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The Hidden Histories of Cornwall’s Queer Community

This blog post will focus on four figures from Cornish history, whose stories can be re-interpreted under the umbrella of ‘queer history’. This post spans from the 13th Century to the 20th.

Why Queer History?

A common term for discussing queer histories is the concept of being ‘unhistoried’ due to the taboo and shame that underpins this unnecessary invisibility. Many queer stories are ‘straightened out’ or smoothed over as the historians researching figures were often doing so with their own prejudices, their own apriori knowledge and context, which disallowed for the open discussion of sexuality in history.

Publicising these historical queer stories from Cornish history, challenges the heteronormativity of historiography as many of the historical stories discussed in this online exhibition are well known local people who have been detached from their queer identity.

It is important to remember the importance of championing these stories, to offer them a platform of validating Cornish history as queer history as prejudice is still prevalent in many forms today.

Words and Labels

Terms such as ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘trans’ were not widely recognised for much of history and would have been unknown to many of the historical figures whose stories we explore. Often their approaches do not fall easily into these categories. We have used the broader term ‘same-sex relationships’ to avoid imposing more specific identity labels.

We have also intentionally not used the term ‘Homosexuality’ as it was a term coined in relation to the medicalization of sexuality in a time when it was often considered a mental illness and little more than a scientific curiosity.

The difficulties in navigating these terms show that queer history is loaded with cultural meaning, both good and bad. Ultimately, what this blog post hopes to show is figures from history who desire and love people of the same-sex.

Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall (c.1284 – 1312)

The 1872 painting 'Edward II. and his Favourite, Piers Gaveston' by Marcus Stone.

Stone’s 1872 painting ‘Edward II and his Favourite, Piers Gaveston’.

It was hinted at by medieval chroniclers that Edward II and his favourite, Piers Gaveston, were lovers. This speculation was reinforced by Christopher Marlowe’s late 16th century play Edward II, and other subsequent depictions of the pair in fiction. Modern historians have been divided over the subject. Some argue that the evidence for a same-sex relationship is indisputable, while others claim that Gaveston and the King were adoptive brothers.

The contemporary evidence derives primarily from an anonymous chronicler in the 1320s, who describes how Edward “felt such love” for Gaveston that “he entered into a covenant of constancy, and bound himself with him before all other mortals with a bond of indissoluble love, firmly drawn up and fastened with a knot”.

John Boswell argues that Gaveston and Edward fell victim to a new-found concern about sexual morals among the secular powers of Europe, manifested shortly before the trial of the Knights Templar in 1307. Jeffrey Hamilton concurs that “there is no question that the king and his favourite were lovers”, but disputes much of Boswell’s claim – preferring that “the favourite was murdered because of his control of patronage… not because of his access to the king’s bedchamber”. Both Michael Prestwich and Roy Haines are sympathetic to this view.

In contrast, Miri Rubin argues in favour of their being friends, with a “very intense working relationship”. Likewise, Seymour Phillips claims that it is most likely that Edward regarded Gaveston as his adoptive brother. Pierre Chaplais has expanded upon this interpretation, proposing that they pledged to support each other in the form of a “brotherhood-in-arms”.

In reality, due largely to the paucity of surviving evidence to determine for certain the details of their relationships, we will never know the truth of Gaveston and Edward’s feelings for one another. Moreover, as Mark Ormrod has pointed out, there is an inherent anachronism of speaking of same-sex desire in a medieval context – as engaging in sex with another man did not necessarily define an individual’s personal identity in the same way that it might in the 21st century. However, it is no less important to question the use of sexuality in contemporary attacks against Gaveston and the King.

