From the long-rumoured romance of King Edward II and Piers Gaveston to the affair between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Britain has a rich and rocky history of famous queer couples.
1. Edward II and Piers Gaveston
Edward II had a tumultuous reign marked by bloody battles, bitter revolts and his own murder in 1327. He’s also remembered for his relationship with nobleman Piers Gaveston, who was at the very least his court favourite and very possibly his lover.
His fixation with Gaveston rubbed many other nobles the wrong way. Gaveston’s arrogant manner didn’t help and, according to one contemporary account, his audacious victory in a chivalric tournament ‘roused the earls and barons to still greater hatred of Piers’.
Edward’s continuing devotion to Gaveston contributed to an uprising that culminated in Gaveston being beheaded by his vengeful enemies. What a medieval source described as the ‘bond of indissoluble love’ between the king and his favourite, has inspired stories, dramatic works, and speculation ever since.
2. Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
‘It was like feasting with panthers; the danger was half the excitement.’ This was how Oscar Wilde described his illicit liaisons in the gay underworld of the late Victorian era. But, thrilling though his adventures were, they were also the undoing of the celebrated writer and wit.
Wilde’s infamous love affair with the handsome Lord Alfred Douglas, fondly nicknamed ‘Bosie’, incurred the wrath of Douglas’ father, the brutish Marquess of Queensberry. When the latter accused Wilde of being a ‘somdomite’ (sodomite), Wilde decided to sue him for libel. This was a catastrophic mistake, as the libel trial exposed Wilde’s many same-sex flings, and led to him being jailed for gross indecency. Wilde and Bosie’s bond remained strong, however, and following Wilde’s release they spent time together in mainland Europe shortly before Wilde died in 1900.
3. Anne Lister and Ann Walker
Hailing from a landowning Yorkshire family, Anne Lister was an independently wealthy businesswoman of the early 19th century. This alone would have made her a distinctive figure, but she’s also gone down in history as ‘the first modern lesbian’. Defying the conventions of the time, she wore strikingly masculine attire, was dubbed ‘Gentleman Jack’ and had a series of passionate relationships with women that she chronicled in coded diaries.
‘I love and only love the fairer sex,’ Anne wrote, and one of her most significant lovers was another Yorkshire landowner, Ann Walker. The two women made history in 1834 when they exchanged vows and rings in a church in York. While not legally recognised at the time, this is generally regarded as the first lesbian marriage to take place in Britain, and a pivotal moment in LGBT+ history.
4. James VI & I and Esme Stewart/George Villiers
The sexuality of James VI of Scotland, who was also James I of England and Ireland, has long intrigued historians. While he did marry a suitably regal woman (Anne of Denmark), James was known for showing great affection for select male courtiers. One of these was Esmé Stewart, who was more than two decades older than the king.
Despite the age gap, James was infatuated with Esmé, lavishing him with jewels and gifting him titles. As one chronicler wrote, the king would ‘in open sight of the people… clasp him about the neck with his arms and kiss him’. A later favourite was George Villiers, whom he referred to as a ‘husband’. Though the true extent of their relationship is up for debate, their letters are overwhelmingly passionate, with juicy tidbits like ‘I will and die a lover of you’ and ‘I naturally so love your person and adore all your other parts.’
5. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
Virginia Woolf pushed the possibilities of language in her great novels and was similarly dismissive of convention in her personal life. Although she was married to the critic Leonard Woolf, her romantic passions lay with women and she openly pursued same-sex love affairs. In 1925, she forged a close connection with the writer Vita Sackville-West, a fellow bohemian who was also in an open marriage.
The romance between Virginia and Vita spurred both women to greater creative heights and also helped them overcome the psychological traumas of their past. Perhaps the greatest monument to their passion is Virginia’s fantastical novel Orlando, about a magical poet who is able to change their sex, which Vita’s son would later call 'the most charming love letter in literature'.
6. Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill
The last monarch of the Stuart dynasty, Queen Anne is remembered almost as much for her close friendship with Sarah Churchill as for the events of her reign. Sarah was a young courtier when she first met Anne, then still a princess, in the mid-1670s. Their friendship only strengthened when Anne became queen. Sarah – by then the Duchess of Marlborough – treated Anne as an equal, influencing Anne’s decisions and becoming known as the power behind the throne.
Although Anne was married and had a staggering succession of pregnancies (at least seventeen in total), her closeness with Sarah has long inspired heated speculation. But were they lovers?
Some historians point to Sarah’s intimate frankness around the monarch, as well as their passionate letters. Anne wrote to Sarah saying, ‘I can’t go to bed without seeing you’, and her wish to ‘cleave myself to you’. Later, Anne’s affections were transferred to a new favourite, Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill, but whether the three women were locked in a love triangle will never be known for sure.