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My best LGBT+ heritage sites

February 27, 2018

British heritage sites are at last beginning to acknowledge aspects of their queer past that have long been swept under the carpet. Many of the country houses and castles that I’ve visited in the last 40 years have been owned at some point by families with gay and lesbian characteristics. But guide books, exhibitions and human room guides have usually been silent about the sexual identity of former lords and ladies.  Often at best there were hints, nods and winks about a king’s “favourite” courtier, or a lord’s “eccentric” behaviour or a lady’s “close companion.”

This is now beginning to change.  Marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality, the National Trust announced its “Pride of Place” initiative to highlight the queer personal histories of many of the former owners of its properties.  Historic England, the government body with responsibility for listing buildings of historic or architectural interest, is now adding LGBTQ characteristics to its listing particulars, accompanied by a mapping project. English Heritage, the charity that manages state owned sites, is also now promoting the gay lives of people associated with their castles and houses.  I hope that Cadw, the Welsh equivalent to which I belong, will follow suit but a Google search brought up a list of Cadw camp sites, which wasn’t quite what I wanted!

There is an inherent problem in identifying historic sites that are of interest to modern queer or transgendered people, or to anyone interested in all aspects of a building’s past. For most of the history of a site the sexuality of its owners, people who worked there or were associated with it would have remained secret, were denied or played down.  Homosexual men were until 1861 in danger of losing their lives as anal sex was a capital offence.  It wasn’t until our current century that holding hands or kissing in public became activities that would no longer land men in a police cell. This means that very few male historical figures were open and unambiguous about their sexuality.

Men who today would be free to express themselves would have then lived a double life, with a wife and children but also a male “favourite” in their entourage.  It is assumed that men from Edward II to John Maynard Keynes had male lovers but to many of their contemporaries they lived conventional family lives.  There are very few Oscar Wilde exposés and convictions and even he artfully denied the charges. Some men achieved notoriety for exuberant and flamboyant lifestyles, what today we would call high camp, but they avoided being labelled homosexual men.

So in many of the grand houses of Britain, visited by millions of people today, we have some stories about the owners who lived complicated lives, possibly genuinely bisexual, more likely living a lie.  While there is little firm evidence about queer lives upstairs, next to nothing is known about life downstairs or about what went on in those strictly gender segregated attic bedrooms.  What little is known is mainly about men, though quite often the facts are thin. Even less is known about lesbian relationships, although these were never outside the law and “Sapphic” love was not persecuted. See below for the remarkable contrast between the attitudes to the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, who received celebrity visits in an age when gay men were being executed.

When I was an elected politician I made many speeches on gay rights.  I often asserted that one day the law would be broadly fair, treating us all as equals.  For lesbians and gay men we are now at that point, though there is still some way to go for transsexuals and people born inter-sex. I used to add that even when the law was fair, society would not be equal until gay men and women were portrayed alongside our straight fellow citizens as full participants in all aspects of our popular culture.  This includes how we tell the story of our past and who we celebrate and recognise in our national history. There are now more openly gay MPs than when I was elected in 2005.  Sport, especially football, in on a journey but has a long way to go.  Gay characters do now feature in many of the TV dramas that I have time to watch these days but some of them don’t seem to last long. It’s time that all of our castles, houses, museums and galleries told the full and inclusively queer story of all the people who have lived and shaped their buildings and collections.

One of my interests outside politics is visiting historic places.  I’ve been writing about my favourite castles, abbeys, cathedrals and sites associated with Prime Ministers.  So for LGBT History Month, what follows is my first attempt at a guide to the best places to visit that are associated with people who used to be forgotten because of their sexuality or remembered in all aspects except for their sexuality.  It’s time to celebrate Britain’s queer past.

Hadrian’s Wall – named after the Emperor who ordered its construction, marking the north-western boundary of his empire.  There are more surviving statues of Hadrian than any other Roman emperor, apart from Augustus.  The third most commemorated man is Antinous, or Antinoo.  Who was he? When he drowned in the Nile a grief stricken Hadrian ordered many statues to be carved in memory of the young man who was probably his lover.  They show Antinous as an exquisitely beautiful man, of the sort you might expect to grace the cover of Gay Times or Attitude.  Some show him in Egyptian garb, as the god Osiris.  Others show him as a classical Roman, like the much later statue of David by Michelangelo.

Most of the world’s great museums will have a statue or bust of Antinous.  The best one that I’ve seen is in The Prado in Madrid and I have a poster of it on my bedroom wall, so I see Antinous every day!  The British Museum has a fine version.  The museum is also the place to see the remarkable Warren Cup.  It’s a small silver vessel with an image of two men having anal sex. There are numerous images on Greek and Roman pottery and metalwork showing same sex scenes.  Given that what we see now in museums is just a tiny fraction of what Mediterranean culture has left us, there must have been thousands of them.  Back to the Wall – you won’t find any busts of Antinous or sexually explicit vessels in the otherwise excellent museums.  You’ll just have to imagine what those soldiers got up to on cold nights at the end of the Roman world.

Archaeology informs our imagination and a report on a dig in 2002 enhanced our understanding of Roman culture and what we would now call a transsexual sub-culture.  Catterick (Roman Cataractonium) lies half way between Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman city of Eboracum, now York. During the excavation of the scant remains of the small Roman town a remarkable grave was discovered.  The skeleton of a young man was buried with what appeared to be female funeral goods, bracelets, necklaces and an anklet fashioned with jet. Archaeologists have concluded that this was probably the grave of a galli, one of the eunuch priests of the cult of the maternal goddess Cybele.  The cult of Cybele reached Rome from Asia Minor in about 200BC.  Cybele’s lover Attis castrated himself as punishment for his infidelity. The practise was carried on by devotees of Cybele as the cult spread throughout the Roman world.  We know that the cult reached the northern limits of Britannia as there was an altar to Cybele at the fort of Cortbridge, on the Wall. Finds from the Catterick dig are held at the Yorkshire Museum, in York.

