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

Listen to our Podcast

  • Episode 270 - England’s rulers and their ‘favourites’

    Discover the full story of England's rulers and their favourites with epiosde 270 of the English Heritage podcast. Joining us to discuss Roman Emperor Hadrian, Edward II, James I and Queen Anne are interpretation manager Nick Collison, head properties curator Dr Jeremy Ashbee, queer historian Kris Reid and curator of collections & interiors (Osborne House & Isle of Wight) Dr Christopher Warleigh-Lack.

  • Episode 217 - Pride of place: uncovering LGBTQ+ histories at our sites

    We’re joined by English Heritage’s Head of Learning and Interpretation Dr Dominique Bouchard and Interpretation Coordinator Nick Collinson to discover the stories of Lord Beauchamp, Anne Seymour Damer, Virginia Woolf and Radclyffe Hall, and learn more about what we’re doing to share more stories of LGBTQ+ people at our sites.

Stories of England’s LGBTQ+ Past

  • Emperor Hadrian

    Read more about Emperor Hadrian who ruled the Roman Empire from AD 117–138. He was known to have both male and female lovers, though the Romans did not define sexuality in such terms as ‘bi-sexual’ or ‘homosexual’. 

  • Lord Beauchamp and Walmer Castle

    Public exposure of Lord Beauchamp's sexuality led to a dramatic fall from grace in the 1930s. Read more about the man whose misfortunes inspired Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

  • 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.

  • Experiments in Gender

    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 more.

  • 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. 

  • ‘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.

  • 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’.

  • 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.

  • The Galli: Breaking Roman Gender Norms

    Discover how these Roman priests with ambiguous gender identities were viewed by their contemporaries, and learn about their possible presence on Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain.

  • England’s Rulers and their ‘Favourites’

    We explore LGBTQ+ history and the private lives of four rulers who had same-sex relationships with their ‘favourites’.

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’.

Out at Ranger’s House

An LGBTQIA+ tour

The Wernher Collection at Ranger’s House, in London, is one of the greatest surviving private art collections ever assembled in Europe. 

Out at Ranger’s House is an LGBTQIA+ tour of the collection developed by young producers as part of Shout Out Loud, our national youth engagement programme. The tour illuminates the LGBTQIA+ stories of the artists, the people who commissioned or owned the works, the figures represented within them, or their appropriation by the LGBTQIA+ community – traversing thousands of years of history from classical myth to modernity. 

The tour is self-guided via a booklet available on site. Pick one up on your next visit to Ranger’s House

  • Read more about the project

    The Out at Rangers tour was created by our Shout Out Loud Young Producers. Learn more about the project on their website here. 

  • Watch the video

    Join Dr Dominique Bouchard and Nick Collinson at Ranger’s House in London as they discuss the LGBTQ+ connections of some of the fascinating objects there, part of the Wernher Collection.

  • Listen to the Podcast

    In this podcast episode we hear from Senior Interpretation Manager Nick Collinson, Properties Historian Andrew Roberts and Young Producer Katie Burke to learn more about the LGBTQIA+ tour at Rangers house.

Shout Out Loud

Shout Out Loud is English Heritage’s national youth engagement programme, and part of the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s #KicktheDust programme. Discover how young people have been exploring and participating in queer heritage in these community projects.

  • Our Queer History Zine

    Read the thoughts and conversations that arose from a youth-led project exploring the queer heritage of Brighton & Hove.

  • Our House

    Watch the documentary about the 2019 play, ‘Our House’, that explored the queer history of Eltham Palace.

  • ‘A Visitor of Mrs Damer’: Queer Circles in Elite Georgian London

    From the Shout Out Loud blog written by our young producers and placements: we explore female sculptor Anne Seymour Damer and her network of friends, to reveal a broader picture of elite queerness in Georgian London.

  • Queer History Month

    In this blog post we hear from one of our young project participants on their thoughts on Queer History Month and the Our Queer History project – an eight-week youth-led project looking at queer history in Brighton and Hove.

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