King Billy’s sexuality

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2008), Letters, Volume 16

In his article ‘Billy’s Boys’ in the last issue, it is a pity thatBrian Lacy does not answer the question posed in the introduction, thatis, whether William III was in fact homosexual. In researching my bookOrangeism—the making of a tradition (1999) I looked closely into thisquestion and went through as much material on William as I could lay myhands on, which included work in archives in both London and The Hague.I must advise that I was unable to uncover proof that William wasanything other than heterosexual. I found that much of the speculationwas based on Bishop Gilbert Burnet’s unreliable memoirs, History of myown times (see the version edited by O. Airy (1897) and H. C.Foxcroft’s A supplement to Burnet’s History of My Own Times (1902)),which says of William: ‘He had no vice but one, in which he was verycautious and secret’. This ambiguous remark is, of course, hardly proofof anything.
We know from the private papers of Queen Mary that her relationshipwith her husband allowed her to keep hoping for a child up to the timeof her fatal illness; we also know that William’s involvement withElizabeth Villiers, his acknowledged mistress, and with other women(following the queen’s death) suggests that he was not indifferent tothe opposite sex. Further, it is known that William’s presumedlong-time lover, Bentinck, duke of Portland, abhorred homosexuality anddecried in his correspondence what he called ‘decadent habits’ (seeWilliam and Mary by Henri and Barbara van der Dee (1973), pp 421–2).
In my view, speculation on William’s sexuality was created by hisopponents. The decadent Stuart camp-followers hated the prudery (andperhaps the priggishness) of William and his Dutch Calvinist entourageand found them easy targets for their bawdy jokes. Also, they availedof the gossip that arose following the staging of Vanburgh’s comedy TheRelapse, or Virtue in Danger, in Drury Lane in 1696, with its numeroushomosexual allusions, to smear William.
In our own time the motives of those who query William’s sexualityare to be found, I believe, outside the historical record.—Yours etc.,
KEVIN HADDICK FLYNN
London

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