Bright Lights Film Journal

Before Wilde: Cinematic Portrayals – and the Lack Thereof – of Medieval and Early Modern Queer Historical Figures

Philip in The Lion in Winter (2003)

There are two major threads here. In one, the queer figure from history becomes a way to explore the consequences of existing in a society that wars against the individual’s own desires, simultaneously speaking to the struggles of gay love in the past and to the LGBT rights issues of the present. With the other, the same characters become metaphors for disorder and decline.

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When filmmakers draw from the well of queer history, it is perhaps not inevitable that they end up with tales of civil rights or pre-Stonewall oppression. If “[h]istory is no more than a useful device to speak of the present time,” as the sociologist Pierre Sorlin put it, then films with gay and trans characters and situations serve to just reflect the viewers’ own brushes with gay rights. It is easy enough to find familiar and very modern narratives of omnipresent bigotry, sexual repression, and the very first stirrings of queer rights in events like the trial of Oscar Wilde. Less common are those historical films made about eras before Oscar Wilde, much less Stonewall. This is true even for films about the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern periods, the time theorist Eve Sedgwick called the “Great Paradigm Shift” toward the modern idea of homosexuality.

The Ladies of Llangollen

While there are countless movies about stories of love lifted right out of the history books, the countless tales of same-sex love in the misty ages before the word “homosexuality” was coined have barely been tapped. There is no film about the Ladies of Llangollen, two eighteenth-century Irish women who famously grabbed their nation’s attention simply by living together, or the Chevalier d’Eon, an eighteenth-century French figure who can be reasonably described as male-to-female trans, or a cinematic biography of the English king Edward II or his suspected lover Piers Gaveston that is not just an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century play. Even Queen Christina of Sweden, who is one of the more obvious candidates for a pre-modern gay or bisexual protagonist, has only been the center of two English-language films, the 1933 film starring Greta Garbo and a much more obscure 1974 British production, The Abdication. Even there, the former film completely dodges the question of Christina’s sexuality and instead offers a purely heterosexual romance narrative.

On the other hand, The Abdication is a blunt exploration of Christina’s sexuality that, true to its era of the 1970s, delves into psychoanalysis and a more feminist understanding of gender. In fact, the film itself essentially places Queen Christina on the seventeenth century’s closest equivalent to a therapist’s couch. Instead of welcoming the abdicated Christina as a new and prestigious convert to Catholicism as he did in real life, the Pope is instead reluctant to associate with her because of her reputation for both illicit sexual behavior and masculine behavior and attire, so he arranges for her to be interviewed by Cardinal Azzolino. In real life, the Cardinal was an associate and even an alleged lover of Christina’s. However, in the film’s universe, Azzolino is instead Christina’s therapist.

Christina and Azzolino

When the topic of Christina’s female lover Ebba is broached, Christina and Azzolino have a heated exchange:

Azzolino: So the accusations of unnatural love are true?

Christina: I didn’t say …

A: You said …

C: I tell you of beauty and you call it …

A: What would you describe it …

C: Love. I was describing love. I loved that woman more than I ever loved a man. Did you never find a man you could love as I loved Ebba?

A: My sins are mine, Christina. We are discussing yours.

C: Love is so rare. Must we deny it when we find it?

Given the film’s psychoanalytic theme, and the fact that the Christina of this film is presented as a troubled and haunted woman rather than the mild eccentric of Queen Christina, Christina’s sexuality becomes the key to her psyche, at least in Azzolino’s mind. When Christina describes her childhood and her mother’s insanity, Azzolino asks, “She made you hate women?” Christina quips that the last thing she is notorious for is hating women.

Christina and Ebba

Azzolino’s diagnosis invokes both the age-old stereotype that same-sex desire is coupled with a hatred toward the opposite sex and the theory savored by today’s ex-gay movement that homosexuality stems from abuse or neglect by the opposite-sex parent. The link between Christina’s own defiance of sexual and gender norms and her traumatic childhood was first made long ago in Margaret Goldsmith’s heavily Freudian 1933 biography, which argued that Christina would be considered a lesbian. Unlike in Goldsmith’s biography, which insists on Christina being gay in modern terms, since the film explicitly presents Christina as bisexual, one may still think that the filmmakers agree with Azzolino’s diagnosis that Christina’s genderqueerness and defiance of sexual categories (to put it in contemporary terms) has an origin in childhood trauma.