Kings and “queens” – several kings of England and Scotland are believed to have had same sex experiences.  The evidence is a bit flimsy with William II (1087-1100) and Richard I (1189-99) but firmer with Edward II (1307-27) and James VI and I (1567 and 1603 – 1625) who lavished attention on male favourites.

Edward was the son of Edward I, the conqueror of Wales.  He was born at Caernarfon castle in 1284 and his father proclaimed him the first English Prince of Wales in 1301. About this time the young prince’s household was joined by Piers Gaveston, a native of Gascony. The two formed a close bond, which came to be resented deeply by England’s nobles.  Gaveston was the first of Edward’s male favourites. Gaveston was exiled by Edward’s father (a character loosely based on him was instead thrown out of a castle window by the king in the film ‘Braveheart’) but returned to England when Edward became king in 1307.

By 1311 Edward’s closeness to Gaveston had estranged him from his barons. After a period holed up in Scarborough castle, Gaveston was taken prisoner, taken to Warwick castle and in early 1312 was condemned to die.  He was killed on the road between Warwick and Kenilworth.  Medieval chroniclers claimed that Edward and Piers had been in a homosexual relationship.  Whether or not this was true, the story was perpetuated by Christopher Marlow in his play Edward II, written in 1592. In our own times the story has been repeated in Derek Jarman’s 1991 film and in the 1997 ballet Edward II, a dance by the Stuttgart Ballet that I saw at the Bristol Hippodrome.

Back to history, Edward soon took another male favourite, the much wealthier Hugh Despenser (the younger) who was Lord of Glamorgan. He held Caerphilly castle, the largest castle in the kingdom after Windsor. Edward was unlucky in his favourites, as the Despenser family also made enemies of the great families of the kingdom and furthermore caused a rift with Edward’s queen, Isabella, sister of the king of France.  By 1326 Edward had lost the support of the nobility and facing an army of invading French mercenaries led by his wife, fled to Despenser’s castle at Caerphilly with much of the royal treasure.

Instead of facing a siege, Edward escaped to Neath Abbey, where the monks were reluctant to grant him sanctuary.  He was captured by Isabella’s forces just north of Llantrisant. Despenser met a grisly end, being hung, drawn and quartered at Hereford.  Edward was imprisoned at Berkeley castle.  You can see the pit where he was held and where it is assumed he was murdered in 1327.  There is no evidence to support the story that the method of murder was via a red hot metal rod inserted into Edward’s rectum but the story persists.  Whether or not it happened that way, the story is clearly meant as a reference to Edward’s behaviour with his two favourites, Gaveston and Despenser.  Edward’s body was taken to St Peter’s Abbey, now Gloucester cathedral, where you can see his fine tomb.

When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 she was succeeded as monarch of England and Wales by the 37 year old King James VI of Scotland. Known to most people for avoiding the Gunpowder Plot, for commissioning his eponymous Bible and for founding lasting colonies in North America, James also had an eye for attractive young men.  James had what we would call now a troubled childhood. He was brought up without his parents (his mother Mary, Queen of Scots, had been exiled when he was one and was later executed in England) or grandparents. He was also an only child.  Raised by scheming Scottish nobles, it is hardly surprising that he craved male attention.  His first recorded favourite during his early teens was the much older Esme Stuart, who James later raised to the title Duke of Lennox. Lennox, a Franco-Scottish catholic, was eventually exiled by James’s Presbyterian nobles and died in Paris in 1583.  James wrote a poem in his memory, the Ane Tragedie of the Phoenix, describing Lennox as a bird of fancy killed because of envy.

James’s first recorded favourite as king of England was Robert Carr, who the king first encountered in 1607 after a fall from his horse during a joust watched by James. Carr was 17 and the king was 41. The handsome Carr was made a member of the king’s private staff and rose quickly up the ranks at court. BY 1615 Carr was married and had been created Earl of Somerset.  The jealous James complained that Robert had been “withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber…” Carr’s wife Frances was implicated in the poisoning of one of Carr’s friends and the two were put on trial.  It is alleged that Carr threatened to reveal that he had slept with the king.  But he stayed silent and the king commuted the death sentence.

By this time James had already moved on to a new favourite, the best known in history, George Villiers.  James first met the handsome and intelligent 21 year old George at a Northamptonshire hunt at Apethorpe hall in 1614. James’s infatuation suited his nobles, keen to be rid of the Earl of Somerset. George became the royal cup-bearer.  His rise was meteoric, within four years he moved several steps up the peerage to become Marquess of Buckingham and James’s most trusted adviser and companion.  James told his privy counsellors that “Christ had John, and I have George.” The correspondence between the two men is extraordinary, even allowing for differences of expression over four centuries.  James called George, “Steenie”, after the angelic faced Saint Stephen. (I’ll try this next time someone calls me Steve…) He wrote to George as his “sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear father and husband.”

Historians agree that George was James’s most significant favourite and that he had a powerful hold over the king. Some have cast doubt on the sexual side of the relationship as James had defended Henry VIII’s laws against buggery (see below), I would suggest that this shows the limit of straight male historian imaginations, not being able to contemplate love without penetration.  James certainly had an active sex life with his queen, Ann of Denmark.  She became pregnant eight times, with two surviving sons.  James (like Edward II) had done his regal duty and produced an heir and a spare.  Unfortunately, it was the spare, Prince Charles, who succeeded his father in 1625.  George retained his position at court, having been raised to duke in 1623. But he became unpopular with Parliament and the nobles and in August 1628 was stabbed to death at the Greyhound pub in Portsmouth, now called the Buckingham house hotel. Charles gave him a tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Numerous portraits of James can be seen in London, Edinburgh and several country houses.  The reign of James is depicted in the magnificent ceiling paintings by Rubens at The Banqueting House, in Whitehall. They would be the last grand images seen by Charles I as he was led to his execution from this room in 1649.  Apethorpe has been restored in the last decade by English Heritage as one of the best Jacobean interiors in the country.  During the restoration a secret passage was rediscovered, linking the king’s bedroom to another.  As the house was used regularly by the king, EH have now renamed it Apethorpe Palace and it is open for a limited period in the summer. James’s tomb is in Westminster Abbey.

