'Queen Billy': William III (1650-1702)

Ruth Herman

Elaborate drawing of a bust of William III
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies. DE/Na/O5
Portrait of William III in initial letter of a recovery
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies. DE/P/T4700

In the case of William III, there can be very little doubt that the King was gay or perhaps bi-sexual.  He was the husband of Mary, the protestant Stadtholder of Holland and the eldest daughter of the Catholic James II. It doesn’t take a great deal of digging to find the satirists having a field day at the rumours of his sexuality. It is also important to remember that homosexuality carried the death penalty and even royalty were not immune. If we recall the death of Edward II, it is obvious that the upper echelons of political society would not tolerate homosexual acts, even in the case of the king.

This became a sensitive topic, as William was considered too fond of lavishing gifts on his “friends” (generally Dutch, and we should bear in mind that it had not been very long since England had been at war with the Dutch).  Charles II’s entourage of mistresses were merely the norm for an early modern court.  They could be disliked because they were French (the Duchess of Portsmouth, Louise de Kerouaille), or liked because they were of the people (Nell Gwynne), or even shocked by the antics of Barbara Villiers.  But the morality of the relationships did not worry those who cared about such things because kings had mistresses. It was the norm.

With William it was different.  Firstly, he had brought his “mistresses” with him in the form of the favourites. William Bentinck, who had nursed the King back to health from smallpox and to whom William gifted titles and estates including Theobalds House, Cheshunt . Another favourite was Arnold Joost Van Keppel, the Earl of Albemarle. Arnold was a page when William initially met him in 1685. Public commentary surrounding the relationship intensified in 1692 when Keppel began to receive grants of land from the king and his status at court was elevated. He became Groom of the Bedchamber and Master of the Robes in 1695. The following year, he was given the title Viscount Bury in Lancashire and eventually made the Earl of Albermale in 1697. William Bentinck became very jealous of the rising influence of Arnold, and in 1699 he resigned from all his offices in the royal household. 

Finally, what is the evidence for identifying William III as a gay monarch?  Lampoons and scurrilous verses are not enough in the days of outrageous anonymous pamphlets which sold like hot cakes to all levels of society and were not always scrupulous about accuracy.  Even the extravagant gifts of land could be construed as reward for political loyalty rather than sexual favours. And the claim that William took Bentinck into his bed as a cure for smallpox is still only rumour. As Groom of the Stool Bentinck was closest to the King and he had a room next to the royal bedroom. One aristocrat who had known William since childhood maintained he was of the “brotherhood” and that the English Court was referred to as the “Chateau of Derriere”.


This piece is taken from several sources all written by Dr Ruth Herman

The Business of a Woman: the Political Writings of Delarivier Manley (Associated University Presses 2003)

“Dark Deeds at Night” in Queer People ed. Mounsey and Gonda, (Bucknell University Press 2007)

“Enigmatic Gender in Delarivier Manley’s New Atalantis” Presenting Gender  (Bucknell University Press 2001)

 

 

This page was added on 17/01/2024.

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