LGBTQ History
Ian McKellen and James Laurenson perform a scene between Edward II and Piers Gaveston

LGBTQ History

Individuals throughout history have lived radical private lives outside the accepted sexual and gender norms of the time. However, LGBTQ history is often hidden from view. Expression of same-sex love and gender non-conformity has been constrained by both repressive social attitudes and criminal persecution. The few first-hand accounts made of LGBTQ experience were often destroyed for self-protection.

By uncovering the LGBTQ stories that have survived, researchers can start to represent the true diversity of sexuality and gender in the history of England. Find out more about the lives of England’s LGBTQ people and their important place in the stories of English Heritage sites.

Image: Ian McKellen and James Laurenson as Edward II and Piers Gaveston © Central Press/Getty Images

Stories of England’s LGBTQ Past

  • Piers Gaveston, Hugh Despenser and the Downfall of Edward II

    Discover how Edward II’s reliance on his ‘favourites’ and possible lovers, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, led to his abdication and death.

  • Sir Walter Hungerford and the 'Buggery Act'

    Find out how Sir Walter Hungerford, owner of Farleigh Hungerford Castle, came to be the first man in England to be executed under the ‘Buggery Act’.

  • ‘Romantic Female Friendship’ and Chiswick House

    Explore the life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the fashion for ‘romantic female friendships’ in 18th-century England.

  • Lord Beauchamp and Walmer Castle

    William Lygon, Lord Beauchamp, was a known homosexual in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to a dramatic fall from grace. Read more about the man whose misfortunes inspired Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

  • Gwen Lally and the Battle Abbey Pageant

    Gwen Lally directed a cast of thousands at the Battle Abbey historical pageant in 1932. Find out more about the pageant and its unconventional pageant master. 

  • The Partners: Seely and Paget

    Discover the story of John Seely and Paul Paget, partners both in life and in an archictecture practice, whose masterpiece was their transformation of medieval Eltham Palace into an art deco home in the 1930s.

  • Aelred of Rievaulx

    Read about the life of the 12th-century abbot of Rievaulx Abbey whose writings have become a source of inspiration for LGBTQ Christians.

Painting of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire holding book and looking out on landscaped garden
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, wrote passionate love letters to women in the 18th century, but we don't know how she would have described her sexuality
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Talking about LGBTQ history

The terms we use today to describe a range of sexualities and gender identities – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer – are mostly quite recent inventions. For the most part, we simply don’t know how people in the past would have described their sexuality or gender. We use the acronym LGBTQ because we believe it comes closest to capturing the breadth of experiences and identities for those whose sexualities didn’t fit within societal norms.

The non-specific word ‘queer’ can also be useful when talking about sexuality and gender in history. We know that for some it has negative associations – historically it has been used derisively as well as for self-identification. However, the Oxford English Dictionary reports that from the late 1980s, ‘queer’ started to be reclaimed as a neutral or positive term. It is now used to capture the complexity and fluidity of sexuality and gender, with the intention of including all experiences and identities rather than defining and limiting them. It is in that spirit of inclusivity that we use the term ‘queer’.

Black and white publicity photograph of male impersonator Vesta Tilley in policeman's uniform, falling off a bike
Male impersonator Vesta Tilley in 1910
© Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Experiments in Gender: Women and Masculine Dress

In the early 20th century women such as Vita Sackville-West, Gwen Lally and Radclyffe Hall adopted masculine styles of dress that were subversive, exploratory and playful. Historian Alison Oram explores how such clothing choices might have expressed increasingly fluid ideas about gender identity and sexuality, as well as sometimes simply being about fashion or practicality.

Read More about masculine dress
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas in 1893
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas in 1893
© Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

London Pride

Of the hundreds of individuals honoured with London blue plaques, many have lived radical private lives outside the accepted sexual norms of the time, from Oscar Wilde to Virginia Woolf and Alan Turing.

Some were persecuted for it and some helped to challenge public perceptions of gender and sexuality. Explore the stories of some of London’s famous LGBTQ residents through our blue plaques scheme.


Explore London’s LGBTQ stories

LGBTQ blue plaques

'step into englands story