Sunday 27 June 2021

A Queer Nation

When I’ve been researching my “Games of Gay Thrones” articles I’ve come across self-identified sovereigns of micronations, those regions, homes, or occasionally a room, in which a resident has declared independence but is not recognised any national government. I wondered if I should include them in the “Gay Thrones” articles, but decided that are best left for a separate article (in the future).

What these lgbt micronations led to was research into queen nationalism and the various attempts over the years to set up a “gay nation”. The idea of queer nationalism arose in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, which is being commemorated tomorrow.

The term “queer nation” probably derives from a couple of articles written by Allan Bérubé, Jeffrey Escoffier and Alexander Chee that were published in the winter 1971 issue of “Out/Look: the National Lesbian and Gay Quarterly”. While the word “nation” implies some form of independent sovereign state or collective community identity it has also been applied to campaigns and communes that were set up which remained within the established national body in which they were located (organised as self-governing communities within the USA, for example).

The first proper lgbt micronation (if an area of 3,095 square kilometers can be said to be “micro”) that declared full independence in 2005 from its mother nation was the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, and Australian territory on which a small group of activists campaigning for same-sex marriage laid claim to sovereignty. I’ve written a bit more about this micronation here.

Just as few months after the Stonewall Riots an attempt was made to create a self-governing lgbt community, which would probably have been called the Stonewall Nation (there’s no record of that name being used at the time) in the USA. The location chosen was an area of 1,920 square kilometres (bigger than Singapore and Bahrain combined) though it had a resident population of less than 500.

This proposed gay nation was to be set up in Alpine County, California, the least populated county in the state. That’s one reason why this particular location was chosen, which I’ll come to later. But its location was perhaps the biggest obstacle to it becoming viable also. Alpine County is, as its name suggests, a snowy, remote area 3,000 kilometers up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just at the “elbow” of the California/Nevada state border.

So, who decided this should become the world’s first lgbt-governed nation and why? To do that we have to go to a dream that Don Jackson (1932-1998), a journalist and activist, had in the summer of 1969. In this dream someone he knew who had recently died stood with him on a mountain top and showed him an idyllic valley and settlement below. For Don this was a vision of a gay nation and he formulated an idea. Looking around for somewhere to establish this nation he spotted Alpine County.

At that time a new California Supreme Court ruling stated that anyone could register as a voter in any county if they had been resident there for more than 90 days. That would make it easy for a relatively small group of lgbt people to move there, become the majority community and vote themselves into public office and control the legislature, thereby becoming a “gay nation”.

Don presented his idea at the West Coast Gay Liberation Conference in Berkeley, California, on 28th December 1969. There was some positive reaction and Don began working on plans to recruit “pilgrims” to his Alpine County Project, as he called it, and the pilgrims were soon to be called Alpioneers.

To make his project viable Don needed the support of gay rights organisations. The Los Angeles chapter of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF-LA) gave their backing, with Morris Kight and Don Kelhefner as the leaders. They persuaded Jackson to make the project public by informing the mainstream California press with an open appeal for volunteers to join the project.

At a hastily-organised press conference Kilhelfner announced that over 400 people had already volunteered to settle in Alpine County, including doctors, teachers and lawyers. It was revealed a few months later that this was a deliberate “mistruth”.

There was the obvious response from the residents of Alpine County to the project. They had not been consulted. They saw the project as a hostile takeover. The national press hyped up the opposition, and a right-wing Presbyterian minister from New Jersey ranted about the project on his weekly radio programme.

The majority of Alpine County’s 500 residents met in Markleeville, the county’s main town, to discuss the situation. Some suggested merging with the neighbouring county to increase the population and make it harder for the Alpioneers to become the majority. Some said the settlers would soon realise how bad the weather was for most of the year and soon return to the warm, sunny coast from where they had come.

GLF-LA sent three of its members to Markleeville to assess the area (why no-one had bothered to do this at the start is one example of how badly organised the project was). It wasn’t long after this that one of the trio found out that Kight and Kilhefner had no intention of supporting the project through to the end and were treating the whole thing as a big joke. To them it was just a publicity stunt to promote GLF-LA and raise awareness of other issues.

