Saturday, 12 May 2012

The "detestable and abominable Vice" - the 1533 Act.

Recent discussions and the raising of awareness of gay marriage, in addition to Barack Obama's 'coming out' and declaring his support for it, prompted me to post a brief account of the notorious act which legitimised  persecution of anyone engaging in specific acts related to homosexuals. 

There was no royal or parliamentary law against homosexual activity in England until 1533, but a number of medieval legal sources do discuss "sodomy":

"Let enquiry also be made of those who feloniously in time of peace have burnt other's corn or houses, and those who are attainted thereof shall be burnt, so that they might be punished in like manner as they have offended. The same sentence shall be passed upon sorcerers, sorceresses, renegades, sodomists, and heretics publicly convicted"

Under most common law legal systems, the term buggery refers to a criminal offence and has a specific legal meaning. In English law, "buggery" was first used in the Buggery Act 1533, while Section 61 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, entitled "Sodomy and Bestiality", defined punishments for "the abominable Crime of Buggery, committed either with Mankind or with any Animal". Neither Act defined what constituted buggery. The 1533 Act was introduced by Thomas Cromwell at the same time as the establishment of the Act of Supremacy and England's break with Rome.

1533 Act:

"Forasmuch as there is not yet sufficient and condign punishment appointed and limited by the due course of the Laws of this Realm for the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind of beast: It may therefore please the King's Highness with the assent of the Lords Spiritual and the Commons of this present parliament assembled, that it may be enacted by the authority of the same, that the same offence be from henceforth ajudged Felony and that such an order and form of process therein to be used against the offenders as in cases of felony at the Common law. And that the offenders being herof convict by verdict confession or outlawry shall suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their good chattels debts lands tenements and hereditaments as felons do according to the Common Laws of this Realme. And that no person offending in any such offence shall be admitted to his Clergy, And that Justices of the Peace shall have power and authority within the limits of their commissions and Jurisdictions to hear and determine the said offence, as they do in the cases of other felonies. This Act to endure till the last day of the next Parliament"

Piloted through Parliament by Thomas Cromwell, The Act established punishment of buggery by hanging, a penalty not finally lifted until 1861. In July 1540, contravention of the Act, along with treason, resulted in the first conviction:  Walter Hungerford, Baron Hungerford of Heytesbury became the first person executed under the statute, although it was probably the treason that cost him his life. Nicholas Udall, a cleric, playwright, and Headmaster of Eaton College, was the first to be charged with violation of the Act alone in 1541. He was accused of engaging in 'sodomy' with his students, and of brutally punishing them unfairly. In his case, the sentence was commuted to imprisonment and he was released in less than a year. The Act was repealed in 1553 on the accession of Queen Mary. However, it was re-enacted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1563 and became the charter for all subsequent criminalisation in the English-speaking world, but in England, only a few executions are recorded during the two and a half centuries that followed. 

Gay men kill themselves after being arrested in 1707
Gay men in England kill themselves after being arrested 

