LGBT Royals: A history of kings and queens

Gaz Morris

Based in and around Manchester, Gaz has studied a BA and MA in various types of history at the University of Manchester. When not embracing his love for all things historical, Gaz can be found indulging his other interests of cooking, travelling and languages to whatever degree his current bank balance permits.

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Might a royal gay wedding be on the cards? Probably not. But, apparently, Prince Harry has taken a gay man’s telephone number in the event that he gets tired of dating women. The Prince was out drinking last Friday in Notting Hill where he allegedly accepted the number of a gentleman, Vincenzo Ianniello.

Despite this being an archetypal non-story, it nevertheless got me thinking on what would happen in the case of a LGBT king or queen of the United Kingdom. The rules of succession certainly wouldn’t be affected, but I wonder what the general mood would be surrounding the UK’s first gay royal wedding. I would like to think it would be a celebrated and, if the amount of pink Union Flags bedecking Canal Street at the Jubilee are anything to go by, flamboyant affair.

But why look to the future? Homosexual relationships as a feature of open society might only be a recent fixture in Britain, but there is evidence to suggest that several British royals over the past millennium might well have taken a same-sex partner if society would have allowed it. I should stress as well, that all of these claims are hotly contested and, ultimately, completely unverifiable due to the evidence knocking about. However, what is history without a little mystery?

Perhaps the most hotly debated gay royal of all is James Stuart (James VI of Scotland and James I of England). James’ sexuality is brought into question due to his preoccupation for surrounding himself with handsome young men, his femininity and the fact that he didn’t fancy going to war as much as his bellicose predecessor, Queen Elizabeth (as we all know, pacifism is effectively homosexuality). Admittedly the tights and camp poses in contemporary portraiture don’t do his reputation as a straight man much credence, but I’m sure they were all the rage amongst the ladies’ men back in the day, too – look at Sir Francis Drake.

Another royal frequently identified as being gay was Edward II – namely, the flaming one in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Braveheart is anything other than a balanced, well-researched and completely unbiased piece of cinema, but the sources of the story that Edward II took a friend, Piers Gaveston, as a lover over his wife were all either written after the king’s death in 1327 or else were pretty critical of him anyway. A similar argument can be drawn against the accusations that William III fancied a bit of the local booty. Having come over from the Netherlands (where he was known by the more colourful eponym of William of Orange) and kicked out the previous king (James II) at the invitation of Parliament, it’s little wonder that James’ supporters started to spread all sorts of rumours about him. The reputation of the Dutch in Britain at the time is probably much akin to what it is now and the rumours presumably sought to build on the famous Dutch liberalism rather than being founded in any fact. More’s the pity, really.

Other British royals that have been claimed as homosexual include William II (William the Conqueror’s son), Richard the Lionheart, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Anne. Sadly, I doubt there is any truth whatsoever in any of these suggestions and can only be argued as counter-factual history until some secret love letters appear addressed to their gentlemen/ladies-in-waiting.

A much more modern case for LGBT royalty can be seen in Prince George, the younger brother of George VI and uncle of the present Queen. Prince George was suspected of having had a string of affairs with both men and women, including (allegedly) the playwright Noel Coward (“Private Lives” indeed!). That the prince fathered an illegitimate son as part of a ménage-a-trois and was a user of morphine and cocaine only seem to strengthen the case for a gentleman without a strong desire to uphold the strict protocols of royalty at all times. Sadly, however, there is no way of knowing with George either, as he died in a plane crash in 1942.

Still, whilst there is no categorical proof of homosexuality in Britain’s royal past, there would certainly be a tentative precedent or two in the event that Prince Harry decided to give Vincenzo a ring.