A Society of Sodomites: Religion and Homosexuality in Renaissance England

  • Alan Stewart


In the yeare 1632, there was discouered in London a Society of certaine Sodomites, to the number of fourty, or fifty; all of them being earnest and hoat Puritans, who had their common appointed Meeting-place, for their abominable Impiety: Of which number diuers of them (and such as were of good temporall estates and meanes) were apprehended, and the rest instantly fled.1

This remarkable paragraph opens a 1633 tract entitled Pvritanisme the mother, Sinne the davghter, attributed on its titlepage to one ‘B.C.’2 It is remarkable on at least two counts. First, it strikingly provides perhaps the only English allegation of the existence of a ‘Society of … Sodomites’ before the so-called ‘molly-houses’, flamboyant, often transvestite and sexual gatherings of men brought to light by the raids orchestrated by the Society for the Reformation of Manners at the turn of the eighteenth century.3 For many scholars working in the early modern period it has now become axiomatic that sodomy was, in Michel Foucault’s words, both ‘a category of forbidden acts’ and ‘an utterly confused category’;4 and, following Alan Bray, that even individuals involved in acts legally defined as sodomy may not have associated themselves with the concept of sodomy.5


Early Modern Period Catholic Priest Henry VIII Select Trial Homosexual Desire 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    Traditionally, ‘B.C.’ has been identified as priest and Catholic convert Benjamin Carier (or Carrier), but Carier died in 1614. It is feasible (although unproven) that the main part of the tract was penned by Carier, and the prefatory materials were attached later. For Carier, see M. Questier, ‘Crypto-Catholicism, anti-Calvinism and Conversion at the Jacobean court: The Enigma of Benjamin Carier’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 47 (1996), 45–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
    On the molly houses, see A. Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982), ch. 4;Google Scholar
  3. R. Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700–1830 (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1992);Google Scholar
  4. T. Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700–1800 (New York: St Martins Press, 1997), ch. 5;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. C. McFarlane, The Sodomite in Fiction and Satire, 1660–1750 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997);Google Scholar
  6. C. Patterson, ‘The Rage of Caliban: Eighteenth-Century Molly Houses and the Twentieth-Century Search for Sexual Identity’, in T. DiPiero and P. Gill (eds), Illicit Sex: Identity Politics in Early Modern Culture (Athens: Georgia University Press, 1997), pp. 256–99;Google Scholar
  7. R. Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution Volume One: Hetero-sexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 55–64;Google Scholar
  8. G. Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999);Google Scholar
  9. D. Higgs (ed.), Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories since 1600 (London: Routledge, 1999);Google Scholar
  10. S. Shapiro, ‘Of Mollies: Class and Same-Sex Sexualities in the Eighteenth Century’, in K. Chedgzoy, E. Francis and M. Pratt (eds), In a Queer Place: Sexuality and Belonging in British and European Contexts (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 155–76.Google Scholar
  11. For materials relating to the persecution of mollies, see I. McCormick (ed.), Secret Sexualities: A Sourcebook of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Writing (New York: Routledge, 1997); for the Society for the Reformation of Manners,Google Scholar
  12. see R.B. Shoemaker, ‘Reforming the City: The Reformation of Manners Campaign in London, 1690–1738’, in L. Davison et al. (eds), Stilling the Gambling Hive: The Response to Social and Economic Problems in England, 1689–1750 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1992), pp. 99–120.Google Scholar
  13. 4.
    M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. R. Hurley (London: Allen Lane, 1978), p. 43.Google Scholar
  14. 6.
    G.V. Stanivukovic, ‘Between Men in Early Modern England’, in K. O’Donnell and M. O’Rourke (eds), Siting Queer Masculinities (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 232–51, on p. 234. I am grateful to Professor Stanivukovic for allowing me to read this chapter in manuscript.Google Scholar
  15. 7.
    B.C., Pvritanisme the Mother, sig, *2. See P. Lake with M. Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  16. 10.
    S. Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996);Google Scholar
  17. B.R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991);Google Scholar
  18. L. Jardine, ‘Twins and Travesties’, in S. Zimmerman (ed.), Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 27–38.Google Scholar
  19. 11.
    J. Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992); his editions, Queering the Renaissance (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), and Reclaiming Sodom (New York: Routledge, 1994); and the essays collected in Shakespeare’s Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003);Google Scholar
  20. E.K. Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  21. 12.
    See G.W. Bredbeck, Sodomy and Interpretation: From Marlowe to Milton (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991);Google Scholar
  22. J. Masten, Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997);Google Scholar
  23. M. diGangi, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. V. Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  25. 16.
