Archbishop Laud’s secret ‘misfortunes’: decoding sexual identity in the seventeenth century

Continuing the theme of LGBTQ+ History Month, Dr Paul Hunneyball, assistant editor of the Lords 1558-1603 section, explores the problem of interpreting evidence from the early modern period

‘I dreamed that K.B. sent to me in Westminster church, that he was now as desirous to see me, as I him, and that he was then entering into the church. I went with joy, but met another in the middle of the church, who seemed to know the business, and laughed; but K.B. was not there’ [Works of Archbishop Laud, iii. 217]. We generally associate the analysis of dreams with Sigmund Freud and early 20th-century Vienna, but in this case the date is 1633, and the writer recording his conflicted feelings for another man is William Laud, then bishop of London and soon to be archbishop of Canterbury.

Archbishop Laud (Anthony Van Dyck, c.1636)

Laud, a life-long bachelor, is now best remembered as the man who refashioned the Church of England along more Catholic lines, and as a leading architect of the royal policies which drove Britain into civil war. By 1633 he was aged 59, one of Charles I’s principal advisers, and de facto leader of the church, since the current archbishop, George Abbot, was in disgrace. Noted for his energy, administrative competence and virulent attacks on puritans, Laud seemed to exude confidence and self-assurance. However, unbeknown to his contemporaries, he was keeping a private diary in which he recorded his greatest hopes and fears, triumphs and failures, and – most unusually for this period – his actual dreams. And the diary reveals a very different side to Laud’s character, the dominant traits being insecurity, unfulfilled emotional needs, and an unshakeable sense of foreboding.

Some of the root causes of Laud’s anxiety are readily identified. For much of his early career he was attacked and vilified by Calvinist clergy and academics who opposed his theological ideas and obstructed his career progression, an experience which left him with a serious persecution complex. In 1605 Laud also brought disaster on himself by officiating at the illegal wedding of his patron, Charles Blount, earl of Devonshire, who breached both religious and secular law by marrying his recently divorced mistress. This major error of judgment wrecked Laud’s chances of significant ecclesiastical promotion for more than a decade. He marked the offending date each year as a day of mortification, and ever after retained a keen awareness of how suddenly he might again fall from grace.

But this is not the whole story. Some 30 years ago, Professor Charles Carlton drew attention to evidence that Laud was sexually attracted to men, and argued that this was another cause of his insecurity. Some details of Laud’s homoerotic imagination were in fact already well-known, but in the context of seventeenth-century social conventions were ambiguous enough to have been ignored by previous historians.  One notable example is another dream recorded in 1625, which concerned his current patron George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, James I’s handsome male favourite and probable lover. ‘That night, … it seemed to me that the duke of Buckingham came into bed with me; where he behaved himself with great kindness towards me, after that rest, wherewith wearied persons are wont to solace themselves’ [Works of Archbishop Laud, iii. 170].

In addition to such dreams, Carlton highlighted mysterious coded entries which occur at intervals throughout Laud’s diary. Sometimes initials were used rather than names simply for the sake of brevity, as with ‘L.D.B.’ (my lord duke of Buckingham) and ‘A.B.C.’ (the archbishop of Canterbury). However, in other cases Laud demonstrably employed initials to disguise personal interactions, and none of the people concerned have ever been identified.  What is clear in most cases is that they were men, such as the ‘K.B.’ referred to earlier. And without question, these diary entries relate to emotional entanglements, rather than business dealings.

1 January 1633: ‘My being with K.B. this day in the afternoon … troubled me much; God send me a good issue out of it.’

15 January 1633: ‘K.B. and I unexpectedly came to some clearer declaration of ourselves. Which God bless.’

8 June 1633: ‘I received letters from K.B. unalterable, etc.’

19 June 1633: ‘I received second letters from K.B. no changeling, etc. Within three hours after, other letters from K.B. Believe all that I say, etc.’ [Works of Archbishop Laud, iii. 216-18]

Carlton suggested that such diary entries were further evidence of Laud’s sexuality, but he considered them difficult to interpret, and therefore inconclusive as evidence. More recent research into the history of sexuality has provided context that was unavailable to Carlton, and which allows us to move the discussion forward. It’s now understood that intense platonic relationships between men were not per se frowned upon in early modern Britain. Where society drew the line was at the physical expression of same-sex desire – the act of ‘buggery’, for example, being both a capital offence and anathema to the church. In other words, if Laud’s mysterious friendships were merely sentimental, he should not have felt the need to conceal them so carefully. In reality, Laud felt very bad indeed about what he was doing. Most of his early liaisons were routinely defined in his diary as an ‘unfortunateness’ or ‘misfortune’. His most enduring love affair, with a certain ‘E.B.’, brought him to crisis point. E.B. is first mentioned in 1613, and Laud maintained intermittent contact with him until 1624. The most significant record is as follows: ‘Cum E.B. July 28 1617, primo’ (‘with E.B. … for the first [time?]’). This is almost certainly an admission that their relationship was consummated. Afterwards, Laud was overwhelmed by guilt. That same day he penned a private penitential prayer, confessing that he had ‘wandered … into a foul and a strange path’, and bitterly lamenting his folly and weakness [Works of Archbishop Laud, iii. 81, 136].

In short, Laud had good reason to fear exposure. It was not just his career that was at stake. His clerical status was no defence against a charge of sodomy, and indeed John Atherton, bishop of Waterford, was hanged for this crime in 1640. Three years later, with Laud now imprisoned by Parliament on a charge of treason, his private papers were confiscated, His nemesis, the vitriolic pamphleteer William Prynne, published extracts from the diary, including that coded entry for 28 July 1617, commenting that Laud had ‘lapsed into some … special sin (perhaps uncleanness)’ [Prynne, Breviate of the Life of William Laud (1644), 30]. Laud furiously denied this allegation, and the evidence was too weak for it to be used against him when he finally came to trial. Executed in January 1645, he carried the truth with him to his grave. Nevertheless his diary still remains, published in full in 1853, a lasting testimony to the loves whose names he dared not speak.


Further reading:

  • James Bliss (ed.), The Works of Archbishop Laud, iii. (1853) [available online at ]
  • Charles Carlton, Archbishop William Laud (1987)
  • Jonathan Goldberg (ed.), Queering the Renaissance (1994)
  • Katherine O’Donnell and Michael O’Rourke (eds.), Love, Sex, Intimacy and Friendship between Men, 1550-1800 (2003)

Biographies of Laud himself, Charles I (as prince of Wales), Archbishop George Abbot, Charles Blount, earl of Devonshire, and George Villiers, duke of Buckingham will appear in our forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-1629. Our House of Commons 1640-1660 section is preparing a biography of William Prynne.

You can find all of our other blogs about LGBTQ+ History here.

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