Edward II and Richard II – Effeminate kingship, homosexuality and gender in the late Middle Ages

Homosexuality became a topic in the late Middle Ages.

HomoCulture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

This article was published on April 23rd, 2019

Two plays dominated the thespian world in the late Sixties in London; Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard II. In both plays, Sir Ian McKellen played the main character, a deposed king. And in both plays, the main characters were considered gay. While highly dramatized, the real events around these two Plantagenet kings were thoroughly researched by Marlowe and Shakespeare. 

Edward II and Richard II – Effeminate kingship, homosexuality and gender in the late Middle Ages

Edward II was born in 1384 to Edward I, known as the Hammer of the Scots, and inherited his father’s life long struggle with the Scots. In his own reign, he fought the famous Battle of Bannockburn against Robert the Bruce. But what interested Christopher Marlowe the most when he wrote his play in the late 16thcentury, was Edward’s close relationship to the nobleman Piers Gaveston, which was rumored to be a sexual one. 

Phillips Seymour quoted in his academical biography an anonymous chronicler who described Edward “felt such love he entered into a covenant of constancy, and bound himself with him before all other mortals with a bond of indissoluble love, firmly drawn up and fastened with a knot.”[1] The Mecaux Chronicle, along with other contemporary chroniclers, stated Edward had been a sodomite or was closely drawn to sodomy.[2]

Edward II and Richard II – Effeminate kingship, homosexuality and gender in the late Middle Ages

During Edward’s reign, Gaveston was a constant reason of complaint especially used by the king’s political opponents who accused him of listening more to a simple and powerless noblemen than to their council. Edward had to exile Gaveston a few times, but always managed to pardon him so they could live together in England, if only for short periods. 

Finally, in 1327, he was deposed and sent to prison where he died. Quite a lot of chronicles list he was murdered ; an iron rod driven through his rectum, as a reference to his rumored homosexuality.

Not more than a hundred years later, another Planatagenet king – Richard II – was accused of having too close relationships with his favorite noblemen. Like Edward II, Richard was deposed and probably murdered in 1400. 

Edward II and Richard II – Effeminate kingship, homosexuality and gender in the late Middle Ages

Being crowned at only ten years in 1377, Richard’s greatest political success was the temporary peace treaty with France in the Hundred Years War and the peaceful settlement of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381. In contrast to his father, the Black Prince, and his grandfather Edward III, who were popular war strategists, Richard was more driven to fine arts and civil French culture. During his reign, with never having fathered a child, he wanted to establish a cult around virgin kingship and the close affection between a king and his minions.[3]

Edward II and Richard II – Effeminate kingship, homosexuality and gender in the late Middle Ages

The opposing political side, mostly his uncle’s family, the Lancasters, were skeptical of his love for all things French, and his new understanding of kingship that scratched on established gender roles. With fear, in a society dictated by knightship and war, they frowned upon his androgynous enactment of his own person and his close relationship to Robert de Vere, another simple noblemen, much like Edward’s Gaveston, for whom Richard invented the title of Duke of Ireland. 

In 1399, Richard was opposed by his cousin Henry of Lancaster, abducted for high treason, and sent to prison, where he died in 1400. 

Edward II and Richard II – Effeminate kingship, homosexuality and gender in the late Middle Ages

So, while the Early and High Middle Ages were a time of strict dismissal of homosexuality, the sexual references exploded in chronicles and literature of the 14th century. Geoffrey Chaucer, whom Richard II highly appreciated, loved to interweave gay-coded characters in his Canterbury Tales. Renaissance writers gladly took historical figures such as Edward II and Richard II and made their possible same-sex relationships an issue in their works.  

Was this a beginning of a new, more tolerate era? Or the beginning of a new witch hunt on homosexuals on a larger scale? 

As the Middle Ages slowly evolved into a new era, not only the established Old World as we knew it changed politically, economically, and socially. The issue of how to address homosexuality was now one of the new topics as medieval times ended around 1500. 

[1]   Phillips, Seymour (2011). Edward II. New Haven, London, 2011. 

[2]   Mortimer, Ian (2006). “Sermons of Sodomy: A Reconsideration of Edward II’s Sodomitical Reputation”. In Dodd, Gwilym; Musson, Anthony. The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives. Woodbridge, UK: 2006. pp. 48–60.

[3]       //www.academia.edu/15304232/_Richard_II_and_the_Cults_of_Saints_George_and_Edward_the_Confessor_in_Translatio_or_the_Transmission_of_Culture_in_the_Middle_Ages_and_Renaissance_ed._Laura_Hollengreen_Turnhout_Belgium_Brepols_2008_

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