A more generous reading of the film, however, would be that Christina’s sexuality was not the creation of her circumstances, but rather that her sexuality was just one among the diverse sources of tension in her life, not the least of which was being born to be a monarch when crowns were still seen as being best worn by men. Throughout the film, Christina’s love and lust for both men and women are frustrated by her status and social restraints. Her first choice for a husband is denied her because of political considerations. Her love for Ebba has to be consummated in absolute secret. Finally, her attraction to Azzolino has to remain repressed because of both his celibacy and her need to become a favored convert to the Catholic Church. Christina’s sexuality in the film is not shaped by her pathology. Instead it is the intersection of her sexuality with various circumstances, including her upper-class rank and political situation, that causes her pathology.

A similar exploration of the catastrophic collision between sexuality and politics fuels the tension in one scene in the play The Lion in Winter, which was adapted into film in Britain in 1968 and 2003. In a scene performed in both versions, the future Richard I of England visits King Philip II of France in the middle of the night while Philip is staying as a guest of Richard’s father, King Henry III. The scenario depicted in the scene is entirely fictional – for one thing, there is no record of Philip ever visiting England – but it draws from a historical tradition claiming that Richard I had male lovers, including King Philip.

Philip and Richard in the 2003 version of The Lion in Winter

Philip greets Richard warmly, and after discussing politics Philip gently accuses Richard of never writing to him. Richard answers that he never wrote because he did not expect an answer and adds, “You got married.” Philip retorts, “Does that make a difference?” At one point, Richard tells Philip, “You haven’t said you loved me,” and Philip promises he will “when the time comes.” Significantly, the 1968 film version of the scene only shows Philip leading Richard to bed, while the 2003 version depicts them in a deep kiss. Either way, the romantic and sexual nature of their relationship is made clear in both versions. When Henry II knocks on Philip’s door, Richard hides while Philip and Henry continue their earlier political discussion. Once the discussion turns from the political to the personal, Philip claims that Richard instigated the affair and that he only had sex with Richard out of spite for Henry: “Do you know why I said yes? So one day I could tell you about it. You cannot imagine how much that yes cost me. […] I don’t know how I did it.” Disturbed, Richard rushes out and exclaims, “It wasn’t like that! You loved me!” Philip can only answer, “Never.”

Here gay desire is not quite, to steal a phrase from the historian of sexuality Anna Clark, “a metaphor for all that is destabilizing and polluting.” Arguably, neither Richard nor Philip is marked as gay through what film critic Richard Dyer describes as a “certain set of visual and aural signs which immediately bespeak homosexuality and connote the qualities associated, stereotypically, with it,” although probably coincidentally, in the 2003 version Philip is the sole male character with long hair. At the least, the film does not mark out Richard or Philip as deviant and politically inept, in contrast to Edward II in the film Braveheart. Instead, the forbidden relationship of Richard and Philip reflects the turbulent relationship between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine driving the film’s narrative. For both relationships, the ugly, cutthroat dynastic politics of the twelfth century have erased the line between the personal and the political, and it is unknown even to the people themselves which emotions are genuine and which are performed. Of course, the legal and social demands of twelfth-century English society, in addition to sodomy being the worst of all sins, cast a shadow over same-sex love in The Lion in Winter. However, nothing about the act of sodomy makes Philip or Richard any more “decadent” than the other members of their jaded upper-class environment.

James in 1586, age 20, artist unknown

The same idea almost inevitably has to surface in any fictional treatment of King James VI/I of Scotland and England. James’ same-sex relationships have probably received more attention from historians than those of any other premodern queer figure, in no small part because his relationships, particularly with the Earl of Buckingham, are well documented and lack the murky ambiguity that hangs over anyone suspected of engaging in same-sex relationships in times of harsh persecution. For example, the historian Michael B. Young has argued that James VI/I was a transitional figure between the crime of sodomy and the modern concept of homosexuality. At the same time, he barely exists in the popular imagination. The historian Ronald Hutton calls James VI/I “the only British monarch to reign between 1558 and 1685 whom most of the modern public cannot picture.”

