All the king's men
PROFILE WILLIAM OF ORANGE Gay rights activists in Northern Ireland made the shocking (to some) claim that King Billy was gay, and certainly the young monarch had his male favourites at court. But was he truly Billy the Pink, or was it a rumour spread by his enemies?
IT'S THE LATE 1690s, and life has so far been pretty good for William Bentinck.
The Dutch nobleman nursed the young Prince William of Orange, future king of England, Scotland and Ireland, back to health during a nasty bout of smallpox, since when he has been a favourite of the monarch. A diplomat and soldier, Bentinck was among the invasion force which in 1688 chased the Catholic James II out of London during the Glorious Revolution. He was a cavalry officer at William's victory over James at the Battle of the Boyne.
He has survived both a war wound and smallpox. He has five children, an earldom, 135,000 acres in Ireland and a well-paid job. He isn't considered particularly bright by his contemporaries, is arrogant and has been a target of politically motivated satirists. But he is alive, he is wealthy and, to judge by a portrait held in Britain's National Portrait Gallery, he is the proud owner of a truly spectacular wig.
But there is a problem. His loyalty to King William III is no longer as wholeheartedly reciprocated as before. The monarch has a new favourite, Arnold Joost Van Keppel, the Earl of Albemarle; a younger man, with a reputation as a womaniser, who is also seen as more affable than Bentinck. He is the rising star of William's court.
This is too much for Bentinck, and, following a subsequent power struggle within the court, he resigns his position in 1699. Aghast, William attempts to convince him to change his mind, but fails. Bentinck clears his apartments at Kensington Palace and leaves.
What's so special about that? Surely he was just another victim of court intrigue in a litany that stretches across centuries? But it has long been rumoured that Bentinck was, in fact, a spurned lover; that William had homosexual inclinations, had found a new sexual favourite and that Keppel had supplanted Bentinck's place in King Billy's bed.
Fast forward 300 years - to last Monday, in Belfast, when gay rights activist Peter Tatchell told the gathering at Amnesty International's Pride Lecture that, "William of Orange had male lovers, most notably William Bentinck, whom William made Earl of Portland, and Arnold Van Keppel, who was a mere page when William met him and made him Earl of Albemarle. Neither of these men did anything to justify their elevation. The only common factor was that they were constant and intimate partners of William of Orange."
The media certainly thought this was big news, and, having been given advance notice of Tatchell's claims, they made sure to run with the story the next morning. Cue "Queen Billy" headlines.
Coming as it did in the wake of Iris Robinson's one-woman mission to prove that Ulster still needs to be saved from sodomy, this was a claim guaranteed to get some attention. "Censoring William III's homosexuality is plain hypocrisy," Tatchell had added. "It is time for the truth to be told."
His assumption, of course, was that the Orange Order can't handle the truth. That if King Billy was indeed gay or bisexual, then the homophobia displayed by certain Unionist politicans would look pretty hollow. But the truth is not so straightforward. It is inconvenient, but not necessarily in the way that Tatchell might presume.
WILLIAM OF ORANGE was considered many things during his time. He led the Glorious Revolution, bringing a massive invasion fleet from Holland to England at the request of opponents of James II. While the Catholic king was clumsy, unpopular and often plain idiotic, William was a clever military tactician, a leader in battle, a public relations master and a liberal by the standards of the time. He had moved on England partly in an effort to protect his own land from the joint aggression of James II and France's Louis XIV, and was expected only to put some manners on the English king.
But James had abandoned his throne, and the Dutch prince became England's King William III. In a neat illustration of the byzantine diplomacy of the day, his queen was James's daughter Mary. His mother had been James's sister. So, he had dethroned his uncle and father-in-law in a move that significantly affected European, British and Irish history.
Uncle James popped up in Ireland, whereupon defeats at the Battles of the Boyne and Aughrim exiled him once and for all to France. It could have been different if a cannonball had taken William's head off on the eve of the Boyne, as so nearly happened. But he survived to develop a reputation as a bastion of tolerance/ slayer of Papists/devil incarnate, depending on one's political view.
During his reign, he had a great many enemies, and it is to these sources that many historians have traced the rumours that have plagued him since. There was a succession of pamphlets in which sodomy was presented as being rife within the court. Bentinck and Van Keppel were regularly named as being sexual favourites of the king. Bentinck's role in nursing William during his smallpox infection had even given rise to a (possibly untrue) story that the two men shared a bed to aid the prince's recuperation.
