William II "Rufus": Medieval King of England (and Probably Gay)

posted by Madame Bubby

The Middle Ages has been in the news lately.

As medieval scholars converge at their annual megaconvention in Kalamazoo, they carry with them recent analyses that traditional medieval studies both contains and feeds into elements of the burgeoning white supremacy movement, with its interpretation, now deemed inaccurate, of a pure white Christian Europe battling forces that wish to annihilate it (especially Jews and Muslims).

The biopic Tolkien focuses on an author many have claimed in his medieval-inspired fantasy world also equated the good and the great with the blond and the white (rather simplistically, I might add).

And on a less overtly political level, the mega hit Game of Thrones offers the viewer, I think in a playful postmodern fashion, almost every element of what we deem to be traditional medieval tropes in a complex fantasy world. The open-ended medieval and Renaissance romance with its complicated interlacing of multiple storylines lends itself well to the serial format of a television series.

My contribution to the medieval buzz this week is a brief introduction and analysis of the reign of King William II, aka “Rufus,” (1056-1100 A.C.E.; reigned 1087-1100) because of his red hair and/or ruddy complexion. He was the third son of William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda.
 

King William II
King William II

William laid claim to the English throne through a supposed promise to ascend it by the Saxon king Edward the Confessor. Whatever the truth to that promise, he invaded England in 1066. After the Battle of Hastings, he set up England as one of his fiefs, using the country as part of his plan to ascend to the highest rank in the feudal hierarchy like the French king in Paris.

Note that the Normans at that time spoke French, saw themselves as French (despite their descent from Vikings), and England was but one part of their amalgamation of fiefs, the most important of which was Normandy, in France.

After William died, his eldest son, Robert Curthouse, inherited Normandy, the most important fief (more on him below).

William Rufus inherited England. He was a strong ruler politically, but he was hated, deemed a tyrant, by the Saxon population of England, as he was consolidating, often brutally, the Norman presence, not just in England, but also in Scotland, and less successfully, in Wales. In fact, he actually put down a rebellion by the barons who wanted Normandy and England under one ruler, Robert. William reduced Robert to a subordinate status and his brother then went on the First Crusade (and survived).

Several historians or chroniclers of the period seemed to have thought that “sodomy” was going on in the dissolute court of William. For example, Ordericus Vitalis in his Historia Ecclesiastica complained that at the court of William, "the effeminate predominated everywhere, and revealed [reveled?] without restraint, while filthy catamites, fit only to perish in the flames, shamelessly abounded themselves to the foulest practices of Sodom." The Normans supposedly brought this “unnatural vice” to England when they invaded in 1066, but one wonders if the Saxon chroniclers were showing a xenophobic bias here.
 

Medieval gay sex
Medieval gay sex

Was William gay? William never married (in fact, there don't seem to be any women concubines either in the picture, not uncommon, much to the chagrin of churchmen, many of whom themselves hypocritically kept women and boys) and spent much of his time, when not at war, hunting with the “guys,” and, if the report by Ordericus contains elements of truth, enjoying sex with men.

He was thus, also according to reports of the time, both “bellicose” and “flamboyant.” One could claim this combination of excessively passionate personality traits made him quite difficult to deal with. In other words, he was probably an asshole, and I use that pejorative intentionally. It reveals the condemnation of same-sex sexual relations, or more specifically, the act linked with gay sex, anal intercourse.

The famous bishop Anselm approached him, concerned about the rumors and possible scandal. William and Anselm did not get along. William had preferred to receive religious advice from a Frenchman, Lanfrac, and he found Anselm's strong Anglo-Saxon presence and overall refusal to let William make decisions in the appointment of bishops insufferable.

William died in 1100 after a hunting accident. He was shot in the back with an arrow and killed while hunting in the New Forest in Hampshire. The incident was probably an assassination, and Rufus’ alleged slayer, Walter Tirel, lord of Poix in Ponthieu, may have been acting under orders from the king’s younger brother, Henry.

The Saxon population rejoiced upon the death of the tyrant.

His brother Henry I, totally heterosexual, with a saintly wife, Matilda, popularly known as Good Queen Maud, promptly seized the throne.

But Robert Curthouse, was also accused of sodomy by Ordericus Vitalis (Robert supposedly picked up this practice from the East via the Crusades). One could claim that the above shows the “gay gene” runs in families, as even Henry's son William Atheling, who drowned in a shipwreck, was also accused of this crime.
 

Ordericus Vitalis medallion
Ordericus Vitalis medallion

One could argue all these accusations could correspond to a moral panic, which often occurs when a society is in a state of transition on many levels. Thus, one wonders if there was truth to all these allegations, given the political social disorder resulting from the uneasy relationship between Normans and Saxons. The Saxon chroniclers, mostly clerics like Anselm who hated the foreign Normans, might have been conveniently scapegoating these individuals.

One could also gather that, based on the numerous discussions of them in several texts of the period, that same-sex relationships occurred frequently in military and clerical structures.

Yet, also remember that in aristocratic circles of that time women from their girlhoods were socialized separately from men during that period. William spent most of his life hanging out with the guys. Whether his marrying a woman (which would most probably have been a political than a love match anyway) would have revealed a bisexual or heterosexual orientation one will never know. As far was we know, he was not connected with any woman or women sexually.

