Billy’s boys, or an Orangeman’s dilemma

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Volume 16

William of Orange by Jan Wyck. (UK Government Art Collection)

William of Orange by Jan Wyck. (UK Government Art Collection)

The month of July is named after Caius Julius Caesar—‘husband to every man’s wife, and wife to every woman’s husband’. But in Northern Ireland July is unquestionably the month of King Billy. The first half is taken up annually with the various events surrounding the commemoration of William’s victory in 1690 over his uncle and father-in-law, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne. The hangover from this year’s mainly good-humoured celebrations was made somewhat worse, however, when the ‘glorious, pious and immortal memory of the great and good King William’ was called into question by a media debate about his sexual orientation. The whirlwind arose from a speech by the English gay activist Peter Tatchell, who suggested that anti-homosexual remarks by leading northern unionist and Protestant figures—especially Iris Robinson MP, wife of the first minister—amounted to gargantuan hypocrisy given their hero’s less than perfect reputation in that department himself.
Several people pointed out that these ‘revelations’ were hardly ‘breaking news’. References to William’s ‘unhealthy’ interest in the handsome young men he gathered around him did not originate with modern gays or anti-unionists. It was the king’s contemporaries who made their sovereign’s dirty linen a topic of lurid conversation. His close relationship with, among others, Hans William Bentinck, who accompanied William on his Irish campaign, was noted at the time. Historians since have been divided on the question of ‘was he or wasn’t he’, but not always on the basis of the evidence; Dutch historians have tended to adopt the more liberal interpretation. In the absence of a telling smoking gun, opinion varied as to whether the scurrilous rumours and street rhymes were accurate reportage of the king’s proclivities or political propaganda by his opponents. Most probably they were both. Of course, William did his duty and married his first cousin, but the union was an expression of Charles II’s foreign policy rather than a passion-driven romance. One thing is definitely clear: there is as much—if not more—circumstantial evidence that William was homosexual as that he was heterosexual.
Ian Paisley once tried to have the enigmatic unionist MP and author, H. Montgomery Hyde, censured by the Orange Order for pointing out these awkward facts. Peculiarly, Hyde’s courageous 1970 book, The other love: an historical and contemporary survey of homosexuality in Britain, tends to play the topic down. To balance things, however, William Naphy from the University of Aberdeen has pointed out more recently that contemporaries also suggested that William’s wife, Mary, was either lesbian or bisexual; indeed, the same was also said about their successor, Queen Anne. If these rumours were not true, they were at least indicative of contemporary prejudice.
This debate is not really about ‘history’—the objective assessment of evidence from the past. In a private letter in 1937, W. B. Yeats wrote: ‘If [Roger] Casement were a homo-sexual what matter!’ In an ideal world, William III’s or Casement’s sexual interests, or their taste in food or drink, or the colour of their eyes, or whether they were left- or right-handed, would not matter very much at all—they’d just be neutral facts about them. One of the main reasons why it did matter, however, was that had the British not executed the hero of the Congo and the Putamayo, the Irish Free State—of which Yeats had been a legislator—had the legal capacity to imprison Casement on account of precisely such sexual preferences. That valuable inheritance from our British past remained as part of our republic’s law until Máire Geoghegan-Quinn abolished it in 1993—a quarter of a century after the Brits had got rid of it themselves.
Another reason why it mattered was because people were told it mattered. As late as 1981, in his great book Ireland: a social and cultural history 1922–79, Terence Brown could still only bring himself to refer to Hilton Edwards as Micheál MacLíammóir’s ‘friend’—minus the quotation marks—and in 1990 T. Ryle Dwyer rejected the ‘accusation’ that Michael Collins might have been a little bit homosexual. Indeed, shortly before he left the Irish Times, Kevin Myers wrote about London parks ‘infested’ with cruising homosexuals. The wonder is not that this was written but that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a reputable newspaper published it. Whatever about the ‘musical’, homosexuality still seems to have a whiff of the negative about it. With that sort of comment from the more intellectual and even liberal side of Irish life, you can see why some people in the North might get upset about similar ‘accusations’ regarding their greatest hero.
Ironically, Mrs Robinson’s husband, Peter, sits at Westminster for the same East Belfast constituency as Edward de Cobain, who was expelled from the House of Commons in 1892 for similar sorts of charges to those alleged about King William. Cobain was a prominent Orangeman, grandmaster for Belfast and deputy grandmaster for Ireland. He clearly took his responsibilities to emulate his hero to uncalled-for extremes. He was convicted at the Antrim assizes in March 1893, the first prominent person to be found guilty under the infamous Labouchère amendment to the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act—the same law that would imprison Oscar Wilde two years later.
One of the additional ironies of this whole debate is that the other king associated with the creation of the political and cultural nature of Northern Ireland, James I, was almost certainly homosexual also. Next year will see the 400th anniversary of the start of his Ulster plantations.  His version of the Bible (beautiful as the language is) is still used to hound homosexuals, just as it has been for the past four centuries.
Much of what is referred to here is unknown to the general public in this country and rarely alluded to by historians. But in spite of opinions to the contrary, homosexuals were not just invented in the 1960s, nor even in the 1890s. That fact, however, rarely makes it into Irish history books. Ruth Dudley Edwards created a real stir with her 1977 biography of Patrick Pearse when she drew attention to the probability that such a great nationalist hero had homosexual inclinations. Despite the ubiquitous references to Oscar Wilde, ‘gay histories’, written elsewhere, rarely mention Ireland or Irish matters. There is a paradox in this, as records of homosexuality in Ireland occur as far back as we have writing in this country—in Latin and Irish as well as English. Indeed, the very oldest text in Irish history, the Confessio—by the man we would come to know as St Patrick—may already contain a reference to such activity.
All this silence seems about to change, however. On 16 June 2008 the Irish Queer Archive was handed over to the National Library, which already has the David Norris papers. In addition, the Northern Ireland Gay Rights Association papers have been deposited in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, along with those of the influential gay activist Jeff Dudgeon. It looks like the homosexual past of Ireland has a future.

Brian Lacey, archaeologist and historian, is CEO of the Discovery Programme. His Terrible queer creatures: homosexuality in Irish history has just been published by Wordwell Books.

Further reading:

R. Aldrich (ed.), Gay life and culture: a world history (London, 2006).

W. Naphy, Born to be gay: a history of homosexuality (Stroud, 2006).

A. L. Rowse, Homosexuals in history (New York, 1977).

H. and B. Van der Zee, William and Mary (London, 1973).


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