When Don Jackson got to hear of this he felt devastated, betrayed, angry and humiliated. Kilhefner admitted that everything at the press conference was a lie – there were no volunteers, doctors, lawyers or teachers. Gradually, many members of GLF-LA who had believed and supported the Alpine County Project left, also feeling somewhat betrayed. With this revelation the project screeched to a halt. Within a couple of years GLF-LA had been disbanded (though this was a nationwide trend among other GLF groups during this period).

The residents of Alpine County breathed a sign of relief, though a couple of business owners lamented the loss of some expected increase in custom - and profits.

Don Jackson, although somewhat disheartened by the experience, didn’t abandon his dream of a gay nation just yet. He made another attempt to set up a gay commune in the ghost town of Bankhead Springs near San Diego, but that too, along with several other attempts by other groups to create a gay nation, came to nothing. But those are different stories for another day.

Monday 21 June 2021

The Controversy of the Lustful Nuns

Wouldn’t it be nice of historians agreed on everything? Sadly, politics, prejudice and (quite often) personalities get in the way. This has been the case since the down of historiography. Queer interpretations are often open to criticism, as illustrated when I’ve written about historical people being outed.

A historical figure to be given a queer identity recently is a little-known saint from a little-known (though not insignificant, with almost 36 million worshippers) Christian church. The saint lived in 17th century Ethiopia but her hagiography (saint biography) wasn’t widely available until it was first translated and published in 1912.

The saint is called Walatta Petros (1592-1642). This is an English transliteration of her name in her native Ge’ez language and means “Daughter of Peter” (St. Peter). She was born into an aristocratic, land-owning family. Her family were courtiers of the Negusa Nagast (or King of Kings, I’ll use the title emperor) of Ethiopia. Walatta Petros was briefly married as a young girl to a man who was killed by the emperor. Shortly after 1607 she was married again to one of the imperial counsellors and they had three children. Sadly, all three children died in infancy, and afterwards Walatta Petros decided to become a nun.

Portrait of Walatta Petros from a manuscript located in one of her monasteries, 1716-21.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in Africa, adhering to the Coptic faith founded in the 3rd century. Over the centuries, as with other beliefs, factions and sects broke away from the main church. The church to which Walatta Petros worshipped is now called the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which was granted separate status from the Coptic Church in the 4th century at about the same time that the Roman Empire became Christian.

Portuguese Jesuit missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church went to Ethiopia in the 15th century to convert the country to Catholicism. The emperor was converted but there was unrest in the country as he attempted to ban and persecute the Coptic and Orthodox churches and Walatta Petros’s husband was sent to fight the “rebels”. Tewahedo priests helped Walatta Petros to leave her husband and join them in their monastery.

Shortly afterwards her husband led an attack on “rebels” in the town surrounding the monastery. Walatta Petros refused to return to her husband to stop the attack. She did, however, return to her home, only to find that her husband supported the murder of the Tewahedo patriarch (archbishop). That was the final straw, and she devoted the rest of her life to her faith from 1617.

Walatta Petros and the Tewahedo clergy protested against their persecution. She was summoned before the emperor twice charged with preaching orthodoxy and treason. Her family persuaded the emperor not to execute her and she was banished for three years.

From 1621 Walatta Petros founded several communities for Tewahedo worshippers who wanted to get away from the Catholic persecution. She became their spiritual leader and abbess. The emperor eventually accepted religious diversity and restored Orthodoxy as the national faith. He then abdicated.

Walatta Patros died at the age of 50 in 1642. She became one of the few female worshippers to be regarded as a saint in the Tewahedo Orthodox Church.

So, where does the controversy over her life come in? It’s all due to what a Tewahedo monk wrote in her hagiography in 1672. Most obviously, there’s a section which recounts a scene from Walatta Petros’s life in which she accidentally encounters a group of nuns having sex. She is very angry at seeing this. This has been a focus for debate ever since the hagiography was first published. Some historians and religious figures have taken the words literally while others have taken them metaphorically.