Farleigh Hungerford Castle – just outside Bath, now largely ruined but once the home of the Hungerford family.  Walter Hungerford (c1503-40) was an associate of Henry VIII’s second chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who arranged for Walter to be made a peer in 1536. Lord Hungerford was known to be a cruel husband, locking up his third wife Elizabeth in a tower at Farleigh Hungerford.  She wrote to Cromwell that she had resorted to drinking her own urine to survive. The Privy Council was investigating a charge of cruelty against his wife when in 1540 both Hungerford and his patron fell from favour and were accused of treason. Hungerford was accused of harbouring a priest who had predicted the death of Henry. But an additional charge was added against him. In 1533 Parliament had passed an “Act for the punishment of the vice of buggerie”, taken through the Commons by Cromwell.  Walter Hungerford was the first man to be accused and convicted of this offence. The Act provided for the death penalty and Walter was beheaded at Tower Hill on 28th July 1540, at the same time as Cromwell himself. Executions for buggery, sodomy or “unnatural acts” were common in the 18th century. The penalty for anal intercourse remained death until 1861, when it was reduced to life imprisonment. It remained an offence until 1967 when anal sex in private between men aged 21 was decriminalised. The offence was not removed completely until 2003.

Ickworth, Suffolk – Ickworth house, near Bury St Edmunds, is a peculiar piece of architecture.  It resembles a stone drum, with a domed roof.  Its unconventional style is appropriate for the most unconventional family that occupied it until recently. The Hervey family, Marquesses of Bristol (with no connection to my home city!) have long been the source of controversy. The seventh marquess died young in 1999, his drug habit bankrupting the family.  His relative, John, Lord Hervey (1696-1743) was one of the most notorious aristocrats of the 18th century.  A phrase from the time went, “When God created the human race, he made men, women and Herveys.” John Hervey was what we would now call camp, an effeminate man, fond of wearing white make up.  Although he was married and fathered eight children, he was assumed (though not charged under the law) to be in a relationship with Stephen Fox, a local squire. Ickworth displays a portrait of the two of them.  Hervey served under Prime Minister Walpole and was a witty pamphleteer. He thus had enemies, who would use his effeminacy against him.  The poet and satirist Alexander Pope was his most vociferous enemy in print, dubbing Hervey as Lady Fanny. In his poem Epistle to Arbuthnot, Pope depicted a character based on Hervey as “fop at the toilet, flatterer at the board, now trips a lady, and now struts a lord”…”a bug with gilded wings.”

 

Beckford’s Tower, Bath – at the age of ten William Beckford (1760-1844) became one of the most fabulously wealthy men in the country.  He inherited from his father the rough equivalent today of £125,000,000.  The fortune was from sugar plantations in Jamaica.  There is an interesting parallel historical awakening in many country houses, an acknowledgment that the buildings and their art collections were funded on the backs of slaves. Beckford’s fortune enabled him to indulge a life-long passion for books, pictures and architecture. On his travels he received music lessons from Mozart.  In the early 1780s he had a homosexual relationship with William “Kitty” Courtenay (1768-1835), heir to the Earldom of Devon, reputed to be the most beautiful young man in the country.   Unfortunately, letters between the two were intercepted by Courtenay’s uncle, who used the evidence to shame but not prosecute Beckford.  The two men lived secluded lives thereafter, with periods abroad.  Beckford’s extravagant tastes sapped his fortune.  He built Fonthill Abbey, an enormous gothic mansion in Wiltshire.  It collapsed and little now remains. He lived instead at Lansdown Crescent in the north of Bath.  He built the Lansdown Tower behind his house, which is now named after him.  There are superb views from the top and Beckford’s grave can be seen in the cemetery in the grounds of the tower.  Beckford’s art collection is now dispersed, with many of the world’s great galleries owning a picture that once hanged at Fonthill or at the tower. Beckford’s own portrait can be seen amongst the fabulous art at the National Trust’s Upton House, near Banbury.  Courtenay’s portrait can be seen at his family home, Powderham Castle, Devon.

Plas Newydd, Llangollen – A traditionally styled black and white half-timbered house in the Vale of Llangollen was once the home of Regency Wales’s equivalent of a celebrity couple, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby. “The Ladies of Llangollen” lived together at the house for 50 years from 1780.  Lady Eleanor was born in 1739, daughter of the Earl of Ormonde. The Butlers were one of the grand families of Ireland and she was brought up at Kilkenny castle. Sarah was born nearby in 1755, her family were less grand but still in the higher echelons of Anglo-Irish society. Sarah met the much older Eleanor while at school in Kilknenny.  The two became firm friends and in 1778 decided to elope together.  To escape the clutches of their disapproving families they sailed from Waterford to Milford Haven.  They travelled around Wales in search of an ideal home and eventually settled on Plas Newydd. Dressed in a male like appearance, with dark clothes and black stove pipe hats, they soon became local eccentrics.  They also attracted attention from travellers on their way to explore the scenery of north Wales or travelling to Dublin and struck up a correspondence with many of the era’s most famous figures.  Among their early visitors was Arthur Wellesley, from another Anglo-Irish family, who remained a friend when he was more famous as Duke of Wellington.  Another Irish luminary (and former Bristol MP) who visited was Edmund Burke.  Wordsworth and Southey visited and wrote poems for the ladies.  Many of the most famous names of Regency Britain called on the ladies for lunch, tea or dinner.  The royal family took an interest and George III awarded them a pension.  There is little doubt that the ladies were in a lesbian relationship.  It is a remarkable contrast in society’s attitude to gay men, who were still being executed at the time.  The ladies are buried together at Llangollen churchyard.