You can listen to a radio interview about Gaveston here:



Stone, M. 1872. Edward II and his Favourite, Piers Gaveston. Oil on canvas. Artnet. Accessed: Wednesday 20th February 2019.…


Boswell, J. (1980). Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chaplais, P. (1994). Piers Gaveston: Edward II’s Adoptive Brother. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haines, R. (2003). King Edward II: His Life, His Reign and its Aftermath, 1284-1330. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Hamilton, J. (1988). Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall, 1307-1312: Politics and Patronage in the Reign of Edward II. Detroit; London: Wayne State University Press; Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

Ormrod, M. (2006). “The Sexualities of Edward II”. In The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, Gwilym Dodd and Anthony Musson, 22-47. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press.

Phillips, S. (2011). Edward II. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Prestwich, M. (2003). The Three Edwards: War and State in England, 1272-1377. London and New York: Routledge.

Rubin, M. (2006). The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages. London: Penguin.

Samuel Foote (1720 - 1777)

Painting of a scene from Foote's play 'Taste' by Robert Smirke (1752-1845).

A Scene from Samuel Foote’s Play “Taste”, in which Foote played Lady Pentweazel.

Samuel Foote, who was born in Cornwall and attended Truro Grammar School, was perhaps one of the most famous men in Georgian England. Well-known for his comedic acting and writing, he had a gift for mimicry and crossdressing. In many ways, he was the original inspiration for pantomime dames. Implicated in two of the most scandalous trials of the 18th century, Foote was ruined by an accusation of homosexuality – his posthumous reputation destroyed by slur and prejudice.

His first entertainments were The Diversions of the Morning in 1746, in which he ridiculed other actors and celebrities. Foote was an early stand-up comic, playing all the parts himself by madly switching voice and gesture. This style became a staple of his career, fuelled by his ability to exploit any event for his purposes – including his own misfortune. Most famously, in 1766, he fell from a horse and had to have his leg amputated. Characteristically, he turned this to account by writing The Devil Upon Two Sticks and The Lame Lover.

Due to satirizing living people, Foote was often in trouble – finally meeting his match in Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston. After Foote parodied Chudleigh, who was on trial for bigamy, her agents began publishing veiled accusations of homosexuality. Events escalated when, not long after Chudleigh’s conviction, Foote’s coachman accused him of sexual assault. Foote was acquitted but was unable to continue his professional life with the same enthusiasm. He died shortly after.

Some, such as Ian Kelly, suggest that the episode may indicate brain damage caused by his accident. Others have written about Foote as a victim of homophobia. Kelly mentions that we cannot know whether Foote was heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual. Indeed, these categories are a reflection of 20th century thinking and may not be helpful in understanding Foote and his contemporaries.

However, one can examine the homosocial world that Foote’s plays depict. Norma Clarke states that “in public social assemblies like the Bedford Coffee House where Foote learned his trade, the only people who mattered were men: rivalries, attractions, jealousies, ambitions… were all directed by men to other men. Some of these men were homosexual. Some were “effeminate”. Some socialised and had sex at the molly houses, fully aware that sodomy was a capital offence”.

You can listen to a radio interview about Foote here:



Smirke, R. 18th century. A Scene from Samuel Foote’s Play “Taste”. Oil on canvas. Government Art Collection. Accessed: Wednesday 20th February 2019.…


Clarke, N. (2012). Samuel Foote, the one legged wonder. [Online]. [Accessed: Thursday 21st February 2019].…

Dircks, P T. (2015). Foote, Samuel. [Online]. [Accessed: Thursday 21st February 2019].…

Kelly, I. (2012). Mr Foote’s Other Leg. London: Picador.

Luebering, J E. (2008). Samuel Foote. [Online]. [Accessed: Thursday 21st February 2019].…

Westminster Abbey. (2019). Samuel Foote. [Online]. [Accessed: Thursday 21st February 2019].…

Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989)

Daphne Du Maurier c.1930.

Du Maurier is a well-known novelist who lived and wrote in Cornwall. Perhaps less well known about her is the authors same-sex desire. Private letters unearthed after her death have revealed that Du Maurier grappled with her sexual identity often referring in her letters to her heterosexual encounters as ‘Cairo’ and to homosexual encounters as ‘Venice’.