Medieval hagiographies often had allegorical and metaphorical stories of saints fighting against various temptations, whether in the form of monsters or people. In the case of Walatta Petros and the “lustful nuns” it is accepted that it was a real event in her life. But a more recent debate/controversy puts the lustful nuns into the shadows.

In 2005, an authority on Ethiopian Christian Orthodoxy, Sevir Černecov, in the last article published in his lifetime, became the first to suggest a non-gender-conforming nature to Walatta Petros’s life. This was picked up by several American historians, in particular Dr. Wendy Belcher of Princeton University who gave a series of lectures in 2014 which went further to suggest that Walatts Petros had a romantic, non-sexual relationship with her companion, a fellow nun called Ehata Kristos.

You can imagine the criticism from the Tewahedo and other Orthodox churches. Historians, too, expressed disagreement, as they often do with queer history, as much as any priest. One historian took a particularly critical view of Wendy Belcher’s lectures and her subsequent publication about the Walatta Petros hagiography. Dr. Belcher makes it clear in the lengthy introduction to her book that interpretations of past events and the words used when translating foreign languages, such as the Ge’ez language that the original hagiography is written in, is challenging.

Last year Dr. Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes of Curtin University, Australia, and an authority on Ethiopian history, published an article (at 90 pages long it’s more of a mini thesis) in which he criticised Wendy Belcher and her collaborator Michael Kleiner for not attempting to understand the Ge’ez language, or at least not knowing the language well enough to translate and interpret the original hagiography properly. He also accused them of deliberate racist and sexualisation of Walatta Petros’s life.

Belcher and Kleiner both wrote responses to Woldeyes’ attack on them, for that’s how his criticism reads. Their responses are both published on Dr. Belcher’s website here and here and go into more detail about the relationship between Walatta Petros and Ehata Kristos.

The relationship between the two women has never identified as a sexual one by Dr. Belcher, despite claims by Dr. Woldeyes. History is full of non-sexual romantic same-sex partnerships. The most well-known version is the Boston Marriage, a term used to describe female companions who lived together, so-called because there were several such romantic female couples living in and around Boston, USA, in the 19th century. Within historical monastic communities, whether male or female, non-sexual partnerships are known (St. Francis of Assisi, for example). Encounters like Walatta Petros and the “lustful nuns” are relatively rare.

The fact that Walatta Petros fell in love with another woman and remained celibate seems difficult for some in the sex-obsessed world of modern lgbt culture to understand. The lgbt community, people of faith, and critics of religion should stop equating love with sex – the medieval Christian Church did, why can’t they?

Tuesday 15 June 2021

William and John: Part 2) John in France

Last month I began to tell the story of Sir William Neville and his partner Sir John Clanvowe. I looked at their family background and childhood, and how they were connected through the manorial network of medieval England. Today I want to concentrate on the military career of Sir John Clanvowe. The campaigns in which he served are among the most important of the wars against France in the Hundred Years War.

The Hundred Years War can be said to have been caused n part by the marriage of the gay King Edward II of England to Princess Isabella of France in 1308. Isabella was a daughter of the French king who, although he had sons, had no grandsons to succeed him. This is important because France, unlike England, didn’t allow succession to the throne through the female line. Edward and Isabella’s son, King Edward III, decided that English law made him heir to the French throne though his mother and declared himself King of France. The French chose someone else. Another factor in the war was that the English crown possessed a lot of land in France as part of their feudal inheritance (see the map below). All feudal lords in France had to swear allegiance to the French king as their supreme lord. Edward III wasn’t going to swear to be subservient to any other king, and the French threatened to seize his possessions if he didn’t. That was another reason for the Hundred Years War.

The first of the campaigns in which Sir John Clanvowe served was in 1364 during the Breton War of Succession. When the old Duke of Brittany died there were two rival claimants to succeed him, John de Montfort and Charles de Blois. Both had legitimate claims under medieval law. The kings of England and France gave their support to opposing claimants. King Edward III supported de Montfort (who also happened to be his son-in-law) and the King of France supported de Blois.

