Commemorating same-sex desire in early modern England

To mark LGBT History Month 2022, Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 project considers a paradox in perceptions of same-sex relationships four hundred years ago

Very few declarations of same-sex love survive from early-17th-century England, and generally they occur only in private correspondence, such as that of James I and his favourite George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham. However, tucked away in central Cambridge is just one such testimony, literally set in stone, and intended for a public audience. At first sight, the funeral monument to Thomas Legge in the chapel of Gonville and Caius College is an elaborate but conventional piece of sculpture. Mounted high on the wall in the middle of the building, it shows Legge kneeling in prayer, in a fairly typical architectural surround, with several Latin inscriptions below the effigy where they can be more easily read. It’s this lower section which makes the monument remarkable. Immediately below the effigy is a plaque within which two disembodied hands are lifting a flaming heart up towards Legge. This symbol of ardent love is not a standard Jacobean funeral motif. And underneath the plaque is the following text: ‘Iunxit amor vivos sic iungat terra sepultos. Gostlini reliquum. Cor tibi Leggus habes.’ Roughly translated, this means: ‘As love joined them in life, so may the earth unite them in the grave.  [Here lie] the remains of Gostlin; his heart, O Legge, is yours.’

Gonville and Caius chapel: Thomas Legge monument, c.1619

This unexpected statement requires some explanation. Legge was a former master of Caius, who died in 1607. John Gostlin had been one of the college fellows during Legge’s time, working closely with him as dean and bursar, and eventually became master himself in 1619. It was Gostlin who commissioned what was in effect a joint monument, and when he died in 1626 he left instructions that he should be  buried in the chapel close to Legge, as suggested by that inscription. Neither man had married, and while that was quite normal for Cambridge fellows at the time, the monument makes it clear that their relationship went some way beyond routine friendship.

Two points should be emphasised at this juncture. First, while group monuments were quite common in this period, they almost invariably represented members of the same family, generally husbands and wives, perhaps accompanied by some of their children. Where two or more adult men were commemorated, they were normally brothers, as in the memorial at Braughing, Hertfordshire to John and Charles Brograve. On that basis, an epitaph to two men who were not closely related would have struck contemporaries as unusual.

Brograve monument, Braughing, Herts., c.1625

Second, the construction of funeral monuments was not a complete free-for-all. Permission had to be obtained from the relevant authorities, even if the precise details of a design were not subject to scrutiny. In the case of the Legge-Gostlin memorial, at the very least the fellows of Caius must have been consulted. Gostlin, reputedly a popular master, was certainly in a strong position to get his own way, but his proposals were out of the ordinary. That the scheme went ahead implies that the fellows understood his relationship with Legge, and didn’t have a problem with it.

This might seem counter-intuitive. We are conditioned to viewing same-sex relationships of that era through the lens of the 1533 Act of Parliament which made sodomy a capital offence. However, it’s important to recognise that this legislation was a by-product of the Reformation, a minor element of the crown’s general power-grab from the Church, which had previously policed this notorious ‘sin’ rather more leniently. Repealed during the Marian reaction, then revived under the protestant Elizabeth I, there is very little evidence that the Sodomy Act was actually enforced prior to the more puritanical years of the mid-17th century. Moreover, the law targeted very specific physical behaviour already proscribed by the Bible as an abomination. It had nothing to say about same-sex emotional attachments. And indeed, the Bible contains some very positive images of platonic love between men, notably the intense relationship of David and Jonathan in the Old Testament, and more ambiguous New Testament references to Jesus and the ‘beloved disciple’, generally taken to be the Apostle John. It was the latter scenario that James I famously referenced in his own defence, informing his startled courtiers that Jesus had his John, and he, James, had his George (meaning Buckingham).

In a culture which still derived its moral values primarily from Scripture, such distinctions mattered. Precisely how they played out in Tudor or Jacobean society is of course much harder to determine, due to the paucity of evidence. It seems clear that, in line with biblical teaching on the respective roles of men and women, effeminacy was frowned upon, as was any hint of ‘unnatural’ sex. However, it’s much less certain that such behaviour was seen as determining a man’s sexual identity, in the way that it might today. This was a time when embraces and even kisses between men were still a relatively common feature of standard social intercourse, and no stigma attached to bed-sharing. It’s not hard to imagine how borders might become blurred, and how same-sex relationships might have been conducted discreetly without attracting undue attention. In the case of Gostlin and Legge, it appears that a balance was achieved which allowed them to display their feelings quite openly, at least within the confines of Gonville and Caius.

Sir Fulke Greville (later 1st Lord Brooke), c.1586 (artist unknown)

It must be stressed that the Legge-Gostlin monument has no known direct parallels in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and its allusions to love are comparatively subtle. We might understand more about contemporary public opinion if another project had been carried through. In 1615 the recently-appointed chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Fulke Greville, drew up plans for a much more conspicuous memorial in St Paul’s cathedral to himself and the all-round Elizabethan hero, Sir Philip Sidney. The two men had been very close friends prior to Sidney’s tragic early death in 1586, and Greville subsequently became his biographer and editor of the famous ‘Arcadia’. Sidney was buried in St Paul’s, but his family couldn’t afford an expensive monument, and the wealthy Greville took it upon himself to resolve this shortcoming. The surviving details of his proposal are incomplete, but he probably envisaged effigies of himself and Sidney, each on a polished stone slab, Sir Philip’s raised on columns several feet above his own. Given that the cathedral was one of the most-visited locations in London, this would have been truly attention-grabbing, and most likely controversial, since Greville and Sidney were only very distantly related. In the event, the project was abandoned, for reasons which remain unclear. Greville’s relationship with Sidney was complex, probably closer to obsessive hero-worship than the kind of love shared by Legge and Gostlin, and it’s difficult to know how far his feelings were reciprocated by the object of his affections. Nevertheless, it was a bond that Greville treasured until the end. The monument that he eventually constructed for himself alone at Warwick recorded for posterity the three roles of which he was most proud: ‘servant to Queen Elizabeth, councillor to King James, and friend to Sir Philip Sidney’.


Further reading:

Alan Bray, The Friend (2003)

R.A. Rebholz, The Life of Fulke Greville (1971)

Eric Berkowitz, Sex and Punishment: 4000 Years of Judging Desire (2013)

Biographies of George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham and Fulke Greville, 1st Lord Brooke, feature in our recent volumes, The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021)

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