Correspondence with her publisher’s wife Ellen Doubleday show that Du Maurier had a deep ‘venetian’ desire for her friend and the intensity of their relationship heartbreakingly plays out in these letters ‘kissing your hands is like writing a poem’. Du Maurier’s confusion and inner war with her sexuality is evident- she grapples with the concept that as a person sexually attracted to women, she must be a ‘male’ and spent some time facing with the idea of gender identity and the ability to accept her ‘venetian’ tendencies- she detested the ‘L’ word and thus created her own coded language.

Queer themes can also be interpreted from Du Maurier’s writing as well, indeed it is well documented that the few women Du Maurier had ‘venetian’ tendencies towards provided inspiration for her female characters- she is noted to have written letters informing the women of their role in her creativity ‘I don’t want a libel case on my hands’ she wrote. A lot of her prominent characters hint at same-sex desire- most notable Mrs Danvers the housekeeper from the novel Rebecca who is obsessed with the late Mrs De Winter. This depiction of Mrs Danvers emulates the classic lesbian caricature as ‘other’ and portraying her desire as unsettling.

The BBC2 drama ‘Daphne’ explores Du Mauriers sexuality, which is an excellent and unapologetic look at De Maurier’s lesbian relationships when it is still apropos to gloss over, edit and censor queer relationships of famous figures not generally associated with the LGBTQ community.

You can listen to a radio interview about Du Maurier here:



Unknown. circa 1930. Young Daphne du Maurier. Photograph. The Chichester Partnership via University of Exeter. Accessed: Wednesday 20th February 2019.…


Cooper, E. (2005). The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West. Taylor and Francis.

Forster, M. (1993). Daphne Du Maurier. Chatto & Windus Ltd: London.

Haye, A. &. (2017). Gluck: Art and Identity. Yale University Press.

Jagose, A. (2002). Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence . London: Cornell University Press.

Shallcross, M. (1998). The Private World of Daphne Du Maurier. London: Robson Books.

Souhami, D. (2013). Gluck: Her Biography. London: Quercus.

Tinker, C. (. (2016). Speak It’s Name. London: National Portrait Gallery .

Gluck (1895 - 1978)

‘Medallion’ by Gluck.

Hannah Gluckstien was born into a wealthy family and their social status and private income enabled them to subvert gender norms and adopt an openly lesbian and gender non-conforming lifestyle.

In 1916 Gluck left home in London to live in Lamorna ,Cornwall, a popular artist hotspot.

Gluck famously dressed mainly in masculine clothing, although dressing in male clothing was a rebellious fashion for women in the 1920’s- it was also a way to express identity.

In the 1940’s Newlyn artist Gluck subverted the notion of gender by famously asking people to refer to them as ‘Gluck, no prefix, no suffix, no quotes’.

Gluck was a great floral painter, of arrangements made for her by lover Constance Spry. Gluck was later in a relationship with American socialite Nesta Obermer who she fell in love with. Perhaps on of Glucks most famous paintings is of herself and her lover Nesta Obermer in a radical depiction of same-sex partnership.

‘My darling own wife,’ Gluck once wrote to Obermer, ‘my divine sweetheart, my love, my life. I made straight for the studio and tried to be busy and have more or less succeeded, except that everything seems so utterly unimportant that isn’t us or connected with us’.

With their lesbian relationships and works taking in everything from portraiture to floral painting, Gluck was one of the most singular artists of the early 20th century.

You can listen to a radio interview about Gluck here:



Gluck. 1936. Medallion. Oil on canvas. Artnet. Accessed: Wednesday 20th February 2019.…


Cooper, E. (2005). The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West. Taylor and Francis.

Haye, A. &. (2017). Gluck: Art and Identity. Yale University Press.

Souhami, D. (2013). Gluck: Her Biography. London: Quercus.

Tinker, C. (. (2016). Speak It’s Name. London: National Portrait Gallery .

Lampela, L. (2001). Daring to Be Different: A Look at Three Lesbian Artists. Art Education, 54(2), 45-51


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