People in History: Robin Hood

Yes, I know. I’m including Robin Hood as biography when we have no idea if he actually existed or not. In my defence, I offer Jesus ūüėõ

Actually, the legends surrounding Robin Hood almost certainly have their origins in the life of a real figure. A number of men have been suggested to have been the source of the legend. Robert, the Earl of Huntingdon is a favourite, for this inscription on his grave at Kirklees Priory:

Hear underneath dis laitl stean

Laz robert earl of Huntingtun

Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud

An pipl kauld im robin heud

Sick utlawz as he an iz men

Vil england nivr si agen

Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247


(Here underneath this little stone

Lies Robert, Earl of Huntingdon

Never archer were as he as good

And people called him Robin Hood

Such outlaws as he and his men

Will England never see again.)

Fifteenth-century legend has it Robin was recuperating from an illness at the Priory as a relative of the Prioress. She betrayed him, he grew sicker, and begged Little John to carry him to the window of his room. From there, he shot one final arrow into the surrounding forest, and was buried where it fell.

Robin Hood and Little John, by Louis Rhead 1912

Robin Hood and Little John, by Louis Rhead, 1912

The most well-known¬†theory today is that Robin Hood was a pseudonym for Robert Loxley, a South Yorkshire man outlawed for killing his stepfather (not because the Sheriff of Nottingham murdered his father and burnt down his castle — Hollywood lied!). Antiquarian Roger Dodsworth, writing in the 1600s, believed Huntingdon was really Little John. The only evidence to support his identification is a court record of an appearance by¬†“Robert de Lockesly” from 1245.

Other Roberts in history have been claimed as Robin Hood, including a man from Wakefield, Yorkshire, in the fourteenth century; a Robert Hod recorded in the York assizes (court register) in 1226 — the earliest¬†suggested source whom we know for a fact was an outlaw; and Robert Godberd, who served under Simon de Montford and was outlawed after fighting against King Henry III in the Battle of Evesham. Godberd’s story is certainly closest to the legend: in October 1267 he took refuge in¬†Sherwood Forest and lived there for four years with up to a hundred men.¬†The Sheriff of Nottingham tried on multiple occasions to capture him, and was even successful once or twice, but Godberd escaped. He was caught for the last time in 1272 and held for three years before being¬†taken to the Tower of London for trial, where he was sensationally pardoned by Edward I, who had just returned from the Eighth Crusade.

Whatever the truth behind the legend, the Robin Hood legend¬†has proven itself one of the most durable stories in history. England has always liked an underdog, and the idea of a man unjustly outlawed turning the tables against the corruption of the upper classes and literally robbing the rich to feed the poor, is very appealing. “Robin Hood and his merry men” first appear in Sir Walter Scott’s¬†Ivanhoe, a characterisation of a jocular group of good men and close friends which informs our modern image of Robin and his band.

The truth is somewhere in the midst of all these stories. Throughout history there were notable outlaws, and as the centuries passed it isn’t outlandish to suppose the most notable exploits of each got tangled together in a single narrative. Certainly the scattered geography of place names which reference Robin Hood — including Robin Hood’s Stone in Barnsdale, South Yorkshire; Robin Hood’s Bay near Whitby; Robin Hood’s Butts in Cumbria; and Robin Hood’s Walk in Richmond, Surrey — would suggest he spent more time travelling than he spent in Sherwood Forest, were they all named for¬†the same person. Interestingly, the one place such names didn’t appear was around Sherwood, which didn’t get its first Robin Hood moniker until the eighteenth century.

Here begynneth a gest of Robyn Hode

A Gest of Robyn Hode, ~1450

What is certain is that for almost as long as the Robin Hood legend has been circulating, it’s had a distinct hint of queerness about it. Robin’s close friendship with Little John, the flamboyant figure of Will Scarlet, the society of upwards of a hundred men living in a forest commune — even with their own friar¬†to perform ceremonies — and all that imagery of green virility, robust health, arrows, quivers, and swords, simply begs for a less literal interpretation. And while authors writing in the thirteenth or fifteenth or seventeenth centuries couldn’t make any direct reference to overt queerness, they were very good with innuendo.

The first Buggery Act wasn’t introduced until 1533; prior to that date, same-sex activity¬†was a matter dealt with by ecclesiastical courts. Barry Dobson, Cambridge Professor of Medieval History, argued that an earlier societal shift occurred in the thirteenth century, before which same-sex acts were largely accepted, leading to persecution of queer men, many of whom fled their homes and lived as outlaws, even if they hadn’t been tried as such.