Kingston Lacey, Dorset – The Bankes family were forced to abandon their ancestral home of Corfe Castle after one of the most famous sieges of the civil war. They built a new home at Kingston Lacey, in mid Dorset.  The house was remodelled in the style of an Italian palazzo by the architect Charles Barry (of Palace of Westminster fame) for his friend William John Bankes (1786-1855) and is one of my favourite country houses. Bankes used his wealth to travel widely and acquire great works of art.  He bought many pictures in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War. One of the stereotypical homosexual dalliances of the upper classes is to be caught with a London guardsman.  Bankes was twice caught in the act.  In 1833 he was caught with a soldier in the urinal outside Parliament. He was acquitted (only buggery was an offence at the time) with the help of the Duke of Wellington, who he would have met during the Peninsular War. But the accusation ruined his Parliamentary career as the MP for the Dorset county seat. In 1841 he was arrested for “indecently exposing himself with a solider of the foot guards in Green Park.” He avoided trial by fleeing the country and lived the rest of his life in exile in Venice.  He died there in 1855 and his body was brought back for burial in Wimbourne Minster.

Clifton Hill House, Bristol – Once the home of John Addington Symonds (1840-93), who was one of the first writers to use the word ‘homosexual’, in his ground breaking writings on male same sex love.  He was himself attracted to men, a fact that he volunteered to his wife and close friends.  At a time when the law became even more oppressive to gay men, Symonds was taking quite a risk in his writings and activities.  The risk was mitigated by spending much of his later life in Switzerland. Symonds was born in Bristol in 1840, the son of a wealthy doctor, one of the founders of the Bristol General Hospital. In 1851 the family moved into Clifton Hill House, Bristol’s grandest Palladian villa. As a boy in fashionable Clifton and throughout his life he met many of the literary leaders of his times. From his time as an Oxford student he soon acquired a reputation as a writer in his own right.  He wrote mainly about classical poets and also figures from the Renaissance. In 1868 he set up his own family home with his wife Catherine at 7 Victoria Square in Clifton, now marked by a plaque. The couple had four daughters.  Their friend Edward Lear wrote ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ for their eldest daughter Janet.  Catherine resigned herself to tolerating her husband’s sexual appetite for men. He wrote to her, “The anomaly of my positon is that admire the physical beauty of men more than women, derive more pleasure from their contact and society, and am stirred to sexual sensations exclusively by persons of the male sex.”

While at Victoria Square in 1873 Symonds wrote ‘Male Love, A Problem in Greek Ethics’ and it was in this work that he was among the first to use the new word ‘homosexual’, with homo drawn from the Greek “same” rather than the Latin for “man”. The book was not published for a decade, just before the law on homosexuality became even tighter.

In August 1885 Lord Salisbury’s government introduced a brief Bill to amend the criminal law by raising the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16, in order to outlaw child prostitution. As the Bill reached its final stages in the Commons in the early hours of 7th August 1885 the Liberal MP for Northampton, the writer Henry Labouchere, proposed an amendment which said, “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanour…” the sentence for which would be up to 2 years in prison, with or without hard labour. The amendment was passed with very few MPs present.  At a stroke the law against gay men was widened well beyond the prohibition of buggery that had been law since 1533.

Symonds was one of those who spoke out against the new law, though now from the safe haven of Davos in Switzerland, where the family lived from 1877 owing to Symonds’s poor lung health. While in Switzerland Symonds enjoyed mixing with male farm workers and had a lasting relationship with Christian Buol, a sledge driver. Symonds wrote that homosexuality should be studied as a medical issue, not something for criminal prohibition.  He wrote jointly with the physician Henry Havelock Ellis ‘The Sexual Inversion’, a scientific work but also partly autobiographical.  It was published in German in 1897, four years after Symonds’s death. Many of Symonds’s writings on homosexuality could not be published in Britain during his lifetime.  His family destroyed many of his manuscripts but surviving drafts and others published in German have been published in the last few decades. Symonds died in Rome in 1893 and is buried in the city. Clifton Hill House was sold to the University of Bristol in 1909 and the house and grounds were used as a hall of residence for women students.  This is doubly appropriate as Symonds was an advocate of women entering university and he was one of the founders of Bristol University College in 1876.  The college was the first university to admit women on the same basis as men from the date of its foundation.

 

Henbury churchyard, Bristol – An obelisk next to the wall of the church marks the grave of one of Victorian Britain’s most remarkable women, Amelia Edwards.  Born in London in 1831, Edwards achieved fame as a novelist and a writer about her archaeological travels, most notably in Egypt. In 1877 she published ‘A Thousand Miles up the Nile’, illustrated with her own drawings of Egyptian artefacts.  It was a best seller. From the early 1860s Edwards lived at The Larches, Westbury on Trym in Bristol, with Ellen Braysler who was to be her companion for 30 years. Edwards used her fame as a writer to promote votes for women and she was Vice President of the Society for the Promotion of Women’s Suffrage.  Ellen and Amelia died within a few months of each other in 1892 and were buried in the same grave. An ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, lies on the grave. In September 2016 Historic England gave the grave a grade II listing, for its architectural, historic and social interest.

Reading Gaol – The most famous victim of the Labouchere Amendment, section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, is of course Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Like many gay men at his time and since, Wilde was married with children. But his marital life and his fame as an author did not stand in the way of him indulging his sexual desire for younger men. In 1888 he began a sexual relationship with the 17 year old Robbie Ross, a youth half his age.  Ross was an acquaintance of Lord Alfred Douglas and by 1891 Wilde had also embarked on a relationship with the 20 year old, known as “Bosie.”

