The death of William Shakespeare, the beginning of the English Civil War and the accession of King Charles I were pivotal moments in 17th-century England. However, even though we’re sure that each of these monumental events has changed the world in its own way, there’s only one piece of information from the 1600s that is really piquing our interest right now.
Of course, it’s more raunchy and more scandalous than any of the above. Intrigued? Well, how about this: did you know that the site that Buckingham Palace now occupies may have once been a gay brothel?
There’s this fabulous new (but very old) word that you need to know before we proceed, and that’s “spintries”. It’s a synonym of “rent boy” – a derogatory term for a male prostitute. Here’s another fun word for you to know – “sodoms,” meaning brothels.
In an essay from 2013, LGBTQ+ historian Norton Rictor mentions how Clement Walker, an English politician of the 17th century, wrote about these spintries, saying that there were “new-erected sodoms and spintries at the Mulberry Garden at S. James’s.” Would you hazard a guess as to what now resides at the Mulberry Garden? That’s right, it’s the northwest corner of Buckingham Palace.
Even though the evidence is scarce, historians have mulled over the validity of Walker’s comments for centuries. One thing to note is that at this time, political commentators had little to no language to describe LGBTQ+ identities. So instead, they chose to tweak the words originally used to describe sex workers, for example, “he-strumpets” and “he-whores”.
To say that the language to describe queer people didn’t exist doesn’t mean that queer people themselves weren’t there. They were, in fact being bisexual or gay at that time was commonplace. Even some high-profile figures admitted to being gay. “Vers-king” takes on a whole new meaning for the Earl of Rochester John Wilmot, who wrote in a poem: “And the best kiss was the deciding lot, Whether the boy f**ked you, or I the boy.”
Another poem of his alludes to a bisexual identity, in which he writes: “There’s a sweet, soft page of mine. Does the trick worth forty wenches.”
So there’s some insight into the lives of queer people in 17th-century England. After all this talk of he-strumpets and spintries, we’re wondering if the royal family is aware of the northwest corner’s her-story.
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