Theatrical tour tells LGBTQ+ history of Tower of London

Case of soldier charged with being ‘disorderly in female attire’ among stories told in Queer Lives tour

In June 1916, a 22-year-old soldier from the Royal Fusiliers appeared at Highbury magistrates court charged with desertion and with “being an idle and disorderly person in female attire”. Though the soldier was charged under the name Frederick Wright, they appeared wearing a veiled hat, a wig and makeup, and told the court they wished to be known as Kathleen Woodhouse.

The soldier had already appeared in court earlier that year after attempting suicide, which was illegal at the time. They had been ordered to enlist in the army. When arrested for a second time, they had told police: “I wish I had been a woman, as I love wearing beautiful clothes and all my tastes are feminine.”

The Royal Fusiliers’ regimental headquarters is at the Tower of London, which is where a new theatrical tour will tell the story of Woodhouse and other queer histories associated with the tower’s residents and visitors over 700 years.

Directed by Tom Latter and written by Chris Bush, an associate director at Sheffield Theatres, Queer Lives will take the form of a promenade performance, and is timed to coincide with LGBTQ+ history month. Visitors will be led through military battlements, ancient prison cells and a medieval royal bedchamber to hear stories that will be surprising to many, says Matthew Storey, the curator at Historic Royal Palaces whose research underpins the tour.

King James I of England may have written texts in which he condemned sodomy, says Storey, but “his most significant romantic relationships, aside from the one with his wife, were with men – and that’s something that emerges very early in his life.”

Though the nature of the relationships between “Queen James”, as he was nicknamed, and favourites Robert Carr and George Villiers has been debated, “there’s little doubt when you read especially the letters between James and Villiers in particular that the relationship was intensely romantic and physical.”

Both royal favourites gained power through their connections to the king, but after Carr was accused of poisoning an opponent who was being held in the tower, he was sidelined, Storey says.

As a royal palace as well as a prison, the apartments where some of the king’s assignations would have taken place will form part of the tour; so too will rooms that were the residence of Edward II and his intimate companion Piers Gaveston. “Gaveston was given rooms at the tower that traditionally were given to the queen,” says Storey, “so that gives you a sense of his status.”

The pair were accused of sodomy at the time, but putting modern-day labels on historical figures is difficult, he says. “This is such a long time ago, and it’s very difficult to work out if people in the middle ages have the same experiences of gender and sexuality as we do today. But we know same-sex love and desire existed in every single human society.”

The tour is not intended to displace better-known histories of the tower, Storey says, but to fill out its history. “These histories of power, the politics of oppression, or of triumph, go absolutely to the heart of human experience. When we’re talking about the power play of the medieval court, or the Jacobean court, they are absolutely central to understanding of what was actually happening at that time. If you take out these histories, you’ll you’re not going to get the complete picture or understanding of what was happening.”

• This article was amended on 27 January 2023. Queer Lives is directed by Tom Latter, not Tom Storey or Tom Littler as earlier versions said based on information provided.

  • Queer Lives is at the Tower of London from 18-24 February 2023.


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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