The earliest ballads make no mention of women in the greenwoods, but instead focus on the friendship of Robin and Little John: in most of them, the narrative commences with a conflict between the pair, usually domestic, which is ultimately happily resolved. Maid Marian is a much later invention, having her origins in the¬†fifteenth century, when she was a figure associated with May Games celebrations. The pairing of Robin and Marian didn’t occur until the seventeen century.

Indeed, it’s easy to see how Marian could have been introduced as a deliberate attempt to make Robin and his men seem less queer at a time when people were¬†quick¬†to address the indication of same-sex attraction in fiction (Shakespeare, for one, wouldn’t have raised half as many laughs if his audience weren’t able to read between his lines).

The addition of Marian turned the Robin Hood narratives on their head. Although often lauded as being a prototype “strong woman” (she certainly has agency: rebelling against her family and entering the greenwood, where she proves herself more than capable of wielding a blade or bow and handing a hundred rough outlaws) nonetheless many of the stories¬†from the seventeenth century on place her as the archetypal “damsel in distress,” whom Robin is frequently called upon to rescue. Even when the tables are turned and she has to facilitate his escape from some pickle or other, it’s by calling upon her kinship with more powerful men and using her feminine whiles to bend them to her will, rather than bursting in and freeing Robin herself.

In the original ballads, however, Robin is most often placed as the one needing rescuing, and Little John is his rescuer. Even in later tales, Marian dies before Robin and it is in John’s arms he dies.

In the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the Robin Hood legend became entangled with the queering of the pastoral romance and social class. The outlaws combined all that was attractive about the capable, hardworking rural fellow who was so admired among literary and philosophical circles, with the added bonus that they were unjustly criminalised and penalised their own country in the same way queer men felt they had been socially marginalised and outcast.

It strikes me there may have been more in that Robin Hood business than meets the eye. One knows about the Greeks — Theban band — and the rest of it. Well, this wasn’t unlike. I don’t see how they could have kept it together otherwise — especially when they came from such different classes.

— EM Forster, Maurice

The merry men of Sherwood Forest became an enduring image of cross-class cooperation and cohabitation among men, living outside the law and striking back against an archaic and unfair establishment which sought to punish them for their transgressions. As a metaphor, it was deeply appealing, and that Robin Hood was admired for being an outlaw only made his legend more attractive.

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The History of Homosexuality: Class

Day, Fred Holland (1864-1933) - Edward Carpenter.jpgClass is a peculiarly English phenomenon. Which isn’t to say other countries don’t have class systems, because of course they do, but whenever one thinks of “class” one can’t help conjuring up images of English lords and ladies juxtaposed against ruddy-faced farmers, sooty¬†coal miners, and¬†Dickensian street urchins.

Class plays an important part in the queer narrative. Many of the men we’ve looked at over this blog series have been upper class, or at least upper middle class: titled or white-collar men¬†with Oxbridge backgrounds and a fair degree of social influence. They’ve moulded the popular image of queer masculinity both through their lives and, often, through their writing, because a significant proportion of them were literary or academic figures — the Renaissance gave us Shakespeare and Marlowe; the Romantics, Byron and Shelley; Oscar Wilde and Bosie¬†during the Victorian era; the WWI poets; and the Edwardian set of Forster and Carpenter.

Surrounding these men grew up certain stereotypes of queerness which still exist today — queer men are fussy about their dress and appearance; effete or physically weak, incapable¬†of doing manual labour; and overly interested in the arts. Of course it’s largely nonsense, because for every modern gay man who conforms to that stereotype, there are a dozen more who don’t. Moreover, those men didn’t exist in a vacuum, even in their own time. Shakespeare and Marlowe might have been admitted in court, but they earned their living and spent their days in the roughest streets in London. Marlowe was an infamous brawler, no matter how pretty his words may have been. Wilde was undone through his association with working class men and male prostitutes. By the Edwardian era, the pastoral romance which glorified working class country life had been appropriated by the queer literary set and mythologised the working man.

Walt Whitman and Bill Duckett.jpg

Walt Whitman and (probable lover) Bill Duckett

In America, Walt Whitman wrote extensively about the love of comrades, eulogising virile “manly love” even as he moved in with a bus conductor. Edward Carpenter, poet and philosopher, had a lifelong relationship with George Merrill, a man raised in the slums in Sheffield with no formal education. It was a grope from Merrill which was to inspire their friend EM Forster to write¬†Maurice.

