It’s time to get sinful again! This time we go green with ENVY.
Along with red and blue,
green is a colour which is instantly associated with one of the Seven Deadly
Sins. The association dates from Medieval times and entered Christian tradition
(not to be confused with Christian doctrine). So we place ENVY on the green
stripe of the Rainbow Pride flag.
I suppose, like many gay
men, I’ve been guilty of envy many times. I’ve lost count of times I wish I was
as young and gorgeous as Tom Daley!
Envy has often been
substituted with JEALOUSY. In modern psychological terms the two are slightly
different. Jealousy is the negative emotion felt at the uncontrollable loss of
something which you want back (your ex, your job, etc.). ENVY is felt against
people who possess something you never had in the first place, whether status,
abilities or attributes of someone else. To the medieval mind there was no
If there’s one thing my
researches have shown me over the years it’s that when it comes to envy its
best NOT to be highly placed in society. In particular, it best not to be a
male favourite of a king, because most of them have come to a sticky end
because of it.
Of particular personal
interest is the fate that befell the two favourites of my ancestor King Edward
II of England (1284-1327). I know I’ve mentioned them several times on this
blog, most notably in this article. But it illustrates well the role that both
envy and jealousy played in the downfall of Piers Gaveston, murdered by the
barons whose traditional positions at court and influence were given to the
King Edward’s next
favourite didn’t fare any better. Hugh le Despencer (d.1326) rose to prominence
as a royal favourite 700 years ago in 1315. He was among a group of nobles who
supported the king in his battle against the Earl of Lancaster. When open
hostilities broke out in 1321 Hugh was well placed at court. On Lancaster’s
defeat Hugh received many estates that belonged to the rebels. In 1322 King
Edward (accompanied by Hugh) came to Nottingham Castle to pardon all the rebels
(including one Robin Hood of Wakefield).
Soon Hugh was being envied
and hated by the barons as much as Gaveston was. Even Edward’s queen, Isabella,
was jealous of Hugh’s influence. It was the catalyst for her rebellion and
Edward’s forced abdication. Even though I doubt there was any sexual aspect to
the relationship between Hugh and the king it’s clear that their contemporaries
were sure of it. Hugh suffered the fate of all those condemned for treason in
England – he was hanged, drawn and quartered. Even his 89-year-old father
didn’t escape punishment – he was hanged and fed to the dogs.
But envy and jealousy can
work the other way round. In one of my “Around the World in 80 Gays” articles a
few weeks ago I recounted how the Byzantine Emperor Mikhael III fell in love
with a hunky peasant called Basileios. With no legitimate heir to succeed him
Mikhael quickly elevated Basileios into a succession of imperial offices of
state, culminating in that of Co-Emperor.
Apart from the general
political and dynastic rivalries that characterised Byzantine history there was
very little envy on display. True, there was some envy of the former peasant’s
rise to power, but he was wily enough to keep in everyone’s favour. Until, that
is, the arrival of a new favourite.
In 866 the 26-year-old
Mikhael found a new favourite, presumably one a lot younger than the
30-plus-year-old Basileios. The new favourite flattered Mikhael so much that he
was rewarded by being given the emperor’s shoes to wear. Not just any shoes,
but the official red jewelled shoes that were part of the imperial regalia.
Only an emperor was entitled to wear them. Even Basileios hadn’t been allowed
to wear them, and he was Co-Emperor. It would be like Dorothy in “The Wizard of
Oz” giving her ruby slippers to the Munchkins to play with. Basileios
complained vigorously. Mikhael threatened to give the co-emperorship to the new
favourite if he didn’t mind his own business. You can guess what happened next.
Basileios became jealous
and envious of the new favourite’s position and feared losing this title, even
if Mikhael didn’t really mean it. But to make sure that he remained Co-Emperor
he decided to assassinate them both.
After a particularly
alcohol-filled evening (Mikhael’s nickname was “the Drunkard”) the emperor
retired to bed with the new favourite in the adjoining room, reserved for the
most trusted imperial official. Basileios burst through the chambers and
stabbed Mikhael before he could get out of bed. The new favourite was dragged
away, and presumably executed, though there’s no actual record of what happened
Basileios was now sole
Emperor of Byzantium and he reigned for 19 years. It was his envy and jealousy
that got him there, but he was actually a popular ruler – you couldn’t reign
for 19 years in those days without being liked! So at least envy did someone a
favour even if it IS one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
(NOTE: The reason I
haven’t named Mikhael’s new favourite is because I didn’t want him to be
confused with Basileois. The new favourite was called Basiliskos).