Lawyers had predicted that the Labouchere Amendment would be a “blackmailers’ charter.” Wilde was playing with fire once Bosie had introduced him to a succession of rough trade rent boys. Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury (a man with two failed marriages who enjoyed watching men hit each other in the sport whose rules bear his name) had a tempestuous relationship with his son. His efforts to draw Lord Alfred away from Wilde failed.  In early 1895 he attempted to confront Wilde at his club but instead had to leave his calling card, addressed to Wilde, “posing as a sondomite” (sic).

Despite being advised of the risks, Wilde initiated a libel suit against Queensbury. The case collapsed in court when it was clear Queensbury had several witness statements of Wilde’s meetings with rent boys. The tables were turned on Wilde, arrested and charged with gross indecency under the 1885 Act but fortunately for him, not for the more serious 1533 Buggery Act. Wilde was convicted and given the maximum possible sentence of two years in prison, with hard labour.

Wilde’s prison sentence began in London on 25th May 1895 and the hard labour regime soon took its toll.  Wilde was saved by the intervention of Richard Haldane, a Liberal MP. Haldane was unmarried, effeminate and nicknamed ‘Pricilla‘ by fellow MPs. He was also an admirer of Wilde’s works and had been serving on Herbert Gladstone’s commission looking at penal reform. He was able to use this position to visit any prisoner and called at Wandsworth Prison, where Wilde had been admitted to the infirmary.  He arranged for Wilde to be transferred to Reading gaol on 23rd November 1895. There was to be no more hard labour and Haldane took Wilde paper and pens. He also supplied him with a selection of books to read, beyond the permissible Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Wilde then wrote a 50,000 word letter to Lord Alfred. The letter was not sent but Wilde took it with him on his release in May 1897.  Wilde left immediately for France, never to return to these islands.  Robert Ross joined him in France and became his literary agent.  Wilde wrote ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and it was published under the pseudonym C.3.3 – Wilde’s cell number at Reading. The poem runs through a description of the horrors of hard labour, ‘we tore the tarry rope to shreds with blunt and bleeding nails…’ and also recounts an execution by hanging.

Wilde died of meningitis in Paris on 30th November 1900, with Ross by his side.  He is buried there and in 1909 Ross commissioned a memorial from Jacob Epstein.  It is a modernist depiction of an angel, complete with a penis.  Ross published a version of Wilde’s letter to Bosie, as De Profundis. In 1950 his ashes were buried with Oscar.

HMP Reading closed in 2013 and awaits redevelopment.  The building is listed so I hope a way can be found to preserve the cell of its most famous prisoner.  There is a superb statue of Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin, the city of his birth.  His clothing is picked out in different colours of marble. There are two adjacent statues, a nude woman representing Constance Lloyd, Wilde’s wife and a male torso, representing the Greek god Dionysus.  Wilde’s direction of gaze is towards Dionysus.  There is a less satisfactory of Wilde in London by Maggie Hambling, called a conversation with Oscar Wilde.  Located in Adelaide Street at the rear of St Martin in the Fields, a green granite sarcophagus acts as a bench, with a bronze sculpture vaguely resembling Wilde’s head at one end.  The best bit about it is the quote carved below, “we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”, from Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Knole, Kent – one of the great houses of Tudor England, built on a grand scale rather like Hampton Court. It was commissioned by Thomas Sackville, one of Elizabeth I and James I’s ministers. The Sackvilles live in part of the house to this day, though the state rooms are opened to the public by the National Trust.  When I visited last summer they had just opened a set of rooms in the gatehouse to mark the 50 years of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. They were furnished in the style of the 1920s, when they were first occupied by Eddy Sackville-West (1901-65), the heir to Knole. Eddy was a writer and music critic.  He promoted the works of gay composers Benjamin Britten (see below) and Michael Tippett. He had a succession of male lovers at Knole and at his house in Dorset.  One was Paul Latham of Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex, who used Eddie over a decade for BDSM, causing Eddy to have a breakdown in 1937. Latham was a Tory MP (Scarborough & Whitby 1931-41) and holds the dubious distinction of being the only example in the last century of an MP who had to resign and also be court martialled. Latham was exposed in 1941 for having sex with men under his command in the Royal Artillery. He was sentenced to two years, without the hard labour.

Eddy’s cousin Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) was also brought up at Knole but as Eddy was the male heir to the title she made her home at nearby Sissinghurst Castle.  There she and her husband and fellow prolific writer Harold Nicholson (1886-1968) created what has become a famous garden. Vita and Harold had many friends in the Bloomsbury Group of artists and intellectuals.  Most of them were married but had lived unconventional lives with many same sex relationships.  The group included John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell.  Woolf had a lesbian relationship with Vita, one of many same sex relationships throughout Vita’s life. Harold also had same sex relationships and close male liaisons from literary and political circles.  He was the National Labour MP for Leicester West from 1935 to 1945 and his diary is an important insight into the lives of many of the leading figures of the time. Among his supposed liaisons were Liberal politicians Lord Beauchamp (see below) and Robert Bernays (1902-45), the MP for Bristol North 1931-45 and the last Liberal MP in the city before my election in 2005.

Aldeborough, Suffolk – a village in Suffolk made famous by Benjamin Britten (1913-76) and Peter Pears (1910-86) who established an annual music festival there in 1948. Britten composed a variety of works, both for orchestra and for performance by a specific individual.  He met the tenor Peter Pears in 1937 and the two then became lifelong musical, emotional and physical partners. Though their relationship would have been known to many people, they escaped prosecution. Britten became Britain’s most celebrated and honoured 20th century composer.  He wrote ‘War Requiem’ for the 1962 rededication of the new Coventry Cathedral. A clear sign of the acceptance at the highest levels of society of Britten’s position came in 1964 when the Queen made him a member of the Order of Merit, three years before decriminalisation. The Queen opened The Maltings, the concert hall developed by Britten at Snape, Aldeburgh in 1967.  In 1976, just before his death he was made a peer.  Britten and Pears are buried in adjacent graves at Aldeburgh and Britten has a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey. Their home at Aldeburgh, the Red House, is the base of the Britten-Pears Foundation.  A scallop sculpture on the beach at Aldeburgh is also a memorial to Britten. The relationship of Britten and Pears was long, happy and successful and a rare example of a known same sex relationship that was not subjected to adverse comment or the harsh intervention of the law.