Here is an interesting account of Walter Hungerford's life:
Born in the year 1503 Walter Hungerford was the only child of Edward Hungerford and his first wife Jane Zouche. Walter was nineteen years old at his father's death in 1522, at which point his father left his entire personal estate to his second wife Agnes. As it happens his father's disposition of his property became somehwat academic when Agnes was convicted of murdering her first husband, for which crime she was hanged at Tyburn on the 5th February 1523.
 Walter was therefore granted livery of his father's former lands on the 15th July 1523, including the manor in Somerset. He subsequently became a squire of the body to Henry VIII, and then went through a number of marriages in quick succession. His first wife was Susan, the daughter of John Danvers, but she was certainly dead by the 22nd March 1527, as it was on that date on which Walter signed the agreement to marry his second wife. She was Alice, the daughter of  William Sandys, 1st Baron Sandys of the Vyne who in turn had died by March 1532.Walter's career was soon to benefit from the efforts that his new father-in-law made on his behalf, as having become a magistrate for Wiltshire in 1532, the Lord Hussey then wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell on the 20th August 1532 recommending his future son-in-law.
As a result William was appointed to the post of sheriff of Wiltshire in 1533, and subsequently appears to to have proved ao useful to Cromwell that the latter made a memorandum note in June 1535 that Walter ought to receive some kind of reward. The result was that he was summoned to Parliament by a writ addressed to 'Waltero domino Hungerford de Haytisbury chr' on the 27th April 1536, being therefore regarded as the Baron Hungerford, and duly took his seat in the House of Lords on the 8th June 1536.It however seems that his new wife Elizabeth was less than happy with her married life as she wrote to Thomas Cromwell in 1536 appealing for his help. She claimed that her husband had kept her imprisoned at Farleigh Castle since their marriage and that Walter's chaplain  had made several attempts to poison her. She also wrote that, "I may sooner object such matters against him with many other detestable and urgent causes, than he can against me, if I would express them, as he well knoweth"; hinting darkly that there was much more that she could say about her husband's misdemeanours.
However it does not appear that Cromwell took the slightest notice of these allegations as Walter carried on much as before. Indeed now that he was a peer he found himself invited to attend some of the more important ceremonial occasions, and was present at the baptism of Prince Edward in October 1537, followed by the funeral of Jane Seymour in November 1537. Walter was then appointed to the county bench for Somerset in the following year, and in January 1540 was present at the reception held for Anne of Cleves. All this time Walter was active in the local land market, gradually building up his estates which were worth over £1,000 by the beginning of 1540. Unfortunately having attached himself to Thomas Cromwell during the 1530s he found himself caught up in the latter's downfall.
 After Cromwell was attainted on the 15th June 1540, a bill of attainder was introduced in Parliament against Walter on the 2nd July, passed on the 14th, and received its royal assent on the 24th, depriving him of both title and estates and, as it turned out, his life as well. There were three prinicpal charges laid against Walter; firstly that he had employed as his chaplain a man named William Byrd or Bird, the vicar of Bradford in Wiltshire, who was a known traitor and was attainted at the same Parliament for supporting The Pilgrimage of Grace and calling the king a heretic; secondly, that he had employed another chaplain who, together with a certain Dr. Maudlin, had apparently practised witchcraft in order to establish the king's date of death as well as his chances of victory over the aforesaid rebels; and last but not least, that he had practised an "unnatural vice".

As it happens it appears to be the last charge that everyone took seriously at the time. As the French ambassador Charles de Marillac wrote in a letter on the 29th July 1540, Walter was "Attainted of sodomy of having forced his own daughter and having practiced magic and invocation of devils" which, of course, may well have been what his estranged wife had earlier been hinting at. (And who also may have been the source of this particular accusation in the first place.) Although it must be said that there are those that suspected that the allegations of treason had more to do with king Henry's desire to possess the Hungerford estates rather than any real political transgression on Walter's part.
 Nevertheless Walter was duly beheaded at Tower Hill on the 28th July 1540, the same day as his former patron Thomas Cromwell. The chronicler Raphael Holinshed recorded that Walter was a man "who at the hour of his death seemed unquiet, as many judged him rather in a frenzy than otherwise", and casually mentioned that his torments had a simple explanation since (of course) "he suffered for buggery". According to the Great Chronicle of London his severed head was displayed on London Bridge, whilst his body was buried in the grounds of the Tower of London.


  1. Mary,

    How timely this most interesting and informative post is! I appreciate how you chose to relate the events of the past few weeks re: gay marriage and the controversy surrounding it, highlighted by Barack Obama's support of this right, to the standing it had in Pre-Elizabethan England. There is always a definite sense that you have done the research required for such a piece, where factual events may be difficult to gather. Thanks for an extremely enjoyable read!


    1. Thank you, Poppy, for your kind comments. They are very much appreciated, and give me great encouragement.

  2. A great post Mary, brilliantly researched. It is very relevant, it seems, to what is happening right now, with the C of E tearing it's self apart. Your blog is essential reading, love dipping in to see what treasure's you have for us.

  3. Thank you so much, George. You are always thoughtful and encouraging. Much appreciated.