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Treatment of Homosexuality in Restoration and Enlightenment

Info: 3298 words (13 pages) Essay
Published: 17th Aug 2018 in History

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Homosexuality and the Problem of Identification in Restoration and Enlightenment England

Restoration and Enlightenment England undeniably inherited, and to a large extent carried on the social, religious, and legal prejudices, or restrictions towards homosexual men that already existed for many centuries. The pronounced and extensive feelings against homosexuality in England which could be regarded as homophobic, as else where were strongly related to Christian theology and its strong influence upon prevailing social attitudes. There are several outright and clear condemnations of homosexuality in both the Old and New Testaments that influenced Christian theology to refute homosexuality as a deeply sinful and immoral act.[1] Outside of Judeo- Christian theology and ideology, homosexuality had not always been condemned or morally and socially vilified. Indeed in classical Greece and Rome being openly homosexual seemingly left men without detrimental social, religious, or legal consequences, which meant that few men had bothered to cover up their homosexual identities, feelings, activities, and lifestyles. All that had changed once Christianity had become the dominant religion throughout Europe and taught that homosexuality was abnormal and sinful behaviour, and led to actions which were morally indefensible.[2] The Renaissance had rekindled interest in classical Greek and Roman art, literature, and sculpture, which in parts mentioned homosexuality as a normal and un-sinful part of everyday life. An unintended by product of the Renaissance had been the realisation that male homosexuality had not always been socially, or religiously taboo, and that it had not therefore been illegal in classical Greece or Rome. These earlier societies had not held homosexual men in disdain or made them social outcasts’ yet they were supposed to be immoral and degenerate compared to Christian societies. The realisation that only Judeo-Christian societies were so predominantly homophobic provided an impetus for homosexual men to alter their societies by arguing that they were free to chose how they lived their lives and were not actually morally depraved. The initial moves to allow homosexual men to live openly started in Southern Europe before having an impact in Renaissance and Enlightenment England.[3]

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Arguably the Reformation disrupted the liberalising effects of the Renaissance, yet would eventually lead to increased levels of secularisation, and to the more liberal academic, social, and scientific attitudes of the Enlightenment. The more immediate consequences of the Reformation was increased attempts to rid Western European societies of false theology and cleanse it of immorality such as homosexuality, although the resulting conflicts between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism received the most attention amongst contemporaries and historians alike.[4] In England the onset of the Reformation had not altered the difficult situations that homosexual men faced if they wished to live their lives openly. That was due to the Protestants whether within the Church of England or the non-conformists outside of it being as opposed to male homosexuality as the Roman Catholic Church had always been. For the churches, homosexual thoughts or desires were just as sinful as actually performing homosexual acts. However if homosexual men refrained from acting upon their desires they would at least escape earthly punishment for their sins, which would be judged by God on their Judgement Day. Homosexual men either had to hide their sexual preferences or deny them completely. For they had virtually no alternative to concealing their orientation or gender identifications, and leading clandestine private lives. Hiding sexual orientation could make all the difference between been socially and economically successful or been disgraced, and possibly executed. Rumours of being homosexual could prove to be ruinous whether such allegations were proven or not. If actual homosexual acts could be proved to have taken place beyond doubt in an English Crown Court it would be fatal to those convicted. The high risks involved in leading a homosexual life even in secret helps to explain the lack of evidence that homosexual men left behind about themselves, as leaving information in writing or talking to the wrong people could leave to being convicted and then executed.[5]

The concealment of homosexual identification was almost universally considered to be essential in England prior to the Restoration and Enlightenment eras, and remained highly important throughout those times. For men that held powerful social, economic, political, and religious positions being publicly identified or just rumoured to be a homosexual could prove to be disastrous for the maintenance of their position. Such rumours could reach the top of the political, social, and religious orders. During the 1590s until his death, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift came under suspicion of being sexually involved with another man. Whitgift was lucky enough to maintain the confidence of Elizabeth I as well as James I and therefore was not disgraced or removed from his post. Clergy had to be above suspicion of immoral sexual conduct whether homosexual or heterosexual in nature. The fact that England as a Protestant country allowed clerical marriage meant that the clergy could gratify heterosexual needs through marriage, whilst homosexual clergy if they existed had to preach the teachings of a religion that despised their sexuality.[6]

The higher position a man held the greater the effort he would have put into hiding his homosexual orientation and identification. For instance, in the 14th century Edward II’s known homosexuality, when combined with his political ineptness contributed to his removal from the throne, and his subsequent murder. Kings were expected to be more masculine than any other men within society are, as they were expected to lead their countries during wartime, for kings to be suspected or known to be homosexual was detrimental for their chances of reigning over their countries successfully. Nearer to the Restoration and Enlightenment eras, the Duke of Buckingham was widely believed to have become the most influential and powerful royal favourite, not to mention the chief minister via his rumoured homosexual relationship with James I. Buckingham managed to form a similarly close relationship with Charles I, who seemed oblivious to the Duke’s unpopularity and incompetence. Rumours of homosexuality did not damage Buckingham as much as his ineptness, yet they did not help improve his popularity either.[7]