Plas Newydd, Anglesey – overlooking the Menai Straits, the house has been home to generations of the Paget family. Most famous was Henry, 1st Marquess of Anglesey, awarded the title for his service in the Napoleonic Wars.  Second in command to the Duke of Wellington, he lost his right leg at the Battle of Waterloo. You can see his wooden false leg at Plas Newydd.  Most infamous was the 5th marquess, Henry Cyril Paget (1875-1905), known as the Dancing Marquess. He was fascinated by all things theatrical and when he inherited the title and estates in 1898 he had the means to indulge his wildest fantasies. He had a particular passion for jewellery and established a Polish jeweller in Llandudno to supply his pieces. Henry converted the chapel at Plas Newydd into a theatre. He staged plays by Oscar Wilde, despite his recent disgrace and imprisonment. Henry also staged his own special productions, appearing as the glittering star on the stage in front of bemused guests, to whom the Marquess gave souvenir photographs of himself in his bejewelled costume. The architect of Port Meirion, Clough Williams Ellis, described the marquess as “a sort of apparition, he was quite unforgettable – a tall, elegant and bejewelled creature, with wavering elegant gestures…”

By 1904 Henry had racked up jewellery purchase debts of over half a million pounds, leading to a forced sale of possessions. He died the following year in Monte Carlo, aged only 29. His cousin was left the job of rescuing the house and estate.  The 6th Marquess commissioned the bisexual artist Rex Whistler (1905-44) to decorate his new dining room. Whistler, one of the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the age, painted a 17 metre long mural of Italian sea port and North Wales mountain scenes, now the most famous feature at Plas Newydd.

Tredegar House, Newport – South Wales’s next generation answer to Henry Paget was Evan Morgan (1893-1949), who succeeded his spendthrift father Courtenay Morgan as Viscount Tredegar in 1934.  While his father was a womaniser, Evan was known to be homosexual, though he married twice to keep up a respectable façade. He continued his father’s practice of spending on a vast scale, during the last of the glory days of wealth from the Monmouthshire and Glamorgan coalfields. Tredegar House had been the home of the Morgans since medieval times but its current red brick main block dates from the 1670s.  It is one of the few grand houses of Wales.  The house and grounds became famous in Evan’s time for his grand parties.  His guest list drew from many other members of the Bright Young Things, including Augustus John, Jacob Epstein, Aldous Huxley, H G Wells and Charlie Chaplin. Apart from the food and alcohol guests were able to bathe naked in the lake or watch performances by Evan’s menagerie that included a boxing kangaroo.

Walmer Castle, Kent – one of the coastal forts commissioned by Henry VIII, it has long since been the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.  After it ceased to have any real commercial or naval marine meaning, the post has been held mainly by leading politicians or royals, including Wellington, Asquith and the Queen Mother.  Walmer Castle was a handy place to hold weekend parties away from London.

The Lord Warden from 1913-34 was the Liberal politician William Lygon (1872-1938), the 7th Earl Beauchamp.  His parties at Walmer were all male affairs, with other high society homosexuals mixing with local fishermen and youths. Beauchamp was married to Lady Lettice Grosvenor, sister of the Tory Duke of Westminster, who was eventually to bring down Beauchamp.  Lygon had succeeded to the title at the age of 18 and his wealth and peerage opened the way to several political appointments.  He spent two years as a very young Governor of New South Wales from 1899-1901.  The new Liberal Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, made him government Chief Whip in the House of Lords in 1905.  He held a series of other appointments, the final of which was Leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords from 1924-31.  It was during this time that he and his Tory brother in law became bitter enemies, both political and social.  The Duke later referred to his sister’s husband as his “bugger in law.”

Beauchamp had a string of male sexual encounters, both at Walmer and at the family’s own home, Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, where he had sex with his valet and handsome footmen.  He is also thought to have had sexual encounters on his political travels with Harold Nicolson and Robert Bernays (see above). In 1931 the Duke of Westminster brought matters to a head by informing the king and persuading his sister to file for divorce.  George V is supposed to have told the Duke, “I thought men like that shot themselves.” He was also concerned about his fourth son, Prince George (1902-42, later Duke of Kent) who had spent time with Beauchamp at Madresfield and was reputed to have had several same sex experiences.

The divorce petition stated that Beauchamp was “A man of perverted sexual practices, [who] has committed acts of gross indecency with male servants and other male persons and has been guilty of sodomy … throughout the married life … the Respondent habitually committed acts of gross indecency with certain of his male servants.” Such a charge would have led to arrest, so Beauchamp fled abroad to Paris. He was able to return from exile in 1937 but died within a year.  His children had stayed loyal and had disowned their mother, throwing her bust into the moat at Madresfield.  One of Beauchamp’s sons was Hugh Lygo, who predeceased him in a 1936 road accident.  He was a friend of the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who in 1945 published Brideshead Revisited, with characters based loosely on the Beauchamp family.

My guidebook to Madresfield is silent on the sexual activities of its most famous owner or his fall from grace. The only hint is the reference to one of the objects in the house, a statuette of a naked golfer, sculpted by Lord Beauchamp from a young Australian model while he was Governor of New South Wales.