There have been two exceptions from the last decade. The first was the 2005 BBC mini-series, Elizabeth I, which includes a fictional meeting between an aging Elizabeth I and James VI/I held at the Scottish border. From the start, the atmosphere of the scene goes against James’ favor, as menacing music plays as Elizabeth arrives at the English-Scottish border. Even before speaking to him, Elizabeth remarks, “It’s hard to believe that creature in the hat is the King of Scotland.” When Elizabeth and her adviser, Lord Cecil, talk to James about the Earl of Essex’s recent conspiracy, James remarks, “I have been told he is a very handsome lad. I have heard many tales about the handsome lads of London.” As he speaks, Elizabeth has an expression of disgust. When speaking to Cecil alone, James remarks, “When I am king, I shall have handsome young men around me and we shall use women as dogs do bitches for our pleasure and our profit.” Although biographers and historians have remarked on how James may have had a misogynistic attitude that was noticed even by his contemporaries in a time not exactly known for warm, positive attitudes toward women, it is hard to shrug off that the film links male gay desire with misogyny in just one line of dialogue. Also, the only context for Elizabeth and Cecil’s intense dislike toward James I presented in the film is James’ lustful desire for men (never mind that, in the historical record, Cecil and almost certainly Elizabeth herself supported James’ bid to become Elizabeth’s successor to the English throne!).

The historical James VI/I features far more prominently and sympathetically in the 2004 BBC mini-series Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot, which begins with Mary Queen of Scots returning to Scotland from France and ends with the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot against James VI/I. It is true that James is portrayed as an unbalanced, ruthless, and deceitful individual, riddled with self-loathing and misogyny, but unlike Elizabeth I the film actually gives context. His chapter of the mini-series opens with James speaking to a portrait of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, whom he had never met since he was an infant: “I have every reason to hate you. You abandoned me as a babe in arms,” and ends with James speaking to the same portrait, “If only you can see me now.”

James in Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot

This overall portrait of James is one that could be read as negative, perhaps even homophobic, like the depiction of James VI/I in Elizabeth I. One of the character arcs of the film is James’ relationship with his wife Anne of Denmark, which begins when James promises not to love her but give her respect and that she can take lovers after she has “two, perhaps three” sons. By the end of the film, though, Anne declines James’ offer to take a lover; the two share a smile after James says he will visit her in bed that night and Anna replies, “The prospect no longer repels me.” It is romance in the midst of dysfunction.

James’ same-sex desire does not figure prominently into the plot except for one key (and again entirely fictional) scene. Not long before James inherits the crown of England, Thomas Percy, who was historically one of the fanatically Catholic members of the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy to assassinate James and most of his family and the English Parliament, meets James in order to plead the case of the persecuted English Catholics. James brutally exploits the situation by coercing Percy into performing oral sex on him. Although the scene could easily parallel any historical drama with a portrayal of a man sexually exploiting women with promises of political favors, it is also reminiscent of the stereotype of the decadent, morally depraved homosexual man. At a time when the so-called “gay panic defense” is still used in legal cases where a person is accused of violent assault or manslaughter against a gay or transgendered individual, and given that this scene provides most of the motive for Percy’s participation in the Gunpowder Plot, it might be a bit uncomfortably reminiscent of controversies still being hammered out for viewers. It may also be damning that the scenario presented is entirely fabricated – not only because James never had such a meeting with Percy, but that there is no proof that James ever demanded political favors in exchange for sex – which does seem to seal the case that King James VI/I is just some kind of homophobic boogeyman conjured out of the history books.

Thomas Percy and James in the oral sex scene

However, the danger for critics here is in falling to the other extreme position and assuming that any depiction of James or any other historical queer figure in a negative or amoral light is always something to be rejected (or, in Internet culture critic-speak, deemed problematic). Along these lines it creates a double standard of sorts. If a man took advantage of a woman’s vulnerable social position in a historical drama, the scene might be seen as a poignant look into how women had been exploited in more stringently patriarchal times. Instead of the viewer being invited to condemn James (and by extension gay men), perhaps instead the audience is expected to consider the corrosion on one man’s personality caused by a fundamentally, universally homophobic society that becomes more and more difficult to imagine with every small victory made by the LGBT rights movements of today.

One line of dialogue, spoken by James to Percy, suggests that the real tragedy of James is not some kind of innate decadence, but being born with a desire for other men in a society that attacks and condemns such desire:

Oh, I see that look of disgust in your eye. I know it well. I see it in the eyes of my good wife, my eldest child. It is a look no man can disguise, honest and true, and I’ve grown so very, very fond of it.

Although brief, James’ words are essential to understanding how sexuality plays into this mini-series’ interpretation of James VI/I and the psychological effect being born in early modern European society would have on someone born gay. James speaks of having “grown … fond” of even the hateful reactions to his sexuality, spelling out that James was not condemned to be a perverted tyrant, but has found pleasure, and perhaps even survival, in acting out his socially constructed and mandated role as sexual deviant.