Working class men were often portrayed as embodying an ideal masculinity: honest, hardworking, strong, and capable. Cross-class relationships were common, and not only because it was easier to pass off a lover as a manservant than explain why two titled lords were living together. The romancing of the working man, however, bears the taint of indulgent paternalism: the men of letters may have lusted after farmers’ muscles, but intellectually they saw them as little better than children.

Queer¬†working class men, particularly in urban centres, had their own subcultures, often far more visible than the upper classes dared engage with. Of course, it was never the likes of the molly house patrons that were eulogised in literature or philosophy, which suggests a far more calculated attempt to present¬†the most desirable image of queerness for posterity. Nonetheless, it’s an enduring one: literary authors such as Hollinghurst even to this day often present cross-class queer relationships as a norm, and in so doing reiterate all the patronising paternalism of centuries ago.

Don’t forget,¬†The Slave¬†is on sale for $0.99 until the end of today! Last chance saloon!

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while england sleeps

People in Fiction: While England Sleeps

while england sleepsDavid Leavitt’s 1993 novel,¬†While England Sleeps, is an ambitious inter-generational, cross-class, multi-national story about love and loss.

Set in England in the 1930s, it is narrated by¬†Brian Botsford, a young man from a privileged background who wants to be a writer.¬†Brian meets a young working-class man, Edward, who is employed on the Underground, itself the subject of a play Brian is writing. The two strike up a passionate relationship, living together in Brian’s small, one-bed flat.

Edward is a likable character, self-educated and deeply committed to the Communist Party ideas (it was at a CP meeting Brian and Edward first met). He carries the Manifesto with him everywhere, reading it often, determined to understand every word. He possesses an innocence which is wholly appealing in his belief that the world can become a better place, and he accepts his sexuality and his desire for Brian with an easy enthusiasm which Brian cannot reciprocate.

While they are happy together, Brian has no thought for their future, assuming his homosexuality is something he will eventually grow out of. When his wealthy aunt pushes him towards¬†Philippa, a suitable young woman with a mind to marriage, Brian doesn’t hesitate to take her out. Soon their relationship becomes intimate, and Brian’s relationship with Edward starts to crack under the strain of Brian’s secrets and infidelity. Brian enjoys Philippa’s company, but doesn’t want to lose Edward. Nonetheless, he decides to propose to her.

Edward discovers that Brian has been unfaithful and, deeply distressed, agrees to travel to Spain with the Communist Party in order to fight against Franco’s Fascists in the Civil War. Philippa, meanwhile, turns down Brian’s proposal.

Brian is alone for a while, left ruing his mistakes and feeling sorry for himself, when a letter arrives from Edward. Shocked out of his naivety by the horrors of war, he writes that he knows he has made a terrible mistake and he wants to come home. Brian, overcome with guilt at the realisation Edward is only at war because of his actions, joins the Communist Party and travels to Spain to try to secure his release from the army. When he arrives, however, he discovers Edward is locked up, awaiting trial for desertion.

The head of Edward’s battalion is John Northrop, the English public school Communist who recruited him in London; a man who personally dislikes Brian and thinks nothing of making Edward suffer for his vindictiveness. He refuses to release Edward.

while england sleeps 2In desperation, Brian casts around for someone else who can help him and happens upon another queer upper class Englishman, elevated to judge with power over Edward’s hearing. When Brian explains the situation to a more sympathetic ear from his own background, Edward is released, although his time in the Spanish jail has left him desperately ill. They escape Spain, but Edward dies of typhoid on the voyage back to England, his body thrown overboard to prevent the authorities asking awkward questions.

Brian goes on to leave England, moved to America and achieved some small¬†success as a writer.¬†While England Sleeps¬†is narrated in hindsight by an older Brian, still burdened by the past but more so by how he has suffered from it: living in America during the years of McCarthyism, being a former member of the Communist Party put paid to his blossoming writing career. It is with bitterness he reflects he couldn’t exonerate himself without condemning himself for being queer instead. The story he really wanted to write in 1936, an honest story about queer men and his own experiences, he finally completes in old age, although he leaves strict instructions that it not be published in his lifetime. That story is, of course,¬†While England Sleeps.