Buscot Park, Oxfordshire – home to an eclectic art collection, assembled mainly by Gavin Henderson (1902-77), the 2nd Lord Farringdon.  His father amassed a fortune from railway finance, enabling Gavin to live a carefree hedonistic lifestyle.  He threw wild parties at Buscot and had a particular taste for working class youths. Earlier in life, in 1926, his family attempted to marry him to a respectable bride, Honor Phillips.  Gavin fled to Australia for 4 months but was persuaded to return home for the marriage.  But on his wedding night he abandoned his new wife and spent the night with a sailor. His marriage was annulled in 1931. On inheriting his title in 1934 Gavin became a Labour member of the House of Lords.  His sexual preferences were well known inside Labour circles so he never held ministerial office.  However, he did become chairman of the Fabian Society and hosted many parties for Labour luminaries at Buscot.  I visited the house just after the 2015 general election.  It’s well worth a visit, for the gardens as well as the art.  But, as with Madresfield and Lord Beauchamp (see above), the guidebook says much about Lord Farringdon’s politics but nothing about his sexual personality. Again, as with the Beauchamp family, Evelyn Waugh knew the Farringdon family and in his novel Vile Bodies based his character Lord Parakeet on Gavin.

Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire – the location of the government’s secret code breaking base during the Second World War. When I visited the site on a Parliamentary delegation a decade ago it was still in the early stages of its development as a museum of cryptology and computing.  But I was delighted to see a statue of its most famous war time worker, Alan Turing (1912-54), a pioneer in his fields of maths and computing. The statue is a remarkable piece of art, made up of thousands of slices of Welsh slate. Turing is shown holding an Enigma machine, the German code settings for which he had helped to break. The work of Turing and other cryptographers and engineers at Bletchley Park saved thousands of lives, in particular those sailing the Atlantic convoys that kept Britain supplied with food and armaments. Historians agree that his work also shortened the war in Europe, by at least a year.  The details of the work at Bletchley remained a secret for many years and Turing’s own papers have been declassified only recently. That is one reason why Turing’s name was absent for decades from the legions of history books, films and TV programmes about the war. The other reason was his subsequent disgrace in 1952 and the circumstances of his death in 1954.

Turing was homosexual. There is no evidence of any war time relationships. Maybe there wasn’t the time, maybe he didn’t want to jeopardise his war work. After the war Turing worked at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington.  I’ve visited the NPL (learning a lot about SI measurements) but they didn’t make anything of their links to Turing.  There is however a plaque on his house at nearby Hampton High Street. In 1947 he moved to Wilmslow (there’s a plaque on his house) to take up a position at Manchester University. In early 1952, aged 39, he began a relationship with Arnold Murray, a workman 20 years his junior. Events quickly turned for the worst, when Turing’s house was burgled by someone known to Murray. During the police investigation it became clear to them that Turing and Murray were in a relationship. The victim of a burglary became the one accused of a crime and Turing was charged with gross indecency under the 1885 law.  The police at the time were under instructions from the Home Secretary to ramp up the arrests of homosexuals. David Maxwell Fyffe had served as the main British prosecutor of the Nazis at Nuremburg but at home he was a thoroughly illiberal hardline opponent of rights for homosexual men. In his first year as Home Secretary (1951) the arrest rate more than quadrupled to over 5,000. Turing and Murray were two of those swept up and Turing’s record of service was not going to save him.  He actually pleaded guilty at his trial on 31st March 1952, escaping prison but instead sentenced to a parole period of a year of chemical castration treatment. Murray received a conditional discharge.

Turing was stripped of his security clearance and could no longer act as a consultant to GCHQ. On 7th June 1954 his housekeeper found him dead in bed, with a half-eaten apple. The inquest recorded a verdict of death by cyanide poisoning.  The ghost of Labouchere had deprived the world of one of its most brilliant scientists, half a century after the death of Wilde.  How many other positive contributions to humanity have been cut short by prejudice?

The law under which Alan Turing and tens of thousands of other gay men were convicted was not repealed in full until 2003. Since then there have been many calls for convictions prior to that date to be quashed and the accused to be pardoned.  The case of Alan Turing has been at the head of several petitions and parliamentary procedures. In 2009 Gordon Brown issued a statement of regret about the treatment of Turing but his government did not offer any legal redress for him or anyone else.  In 2012 the Coalition Government passed the Protection of Freedoms Act, which enabled victims of the 1885 and 1967 laws to have the convictions disregarded in any criminal record check.

Campaigners urged the government to go further and to issue pardons.  My Liberal Democrat colleague John Leech (MP Manchester Withington 2005-15) tabled a motion in January 2012 (EDM 2660) that called for a full pardon for Turing. I was one of his 27 co-signatories. The campaign widened and became known as a call for an Alan Turing Law, for the pardon of all victims of the persecutory laws.  On Christmas Eve 2013 a rare Royal Pardon was issued for Alan Turing.  Leech and Lord John Sharkey (a Liberal Democrat Peer) had introduced Bills in both Houses to amend the law. Eventually the Police and Crime Act 2017 introduced a retro-active pardon for all deceased victims and a procedure for people still alive to apply for a pardon from “crimes” that are no longer on the statute book.

Universities and scientific institutions all over the world have buildings named after Turing.  I have seen the statue of him at the University of Surrey in Guildford. There is also a statue of him at Manchester, showing him seated on a bench, apple in hand. It is appropriately sited between the university and Canal Street, Manchester’s world famous gay friendly district. Turing now has the positive place in history that he deserves.  I hope that his face will appear on the next new bank note, so that everyone can be reminded of his contribution to our freedom.

Beaulieu, Hampshire – most people visit Beaulieu for the National Motor Museum. The vintage and classic car collection were assembled in the grounds of the Palace House in 1952 by its owner Edward Douglas Scott-Montagu (1926-2015), Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Few visitors in the last few decades would know much about Lord Montagu, apart from his passion for cars and promoting British tourist attractions. But in the 1950s he was famous for a court case and prison sentence that could have ruined him but instead gave impetus to a relaxation in the law against homosexuality.

