How gay was Magna Carta? The sealing of this unique document 800 years ago tomorrow (15 June) by England’s King John may seem remote to modern LGBTI rights, but is this really the case?
Did the Magna Carta create a legal framework where same-sex love and intimacy could subsist and even thrive? What was the world from which Magna Carta emerged? The image of early medieval England is one of relentless, roaring heterosexuality, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, lock up your daughters, the king’s in progress. But was it?
Runnymede, where the Great Charter was signed on 15 June 1215, is still a lovely meadow by the banks of the Thames, upstream from London. Here, among the lilies and forget-me-nots the King and his barons met to bury their hostilities and seal into law a document that’s been considered the basis of all liberties and rights ever since.
Until the recent (and baffling) unveiling of a statue of the current Queen, the English had chosen not to memorialize this spot. It’s the Americans who did this, establishing, in a circle of English oaks, a powerful symbol of the ancient rights of the English, rights which form a bedrock of their own Constitution. The American memorial captures the spirit of Magna Carta. While nearby a little patch of America given by the British honors one of their greatest presidents, JFK.
So far, so well known. But the Norman barons who surrounded John that day also had a long-standing reputation for same-sex love that was a constant worry to the Church and celebrated in song.
Early Medieval England was thick with gay intrigue. John’s own brother, the Lionheart himself, King Richard, was widely believed to have preferred men as bed-fellows. Are the tales of Richard’s intimacy with Philip II of France just rumors?
And there’s the chronicle of the winsome minstrel Blondel singing his way round Europe out of sheer love for the King. Richard’s Chancellor, William Longchamp, was by all accounts an out-and-proud gay standard bearer, apparently chucking a youth out of his bed when he discovered ‘he’ was a ‘she’ in disguise.
Great-great-uncle, King William II Rufus mockingly refused to agree to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Anselm’s demands that the sodomitical excesses of his court be curbed.
The only English monarch never to marry, William’s sexual preferences were apparently celebrated – his court a place, according to another William, of Malmesbury, where ‘the model for young men was to rival women in their delicacy of person, to mince their gait, to walk with loose gesture, and half naked’.
The brazenness of the way the Normans embraced sexual orientation was notorious. When Henry I’s sons drowned in a boating accident in 1120, one chronicler put it down to divine retribution for the scandalous same-sex sexual shenanigans of the English nobility. In the Holy Land same-sex relations between the crusaders were making both church and secular authorities queasy.
Churchmen, though, were not themselves immune. Sequestered and supposedly celibate, they found solace in erotically charged ‘friendships’. Even the prudish Anselm was believed by a recent biographer to have been partial to young men in thought and conscience at least if not in act.
Hilary, a famous English scholar based in Paris, pupil of that inveterate writer of erotic letters, Abelard, wrote drooling verses to various young men in the mid-12th century, including one who was more ‘angel’ than ‘English’ (more angelicus than anglicus) and for whom Jupiter would have changed himself to a bird as he’d done for the shepherd Ganymede.
His contemporary, Saint Aelred of Rievaulx in Yorkshire claimed that the examples of David and Jonathan, Christ and Saint John justified love between clerics, encouraging monks in his monastery to hold hands and kiss to prove their affection for each other.
So what did all this mean for the demands of barons and churchmen in 1215? Clause 39 of Magna Carta is the classic liberty of person statement: ‘No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or dis-eased, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.’
In 1215, and for a long time afterwards, there were no laws specifically criminalizing homosexuality. The official position of the Church may have been one of disapproval; Church Fathers may have railed hysterically against homosexuality in the past, and churchmen might burn and brand in an orgy of hate in the future, but the law of the land of England said nothing.
It was only in the reign of Henry VIII that sex between men became crime. So the Barons and the King were reasserting the fact that no one could be attacked for doing something that wasn’t a crime and had no victim.
Of course, LGBTI rights were the last thing on the minds of those men. Nor was universal suffrage, nor the rights of women (and lesbians in particularly), nor anything remotely resembling the human rights we enjoy today. These would have been alien concepts.
But the genius of the Charter meant that it was only through practically legislating against homosexuality that men and women could be punished for it, and that is what Magna Carta gave us.
Once homosexuality was criminalized, the value of the Great Charter was minimized. We needed the rights contained in the Human Rights Act to end the criminalization of our identity and to grant us equality. But the spirit of Magna Carta – which said the authorities should leave us alone and let us be – lives on.
It’s worth making a trip to Runnymede. Nestled on the banks of the Thames amid wild flowers and fowl, you can momentarily forget the traffic thundering by and the ever-present hum of Heathrow Airport, and allow yourself to be caught up in the significance of the place. And thanks to the Americans, the poignancy of it all is enhanced.
If it were necessary to memorialize Magna Carta with a statue, with no disrespect to Her Majesty, why not Eleanor Roosevelt, who did more to distill the spirit of Magna Carta through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights than anyone else? Not only would this combine the two great legal traditions of the US and UK in the person of Eleanor, it would celebrate someone who’s also a symbol for all women everywhere, including lesbians. So as we raise a glass to Magna Carta, we shouldn’t forget the US Constitution, the UK Human Rights Act and Eleanor Roosevelt herself.