The Buggery Act 1533 made sodomy a capital offence for the first time in English law and was subsequently exported to all of the British colonies, where some of the worst anti gay laws still exist today. But when the Buggery Act was first implemented for just one year, it was really a legal weapon used by Henry VIII in the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries.
I have read a lot of the history of persecution of LGBT people and one thing seems clear. Apart from a few isolated periods of extreme persecution, same sex relationships were not just tolerated, but seem to have been largely accepted as normal until the reign of Henry VIII.
Even the Bible overall is not overtly opposed to homosexuality. The few negative biblical references are vague at best, and in most instances the subject of fierce debate and largely a matter of interpretation. And there are even strongly held views that some key biblical relationships such as those of David and Jonathan and Jesus and John appear to have been far more than simply male friendships.
The persecution of homosexuality in the UK appears to have begun in 1533 when Thomas Cromwell piloted through parliament the Buggery Act (see Wikipedia entry for more details of the Act) which made the act of anal penetration of a man or a woman (buggery) or any intercourse with an animal (bestiality) and offence punishable by hanging. However as you will see, there is no evidence that this act was passed because of any real social issue with homosexuality or sodomy, rather it was a political weapon in Henry VIII’s battle with the Catholic Church.
According to the Buggery Act:
The penalties made this one of the most severe punishments in law and more importantly it was one of the few crimes for which a priest or monk could be put to death, and this is an important when we try to understand why Henry VIII put this law in place.
Initially the Buggery Act was for just one year. It was reintroduced for another year twice before becoming a permanent law in 1541. However there are only a handful of instances on record of anyone being charged under this act during the next 100 years.
The first man executed for buggery (and the only execution in Tudor times) was Walter Hungerford, who ironically was executed in 1540 on the same day as his patron Thomas Cromwell, the architect of the act. Like Cromwell he was charged with treason and heresy suspected of sympathising with the Pilgrimage of Grace who opposed the break with the Catholic Church. It is believed that the Buggery Act charge was probably added both humiliate Hungerford and to enable the state to seize his assets.
Nicholas Udall, cleric, playwrite and headmaster of Eton College, was charged under the Buggery Act in 1541 for sexually abusing pupils in his charge, which he admitted. However with the aid of members of Thomas Cromwell’s household, especially Thomas Wriothesley, the 1st Earl of Southampton, his sentence was commuted to imprisonment and he only served one year. He was unable to return to Eton mostly because he had admitted to the charge in a letter. However he did continue teaching at various locations including, from 1554, as headmaster of Westminster School.
So if there is no evidence of a serious social or political issue with buggery before this act and few people charged after it was enacted, it begs the question, WHY was it enacted in the first place?
The clue to that is in the date. In 1533 Henry VIII had a problem. For a number of years he had been trying to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled on the grounds that she had consummated her previous marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur before he died. Catherine denied this and partly because her nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, was able to exert considerable influence on the Pope, all Henry’s petitions had failed.
Catherine had been barred from court and Henry had secretly married Anne Boleyn who was now pregnant with his child, although in the eyes of the Catholic Church Henry was still married to Catherine. If the child was born out of wedlock it would be barred from succession. The solution was to separate the Church of England from Rome with Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church. Anne Boleyn gave birth to a daughter Elizabeth in September 1533.
So what did the Buggery Act have to do with this?
The separation from Rome was not unopposed and Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell was tasked with bringing about the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries . He set about introducing a ruthless programme of legislation to establish Henry’s supremacy over the Pope in religious matters. The primary opposition to this came from the monasteries. In all the Catholic Church was very powerful, owning around a third of Britain. Furthermore clerics were almost immune from prosecution.
Two hundred years previously Philip V of France had used sodomy laws in France to torture and execute the Knights Templar and confiscate all their assets. With Cromwell’s programme of legislation including the Buggery Act, Henry was able suppress opposition from those who did not accept him as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The Buggery Act in particular gave him power to execute any cleric who confessed to buggery and to seize their assets. There are no official records of the use of the Buggery Act against clerics, but there is evidence that Cromwell investigated religious orders and found evidence of sexual impropriety which would have provided sufficient grounds to “extract confessions”. Many monks were executed at this time.
So it will not be of any surprise to discover that in 1553 when Mary I, daughter of Catherine of Aragon ascended to the throne she immediately repealed the Buggery Act and began the process of crushing the protestant church, gaining the popular title of Bloody Mary in the process. However despite numerous attempts she failed to produce an heir to the throne and on her death in 1558 Elizabeth 1 became queen.
The daughter of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth, had been raised a protestant. She set about re-establishing the Church of England as separate from the Church of Rome and in 1563 reinstated the Buggery Act which then remained in force until when it was replaced by the Offenses Against the Person Act 1828 but the crime of buggery or sodomy remained a capital offense until the passing of the Offenses Against the Person Act 1861. It would be another hundred years before homosexuality was partially decriminalised in 1967.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century however the number of prosecutions substantially increased and lesser offenses of attempted buggery were introduced with severe penalties, including imprisonment and time in the pillory which I will explore in separate article. The last two Englishmen hanged for sodomy were James Pratt and John Smith who died in front of Newgate Prison on the 27th of November 1835.
The Buggery Act 1533 was not just significant in the UK. This period marked the start of the British Legal System as we know it and that legal system was the foundation for future legal systems in all the countries occupied by the British Empire in Africa, Asia Australia and North America. So to a large extent we have Henry VIII to blame for persecution of LGBT people throughout much of the world.