The rivalry came to a head in September 1364 at Auray, a town on the Breton coast. John de Montfort was supported by battalions led by Sir John Chandos and Sir Robert Knolles. Both sides had been instructed to take no prisoners. Sir John Clanvowe was fighting in the thick of battle as the English forced the French into an indefensible position. Charles de Blois was killed and the French surrendered. John de Montfort was proclaimed the new Duke of Brittany, but instead of recognising King Edward as his feudal overlord as promised he switched his allegiance to the King of France. It was a surprising and humiliating blow to the English. Sir John Clanvowe then joined the retinue of Sir John Chandos and was present at the latter's unfortunate death.

By 1369 the French were taking over more English territory and Chandos attempted to defend the town of Poitiers. A week after Christmas Chandos and a group of about forty men including, Sir John Clanvowe, caught up with them at Lussac. Dressed in armour with his helmet visor up Chandos led the attack, but he slipped on the icy ground and stumbled head first onto the point of a lance held by a French soldier. The weapon struck him below one eye and entered his skull. Alive, conscious and writhing in agony on the icy ground his compatriots tried to protect him.

A 14th century French chronicler, Jean Froissart, described how the English knights flew into a defensive rage, specifically naming Sir John Chambo. The identity of this knight has puzzled historians, as there is no John Chambo mentioned elsewhere. However, the Chambo coat of arms is recorded in several medieval rolls and is identical to that of the Clanvowe family, which suggests that to me that Sir John Chambo was actually Sir John Clanvowe.

English then decided to launch a major expeditionary force into France. Sir John Clanvowe and his future partner Sir William Neville were to serve alongside each other for the first time in this expedition. They were part of a force that pillaged its way through northern France in August 1370 in what is called a chevauchée. This was a rampage through the countryside in an attempt to terrify the local population. Villages were attacked, fields of crops were burnt, and animals were slaughtered. Soldiers took what they wanted. Terrified villagers fled to the nearest castle or fortification.

The French then made clear their intention to invade English-owned Aquitaine. Edward III decided to launch a massive chevauchée in August 1373 with his son Prince John of Gaunt in command of about 8,000 soldiers. Sir John Clanvowe joined this "Grand Chevauchée", as it is named, which pillaged its way from Calais in a route of over 900 miles to Bordeaux in Aquitaine. A French army shadowed the English and there were a few small skirmishes in the early stages but the French army generally kept its distance.

The English forces trudged on until Christmas. Long before then most of the horses had died, as had many soldiers from disease. Provisions dwindled and the weather worsened. Replacement horses were seized from the terrified French peasants as the English army rampaged through the countryside.

It must have been the most welcome Christmas for both the exhausted army and the people of Aquitaine as the English soldiers arrived in Bordeaux to give them the support they had longed for. The Grand Chevauchée had succeeded in dissuading the French from invading Aquitaine. It also enhanced the reputation of those who took part, giving them hero status amongst the English.

During the following years Sir John Clanvowe joined the retinue of Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford. John may have known de Bohun since childhood through the manorial network. De Bohun was the hereditary Lord High Constable of England, a military position similar in nature to Chief of Defence Staff. This brought de Bohun into the inner circles of the English court, and John Clanvowe may have accompanied him during his official court duties. When de Bohun King Edward III took John on as a King's Knight.

We’ll have a closer look at Sir John’s court career in a few weeks. Next time we’ll have a look at Sir William Neville. After he and Sir John Clanvowe served in the 1370 chevauchée William went on to serve as an admiral. We’ve have a look at his career, and his marriage, at the beginning of July.

Thursday 10 June 2021

Heraldic Alphabet 2021

It’s International Heraldry Day again, and I’m celebrating with more coats of arms in the lgbt community. Today 24 letters of the alphabet are represented. As before, I use names by which each person is most usually known. British peers are listed under their title.

I’ve spent years doing the research to ensure as much as possible that everyone listed is entitled, in reality or theory, to use the arms illustrated.

Bear in mind is that some nations don’t allow women to use shields, only ovals or diamond shapes. For the sake of visual uniformity I’ll only use shields. Let’s start with some definitions.

Difference – a designated object added to an inherited coat of arms to show a person’s place in the order of birth.

