Ordinarily, the wedding of a junior member of the British royal family wouldn’t attract much global attention. But Lord Ivar Mountbatten’s has.
That’s because Mountbatten, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, is expected to wed James Coyle this summer in what has been heralded as the “first-ever” same-sex marriage in Britain’s royal family.
Perhaps what makes it even more unusual is that Mountbatten’s ex-wife, Penny Mountbatten, said she will give her former husband away.
Who says the royals aren’t a modern family?
Though Mountbatten and Coyle’s ceremony is expected to be small, it’s much larger in significance.
“It’s seen as the extended royal family giving a stamp of approval, in a sense, to same-sex marriage,” said Carolyn Harris, historian and author of “Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting.” “This marriage gives this wider perception of the royal family encouraging everyone to be accepted.”
But the union isn’t believed to be the first same-sex relationship in British monarchy, according to historians. And they certainly couldn’t carry out their relationships openly or without causing intense political drama within their courts.
Edward II, who ruled from 1307-1327, is one of England’s less fondly remembered kings. His reign consisted of feuds with his barons, a failed invasion of Scotland in 1314, a famine, more feuding with his barons, and an invasion by a political rival that led to him being replaced by his son, Edward III. And many of the most controversial aspects of his rule — and fury from his barons — stemmed from his relationships with two men: Piers Gaveston and, later, Hugh Despenser.
Gaveston and Edward met when Edward was about 16 years old, when Gaveston joined the royal household. “It’s very obvious from Edward’s behavior that he was quite obsessed with Gaveston,” said Kathryn Warner, author of “Edward II: The Unconventional King.” Once king, Edward II made the relatively lowborn Gaveston the Earl of Cornwall, a title usually reserved for members of the royal family, “just piling him with lands and titles and money,” Warner said. He feuded with his barons over Gaveston, who they believed received far too much attention and favor.
Gaveston was exiled numerous times over his relationship with Edward II, though the king always conspired to bring him back. Eventually, Gaveston was assassinated. After his death, Edward “constantly had prayers said for [Gaveston’s] soul; he spent a lot of money on Gaveston’s tomb,” Warner said.
Several years after Gaveston’s death, Edward formed a close relationship with another favorite and aide, Hugh Despenser. How close? Walker pointed to the annalist of Newenham Abbey in Devon in 1326, who called Edward and Despenser “the king and his husband,” while another chronicler noted that Despenser “bewitched Edward’s heart.”
The speculation that Edward II’s relationships with these men went beyond friendship was fueled by Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play “Edward II”, which is often noted for its homoerotic portrayal of Edward II and Gaveston.
James VI and I, who reigned over Scotland and later England and Ireland until his death in 1625, attracted similar scrutiny for his male favorites, a term used for companions and advisers who had special preference with monarchs. Though James married Anne of Denmark and had children with her, it has long been believed that James had romantic relationships with three men: Esmé Stewart; Robert Carr; and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
Correspondence between James and his male favorites survives, and as David M. Bergeron theorizes in his book “King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire”: “The inscription that moves across the letters spell desire.”
James was merely 13 when he met 37-year-old Stewart, and their relationship was met with concern.
“The King altogether is persuaded and led by him . . . and is in such love with him as in the open sight of the people often he will clasp him about the neck with his arms and kiss him,” wrote one royal informant of their relationship. James promoted Stewart up the ranks, eventually making him Duke of Lennox. James was eventually forced to banish him, causing Stewart great distress. “I desire to die rather than to live, fearing that that has been the occasion of your no longer loving me,” Stewart wrote to James.
But James’s most famous favorite was Villiers. James met him in his late 40s and several years later promoted him to Duke of Buckingham — an astounding rise for someone of his rank. Bergeron records the deeply affectionate letters between the two; in a 1623 letter, James refers bluntly to “marriage” and calls Buckingham his “wife:”
“I cannot content myself without sending you this present, praying God that I may have a joyful and comfortable meeting with you and that we may make at this Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter . . . I desire to live only in this world for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you. And may so God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.”
A lost portrait of Buckingham by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens was recently discovered in Scotland, depicting a striking and stylish man. And a 2008 restoration of Apethorpe Hall, where James and Villiers met and later spent time together, discovered a passage that linked their bedchambers.
One queen who has attracted speculation about her sexuality is Queen Anne, who ruled from 1702-1714. Her numerous pregnancies, most of which ended in miscarriage or a stillborn child, indicate a sexual relationship with her husband, George of Denmark.
And yet, “she had these very intense, close friendships with women in her household,” Harris said.
Most notable is her relationship to Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who held enormous influence in Anne’s court as mistress of the robes and keeper of the privy purse. She was an influential figure in Whig party politics, famous for providing Anne with blunt advice and possessing as skillful a command of politics as her powerful male contemporaries.
Whether Churchill and Queen Anne’s intense friendship became something more is something we may never know. “Lesbianism, by its unverifiable nature, is an awful subject for historical research and, inversely, the best subject for political slander,” writes Ophelia Field in her book “Sarah Churchill: Duchess of Marlborough: The Queen’s Favourite.”
But Field also notes that when examining the letters between the women, it’s important to understand that their friendship was “something encompassing what we would nowadays class as romantic or erotic feeling.”
Field writes in “The Queen’s Favourite”:
“Without Sarah beside her when she moved with the seasonal migrations of the Court, Anne complained of loneliness and boredom: ‘I must tell you I am not as you left me . . . I long to be with you again and tis impossible for you ever to believe how much I love you except you saw my heart.’ [ . . .] Most commentators have suggested that the hyperbole in Anne’s letters to her friend was merely stylistic. In fact, the overwhelming impression is not of overstatement but that Anne was repressing what she really wanted to say.”
Their relationship deteriorated in part because of Anne’s growing closeness to another woman, Churchill’s cousin, Abigail Masham. Churchill grew so infuriated that she began insinuating Anne’s relationship with Masham was sinister.
The drama surrounding the three women will play out in the upcoming film, “The Favourite,” starring Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman.
Though there is much evidence that these royals had same-sex relationships with their favorites or other individuals, Harris cautioned that jealousy or frustration with favorites within the courts often led to rumors about the relationships. “If a royal favorite, no matter the degree of personal relationship, was disrupting the social or political hierarchy in some way, then that royal favorite was considered a problem, regardless of what was going on behind closed doors,” she said.
Harris also noted that it was difficult to take 21st-century definitions of sexual orientation and apply them to past monarchs. “When we see historical figures, they might have same-sex relationships but might not talk about their orientation,” she said. “Historical figures often had different ways of viewing themselves than people today.”
But she acknowledged that reexamining the lives, and loves, of these monarchs creates a powerful, humanizing bond between our contemporary society and figures of the past. It shows “that there have been people who dealt with some of the same concerns and the same issues that appear in the modern day,” she said.
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