    See for example, the introduction of P. Hammond, Figuring Sex between Men from Shakespeare to Rochester (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002). Hammond shows no interest in challenging Bray’s paradigm: ‘How and why did the culture change so radically, and so paradoxically, over this century? This is an impossible question to answer …’ (p. 1).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 17.
    Bray, The Friend (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); see also his ‘Epilogue’ to T. Betteridge (ed.), Sodomy in Early Modern Europe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 164–8, on p. 166. The subtitle was used on materials circulated by Bray to a seminar at Birkbeck, University of London, in 2000.Google Scholar
  27. 21.
    Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, p. 19. Bray is here citing one of the key early English Reformation texts, Simon Fish’s Supplication of the Poore Commons in A Supplicacyon for the Beggers, ed. J.M. Cowper (London: Early English Text Society, 1871), pp. 63–4Google Scholar
  28. 22.
    Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, p. 27, citing Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), pp. 647, 667–8.Google Scholar
  29. 24.
    For an account of this anticlerical satire that unaccountably avoids its anti-sodomy element, see H. Parish, ‘“Beastly is their living and their doctrine”: Celibacy and Theological Corruption in English Reformation Polemic’, in B. Gordon (ed.), Protestant History and Identity in Sixteenth-Century Europe, 2 vols (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996), 1: 138–52.Google Scholar
  30. 31.
    P. Happé, ‘Introduction’ to his ed., The Complete Plays of John Bale, 2 vols (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1985–6), 1: 2–3. For similar pathologizing verdicts, see also J.W. Harris, John Bale (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1940), p. 9;Google Scholar
  31. T.B. Blatt, The Plays of John Bale: A Study of Ideas, Technique and Style (Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad, 1968), pp. 13–14, 53.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    A.J. Frantzen, Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from ‘Beowulf’ to ‘Angels in America’ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 258–9.Google Scholar
  33. 36.
    G.R. Elton, Reform and Reformation: Thomas Cromwell and the Commonwealth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 136–7.Google Scholar
  34. 37.
    London, The National Archives, State Papers [hereafter NA SP] 1/102, fol. 8v, calendared in J.S. Brewer et al. (eds), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, 21 vols and Addenda (London: HMSO, 1862–1932) [hereafter LP], 10: 254 (p. 93).Google Scholar
  35. 38.
    27 Henry VIII c. 28, cit. G.R. Elton, The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 383.Google Scholar
  36. 39.
    T. Wright (ed.), Three Chapters of Letters Relating to the Suppression of the Monasteries (London: Camden Society, 1843), p. 114. See also H. Latimer, The seconde Sermone (London: John Day, 1549), sig. Diiijr-v: ‘when theyr enormities were fyrste read in the parliament house, they were so greate and abhominable that there was nothynge but downe with them’; and G. Burnet, History of the Reformation of the Church of England, 3 vols (London, 1679–1715), 1: 190–1: ‘for the Lewdness of the Confessors of Nunneries, and the great Corruption of that State, whole Houses being found almost all with Child; for that dissoluteness of Abbots and the other Monks and Friars, not only with whores, but Marryed Women; and for their unnatural Lusts and other brutal practices; these are not fit to be spoken of, much less enlarged on, in a work of this Nature. The full report of this Visitation is lost, yet I have seen an Extract of a part of it, concerning 144 Houses, that contains Abominations in it, equal to any that were in Sodom’.Google Scholar
  37. For a more sceptical view of the impact of these reports, see G. Baskerville, English Monks and the Suppression of the Monasteries (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), pp. 142–2.Google Scholar
  38. 40.
    G.R.O. Woodward, The Dissolution of the Monasteries (London: Blandford, 1966), p. 33.Google Scholar
  39. For fuller accounts, see G.G. Coulton, Five Centuries of Religion, 4 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923–50), 4: 697;Google Scholar
  40. D. Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, 3 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1948–59). 3: 297: Stewart. Close Readers. pp. 47–8.Google Scholar
  41. 43.
    F.E. Dolan, Whores of Babylon: Catholicism, Gender, and Seventeenth-Century Print Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 87, 89.Google Scholar
  42. 45.
    Dolan, Whores of Babylon, p. 90, citing R. Thompson, Unfit for Modest Ears: A Study of Pornographic, Obscene, and Bawdy Works Written or Published in England in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century (Towata, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1979), ch. 8.Google Scholar
  43. 46.
    Lake with Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat. Some materials relating to these disputes are collected in P. Renold, The Wisbech Stirs (1595–1598) (London: Catholic Record Society [vol. 511, 1958).Google Scholar
  44. 59.
    D. MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 606–7.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Alan Stewart 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alan Stewart

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations