Being gay in Elizabethan times

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

In sixteenth century England, sodomy was a capital offence, but maybe not for the reasons we think. It wasn’t just about homosexual behaviour, but about sexual debauchery in general. It had nothing to do with who you were (there was no such thing as “a homosexual” then), it was just something you did. Anal intercourse was a sin partly because it avoided conception and was only done for fun, no matter who you did it with.

For this reason, you could be hanged if you practised it, at least in theory. There aren’t many records of such executions, but this can have other reasons: records can burn or otherwise disappear. From what we can surmise, though, it seems the authorities mostly chose to look the other way. Maybe that’s understandable. I mean, if they had to hang every Tom, Dick and Francis who did something sexually questionable, they wouldn’t have the time to focus on the really important stuff like wars, would they?

Curiously though, they looked more sternly on the offence if you combined it with coining and atheism. To a 21st century person, this is completely baffling. What do sodomy, coining and atheism have to do with each other, after all?

Well, as this article and this book put forward, sodomy, like atheism, could be used as a symbol for antisocial behaviour in general. Also, funnily enough, coining and sodomy were viewed as two sides of, forgive the pun, the same coin. Lots of fascinating reasons are laid out in this article, but one aspect touches on the current view (of some!) that gay people somehow have an agenda to spread homosexuality to straight people. The Elizabethans believed that you could be “contaminated” by it, and that by practising sodomy, instead of creating children, you created new sodomites. If you also created fake money through coining, that was taken as further proof, because look, you’re making more of something bad, and it’s the same thing, right?

Right. In hindsight, many beliefs can look downright silly, but just try to view our own times with a future person’s eyes. Won’t they find a lot to laugh about?

Anyway, back to the sixteenth century. Poet Kit Marlowe was accused of sodomy, atheism and coining, and some believe that these are the things that led to his death. I won’t comment on that in this post, since it would completely ruin Rival Poet for you, should you ever wish to read it. I will say, however, that the accusations smack of truth. His poem Hero and Leander is nothing short of a gushy Leander fan letter, and Hero is described mostly through her clothes.

Exhibit A, Leander:

His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;

Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.

Even as delicious meat is to the taste,

So was his neck in touching, and surpast

The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,

How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;

And whose immortal fingers did imprint

That heavenly path with many a curious dint

That runs along his back…

Okay, we get it. He was delicious enough to eat.

On to exhibit B, Hero:

The outside of her garments were of lawn,

The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;

Her wide sleeves green, and border’d with a grove,

Where Venus in her naked glory strove

To please the careless and disdainful eyes

Of proud Adonis, that before her lies;

Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,

Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain.

No need to go on, we get the picture: Marlowe liked a bit of flair on a gal, but the gal herself? Barely there.

Another prominent person to be accused was Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This guy, held by some to be the true author of Shakespeare’s works, was charged for raping his boy servants. Not just sodomy, then, but pederasty. Insert horrified gasp here. Our revered perhaps-Shakespeare, a child molester?

But wait a minute. The men who accused him may have had a bone to pick with the earl. It’s the old Michael Jackson conundrum: how can we ever guess the truth about an alleged crime committed by a rich and famous person when 1) the law tends to be lenient towards them just because they are rich and famous, and 2) people tend to accuse them of crimes in order to bring them down and/or get at their riches? Add to this that the crime in question happened more than four hundred years ago, and all we can do is speculate. In the end, Oxford was acquitted, but we can’t know why.

For my part, I chose to exploit this little historical nugget in Rival Poet. I’m not saying Oxford really did it, but I used it to add some tension to my plot and to strengthen one of my themes.

Also, as a devout Stratfordian, I guess I’m not above a little bitching…

Diversity in fiction

“I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed. They played in the snow. They ate apples. And they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.”

Click here for a fascinating TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the need for diversity in fiction.

I didn’t know what ginger beer was, either…

Shakespeare’s arch enemy?

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

While I was researching for Rival Poet, I ran across a really interesting article by David Kathman about Shakespeare’s Stratford acquaintance Richard Field. The article makes a compelling case for Shakespeare getting some help as a green playwright just arrived in London.

Field was the son of a Stratford tanner, and he was three years older than Will. They probably went to school together for a while, and then in 1579, Field went to London to be a printer’s apprentice. When his master died, he took over the business together with the widow. Among the books he printed, there are several that may have been used as sources by Shakespeare. He also printed Shakespeare’s first poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Therefore it’s not a big leap to assume that they knew each other.

However, many who acknowledge this connection routinely paint printer Field as a friend, and I wanted to do something different. After all, there are thousands of books about Shakespeare, so if you do embark on yet another story, you need your own twist. Add to this that every story needs a villain.

Therefore I decided that Dick Field wasn’t really a friend, but a childhood enemy, a bully who almost stopped Will from writing at all. While staying true to the known facts, I made Dick a different kind of catalyst for the budding poet, hopefully resulting in a more interesting plot.


The rope cut into his throat. Not tightly enough to choke him, but not loosely either. Dick took a step back and surveyed his work. “So, Willie… you going to tell Master Jenkins about this, then?”

Will tried to shake his head, but stopped when the rope chafed at his neck.

“That’s right, because I know for a fact that our teacher hasn’t been to church for… what is it, six Sundays in a row? Naughty, naughty…” Dick laughed. His minions joined in. “If you think that godless man will help you, you’re in for a disappointment.”

Will’s mind was racing too fast. He was tied to a tree and couldn’t move, so his only way out of this was through words. But what words? What could he say that would melt the stony heart of the tanner’s son?

Blurting the first thing he could think of, he said, “I’m not like Master Jenkins.” The words hurt his throat. “I’m not a recusant.”

At once, Dick’s eyes narrowed. With a sickening twist of the stomach, Will knew that he had made a mistake, but it was too late to take it back.

“You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? Re-cu-sant. Wow. Good boy, to know such fancy words. Just like Master Jenkins. You’d make a lovely couple, you would.”

Dick’s fist landed in Will’s belly. Completely unprepared for the blow, Will’s bound body tried to double over, and his spine slammed into the tree trunk.

“Well, we can’t have men marrying boys in a proper God-fearing town like Stratford,” Dick sighed, feigning remorse. “Sodomy is a capital offence, you know. We’ll just have to hang, draw and quarter you. So tell me, Willie, before you die…” Dick took his deformed hand and caressed it almost lovingly. “Do you think Master Jenkins will cry when his star pupil is gone?” He lowered his voice to a raucous whisper. “Or do you think he’ll be relieved?”

Rival Poet ARe

Rival Poet on Amazon