A Royal, Same – Sex Church “Marriage”, in Seventeenth Century England.

Amidst the hysteria over the “redefinition” of marriage, we should remember that in fact, redefinition of marriage and its terminology have been a constant feature of social and theological history. As one thought – provoking illustration, I offer you an example of a royal same-sex marriage from the United Kingdom, in the seventeenth century.

The English historian Alan Bray described in his book “The Friend“, numerous examples of male couples whose relationships were solemnized in religious rituals, legal contracts or joint burial. On page 96, he quotes in full a letter from King James I of England /James VI of Scotland, apparently to his intimate friend George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham:

 My onlie sweete & deare chylde, notwithstanding of your desyring me not to wrytte yesterdaye, yett hadde I written in the euening, if at my comming in out of the parke suche á drowzieness hadd not comed upon me, as I was forced to sitte & sleep in my chaire halfe an howre & yett I can not contente myselfe, withowt sending you this prst praying god that I maye haue a ioyefull & confortable meeting with you, & that we maye mak at this christenmasse a new mariage, euer to be kept hearafter, for, god so loue me, as I desire onlie to liue in this worlde, for youre saik, & that I hadde rather liue banished in anie pairt of the earth with you, then liue a sorrowefull widowes lyfe without you, & so god blesse you my sweete chylde & wyfe & grawnte that ye may be euer be á conforte to youre deere daide & husbande.

James R.

For easier reading, I offer my own version in more modern language – and add emphasis, to highlight the relevant words.

My only sweet and dear child, notwithstanding your desiring me not to write yesterday, yet had I written in the evening, if at my coming in out of the park such a drowsiness had not come upon me, as I was forced to sit and sleep in my chair half an hour and yet I can not content myself, without sending you this, praying god that I may have a joyful and comfortable meeting with you, and that we may make at this Christmas a new marriage, ever to be kept hereafter, for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world, for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you, than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you, and so God bless you my sweet child and wife and grant that you may be ever a comfort to your deer dad and husband.

James R.

On the face of it, this seems clear. Writing to a man, with whom we know he had a close and intimate, possibly sexual, relationship, he describes how much he is looking forward to their impending marriage. He describes Buckingham as his “wife”, and himself as “husband”. Reference to “Christmas”, as Bray later explains, also suggests that this will be in church, taking the sacrament in a religious ritual.

But all is not as it seems. This is not marriage as we understand the term, but a ceremony to mark, or to re-affirm, their status as “sworn brothers”  a relationship between men that for several centuries was recognized and solemnized by the Church with formal ritual, much as the Eastern church had its own ritual, as the rite of “adelphopoeisis” (literally, an “act of making brothers”).  Bray is careful to point out that that these sworn brotherhood’s were not necessarily sexual, but some undoubtedly were, such another royal example: Edward II and Piers Gaveston. But neither were they examples similar to modern male buddy relationships. “Friendship” was a much more intimate relationship, recognized as such in the need for formal contract or religious ritual.

That contractual element is emphasised in another word for the sworn brother relationship, that will sound surprising to modern ears: the term was “wedded brothers”. Bray explains King James’ use of the word “marriage”:

In his letter James uses “marriage” to mean the act of a “wedding”: the solemn exchange of promises (the “wed”) that could create kinship among those it encompassed. The term is of the same provenance as the “wedded” or “sworn” brothers that had been a familiar part or English society from at least the fifteenth century (and probably for long before that). The terms that James employs repeat the covenant of two such “wedded” brothers.

Elsewhere, Bray explains that wedded brother relationships were not limited to the aristocracy, nor did they exclude other committed relationships. It was not uncommon, for instance, for two wedded brothers also to marry women. The point I am trying to make with these illustration is just this: although the idea of gay marriage, which has aroused such strong emotions, seems a new idea, same-sex male weddings, even in church, are not. Only their significance has changed.

The redefinition of marriage, by the church and by the rest of society, has been a constant phenomenon across history.


Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Bray, Alan: The Friend

Jordan, Mark D: Blessing Same-Sex Unions

Jordan, Mark D: Authorizing Marriage?: Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions

Salzmann, Todd, and Lawler, Michael: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology 

Sullivan, Andrew: Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con: A Reader

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3 comments for “A Royal, Same – Sex Church “Marriage”, in Seventeenth Century England.

  1. Advocatus Diaboli
    March 7, 2012 at 8:54 pm

        I would dissagree. I think you are confusing the word “marriage” with the word “marriage”. What I mean by that is that you cannot say that an individual’s definition of marriage counts as a changed defenition. Words are symbols agreed upon by the majority to represent specific concepts. I could claim that my water bottle and I are in a marriage based on how I define what marriage is, but that does not change the fact that that violates the rule and function of language as a universal symbol for a specific idea (universal for the people in time place and language group). This is not unique to you, most people do not have a concrete definition of what the word marriage symbolizes:

      (1) if two people agree to a mutually devoted and closed relationship for the foreseeable future, but do not tell the wider community, is that a marriage? if so, then what is the difference between marriage and a long term relationship?
      (2)  If a couple declares a relationship in front of their community and God (who both then recognize it) but have no legal/state contract (as many christian groups did during the ENglish Revolution), is that a marriage? If so, then what is the difference between that and a being in a long term relationship that everyone knows about?
       (3)  If a couple has a legal contract giving them joint property rights and different tax/economic status, is that a marriage? If so, then what is the difference between that and a civil partnership?

    Everyone throws around the word marriage as if they are all talking about the same thing, but they are not. They are all using the same vocabulary but not referring to the same thing.
        If you said that number 1 qualifies as a marriage, then there remains no argument that gays are not allowed to marry, as neither community recognition nor legal contract are required for the marriage to be valid.
      If you said that number 2 qualifies for marriage then there again remains no argument that gays are not allowed to mary as the state recognition plays no role in the definition and validity of marriage.
       If you said that number 3 is marriage then it would then that would bar all relationships that are not recognized by the state from being considered a marraige. So if number 3 defines marriage, then you cannot say that James relationship with Buckingham was a marriage because it does not qualify for the definition of marriage, in which case you cannot say that the definition of marriage has changed. 

    THis is the problem that you run in to in modern secular age. In all pre-early-modern times, marriage was defined by all three, because religion was not separate from public life and state law. Religion recognized marriage if the couple recognized the marriage and it was theologically compatible, the community recognized the marriage if the religion recognized the marriage, and the state recognized the marriage if the community recognized the marriage. (btw, religion is not a bad guy here, religions in their original contexts are simply the ritualized manifestation of the world-view of the cultures that they developed in, so in their original context community and religion recognizing a marriage are the same exact thing because there is no difference between community and religion; religion is an expression of community culture). I have portrayed it linearly, but it is much more circular with every factor influencing all of the other factors.   But You see the modern division of marriage into 3 or so different types of relationships most explicitly during the french revolution when the individuals, the communities, the church, and the state were all no longer in agreement/have the same world-view and are all separated and alienated from each other. The definition of marriage does not change, it is the unnatural modernist division between community and religion, and hence the creation of multiple world-views within the same community, that has convoluted marriage into something that it is not.

    • March 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm

      I think you misunderstood the point of the King James illustration. This was not an isolated use of the word by one man, but an example, from the written record, of how that man used it. Many others from that time used it in the same way, just as the word “wed” once meant much more than the modern restriction to opposite sex marriage.

      But you wider point is precisely the same as mine: that words are used in different ways, and have been used in many different ways. That is why I argue that the bishops are wrong to impose their understanding of marriage on civil law which has a different understanding, and on other religious groups who see things differently

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