Queer Histories in the Queen’s House

Like virtually all four-hundred-year-old sites, the Queen’s House has had a complicated history. As a public institution, we are committed to sharing stories that are often overlooked or hidden. In honour of LGBT History Month, we wanted to share two of these stories.

By Zoe Mercer-Golden, Assistant Curator

Explore the LGBT History Month season

Reading history

While historians are frequently eager to ‘read backwards’ and impose contemporary definitions and values on historical figures and events, we have to be careful about exactly how we do that. It is unlikely that the people discussed here would have considered themselves LGBTQ+ in the way that we do now, and the nature of their relationships with people of the same gender remains the subject of intense debate. We may never know for certain what happened in either of these cases.

It is also worth noting that people of both genders often had close friendships with people of the same gender that today we might consider unusually passionate or romantic. People often used flowery language to write to each other, and both men and women may have embraced and kissed close friends of the same gender without observers assuming that they were in a romantic relationship. Some of these relationships may have been sexual, but the likelihood is that many were not. The language friends used to address each other – and indeed, how people engaged with each other physically in public – has changed over time.

Building the Queen’s House

The Queen’s House was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I, who was gifted the land as an apology from the king for swearing at her (she had accidentally shot one of his hunting dogs). Anne hired Inigo Jones, an English architect who had spent time in Italy and had become interested in classical architecture during his travels there, to design the Queen’s House.

James I at the National Maritime Museum
James I, 1566-1625

James and Anne were married in 1589, after the death of James’ first important favourite, Esme Stewart, who became the Duke of Lennox under James’ patronage. While we may never know the particulars of the relationship between the teenage king and his considerably older courtier, contemporary observers frequently suggested that the relationship between the two men was sexual in nature. James was devastated at Lennox’s death, and wrote at least one poem in his memory.

While Anne and James seem to have had at least initially successful marriage, with three children who survived into adulthood (one unfortunately still died young), James probably had a romantic and sexual relationship with at least one other woman, Anne Murray, while he was married to Queen Anne.

Two other men are frequently linked to James as potential long-term romantic and sexual partners: Robert Carr, for whom James created the Earl of Somerset, and George Villiers, who James made the Duke of Buckingham. The King and Somerset had a very public falling-out over a scandal that erupted over Somerset’s marriage, while Buckingham remained loyal to James until James’ death. Both men and their relationships with James were the subject of gossip, poetry, and prose during James’ lifetime and after.

Painting of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham by Josh Akin
George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628) by Josh Akin, 17th century

The Queen’s House was intended to be a ‘House of Delights’ for Anne and James’ court. While it was not completed for the couple (construction stopped in 1618, shortly before Anne’s death in 1619), if it had been, it would have played host to glittering entertainments for courtiers who may have had relationships with people of their own gender.

Later queens in the Queen’s House

The Queen’s House was later completed for Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I (son of James I), remaining largely in the hands of the women of the royal family for the next century. Henrietta Maria became an important patron of the arts, commissioning works for the royal collection as well as to decorate royal residences, including the Queen’s House. Orazio Gentileschi produced a notable set of panels for the ceiling of the Queen’s House. 

Queen Anne, daughter of James II (brother of Charles II and son of Charles I), married a Dane, like her great-grandfather. Also like her great-grandfather, Anne had important personal and political relationships with people of the same gender that many believed were also sexual and romantic.

Queen Anne, 1665-1714
Queen Anne, 1665-1714

Anne became friends with Sarah Churchill, who she eventually made the Duchess of Marlborough, when both of them were quite young, and the two enjoyed decades of passionate friendship (and perhaps more) before a major falling out over Anne’s closeness with another of her favourites, Abigail Masham. In 1708, Anne gave the Gentileschi ceiling panels made under Henrietta Maria to the Duchess. They were installed in Marlborough House and remain there to the present day.

After Churchill and Anne’s final falling-out, a smear campaign took place insinuating that Anne had had a sexual relationships with Masham. Some have suggested that Churchill was behind the smear campaign. Regardless, the relationship between the Queen and her former favourite ended in acrimony.

Hidden histories made visible

These stories are two of many that might be told about the complex relationships between royals and courtiers that defy easy categorization. For centuries, the missing ceiling in the Queen’s House testified to passionate friendships between people of the same gender, and how those relationships informed the life of the British court and indeed the history of the Queen’s House.

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