For homosexual men in Restoration and Enlightenment England, their social, political, and religious exclusion if their sexual orientation became public knowledge was attributable to the way in which homosexuality was regarded as being tantamount to sodomy by a majority of the heterosexual population. Sodomy was deemed to be as serious a sin as heresy and witchcraft, as the definition of sodomy incorporated all sexually deviant acts.[8] In earlier periods, males caught committing homosexual acts were usually trialed and punished by Church courts. The law was changed in 1534 in order for people accused of buggery to be trialed by Crown courts. The legislation of 1534 made it even more dangerous for male homosexuals to be known as being sexually active, or even to have their orientation known. The maximum punishment for any man caught and convicted for this crime was execution. Thus making buggery a crime punishable by death, in line with the sentences for heresy and witchcraft. The only difference was that the practice of executing heretics and alleged witches had gone by the end of the Enlightenment era, whereas the carrying out of homosexual activities was still a capital offence until 1861 and a crime until the 1960s[9].

Immediately prior to the Restoration period had been the Commonwealth, which had attempted to rigorously enforce all moral and religious values to meet with its fundamentalist Protestant ideology, including all heterosexual and homosexual sex outside of marriage. Whilst the Puritanical regime inspired by Oliver Cromwell had intended to cleanse the whole of Britain of its sins, it failed. During the Commonwealth period heterosexual adulterers as well as respectable Anglicans had to lead clandestine existences just like homosexuals and Roman Catholics had done for many decades.[10] Charles II’s return from exile ushered in the era of the Restoration, which brought a relaxation of the draconian moral codes of the Commonwealth, especially in the Royal Court. Despite his own immoral behaviour, Charles II only went as far as wanting religious toleration rather than officially supporting a relaxation of moral and sexual standards of behaviour. Even had Charles wished to improve the legal position of homosexual men he would have not been prepared to face public and Parliamentary opposition to such plans.[11] Whilst the Restoration may have meant a more relaxed moral attitude at the Royal Court, there was no change in the legal position of men caught performing homosexual acts.[12] Concealment of homosexual identification or the protection of men in high social and religious positions was the best way to stay clear of prosecution and ultimately execution.[13] Living in towns and cities in general and in London in particular improved the chances of homosexual men not being caught, and leading a more fulfilling existence.[14]

Homosexual men to an overwhelming extent publicly appeared to fit in with the gender role models during the Restoration and Enlightenment eras in England. As not conforming to conventional gender role models would have revealed their identity as homosexual men, many therefore decided to cover up their true identity to avoid persecution and their own personal disgrace. Homosexual men therefore, had to perform the gender roles expected of heterosexual men, such as being husbands, fathers and acting as heads of their households. Getting married and having children was the best means of concealing homosexual identification and removing suspicions of any sexual wrongdoing or immorality. Men of all social, economic and religious status were homosexuals, yet the higher their status the more they had to lose by revealing their sexual orientation. Self-preservation was presumably a greater motivation than self-expression or self-fulfilment. Although it must have made countless numbers of homosexual men in Restoration and Enlightenment England the Reformation had weakened the hold of Christianity over society unknown to anybody at that time. The main long-term consequence of Protestantism was to increase the level of secularisation in England, although other social values reinforced prejudices towards homosexual men.[15] The Enlightenment continued the process of secularisation started by the Renaissance and only delayed by the Reformation, which slowly made English social and genders values more liberal and less repressive.[16] In many respects social prejudices against homosexual men outlasted the religious reasons for homosexuality being illegal in England in the first place. The fear of sodomy as an unnatural form of sexual behaviour persisted even as English society became increasingly secularised.[17]