Family – arms inherited from the father and/or heiress, primarily used in most nations by the senior bloodline.

Personal – inherited family arms (often with differences), or those granted by an official heraldic authority.

Assumed – arms adopted where no official heraldic authority existed in a person’s lifetime or location, often of an unrelated family of the same name.

Marital – arms of a married couple. Many heraldic authorities recognise same-sex marriages. If both spouses have a coat of arms they place them side by side on one shield. Heraldic heirs places their arms on a little shield on top of their spouse’s.

Arms of Office – arms of an institution of which a person was the nominal head, used only during their term of office. A person may also possess their own arms.

Quarters – multiple coats of arms can be inherited by one person and displayed in the quarters of the shield.

Here is the 2021 Heraldic Alphabet:

A) Count Laszlo Almasy (1895-1951) – Hungarian explorer, aviator and spy. Inherited family arms. Although a younger son, under Hungarian rules Laszlo was entitled to use the family arms un-differenced.

B) Mariana Belcombe (1790-1868) – partner of Anne Lister of Shibden Hall. Marital arms as Mrs. Charles Lawton. His arms are on the left half. The arms on the right are those of Mariana’s original family name, Bulcock.

C) Frances Cobbe (1822-1904) – Irish writer, anti-vivisectionist and suffragette. Inherited arms, confirmed by the Ulster Office of Arms to her father. They quarter the arms of Cobbe (a pun – a cobb is a male swan) with Welborne, whose heir married into the family.

D) Eyre de Lanux (real name Elizabeth Eyre, 1894-1996) – American artist and designer. Inherited arms, those of her direct male-line ancestors, the Eyres of Nottinghamshire.

E) Damien Egan (b.1983) – Mayor of Lewisham 2018. Arms of office, being those granted to the London borough of Lewisham in 1966 by the College of Arms.

F) Gavin Henderson, 2nd Baron Faringdon (1902-1997) – British politician. Inherited personal arms, first matriculated (registered) to his grandfather in 1902 by the Court of Lord Lyon in Scotland.

G) Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) – American photographer. Inherited (perhaps assumed) arms. The arms attributed to her direct ancestor James Gilpin (1622-1682).

H) Lesbia Harford, née Keogh (1891-1927) – Australian poet and social campaigner. Family arms. Lesbia was a direct descendant of a 15th century chief of the Clan McKeogh (illustrated). She descends from a junior line.

I) Stephen Fox-Strangways, 1st Earl of Ilchester (1704-1776) – English politician. Personal inherited arms. The Fox arms (top right) are canting (i.e. they show foxes). The fleur-de-lys is a mark of honour granted to Ilchester’s father by King Charles II. In 1758 Ilchester adopted the Strangways name and arms (top left) on the death of his mother-in-law, whose heir he married.

J) Edward James (1907-1984) – English poet and art patron. Personal inherited arms, granted to his uncle by the College of Arms in 1879. The ostriches represent his uncle’s friendship with the Prince of Wales (ostrich feathers are the Prince’s emblem), and because he explored Africa. The heraldic dolphin is used by many James families.

K) Anna Kowalska (1903-1969) – Polish writer. Inherited family arms. Anna’s paternal family name, Chrzanowska, belongs of the Korvin heraldic clan, to which Sofia Kovalevskaya also belongs (Heraldic Alphabet 2016), and they use these arms.

L) Amy Lowell (1874-1925) – American poet. Inherited family arms. Amy descends from colonist Percival Lowle (1571-1665). His arms and ancestry were recorded by the College of Arms in 1591.

M) Anastasie Mannerheim (1893-1978) and Sophie Mannerheim (1895-1963) – lesbian daughters of Baron Carl Mannerheim, President of Finland 1944-46. Inherited family arms. The original Mannerhiem arms are on the central shield. The others were added in 1768 when their ancestor was ennobled and represent his military career and family.

N) Sir Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) and Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) – British writers. Marital arms. My 2015 Heraldic Alphabet featured the incorrect arms of this bisexual couple. As heraldic heiress (i.e. no brothers) Vita would display her arms on a little shield on top of her husband’s as shown here.

