Ruling With a Soft Glove: 7 Queer Royals From Throughout History
Queer people have always existed. The trouble is that depending on historians’ knowledge of queer identities and culture, and how they interpret facts, queer people of the various eras don’t always get the recognition they deserve. But among the many well-known queer names over time, some have held more power than most. Some have even been queer royals.
As you’ll see in this article, some queer royals originated euphemisms for homosexuality; many had a hand in breaking gender norms; and some fought the good fight, pushing back against fascism and the like. In all, queer royals have had an important impact on society, though their contributions and stories are often less publicized or wholly unknown by most.
As our latest dive into queer history, here are 7 queer royals who we find particularly interesting:
1. Emperor Ai of Han (27 BCE – 1 BCE, China)
Emperor Ai had a close relationship with Dong Xian, a politician who quickly rose to prominence most likely because of their relationship. A euphemism for homosexuality, “passion of the cut sleeve,” even comes from a story about their relationship. The two of them often slept together, sharing a straw mat. One afternoon, Emperor Ai woke up before Dong, but because Dong’s head was on Ai’s sleeve, he chose to cut it off rather than wake him. This historical figure is but one example of China’s longstanding queer history (which the nation has fought mercilessly more recently to erase).
2. Queen Nzingha Mbande (1583 – 1663, Ndongo and Matama)
One of the more interesting queer royals is Queen Nzingha Mbande, also known as “The Female King.” She ruled the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba (north of modern day Angola) and rose to power following the death of her father and brother. She would only answer to “King” and would wear both men’s and women’s clothing, presenting herself in a way that disrupted the gender binary. We love a gender-nonconforming king.
3. King James I (1566 – 1625, England, Scotland, Ireland)
King James had a slew of male lovers but perhaps the most known of them all was George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. There was even a secret hallway linking James’ room to Villiers’. Like many of the other queer royals, the two exchanged many romantic letters. Villiers reciprocated James’ affection in them, once writing back, “I will live and die a lover of you.”
4. Queen Christina (1626 – 1689, Sweden)
Queen Christina broke gender norms, often dressing like a man. She was also highly educated — the way male royalty would often be. Christina also had a close, intimate (and possibly romantic) relationship with Ebba Sparre. She caused a huge scandal when she refused to marry, wanting to abdicate her throne. When she was allowed to do so in 1654, she moved to Rome, where she continued to write passionate letters to Sparre long after she left Sweden.
5. Queen Anne (1665 – 1714, Great Britain)
Another potentially queer royal was Queen Anne of Great Britain. Although scholars aren’t completely certain about Queen Anne’s sexuality, it’s believed she was entangled in a lesbian love triangle. Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, had a close relationship with Anne, but over time they grew apart due to clashing political beliefs. While the two of them were growing apart, Anne developed a close friendship with Abigail Masham, Sarah’s cousin. Abigail became one of Anne’s favorites, causing Sarah to be extremely jealous of Anne’s affection for Abigail. In true dramatic royal fashion, their falling out ended with Anne making up embezzlement charges to dismiss Sarah and her husband from the royal court. (All of this may sound familiar for those who saw The Favourite starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah and Emma Stone as Abigail.)
6. Princess Isabella of Parma (1741 – 1763, Austria)
Princess Isabella of Parma was deeply unhappy in her marriage to Archduke Joseph of Austria, but she did find happiness with her husband’s sister, Archduchess Maria Christina. Isabella sent Maria many letters filled with assertions of her feelings and deep love for the Archduchess, including such poetic and romantic statements as “I am told that the day begins with God. I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my life, for I think of her incessantly” and “I am madly in love with you, virtuously or diabolically, I love you and I will love you to the grave.” Inspired stuff from one of our favorite queer royals.
7. Luisa Isabel Álvarez de Toledo, 21st Duchess of Medina Sidonia (1936 – 2008, Spain)
Luisa Isabel Álvarez de Toledo is one of our new favorite queer royals. Nicknamed la Duquesa Roja or The Red Duchess, Luisa Isabel was a staunch anti-Francoist and pro-democratic activist to the point where she was imprisoned for her views in the 1960s. Luisa Isabella got married in 1955 and had three children with her husband. The two of them separated in 1958, living apart until their divorce in 2005. Eleven hours before her death on March 7, 2008, Luisa Isabel married her longtime partner and secretary since 1983, Liliana Maria Dahlmann, in a civil ceremony on her deathbed.