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The Real Sex Lives of Historical Queens

Photo: Fox Searchlight

Mild spoilers for The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots below.

In 2018, we were treated to two films about historical monarchs that also featured prominent scenes of queer lovemaking. In The Favourite, set in the early 1700s, two of Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) attending gentlewomen, Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) jockey for power — and a spot in the Queen’s royal bed. And in Mary Queen of Scots, set in the mid-1500s, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) finds her new husband sleeping with another man on her wedding night (despite having recently wooed her with an impressive cunnilingus routine).

As someone with fairly limited historical knowledge, I’d assumed that these bygone periods were far more rigid and puritanical than our sexually fluid modern era. But these films had me questioning my assumptions. Both films present these relationships in what felt like a pretty modern light. I called up Julie Crawford, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia who studies the history of sexuality, to discuss how realistic these representations of same-sex relationships are — and to figure out what we can learn about our contemporary sex lives from the sexual habits and mores of yore.

How common, or commonly discussed were lesbian relationships during the early 1700s, when The Favourite is set?
The easiest way to think about it is just that identity wasn’t really a thing like that. Nobody would ever have thought to identify themselves as what we call heterosexual or homosexual. There wasn’t a radical separation between what we recognize as sexual intimacy and the other kinds of bodily intimacy with which people lived at the time, particularly for elite people, who had women who literally undressed them and washed their vaginas.

Would it have been common for women to be married to men and also have female sexual partners?
In pre-modern society people lived in a much more complex web of kinship with each other. It was really modernity that reduced all forms of chosen kinship to marriage. It used to be just one form among many, and there was absolutely no sense that once you were married that your other intimate relationships, including sexual relationships, would end. Often what women did is they would marry off their “favorite” attending gentlewomen to a relative — Queen Elizabeth was really big on this — so that they could keep them around forever. And the monarchical bed was not really a private space. It was sort of a public space in a lot of ways; there were lots of people in and out of it.

So, talking about The Favourite specifically, how realistic was it that both Abigail and Sarah would have used sex to advance their position with Queen Anne?
What I thought was really interesting in The Favourite — and it was true of those two women historically as well — is that their mode of access to the queen’s body was different. In real life, Sarah held a more political office with higher political stakes. You only got into Queen Anne’s presence if Sarah let you in; she literally controlled access to the queen’s body. Abigail occupied a more lowly position as a bedchamber attendant, and her role was understood to be way more physically intimate. You really saw that in the final scene of the film where Queen Anne says “massage my leg” and she sort of forces her down to the ground — it’s sort of reminding her that to be a gentlewoman of the stool, you’re literally the person who cleans out the queen’s chamber pot, while to be a gentlewoman of the bedchamber meant that you were literally the woman who dressed her or fed her or cleaned up after her.

Were same-sex relations considered taboo? 
In reality, Sarah did threaten to blackmail Queen Anne about her lesbian activities, but there’s a sense that, like sodomy, tribadism was a term of opprobrium only used for political ends. Same-sex erotic practices, when part of normalized same-sex social practices, such as sharing beds, were seen as unremarkable. It only became remarkable if somebody was looking to add to a list of crimes, or some other transgression. The most famous case in the Renaissance is the case of Francis Bacon who everybody knew had sex with men, but it was only when he was accused of bribery that he started becoming labeled a sodomite.

To the the extent that we have records of any of these things there are remarkably few prosecutions of people for sodomy. Remarkably few. And same thing with tribadism — women were only prosecuted if they were using devices like dildos. What we would call “butch-femme” love, where one takes the masculine role and one takes the feminine role, might have been notable because there might be concern about a woman usurping the male role. But when it was “femme-femme” love it was totally unremarkable. There’s sort of a history of seeing lesbian sex as insignificant.