O) Cian O’Callaghan (b.1979) – Irish politician, Mayor of Fingal County 2012-3 (the first Irish openly gay mayor). Arms of office, being the arms granted to Fingal County in 1994.

P) Stewart Perowne (1901-1989) – English diplomat, archaeologist and designer. Personal arms. Granted to his father by the College of Arms on 8th February 1924. The crescent is a difference mark indicating he was the second son.

Q) QBoy (real name Marcos Brito, b.1978) – British rapper and DJ. Inherited family arms. QBoy’s ancestors have lived on the Canary Islands for centuries. The purple lions are taken from the arms of the kingdom of Castile who conquered the islands in 1402.

R) Miles Radcliffe (1895-1946) – murdered chocolate factory manager in Wellington, New Zealand. Family arms. Miles descends from John Radcliffe (d.1683) of Shaw Hall, Lancashire (his arms are illustrated). The quarters show the arms of Radcliffe, Legh, Arderne and Sandbach.

S) Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954) – US social reformer and literature professor. Assumed family arms. Vida descends from colonist Thomas Scudder of Kent. He may have been related to the Scudders of North Clay, Kent, whose arms (illustrated) were recorded in 1574. The Scudder Family Association of the USA use these arms.

T) Sir William Teeling (1903-1975) – Irish author and politician. Personal inherited arms. The zigzags of the Teeling arms were granted by the Ulster Office of Arms. The crosses and lions are those of the Burkes of Ower, County Galway, whose heir was Sir William’s mother.

U) Thomas Upcher (1906-1985) – owner of Sheringham Hall, England. Personal inherited arms. Granted by the College of Arms to his ancestor Peter Upcher on 18th February 1777. It combines the arms of Peter’s grandmother Sarah Abbot (chevron and pears) with his mother’s, Mary Foxwell (blue chevron and fox heads).

V) Antonio Vasconcelos (1963-1989) – Mozambique-born London banker; one of 51 people at his birthday party killed in the “Marchioness” Thames disaster. Inherited arms as carved on his gravestone. Mozambique follows Portuguese rules whereby individuals can take the name and arms of any ancestor. These arms are of Antonio’s mother, Maria da Gama Lobo Salema (da Gama on the left, Lobo on the right).

W) Jerzy Waldorff (1910-1999) – Polish music critic and broadcaster. Inherited family arms. Jerzy’s paternal family name, Preyss, belongs to the Nabram heraldic clan and they use their arms.

Y) William Yeoward (1957-2019) – British crystal glass designer. Family arms, granted by the College of Arms to his great-uncle, Lewis Yeoward, on 16th April 1914.

That concludes this year’s Heraldic Alphabet. Even though I plan to stop posting regular articles after August I intend to produce another Heraldic Alphabet in 2022.

Friday 4 June 2021

A Dark Chapter in Dutch History

The Netherlands has acquired a reputation as a pioneer and champion of lgbt rights, but it is also a dark chapter that involves the worst secular persecution of homosexuals in European history prior to the 20th century. The news of the virtual massacre of gay men in the summer of 1730 in the Dutch republic spread across Europe resulting in similar persecutions.

As has often been the case throughout history, any natural or economic disaster is often attributed to divine retribution because of the actions (or even the very existence) of specific sections of the community. Many times in recent decades the lgbt community has been accused of bringing that divine retribution in the form of floods, famine and disease. Just last week an American religious group accused the lgbt community of bringing down the wrath of God who inflicted the covid pandemic on the world because of our continuing existence.

Such appears to have been the case in the Netherlands in the early 18th century. For a generation there had been disease that had suddenly attacked the country’s cattle herds, and parasitic worms that were breeding in the water dikes. A generation earlier there have been freak weather, and even an earthquake that destroyed much of Utrecht’s main church, the Domkerk. In general also, there was a feeling that society was becoming too immoral, lazy and weak-willed. People were looking for someone to blame for the disasters and deterioration in society and soon the gay community became their target. This became a nationwide persecution.