The treatment of homosexual men in Restoration and Enlightenment England was not the same throughout the country. London was a city in which homosexual men could attempt to be more open about their sexual orientation and worry less about fulfilling expected gender roles. As one of the biggest cities in the world, London was place in which homosexual men had an increased level of opportunities to be true to themselves, rather than outwardly conform to social and religious norms with regard to sexual conduct. Homosexual men that remained publicly unknown had to carry on living up to widespread masculine stereotypes.[18] These comments have to be qualified, as although London was a cosmopolitan centre where it was possible to lead different lifestyles that differed from the Christian and heterosexual norm. London was also the part of England in which the letter of the law could be enforced most vigorously, as it was the seat of government and Courts and magistrates would not want to be seen as unable to tackle criminal and immoral activities. As individuals homosexuals may have been able to lead homosexual lives with the protection of people in high places. However, at the end of the day it still remained sensible for homosexual men to hide their orientation as the legislation that could result in their conviction and execution remained upon the statute books.[19] For the majority of homosexual men in Restoration and Enlightenment England the opportunities to be readily identifiable as homosexuals were strictly limited and even when those chances were available it remained dangerous to take them. Some careers such as acting or singing gave a few homosexual men the chance to appear less masculine in public without raising undue suspicions of their sexual orientation. The majority of homosexual men were in the situation where they had to perform the social, economic, religious, or political functions that their position at birth had put them into. The majority of social, political, religious, and economic positions in Restoration and Enlightenment meant that all men had to perform their tasks in masculine ways. [20]

Therefore, it could be concluded that the circumstances of the times made it very difficult for homosexual men to clearly allow themselves to be identified as such by their contemporaries in Restoration and Enlightenment England. It has also made it harder for modern historians to qualify and quantify the number and the experiences of homosexual men during that period. As was explored and evaluated above there were various reasons for homosexual men to conceal their sexual orientation from becoming general public knowledge, and to carry out any homosexual activities in secret, if at all. The overwhelmingly Christian nature of England before, during, and after the Restoration and Enlightenment eras had a very strong upon how homosexual men had to hide their sexual preferences from English society as a whole. Before the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had wide acceptance of its theology and opinions with regard to male homosexuality. The Roman Catholic Church had taught that all male homosexual activities should be regarded as deadly sins, which stemmed from all homosexual men having morally deviant thoughts that inevitably led to behaviour which needed to be severely punished, even to the point of executing homosexual men. Basically, Christian ideology was opposed to homosexuality on the grounds that it was an intolerable sin, just like heresy and witchcraft, which needed to be eradicated. The Reformation did not change the Christian perspective that male homosexuals should be punished as and when they were caught performing homosexual acts. Indeed the legislation that allowed the English Crown Courts to prosecute and execute people convicted of buggery was passed by the Reformation Parliament that enacted the break away of the English Church from the Papacy. The knowledge that being caught performing homosexual acts would result in execution meant that all men that performed such acts by and large did so in complete secrecy to avoid capital punishment. The need for self preservation meant that the vast majority of homosexual men concealed their identities to stay alive and free, with the options to carry out homosexual activities in secret, or abstain from meeting other men altogether. To remain successfully hidden from people that might have them prosecuted the majority of homosexual men would chose not to leave written documentary evidence of their sexual activities or their feelings towards other men, as such material could easily have led to their conviction and subsequent execution. Homosexual men could have been from any social and economic background, as homosexuality seems to occur naturally within some men. After all it would hardly have been nurtured within Restoration and Enlightenment societies in England that overwhelmingly regarded homosexuality as being wrong and unnatural. Only limited numbers of homosexual men felt save enough not to hide their orientation, living in London, or having rich and powerful protectors were the factors that might allow some degree of openness.


Ashley M, (2002) A brief history of British Kings & Queens, Robinson, London

Betteridge T, (2002) Sodomy in Early Modern Europe, Manchester University Press, Manchester

Fernandez-Arnesto, F & Wilson, D (1996) Reformation – Christianity and the World 1500-2000, Bantam Press, London

Gardiner & Wenborn (1995) The History Today Companion to British History, Collins and Brown Ltd, London

Lenman, (2004) Chamber’s Dictionary of World History, Chambers, Edinburgh

MacCulloch D, Reformation – Europe’s House Divided (2004) Penguin Books, London

Schama, S (2001) A History of Britain – The British Wars 1603-1776, BBC Worldwide, London



[1] MacCulloch, 2004 p. 620

[2] MacCulloch, 2004 p. 620

[3] Betteridge, 2002 pp. 71 – 74

[4] Roberts, 1996 p. 235

[5] MacCulloch, 2004 p. 209

[6] MacCulloch, 2004 p. 209

[7] Betteridge, 2002 p. 46

[8] MacCulloch, 2004, p.622

[9] Gardiner & Wenborn, 1995, p.388

[10] Schama, 2001, p.235

[11] Ashley, 2002, p.320

[12] Gardiner & Wenborn, 1995, p.646

[13] Betteridge, 2002, pp.71-74

[14] MacCulloch, 2004, p.620

[15] Fernandez-Armesto & Wilson, 1996, p.290

[16] Lenman, 2004, p.264

[17] Gardiner & Wenborn, 1995, p.388

[18] Betteridge, 2002, pp. 71-74

[19] MacCulloch, 2004, p.622

[20] Betteridge, 2002 pp. 71-74


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