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It was 404 years ago this month that King James I of England met his most famous gay lover. James was hunting on the grounds of an estate known as Apethorpe when he encountered a 21-year-old named George Villiers, and soon became entranced. Though many remember King James for his translation of the Bible, his queer relationships make him a truly fascinating historical figure.
So who was the man who captured the 17th century heart of the King of England? George Villiers hailed from power and privilege, treated to the finest education and upbringing that British aristocracy could offer. He was, by all accounts, a brilliant young man; handsome with a winning personality.
Once he met James, his rise through the court was fast. That was helped, at least in part, by those around the King who wished to remove another man from power: Robert Carr, the First Earl of Somerset. James had loved Carr for years and doted on him, though Carr’s intellect was never particularly impressive. Their relationship began to fade around 1617, with James criticizing him for “creeping back and withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber, notwithstanding my many hundred times earnest soliciting you to the contrary.”
It was in that context that Villiers was exactly what King James was looking for. He wrote, “You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled. I wish to speak in my own behalf and not to have it thought to be a defect, for Jesus Christ did the same, and therefore I cannot be blamed. Christ had John, and I have George.”
A secret passageway connected the bedrooms of King James and George Villiers, and their letters were steamy. “I desire only to live in this world for your sake,” the King told him. “I had rather live banished in any part of the Earth with you than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you… God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.”
Their relationship was no secret to court watchers at the time. The poet Teophile de Viau wrote, “Apollo with his songs / debauched young Hyacinthus, … And it is well known that the king of England / fucks the Duke of Buckingham.” Sir Edward Peyton said that the king would “tumble and kiss [Villiers] as a mistress.”
Even James’ wife, Anne of Denmark, spoke frankly of the relationship, and wrote warmly to Villiers about how he should be “always true” to James.
Villiers reciprocated the affection, writing back “I will live and die a lover of you,” and true to his word, he was with James as the king lay dying.
And so, the next time someone quotes the Bible to condemn homosexuality, remember that the translation that so many people adhere to today was produced by a man in a deep loving relationship with another.