It would be easy to write off Tatchell's comments as a thoroughly modern attempt to use an historical figure's reputation for political purposes. After all, the practice of "outing" historical figures has been a minor, but busy, front in the battle for gay rights. But, at the end of the 17th century, accusations of sodomy came laden with double meaning and were aimed at emphasising both the court's supposed moral decay and William's foreignness. "Billy with Benting does play the Italian," went one rhyme - "Italian" being an easily recognised euphemism.
Scandal also accompanied Van Keppel's rapid advancement through the ranks of the court. In 1697, Bentinck wrote a letter to William, declaring his shock at the rumours of "Things I am ashamed to hear, and which I thought you to be as far removed of as any man of the world, I would have thought any man of society would have distanced himself from".
But was William of Orange actually homosexual? Many historians are unconvinced. While some point to comments made made even by WIlliam's admirers that could suggest that his "one vice" was homosexuality, David Onnekink, in his biography of Bentinck, argues that the evidence in that case is only circumstantial, and that while William's letters "radiate his deep friendship and respect for his servant, they are rather devoid of intimate feelings". Bentinck's letters were equally respectful, but not overly familiar despite the pair's long friendship. Besides, Onnekink argues, one has to examine the role of the Jacobites, who were waging a propaganda war at the time.
Even the Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History refuses to cast judgement on William. He may have been gay, it says. He may have had early gay experiences. He may have had homosexual impulses that he never acted upon. Or he may have simply held two friendships particularly dear in a court of conspirators and sycophants.
STILL, IT HAS been enough for the Orange Order's historian Cecil Kilpatrick to update his biography of William in 1998 in an attempt to refute the rumours - reportedly after a young member of the Boys' Brigade asked Kilpatrick if it was true that King Billy was gay.
"This has all been said before," sighs Steven King, a former adviser to David Trimble and a prominent gay unionist. "Tatchell thinks it's a new revelation but it's not." King believes that, despite the homophobia espoused by the likes of Orange Order member Iris Robinson, the claims are not as wounding as some would like to believe. "You have to look at William's position in Protestant iconography. He is Dutch to start with, so he's not an Ataturk figure or a Genghis Khan. He doesn't represent all the attributes of Ulster Protestants. He is celebrated not as a person, but for his military leadership, for the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement."
King is equally unconvinced that, because William had male favourites, then there was a sexual component to that relationship. And even if some irrefutable evidence was to confirm William's homosexuality, "some people will refuse to believe it and others will probably expect these things.Either way it doesn't take from his historical legacy."
And for those nationalists who derive a certain amount of glee from the row, King points out that Roger Casement's private life has often caused great discomfort.
The truth is that we are likely never to know the true nature of William's sexuality. The leader of the Glorious Revolution died in a most inglorious manner, some days after falling off his horse after it tripped on a molehill in the park at Hampton Court in 1702. According to a buoyantly hagiographical biography written in 1876, he succumbed to a sequence of fevers. But, cheery and stoic, he greeted death with something approaching happiness.
"If fortitude and coolness second the effects of medicine, William was an excellent patient."
The biography continues in a style akin to TV Movie of the Week. With friends and physicians gathered around, it claims WIlliam asked Van Keppel to come close. He gave him the keys to papers and uttered a few words to him. Later, he enquired after Bentinck. His old friend was also present in the room. "William took his hand and placed it affectionately over his great heart. Before the clock struck eight a spasm seized him and he gasped for breath. A few more pulsations and all was over."
Who is he? Dutch-born icon of Ulster Protestants thanks to his defeat of the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne. The Orange Order, founded almost a century after his death in 1702, would not exist without him.
Why is he in the news? This week the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell dredged up the 300-year-old rumour that William had homosexual lovers and claimed this "truth" was a challenge to the homophobic attitudes of some within the Protestant community. "It is particularly hypocritical for Unionist politicians to play the homophobic card when their hero, William of Orange, had male lovers."
What satirists said then: "For the case, Sir, is such,/That the people think much,/That your love is Italian,/your government Dutch." Italy was then the country most associated with sodomy.
What his supporters said then: Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, said that the king had one flaw, which was "too tender to be put in writing". This has been interpreted by some as being a reference to his homosexuality.
What his supporters say now: "This is the kind of deliberately offensive and provocative comment and shock tactics that [ Tatchell] has used in the past," said a DUP spokesman, dismissing the story.