Where the Dutch persecution of gay men began.
An engraving of a painting by Herman Saftleven the Younger (1609-1685)
showing the ruins of Domkerk nave (Utrecht Archives).

The damaged Domkerk became a meeting place for gay men. In January 1730 the sacristan, the person who looked after what was left of the building, discovered two men having sex in the church tower. He recognised one of them as Zacharias Wilsma, and the sacristan had him arrested. Wilsma, a 23-year-old ex-soldier from Leiden, was interrogated. He revealed the existence of a network of gay men across the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam. He probably hoped that his confession and co-operation would save him from punishment. It appears that this may have been the case because there’s no record of his execution in the ensuing “purge” of Dutch homosexuals.

Wilsma also revealed details of his own sexual activities prior to moving to Utrecht. As the foreman on the country estate of a wealthy burgomaster near Leiden he often had sex with other men in his master’s carriages.

Wilsma named four men in Amsterdam as sodomites, as homosexuals were termed in those days, and they were tracked down and arrested. Wilsma testified against them at their trials and all four were executed in June 1730. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Under interrogation the men revealed the names of forty others. The revelation that there was a thriving secret gay community in Amsterdam threw the city and the nation into a panic.

In July 1730 the Netherlands government issued an edict that went out to every city, town and village. It warned against the dangers and evils of sodomy (sodomy was considered to be an infectious disease at the time). The edict reminded people of the death penalty.

By this time word had spread among the gay community, or rather the loose network of gay men, to be more accurate. Although many men were arrested, convicted and executed, some managed to escape, at least for a short time.

One of the most prominent men hoping to avoid capture was Baron Frederick van Reede van Renswoude (1659-1738), a diplomat and magistrate renowned internationally as a peace-keeper. The London Journal described him as “the First Noble of the Province of Utrecht”. It is thought that he fled to Venice. Several men who were executed for sodomy referred to him as “the Greatest of All Buggers”. He was stripped of his legal and municipal offices, but he thought it safe for him to return a few weeks later. That seems to have been the only punishment he received.

The most notorious crack-down on gay sex networks occurred in Faan, a tiny village near Groningen. There the local magistrate arrested 24 men in the village for sodomy. He found all of them guilty and they were all hanged.

News of the arrests and executions spread across Europe. Unlike today there was no condemnation from the general public of the homophobic purge. It would be wrong to assume that the public had been scared into believing the Church propaganda against sodomy. The historical evidence says otherwise. The public believed sodomy was a moral evil just as much as the majority of Christian Churches did.

One British newspaper summed up the general view of the public perfectly. The London Journal of 6th June 1730 reported “… It is about a Fortnight since the court of Holland have had under Prosecution Seven young persons for the detestable Sin of Sodomy, formerly unknown in these Parts, and confined to the South Side of the Alps: Several have been seized upon the Score at Leyden, Utrecht, Amsterdam, Campen, and in short in almost all the Province…” The report indicates the view in northern Europe that sodomy was only practiced in Italy, in particular Florence. In fact, the Germans had a slang word for a sodomite – “florenzer” (we’ll encounter some actual “florenzers” next month). Additionally, the persecution of gay men in Utrecht itself gave rise to a slang name for a gay man – “utrechtenaar”.

As news of the persecutions and executions spread across Europe people began to view recent visitors from the Netherlands with suspicion. Some of these visitors were indeed escaping homosexuals but many were not.

Arrests, interrogations, trials and executions went of sporadically for decades, but none were as intense as the 1730 Dutch persecutions. What makes the whole affair so horrifying to our modern ears is the manner of the executions. The law permitted judges to choose the methods of execution. As well as hanging, some men were burnt alive, some were strangled and crushed, some had their corpses burnt and their ashes thrown in to the sea, In fact, the remains of quite a lot of these men ended up being thrown into the sea. It is estimated that there were about 300 men were convicted of sodomy in the summer of 1730.

History shows just how much nations and public opinion can change over time. This change in the Netherlands has been recognised. In 1999 the authorities in Utrecht placed a memorial stone, called the Sodomonument, in the street outside the Domkerk tower, the only surviving part of the church, to commemorate the lives of the persecuted men.