I think the key to the lethal tension in William's personality is reflected in the art and architecture of the period. The great 12th century renaissance that encompassed all aspects of culture from economic development, centralization of Papal power, the beginnings of more defined national identities after centuries of warring feudal factions, and a flowering of spiritual and philosophical thought, had not occurred.

William, like his famous father, was a Norman, and the architecture that bears that name, also called Romanesque, is solid, fortress-like, like the castles of the feudal barons. The churches boast thick walls, rounded arches, dark interiors. The technology that produced the elaborate vaulting and traceries, the stained glass, of Gothic was not there, yet. Each church was an like an island protecting itself from warring forces. The head of the Church, Christ is a stern king and judge who demands fealty from his vassals.
 

Christ as a stern judge in Romanesque painting

Rochester cathedral

Romanesque art - engravings in architecture

Yet the paintings of the period present a quite unusual contrast, resembling the dreamlike surrealism of a much later period. Elongated, ghostly forms float in positions that attempt to defy the rigid hierarchical space they dwell in. The body is thus but a phantom compared to the immortal soul on its way to its home in God. The world of nature offers only temporary, transitory, pleasures. Nature's role is to reproduce itself (thus, absolutely no gay sex) in order to maintain its place as the mirror of God's endless life.
 

Romanesque wall painting

As the Church in the late 12th and 13th centuries achieved temporal and spiritual dominance in Europe (despite the failure of the Crusades), the splendor of cathedrals like Notre Dame overshadowed the growing intolerance of any deviation from social and religious norms. The light that illuminated the stained glass took another form: the fires that burned copies of the Jewish Talmud, heretics, and men who loved men.
 

Illustration - burning of sodomites
Burning of sodomites

Sources: Britannica.com; a dash of Wikepedia, and, yes, believe it, my memory.

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Honoring Edie Windsor Is Honoring Every Person

 
Edie Windsor

I was saddened to learn of the death of Edie Windsor, an LGBTQ senior who made a difference in the world in her golden years through what seems like on the surface a lawsuit based a financial issue: she did not want to pay the onerous tax on the estate of her late life-partner (later wife; they married in Canada), Thea Spyer, because, according to the laws of our nation, Edie and Thea were not “of kin,” that is, legally married at the federal level. Edie sued and won, and her action paved the way for the Obergefell decision which claimed that not allowing same-sex couples to get married was at one level unconstitutional, depriving them of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and, and on a deeper level, as Justice Kennedy aptly and profoundly put, deprived them of “human dignity.” 

Text from Justice Kennedy's ruling
I am going to throw in another word, “honor,” to Justice Kennedy’s words, which gets tossed around quite often, usually in the context of customs like honor killings, and often becomes a byword for the worst excesses of patriarchal oppression (such as throwing out a LGBTQ person out of the home because her orientation somehow dishonors the family unit). We tend to use the word more as a verb, usually in the context of showing respect for the dead, or honoring one’s elders, one of the Ten Commandments. But as a noun, we don’t use it that much in a positive way in many social contexts, and we don’t get terribly specific. 

There’s much more to the word, so much more. Orlando Patterson in his book Slavery and Social Death makes the claim that the masters as a means of social control will take away the honor of their slaves; in fact, one could even claim that they only way they can maintain their honor as masters is by taking away the honor of others. 

Quote from Slavery and Social Death
A person’s honor, I would claim, is the respect of the entire person, not just as an individual, but as a social being with a right not only to basic necessities like food, health care, and shelter, but a right to share equally in what makes the society not just stable on a political and economic level, but worthy of respect on a psychosocial and spiritual level. The person possesses access to all levels of Maslow’s triangle of self-actualization, but the self ultimately thrives in interaction with others. 

Justice Kennedy implicitly acknowledged that marriage (and it doesn’t have to be an overtly religious institution) is an honorable institution; to partake of it is to enjoy honor, not just of the person one loves and commits to (as traditional vows say, “love, honor;” the verbs are tightly connected) but of all aspects of the couple’s social being. In the American South, slaves had to ask permission from their masters to be married, and in many cases slave marriages were not recognized legally. A couple and their children could be sold apart. The masters essentially killed the slaves on a social level, not only because of the breaking apart of families, but even taking away their original names. 

To take away or forcibly change someone’s name is to take away the person’s honor at the deepest level. It reduces someone to the level of an “other,” and “object,” a “function.” When I worked at a law firm, one lawyer referred to paying the support staff as like paying for “lights and desks.” The current administration has made dishonoring persons (and the environment) its mission, for example, by deleting the category of LGBTQ persons from various government surveys and documents. Our society in general dishonors its elders by essentially storing them away in nursing homes, separating them from the family unit, potentially exposing them to dishonor and shame by violating their basic privacy (which I take to mean one’s autonomy) and depriving them of social honor. 

Let’s honor Edie Windsor, an LGBTQ elder who refused to be dishonored, and in doing so, gave honor to many citizens of her country. Let’s also remember that a threat to one’s own honor is a threat to everyone’s honor as a whole, and that upholding one’s honor (I think of the holy haters who seem to think that honoring their religion means dishonoring LGBTQ people in the public square) does not necessarily mean dishonoring others. The Nazis murdered the Jews not only physically, but subjected them to an ongoing social death in the concentration camps. Our nation seems poised to do the same to immigrants, LGBTQ persons, Muslims, persons who are not white. I hope and pray Edie’s legacy of honor and love will live on. 

Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer
Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer
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