Overall Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot’s presentation of James is a challenging one to process, but challenging in perhaps a welcome way in a world where the instincts of writers may insist upon creating a totally sanitized and tragic portrait of a historical gay man. Here James is presented as tyrant and victim in a way that is a bit too melodramatic for the mini-series’ own good, yet this portrayal is also inspired by plausible reconstructions of James’ personality and tinged with an understanding of what society-wide sexual repression might do to an individual. Like Christina in The Abdication and Richard and Philip in The Lion in Winter, the series’ interpretation of James is not intended to enforce modern stereotypes, but instead is an effort to explore sexuality in a time radically different from our own. At the very least, these portrayals are more nuanced than what we see in Elizabeth and Braveheart.

Elizabeth (1998) does not feature the historical King Henri II of France, a king who has become known for dressing effeminately and his alleged affairs with his male mignons. Instead, the film presents the duc d’Anjou, who is a composite of the historical duc d’Anjou, Henri’s brother, and Henri II himself. While the historical Anjou did visit Elizabeth at court and was a prospective husband for her as portrayed in the film, the character Anjou’s behavior and mannerisms are based on accounts of Henri II.

The connotation between the film’s Anjou and images of effeminacy and sexual deviance begins with another character, Mary de Guise, queen regent of Scotland, who first appears in the film dressed in a man’s armor and leading a triumphant army against England. Completely out of sync with the historical record, the film has Mary de Guise demand that Elizabeth consider marrying Anjou as a condition of peace. When Anjou first appears on screen, he is dressed in a flamboyant costume and aggressively flirts with Elizabeth I. Later in the film, Elizabeth walks into a room filled with half-naked people, most of them young men, and finds Anjou dressed completely like a woman with two men at his side. As all of his former heterosexual bravado vanishes, Anjou timidly explains, “I only wear a dress like this, in private, with my friends.” When Elizabeth extends her hand to him, he very reluctantly kisses it and his lips do not touch her fingers. After a French ambassador insists he can explain Anjou’s behavior to Elizabeth, she replies, “I understand everything.”

Although the film keeps homosexuality between the lines, there is a clear association between male homosexuality and transvestitism/transsexuality. Not only that, but Anjou suffers from a kind of political impotence. The historian Susan Doran has deemed Elizabeth to be a post-feminist film, since its core character arc has Elizabeth sacrifice her femininity and embrace masculinity in order to triumph politically.1 The same is largely true for Mary de Guise, who adapts masculine characteristics and becomes a threat to Elizabeth that has to be dispatched through an assassination (again, a total break from the actual history). Then there is Anjou, who as an effeminate male is unquestionably inept, laughably incapable of fulfilling his simple mission to neutralize Elizabeth as a threat to France and Scotland by marrying her. In a sense, Anjou, although his role in the film is minor, becomes the mirror opposite of Elizabeth. By choosing to embrace femininity, both in his clothing and his sexuality, Anjou gleefully makes himself a political non-entity.

The tie between male homosexuality, effeminacy, and political incompetence is even more explicit in the 1995 film Braveheart. As the film theorist Sid Ray has pointed out, Braveheart often relies on masculine traits as signs of the positive attributes of its protagonists. The entire morality of the film’s universe is centered around masculinity.2 Although they are on opposing sides, both William Wallace, the legendary fighter for Scottish independence, and his antagonist, the conqueror King Edward I of England, show off their masculinity through action and appearance. However, Wallace asserts his masculinity through honorable behavior, particularly the fact that he is prompted into action by the sexual abuse of his wife Catherine by English soldiers (although to be fair this account does not originate with the filmmakers, but with the fifteenth-century Scottish poet Blind Harry). Edward I’s masculinity is presented as twisted and cruel, through allowing his noblemen to claim the virginity of Scottish noblewomen on their wedding nights, his willingness to send his daughter-in-law Isabella into a potentially dangerous situation by ordering her to negotiate with William Wallace, and his violent treatment of his son, the future Edward II, best known to history as the king who loved a man named Gaveston and was killed by having a red-hot iron plunged into his rectum.

Dyer identifies the stereotypical signs of homosexuality in cinema as “sickliness of features, connotating not only depravity and mental illness but also the pimped, unexposed face of the indoors (non-active, non-sporting) man.” In contrast to contemporaneous records, which universally describe Edward II as a muscular man who had a beard like his father, Braveheart’s Edward II is thin, pale, and lacks any facial hair, unlike most of the men in the film, who expose their rugged and untempered masculinity to the viewer through their beards and long hair (except, curiously, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, who has the long hair but not the beard).

