It’s only very recent history that homosexuality has not been criminalised and as a result, history is littered with people who had to keep their true feelings a secret, forced into secret liaisons and taking potentially life-threatening risks.
Such rendezvous extended right to the very top of society, with an English king thought to have secretly met a gay lover in Surrey.
King Edward II (1284-1327) was believed to have had a homosexual affair with a man called Piers Gaveston.
Edward was King of England from 1307 to January of the year he died. Born in Canaerfon, North Wales, and son of King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, he was the first British monarch to hold the title of Prince of Wales from 1301, the post currently held by Prince Charles.
He had a reign characterised by everything from political turmoil to civil war. In 1308, he married Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France at Westminster Abbey. But his love life was more complicated than it may appear at first sight.
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Aged 15, Piers Gaveston began to appear in Edward’s household accounts. Surrey History Centre says that they “certainly met at Guildford Castle“, although it is unclear whether they stayed in the castle itself or the manor house in the park.
Edward would go on to controversially appoint Gaveston as the Earl of Cornwall soon after becoming king – his closeness to Edward led Gaveston to be nicknamed as a ‘second king’ by many.
J Boswell’s 1994 book ‘Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe’ suggests a theory that Edward II and Piers Gaveston (d. 1312) were both murdered due to their sexuality.
While this concept is not universally agreed, the idea of Edward II’s homosexuality is by no means a modern concept – Christopher Marlowe hinted heavily at themes of his same-sex affair in a late-1500s play about Edward.
English Heritage reports that one chronicler of the time even wrote: “Upon looking on [Gaveston], [Edward] immediately felt such love for him that 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.”
Guildford Castle itself does not have a known date of construction, but it is believed to be Norman and built not long after 1066. It was also visited by other kings – Edward I, Edward III, Edward IV and Richard III – but declined in use as a Royal residence since the death of Henry III.
Many buildings of the castle were demolished in 1379, but since 2003, the stone tower keep has been subject to a conservation project, welcoming visitors to this day. Guildford Museum is situated in the Castle Arch, and the castle’s gardens also remain a popular attraction in the town.
‘The details of LGBTQ+ lives were suppressed or censored’
There is plenty that remains unknown about Edward II, Piers Gaveston and their time in the area. Guildford Borough Council can only confirm he was in the area for “a few days” in 1308, 1309, 1324 and 1326, and that he does not seem to have carried out any building work.
Di Stiff, collections development archivist with Surrey History Centre, says that tracing LGBTQ+ history from that era can be a huge challenge, due to the combination of scarce resources and the controversial topic that homosexuality would have been in the medieval period, or indeed any period of English history before the latter half of the 1960s.
She explains: “When looking at very early history the sources are really scarce and they often don’t reveal personal stories about sexuality and gender diversity. When you add in the potential for criminality and social stigma against gay men in particular then there would even less reason to record a life story.
Surrey History Centre believes that acknowledging the lived experience of LGBTQ+ people in Surrey’s history and having a discussion around the subject is vitally important.
Homosexuality was only decriminalised in England in 1967, and sexual relations between men at the time of Edward II would have carried the death penalty, meaning it would have been hidden by people – one of the most high profile examples in Surrey history is Guildford’s Alan Turing, recently commemorated on a £50 note for his wartime contributions.
Di says: “Many LGBTQ+ people are remembered for the contributions they made to culture and society, whilst for the majority, the details of their personal lives were suppressed or censored. This in turn affects the survival of historical sources, which provides a real challenge for researchers.”