The “Effeminate” King

There has always been speculation over James VI and I’s homosexuality. Historians remain divided over whether this is true or simply an attempt to slander James. While his sexuality remains a mystery, it is worth exploring why some of his contemporaries may have portrayed him as a homosexual. The basis of their suspicions was James’ tendency to choose young, attractive men as his companions. Another contributing factor was the cultural emphasis on masculinity. English upper-class culture has always associated masculinity with good leadership.[1] Thus, the king was expected to be virile and forceful. There were in fact times during James’s reign when his masculinity was questioned due to his decisions regarding foreign policy. The fact that James often opted for peace could have led observers to believe that he was gay, for according to Michael B. Young, “effeminacy was an integral part of Jacobean discourse about [homosexuality].”[2] Yet it is also possible that James’ contemporaries wanted to tarnish his memory. After all, sex between males was considered illegal and immoral. To remember James as a homosexual was the equivalent of considering him as perverted, and therefore an unworthy king.

When referring to the companion of a monarch, historians often use the term “favorite” in a derogatory manner. The word “favorite” usually has sexual connotations and implies that the influence of the companion was unhealthy. Both historians and contemporaries say that James’ attachment to favorites made him a weak monarch. Not only did James have male favorites, he allowed them to influence his political decisions. Historians argue that this influence was “uniformly bad.”[3] Scholars claim that there were particular favorites who were especially influential on James’ decisions. For example, Esmé Stuart, First Duke of Lennox, was a first cousin once removed of James. Born and bred in France, he came to James’ court in Scotland in 1579. The then teenaged James “was entranced with his charming, sophisticated 37-year-old cousin.”[4] On the other hand, Scottish nobles suspected Lennox to be a French agent who was scheming to overthrow Protestantism and restore Mary, Queen of Scots to the throne. Despite their disapproval, James made Lennox the first gentleman of the royal chamber and allowed him to govern Scotland. Lennox’s fall from power came in August 1582 during the Ruthven Raid, when ultra-Protestant nobles abducted James and took control of the government. Four months later, they forced Lennox to leave Scotland.

Another example is Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, who became a groom of the bedchamber in 1604. The king soon became captivated by Carr after treating him for a leg injury.[5] By the end of 1607, Carr was knighted and created a gentleman of the bedchamber. Over the next few years, he received a steady flow of money and gifts from James. In 1610, Carr became active in parliament. Member Sir Thomas Lake claimed that Carr spread rumors in order to turn James against the House of Commons. Carr also began to play a bigger role in the debates over domestic and foreign policy that were dividing the English elite.[6] Another favorite who allegedly played a significant role in Jacobean politics was George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham. After becoming a member of the Privy Council in 1617, Buckingham was accused of securing titles and offices for his relatives, as well as having a monopoly on royal patronage.[7] All three of the aforementioned men were associated with some form of scandal. Contemporaries could have implied that their relationships with James were sexual in order to further demonize them. In addition, they may have viewed James as weak for allowing himself to be influenced. Since homosexuality was associated with weakness, it’s understandable why they would therefore suspect him to be gay.

Besides being viewed as impressionable, James may have been deemed weak because of his desire for peace. In addition to ending the Anglo-Spanish War in 1604, he refused to intervene when the Thirty Years War began in 1618. This generated anxiety among the English elite, for they associated pacifism with effeminacy. It was this fear of effeminacy that “fueled the demand for war.”[8] People viewed James’ court as especially effeminate. Not only did James adopt a pacifist foreign policy, he also surrounded himself with young attractive men who wore ostentatious clothing.[9] There was also a belief among English nobles that effeminacy led to sodomy. Thus, it is easy to see why nobles would have suspected James to be a homosexual. In their view, homosexuals were effeminate and therefore weak. This contradicted their idea of what a “real” man should be: strong, masculine, and warlike. Since the king was expected to be a model of masculinity, he had to have an aggressive foreign policy. He had to be willing to deploy his military whenever conflict arose. Therefore, if James was hesitant to participate in a war, one had to question his masculinity.

There is no conclusive evidence to prove whether James was gay or straight. However, it is likely that because he did not conform to the persistent male stereotype, people believed that he was homosexual. In the seventeenth century, this stereotype dictated that a man did not have male companions, dress flamboyantly, or abstain from fighting. Homosexuals have always been seen as effeminate and weak. Thus, hatred of James and/or his favorites could have also fueled the allegations that he was gay. To call James gay was to call him inadequate and corrupt. The rumors about James’ relationships with men neither prove nor disprove his homosexuality. At the most, they are an attack on his character.

-Pauline McHugh


[1] Michael B. Young, King James and the History of Homosexuality (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 85.

[2] Young, King James and the History of Homosexuality, 5.

[3] Maurice Lee, Jr., Great Britain’s Solomon (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 233-235.

[4] Rosalind K. Marshall, ‘Stuart , Esmé, first duke of Lennox (c.1542–1583)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004): accessed 6 Nov 2015, doi: 10.1093/ref:odnb/26702

[5] Alastair Bellany, ‘Carr, Robert, earl of Somerset (1585/6?-1645)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004): accessed 6 Nov 2015, doi: 10.1093/ref:odnb/4754

[6] Bellany, ‘Carr , Robert, earl of Somerset (1585/6?–1645)’.

[7] Roger Lockyer, ‘Villiers, George, first duke of Buckingham (1592–1628)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004): accessed 7 Nov 2015, doi: 10.1093/ref:odnb/28293

[8] Young, King James and the History of Homosexuality, 71-72.

[9] Young, King James and the History of Homosexuality, 72-73.

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