Edward II in Braveheart

However, the filmmakers are not satisfied with just subtly calling attention to Edward II’s debilitating queerness through his appearance. As soon as Edward II appears, he casts a significant look toward his lover Philip and kisses him on the cheek as the film’s narrator intones, “It was widely whispered that for the prince to conceive Longshanks would have to do the honors himself. That may have been what he had in mind all along.” The film does not even try to acknowledge the possibility of Edward II’s bisexuality or at least the fact that if people throughout history who have had exclusive same-sex desires could not go to bed with a member of the opposite sex, more royal dynasties would have gone extinct.

Like Anjou in Elizabeth, Edward’s impotence is also political. Edward’s masculine responsibility as a leader and warrior is completely inverted. He sends Isabella in his stead to a royal council meeting and invokes his father’s wrath by refusing to treat William Wallace as a serious military threat. Edward I’s abuse and contempt of his son is ostensibly one of the ways in which the film marks Edward I as a totally unsympathetic antagonist, but at the same time Edward II’s character signifies the moral and political decay of the English monarchy, “corrected” once William Wallace has sex with Isabella and impregnates her with the future Edward III. That Edward II is ultimately not to be perceived as an object of pity is made clear when Isabella says to him with contempt, “And you, to you that word [mercy] is as unfamiliar as love.” It isn’t enough that Edward II is effeminate and weak, but he must lack even the emotional ability to “truly” love. In Braveheart, Edward II is simply not fully a man physically or emotionally.

There are two major threads here. In one, the queer figure from history becomes a way to explore the consequences of existing in a society that wars against the individual’s own desires, simultaneously speaking to the struggles of gay love in the past and to the LGBT rights issues of the present. With the other, the same characters become metaphors for disorder and decline. Interestingly, the former thread dominates British productions (the one exception, 2003’s Elizabeth I, was co-produced between the BBC and the American cable television channel HBO), whereas the latter has been seen in Hollywood films. Perhaps the differences may simply be traced to a Hollywood predilection for spectacle and thematic broad strokes, especially in historical cinema, and the lingering influence of the 1976 BBC mini-series I, Claudius on subsequent British historical adaptations by giving the world a template for dramas about cynical, world-weary ruling classes.

Despite what Pierre Sorin had to say on the subject, films such as The Abdication, The Lion in Winter, and Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot do offer more than just messages about today’s sexual and gender politics. They also provide ways of understanding what sexuality, sexual oppression, and even pre-LGBT sexual and gender identities looked like in faraway times and places. In other words, they could be appreciated as genuine attempts to imagine and reconstruct examples of past sexual oppression, identity, and solidarity. However, it should be noted that there has yet to be a historical film in this historical setting that treats same-sex desire in the early modern world in a more positive fashion. Here’s hoping one day there will be a The Ladies of Llangollen, an Edward and Gaveston, a Chevalier d’Eon, or a James and Buckingham.

Works Cited

Anna Clark, Desire: A History of Sexuality in Europe (New York: Routledge, 2008).

Susan Doran and Thomas Freeman, Stuarts and Tudors on Film: Historical Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Richard Dyer, “Stereotyping” in Gays and Film, rev. ed. (New York: Zoetrope, 1984).

Margaret Goldsmith, Queen Christina of Sweden: A Psychological Biography (New York: Doubleday, 1933).

Ronald Hutton, “Why Don’t the Stuarts Get Filmed?” in Susan Doran and Thomas S. Freeman, Tudors and Stuarts on Film: Historical Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Cynthia Lee, “The Gay Panic Defense,” University of California-Davis Law Review 42 (2009): 471-566.

Sid Ray, “Hunks, History, and Homophobia: Masculinity Politics in Braveheart and Edward II,” Film & History 29 (1999): 22–31.

Pierre Sorlin, The Film in History: Restaging the Past (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1980).

Sarah Waters, “‘A Girton Girl on a Throne’: Queen Christina and Versions of Lesbianism, 1906-1933,” Feminist Review 46 (1994): 54-8.

Michael B. Young, King James and the History of Homosexuality (New York: NYU Press, 1999).

  1. Doran and Freeman, 130. []
  2. Ray, “Hunks, History, and Homophobia,” 22–31. []