear dad and steward," and "Thy dear dad and husband." It seems fairly clear that their relationship parallels modern gay "dad/son" relationships.

There is a great deal more to homosexual love than sex, but since there is also more to it than purely spiritual friendship, it is still necessary to cite contemporary gossip, such as the opinion of a certain Francis Osborne:

In wanton looks and wanton gestures they [James and Buckingham] exceeded any part of womankind. The kissing them after so lascivious a mode in public and upon the theatre, as it were, of the world prompted many to imagine some things done in the tyring house [i.e. attiring or dressing room] that exceed my expression no less than they do my experience.

The Mustering of the Minions

It is difficult at this distance to assess Buckingham's motives or his personality. He was learned, witty, playful, a skilful (though not diplomatic) politician, and a brave soldier. But he also seems to have been pert, petulant, proud, disdainful—at least according to his enemies, from whom is derived nearly all the biographical evidence about him. There is no clear evidence that his love for James was entirely selfish, and a good deal to suggest that the love was reciprocal, albeit to a lesser degree on Buckingham's part.

It is eqully difficult to assess Buckingham's effect upon the state of the nation, though on the surface his presence beside James seems to have nearly caused a civil war. Like a Ganymede "page of Jove's sweetest nectared carnival," Buckingham inspired James to a series of drunken riotous feasts, and a fair amount of corruption and debauchery. Buckingham not only received high titles and wealth himself, but he raised up his entire family through second-cousins-once-removed, easily ruining anyone who got in his way. What he asked, James granted, and already by 1617 the national debit of England had risen to £726,000. At the same time, however, Buckingham brought about a great deal of reform and efficiency to the government, albeit the centralization placed him at the centre, and modern historians are increasingly recognizing that he quite probably eliminated much more court corruption than he engendered.

Few people in offices of state had the integrity of a Sir Thomas More—then as now—and other members of the nobility would likely have done no better. In fact most of them were so eager to steal James's favour away from Buckingham, solely for motives of self-interest, that they began what was laughingly referred to as "the mustering of minions." Every day some aspiring Lord—notably Sir William Monson—would hire a troup of handsome young ragamuffin boys, scrub their faces clean with curdled milk, curl their hair, powder them and perfume them, dress them in silk and lace, and lead them in dainty procession around the throne in order to seduce the King's favour. Marvellously delighted by this display of prime mignon at first, James quite quickly not only grew weary with surfeit, but realized that he was being made a fool of, and he gave Buckingham orders to clear the court in 1618. This marked the end of the riotous period and the beginning of a period when he would mellow, and, eventually, slide into a state of depression. (Though we must remember that this was a characteristic symptom of the physical disease of porphyria which he almost certainly suffered from, and not merely "psychological.")

In 1619 Queen Anne died, and James himself fell severely ill with the gout. Although he had ceased living with his wife in 1606 or 1607, he nevertheless admired the Queen, and her death, along with what he knew to be an illness from which he would never recover, caused a sort of religious despair and a slight nervous breakdown. During these melancholy days Buckingham daily attended James, and their love deepened intensely. In 1620 James arranged for the political marriage of Buckingham to Lady Catherine Manners, and also, as he noted when he blessed their union, because of his hopes that Buckingham would have offspring soon "so I may have sweet bedchamber boys to play with me."

Enigma of the World

From the Privy Council debate in 1617 until 1622, England was in a state constantly verging upon civil war, with James's love for Buckingham being the most visible corruption for the ignorant and the demagogues to attack. James finally decided to dissolve Parliament in 1621, which actually precipitated his own loss of power. The date coincides with the fall of Sir Francis Bacon (who, according to the contemporary Sir Simonds' D'Ewes, was also "intimate" with Buckingham).

To make a painful end short, in 1625 King James died of the gout, grief, and senility. Buckingham was removed from power, and sent on foreign wars. From 1628 to 1640 James's son King Charles himself dissolved Parliament, and tried to rule as an absolute monarch, but in reality he was constantly in danger of being forced to abdicate. Charles was powerless to help when Buckingham, his dear friend and "uncle," was quite falsely accused of treason for having botched a military expedition to France. Buckingham and James were the convenient scapegoats for public miseries which they may have slightly aggravated but certainly did not cause, for they were neither angels nor devils, but men like any other.

In 1628 Buckingham went to Portsmouth to try to pacify mutinous sailors who were clamouring for their pay, and to somehow make amends for the disastrous campaign of La Rochelle which had aroused so much outcry in the country. One man in particular—the disgruntled soldier John Felton—was determined to liberate the nation from this supposed Antichrist.

In one Captain Mason's house on the morning of 23 August 1628, as Buckingham left the breakfast room, Felton leaped forward and stabbed him in the breast. In a scarcely audible voice Buckingham said "The villain hath killed me!" and pulled the dagger out of the wound. He staggered forward a few paces, then collapsed in the hall, with blood gushing from the wound and from his mouth.

Amidst the tremendous uproar of shouts and wailing, Felton proudly boasted his responsibility for the murder. Upon hearing of the calamity, King Charles I sobbed all night, while the London mob exulted savagely and the streets were lit with celebratory bonfires. Felton—though a hero to many—was hanged at Tyburn on 29 November. His body was returned to Portsmouth to hang in chains on the gibbet near modern Clarence Pier; the last piece of this gibbet is supposed to have been enclosed in the obelisk near the pier.

The site of the assassination is Number 10 High Street: the oldest house in Portsmouth. It was recently occupied by a firm of solicitors and not open to tourists, although a plaque above the door commemorates the event. Buckingham died in the prime of life, aged thirty-six; his heart and brain were placed in urns, and buried at the Cathedral of Portsmouth, where there is also a monument to him in the chancel. His body was entombed in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey, hitherto reserved for royalty, where it now resides beneath a recumbent bronze effigy near the tomb of his beloved King James. On a tablet facing the tomb is the famous (Latin) inscription describing him as "THE ENIGMA OF THE WORLD."

One of the more curious relics of this enigmatic figure is a series of streets near Charing Cross, London: GEORGE Court, VILLIERS Street, DUKE Street, OF Alley (now York Street), and BUCKINGHAM Street, on property which he sold on condition that the streets be named after him. They mark the site of Buckingham's London residence York House, of which only the Water Gate remains, now an entrance to Victoria Embankment Gardens next to the Embankment underground station. A large slate slab explains its origin.

The magnificent Buckingham tomb is on James's left; on his right is the tomb of Ludovic Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox, son of his early lover Esmé Stuart. King James was responsible for the restoration and remodelling of the Henry VII Chapel—perhaps partly to celebrate for eternity his love for Buckingham.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Queen James and His Courtiers", Gay History and Literature, 8 January 2000, updated 9 January 2012 <>.

Go on to Sir Francis Bacon.

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