It seems like the bigger concern at the time was about transgressive heterosexual relationships.
Most negative discourse about sex in the pre-modern period was about heterosexual sex. Some people would say it was never recognized as sex with consequences unless there is the threat or the possibility of reproduction. And that’s what most accusations of sexual untowardness were in that period; for example, if you’re a cuckold, then there’s danger with adultery that the child might not be yours or that the child could interrupt the family line. Sexual intimacy was not seen somehow as a radically different from other forms of intimacy or bed-sharing, or the care of bodies that happened at the time, unless it had the potential to rupture a hymen or make a baby. You see this even more so in Mary Queen of Scots. If you’ve ruptured the hymen you’re no longer a virgin and you circulate in the world really differently.

Is it fair to say that pre-modern women were more sexually fluid than even today, perhaps?
Yeah. Where we now tend to pin it more to identity, those were not categories that had any purchase in the period. A sodomite or a tribade — those were not terms that people would identify with. The relations that were most normal at the time were same-sex ones; the ones that made people nervous were cross-sex ones. Likeness was really at the center of positive ideas of union in the period — it was almost impossible to imagine a friendship between a man and a woman because of the differences between them. There was the notion that like attracts like. These were homo-normative societies where most social relations were between members of the same sex.

Was sexual openness more the purview of the upper-classes?
Anybody who is going to be able to really get away with it was going to be somebody with more economic privilege. There’s a long tradition of people writing to monarchs in the most elaborate language. Like James the First, he was the king after Elizabeth [Mary Queen of Scots’ son] his favorite was a guy named Buckingham; there are very beautiful super-gay portraits of Buckingham, and he and James wrote to each other in the most spectacularly erotic language. Buckingham would be like: I’m your spaniel, you can do with me whatever you want. And James would say: I’m your dad and your loving husband — super familial, erotic, S&M-y intimate stuff that was actually just a normal way of showing your loyalty to your King if you were the favorite.

It feels like such a radically different understanding of sexuality than we have today. 
But then again, there are tens of thousands of men in the United States having sex with men who don’t identify either as gay or as even [see it] as a particularly big part of what their identity is.

Fluidity aside, were there women who identified openly as only being attracted to women?
In the historical record there are some very famous cases where women refused to get married, or they dressed like men, or they wanted to share the same privileges as men, or they had fake penises and used dildos, or they passed as men and they cross-dressed. Those are famous cases because these women hadn’t followed the dominant trajectories that they were supposed to follow, which to just get married and then maintain all your other kinships and intimacies and relationships on the side. Gender play was way more serious than same-sex play. So cross-dressing had far more policing in the pre-modern period than what we would recognize as boy-on-boy or girl-on-girl love.

Is there a substantive difference in the way that all these things were thought about between the time period of Mary Queen of Scots and the time period of The Favourite?
When you started having institutional recognition of same-sex relationships, then the story changed. Things that used to be normal, like men sharing beds, then became slightly more suspect. And most people locate that change in the early 17th century, so between the two [films].

Mary seemed relatively chill when she found her new husband in bed with a man — is that not the kind of thing that would have been a shock at the time?
Sometimes and sometimes not. I wrote an essay about a famous female landowner who talked frequently about how pissed she was about her husband spending the night with his favorite. But she wasn’t mad because he was having sex with a man, it’s because they were in battle over the land and she wanted to be working it out with him but he was so busy running around and having sex. It depends. Some of us are totally not monogamous and not jealous. And some of us are totally crazy and jealous. Some people are open to multiple relations at a time and other people aren’t. The twist is that the same categories didn’t apply, the same ways of identifying people differently didn’t apply.

How can understanding the way same-sex relations function in the pre-modern era upend our modern conceptions of sexuality?
I think it’s really important to understand the very different ways in which people at different times lived socially together. When we reduced chosen kinship to marriage, it put an awful lot of pressure on marriage. When you look at it in a historical perspective, you’re like: no wonder 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, all that social pressure beyond the biological family is put on marriage, it’s supposed to bear everything, whereas people used to have all these other forms of sworn kinship that allowed them to have different kinds of intimacies and securities. So it’s really interesting to me to encounter societies in which there is no expectation that marriage should answer all of your sexual and intellectual and comedic needs.

The Real Sex Lives of Historical Queens