31 Jan 2018

Royals, courtiers and complex relationships - what can we learn from exploring the lives of those who loved at the Queen's House?

by Zoe Mercer-Golden, Assistant Curator

Like all 400-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.

Reading history

Historians are eager to ‘read backwards’, placing contemporary definitions and values on historical figures and events. However 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. 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.


People often had close friendships with people of the same gender that we might now consider to be passionate or romantic. People often used flowery language to write to each other. Men and women may have embraced and kissed close friends of the same gender. Observers would not have assumed 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 how people engaged with each other physically in public has changed over time.

The role of the Queen’s House

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


James I, 1566-1625

James I 1566-1625

James and Anne were married in 1589, after the death of James’ first important favourite, Esme Stewart. Stewart became the Duke of Lennox under James’ patronage. Observers at the time suggested the relationship was sexual in nature.  James was devastated at Lennox’s death, and wrote at least one poem in his memory. We may never know the particulars of the relationship between the teenage king and his considerably older courtier. 
Anne and James seem to have had an at least initially successful marriage,. They had 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 while he was married to Queen Anne. Her name was Anne Murray
Anne of Denmark

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. 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. 

The Queen’s House was intended to be a ‘House of Delights’ for Anne and James’ court. It was not completed for the couple (construction stopped in 1618, shortly before Anne’s death in 1619). If it had been completed it would have played host to glittering entertainments for courtiers. Many of these 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). It remained largely in the hands of the women of the royal family for the next century. Henrietta Maria became an important patron of the arts. She commissioned works for the royal collection as well decorating 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 1665-1714

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


Queen Anne, 1665-1714

Sarah Churchill 

Anne became friends with Sarah Churchill, who she eventually made the Duchess of Marlborough, when both of them were quite young. The two enjoyed decades of passionate friendship (and perhaps more). The pair had 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. In this insinuations were made 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 categorisation. 
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.