Montagu inherited his peerage at age 2 and became an attender of the House of Lords as soon as he reached adulthood.  He was one of the 92 hereditary peers to retain a seat in the upper chamber when Tony Bair compromised with the Conservatives over Lords reform. He became one of the longest serving peers and I saw him many times in his wheelchair, particularly at the arts and heritage events that I attended as often as I could.  He is one of several figures who I now wish I’d had a longer conversation with, while I had the chance.

Montagu has stated that he has been comfortable with his bisexuality since his days at Oxford. He went on to host beach parties at his hut on the Solent, on the edge of his Hampshire estate. In 1953 he was accused of having sex with a 14 year old boy scout but he was not convicted. The following year he invited his cousin, Dorset and Wiltshire landowner Michael Pitt Rivers (1917-99) and his friend the Daily Mail journalist Peter Wildeblood (1923-99) to a beach party. Wildeblood brought with him an RAF corporal with whom he was having a relationship, Edward McNally along with McNally’s friend John Reynolds. All five were arrested and charged under the 1885 Act.  McNally and Reynolds turned Queen’s Evidence, so leaving Montagu, Pitt Rivers and Wildeblood to face the music. Montagu and Pitt Rivers denied the charges.  Wildeblood took the brave and principled stance of stating to the court in Winchester that he was indeed a homosexual. His letters to McNally were also cited in court.  On 24th March 1954 Wildeblood and Pitt Rivers were sentenced to 18 months and Montagu to 12 months.

The case attracted huge attention (unlike Turing’s, two years earlier) due to the high profile of the defendants. It helped to raise fresh debate about the suitability of the law, in the face of its hardline enforcement by Maxwell Fyffe. Wildeblood contributed to the debate with a book published after his release. “Against the Law” set out a case for homosexual law reform and also told a grim story of prison conditions. It was the Home Secretary himself who in the autumn of 1954 set up a committee to look at both the law on homosexuality and prostitution.  It was chaired by the Vice Chancellor of Reading University, Sir John Wolfenden.  The committee deliberated for two years, with Wildeblood among those giving evidence. The Wolfenden Report was published on 4th September 1957 and recommended the decriminalisation of private homosexual acts.  The government declined to implement the report and Fyffe, now as Viscount Kilmuir the Lord Chancellor, was one of its chief opponents.

It was not until 1967 that the 1885 law was amended, to exempt from prosecution same sex activity in private by men aged 21 and over.  The law was changed via a Private Member’s Bill, introduced in the House of Lords in 1965 by the Conservative Lord Arran, then in the Commons by Labour MP for Pontypool Leo Abse.  The Bill was supported from the government front bench by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and was applicable to only England and Wales.  Scotland and Northern Ireland had to wait until the early 1980s for similar legislation by the Thatcher government.

In 2017 the BBC commissioned a superb selection of dramas and documentaries marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Act.  Among the dramas was the story of Wildeblood, Pitt Rivers and Montagu, named after Wildeblood’s book, ‘Against the Law.’

 

Carrow Road football ground, Norwich – Among my responsibilities as Communities Minister in the Coalition Government was combatting hate crime.  Most of my time was spent on racism, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.  But I also persuaded officials that we should spend time on other identity related prejudice, including violence against people because of their appearance or lifestyle (a concern from the Sophie Lancaster murder) and of course homophobia.  I decided that football would be the area where I would direct my efforts on homophobia. The FA and all league clubs were contacted and I visited several of them. I do not know whether my Conservative successors have continued dialogue with the football authorities but it is certainly clear that football still has a massive problem. There are no openly gay male players in the four top leagues. With over 1500 players between them, this is clearly an implausible scenario.

There will be several factors to explain the reluctance of any player or group of players to be the first to come out, while still playing the professional game. Maybe the sad story of Justin Fashanu (1961-98) haunts the game.  Fashanu played for Norwich City from apprentice to full team professional by 1978.  His fame should derive from the £1million transfer fee to Nottingham Forest in 1981. But his period at Forest was a miserable experience, being bullied verbally by the manager Brian Clough, one of the most famous people in the game at the time (even I knew who he was…) Clough knew that Fashanu visited gay bars. He left Forest after a year and played for short periods with a succession of clubs, never settling in. Then in October 1990 in an interview with The Sun (a paper that had a strong homophobic reputation at the time) he came out as gay.

Fashanu continued to traipse from club to club, in England, Canada, Scotland and eventually the USA. In March 1998 he was accused of sexually assaulting a 17 year old male in Maryland. He flew back to England to escape arrest. On 3rd May he was found hanged in a garage in Shoreditch. In his suicide note he claimed the sex was consensual.

Justin Fashanu was the first and 28 years later is still the only football player to come out, while still playing. So I’m including his first football ground as a reminder that football, compared to most other sports, still exists in a state of denial about the contribution that gay players and officials make to the phenomenal success of the game. The worlds of the arts, politics and most other walks of life, including sports such as rugby (league and union) have embraced both their queer past and current prominent LGBT faces. Hopefully our most popular sport will join them soon.

 

Useful links and further reading

The National Trust list of LGBTQ property associations – https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/exploring-lgbtq-history-at-national-trust-places

Historic England – https://www.historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/lgbtq-heritage-project/

English Heritage – http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/lgbtq-history/

Bristol Outstories – http://outstoriesbristol.org.uk/welcome/

Prejudice and Pride by Alison Oram and Matt Cook, NT Enterprises 2017

Closet Queens by Michael Bloch, Abacus books 2015

A Palladian Villa in Clifton by Annie Burnside, Redcliffe Press 2009

Guidebooks to all the above mentioned sites.

See my other heritage site blogs on castles, abbeys and cathedrals

History of Parliament Trust on James I and Villiers –   https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2018/02/27/james-i-and-his-favourites-sex-and-power-at-the-jacobean-court/

BBC report on the Catterick Roman grave of a galli – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/1999734.stm

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