Reruns this week while I close up shop on some projects; I’m reprinting pieces from my “That Was The Millennium That Was” series from 1999. Here’s today’s.
BEST GAY MAN OF THE MILLENNIUM
Richard I of England, otherwise known as Richard the Lionhearted. He’s here, he’s queer, he’s the King of England.
Although, certainly, not the only gay King of England: William II Rufus, Edward II, and King James I (yes, the Bible dude) are reputed to have indulged in the love that dare not speak its name (On the other hand, rumors pertaining to the gayness of King William III have been greatly exaggerated). Women, don’t feel left out: Anne, queen from 1702 to 1714, had a very interesting “friendship” with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who was her “lady of the bedchamber.” Which was apparently an actual job, and not just some winking euphemism.
The difference between Richard and the rest of the reputedly gay monarchs of England is that people seemed to think fondly of Richard, whereas the rest of the lot were met with more than their share of hostility — though that hostility has less to do with their sexuality than it did with other aspects of their character. William II Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, was known as a brutal tyrant who smote the weak and raised their taxes; he took an arrow in the back in 1100, in what was very likely an assassination masterminded by his brother, Henry. James I, who had been King of Scotland before he was also made King of England, spent a lot of money and lectured Parliament about his royal prerogatives; they thought he was a big drooling jerk. Queen Anne had a weak will which made her susceptible to suggestion, a point that Sarah Churchill, for one, exploited to its fullest extent.
(However, then there’s Edward II. Not a very good king to begin with, Edward further annoyed his barons by procuring the earldom of Cornwall for Piers Gaveston, Edward’s lifelong very good friend, and the sort of fellow who wasn’t a bit shy about rubbing your nose in that fact. The barons continually had him exiled, but Edward continually brought him back; finally the barons had enough, collared Gaveston, and in 1312, lopped off his head. Edward himself met a truly bad end in 1327; having been overthrown by his wife Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer, he was killed by torture that included a red-hot poker as a suppository. You can’t tell me that wasn’t an editorial comment.)
On the surface of things, there’s no reason that Richard, as a king, should be looked upon any more favorably than these folks; in fact, as a king, Richard was something of a bust. During his decade-long reign, he was in England for a total of six months, and most of that was given over to slapping around his brother John and the barons, rather than, say, handing out Christmas hams to the populace. Richard wasn’t even very much interested in being King of England. His possessions as the Duke of Aquitaine were substantially more important to him, enough so that he went to war against his father Henry II over them. Seems that after Henry had made Richard the heir to the throne, Henry wanted him to give the Aquitaine to John, who had no lands of his own. Richard said no and went to arms; this aggravated Henry so much, he died.
What Richard really wanted to do, and what is the thing that won him the hearts of the subjects he didn’t even know, was to lead the Third Crusade against Saladin, the great Muslim hero who had conquered Jerusalem in 1187. Saladin had taken Jerusalem from the Christians, who had nabbed it 88 years before, and who, it must be said, acted like animals doing it. When Saladin’s troops regained the city, it was remarked how much nicer they were than the Christians had been (why, the Muslims hardly slaughtered any innocent bystanders!).
In one of those great historical coincidences, Saladin is also rumored to be gay, which would be thrilling if it were true. The idea that both sides of one of the greatest of all religious wars were commanded — and brilliantly, might I add — by homosexuals is probably something neither today’s religious or military leaders would prefer to think about. Put that in your “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” pipe, guys: The Third Crusade was won by a pansy!
(Which pansy, of course, is a matter of debate. Richard’s exploits and military brilliance during the Third Crusade are the stuff of legend, and he did manage to wrest a three-year truce out of Saladin, which, among other things, assured safe passage for Christians to holy places. On the other hand, Richard never did take back Jerusalem (which was the whole point of the Crusade), and if you check the scorecards of most judges, they’ll tell you Saladin and Richard fought to a draw, so the title goes to the incumbent. However, Richard’s crusade was not the unmitigated disaster that later crusades would be — ultimately the Christians were booted out of the Palestine. So in retrospect, Richard’s crusade looked pretty darn good. Way not to lose, Richard.)
Yes, yes, yes, you say, but I don’t give a damn about the Crusades. I want to know who Richard was gay with. Man, you people disappoint me. But fine: How about Philip II Augustus, King of France concurrent to Richard’s reign as King of England. You may have already known about this particular relationship, as it constituted a plot point in the popular play and movie “A Lion in Winter.” However, even at the time, the relationship between the two was well-documented. Roger of Hoveden, a contemporary of Richard I and his biographer, has this to say:
“Richard, [then] duke of Aquitaine, the son of the king of England, remained with Philip, the King of France, who so honored him for so long that they ate every day at the same table and from the same dish, and at night their beds did not separate them. And the king of France loved him as his own soul; and they loved each other so much that the king of England was absolutely astonished and the passionate love between them and marveled at it.”
(Other translations — Hoveden wrote in Latin — replace “love” with “esteem,” toning down the breathless m4m feel of the passage, thereby allowing the nervous to assume Richard and Philip were just really really really close buds. Whatever works, man.)
Dick and Phil’s relationship, beyond any physical aspect, was tempestuous at best. On one hand, Richard appealed to Philip for help (and got it) when Henry tried to take the Aquitaine from him. On the other hand, once Richard became king, he fortified his holdings in France, on the off chance that Philip might, you know, try to stuff a province or two in his pocket while Richard was away at the Crusades.
As it happens, Philip went to the Third Crusade, where he had a falling out with Richard and eventually headed back to Paris in a huff; once there, he tried to slip some of Richard’s lands in his pocket, just like Richard thought he would. The two eventually went to war over the whole thing. Richard was winning, until he was shot in the chest by an archer and died. Legend has it that Richard actually congratulated the archer for the shot, which, frankly, strikes me as taking good manners just a little too far.
You may wonder what about any of this makes Richard the best gay man of the last 1000 years. Actually, nothing; when it comes right down to it, Richard’s sexuality is one of the least interesting things about him. This is one facet he shares in common with other notable gay men of the last 1000 years, from Michelangelo to John Maynard Keynes.
It’s also something he shares, of course, with the vast majority of heterosexual men through the years as well. Although since that’s the sexual norm, we don’t think about it that way. Rare is the moment in which we say “Albert Einstein discovered the theory of relativity. And, you know, he was straight.” One day, if we’re lucky, we’ll think the same about gay men and women. In the meantime, we’ll have Richard to remind us we’re more than the sum of our sexualities. That’s worth my vote.