The novel was published to something of a scandal, when the poet Stephen Spender accused Leavitt of plagarising his biography, World Within World. Leavitt acknowledged the inspiration for his narrative had come from Spender, and blamed bad legal advice from his publisher for there not being an acknowledgement placed within the book. A trial was avoided when Viking-Penguin withdrew the book and pulped the remaining printed copies. While England Sleeps was republished by Houghton Mifflin in 1995, complete with acknowledgements and a foreword from Leavitt addressing the controversy, much of which had played itself out in the pages of the New York Times.

Leavitt maintained that Spender’s main complaint wasn’t with the appropriation of his story, but with the inclusion of graphic sex scenes within the novel. The claim certainly seemed to have merit: Spender himself called it “pornography,” noted that in 1950, when¬†World Within World¬†was published, he would never have been able to include such scenes, but then concluded that even if he had, he wouldn’t have done so.

In part that’s one reason why I resent my biography being mixed up with David Leavitt’s pornography. I still feel that if he wanted to write about his sexual fantasies, he should write about them being his, not mine, for by his use of my copyrighted book, his central narrator was made clearly identifiable.

Leavitt’s response to the lawsuit is here. Spender’s response to Leavitt, here.

The matter of writing sex is an interesting one. In an interview with Owen Keehnen, the subject of queer sex scenes in literature is directly addressed by Leavitt. The year was 1993, yet Leavitt noted,¬†¬†“I can’t think of too many examples of gay fiction that describe sex within a relationship.” Leavitt had certainly come under scrutiny in his career for his willingness to write sex — even the fleeting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of scenes of his earlier works. Casual homophobia shows itself in the response of the establishment critics to Leavitt’s sexually active queer characters —¬†New York¬†magazine noted dryly¬†“The boys are at it like rabbits”, while the¬†Boston Globe¬†remarked that Leavitt’s mother¬†“should have washed his mouth out with soap”.

Nonetheless, there is evidence opinions were changing. Writing in the¬†New York Times¬†in Leavitt’s defence, James Atlas declared:¬†“By writing frankly about matters that Mr. Spender was prevented from addressing, [Leavitt]¬†would strike a blow for sexual freedom, affirm what the older writer could only intimate — the validity of romantic and sexual love between men.” Personally, I think it’s both reductionist and sweeping to claim that only graphic depictions of sex can validate the notion of romantic love between men, but it shows just what a long way we’ve come in the last decade of queer literature.

Speaking of queer fiction,¬†The Slave¬†is on sale at Amazon right now for the bargain price of $0.99. Hurry, because it’s only until tomorrow!

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Kim Philby

People in History: The Cambridge 5

guy burgess

Guy Burgess

In the 1950s, during the height of the first Cold War period, Britain was rocked by the uncovering of a Soviet spy ring which reached to the very heart of the establishment.

Kim Philby was born in India in 1912. His father was a famous author and convert to Islam who worked for the Indian Civil Service and later as¬†advisor to King Ibn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia. Kim (the nickname came from the Kipling book of the same title) was educated¬†in England, attending Westminster College before going on to Trinity College, Cambridge to read History and Economics. He graduated in 1933.

Donald Maclean was born in London in 1913, son of the Liberal politician Sir Donald Maclean, Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons following the 1918 election. He attended a progressive independent school in Norfolk before enrolling at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1931 to study Modern Languages. He graduated with a first-class degree in 1934.

Guy Burgess was born in Devon in 1911, the son of a naval officer of Huguenot descent. He was educated at Eton, and attended the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, although instead of following his father into the navy he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge to study Modern History. He graduated in 1933.

Anthony Blunt was the son of a vicar, and third cousin of the Queen Mother on his mother’s side. Born in 1907 and educated at Marlborough College, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge where he studied Modern Languages, graduating in 1930.

It has been suggested that Blunt, as the eldest¬†of the four, was the one who was first recruited — probably shortly after a visit to Russia in 1933. However, according to Blunt’s testimony he was recruited by Burgess, whom he had met through their mutual membership of the Cambridge Apostles, an exclusive secret society for intellectual debates. Either theory is possible. The Apostles at the time were noted for a largely queer membership (both Blunt and Burgess were openly homosexual, despite the law), and for its Marxist leanings. (This came around the time of the Spanish Civil War — 1936-1939 — which saw Fascists and Communists pitted against each other. Despite being officially neutral, Britain preferred Franco’s Nationalists win, and lent some underhand support; meanwhile many young men in England favoured the Communists, and more than a few went to Spain to fight for the cause.)

Maclean was known even in Cambridge for his Communist beliefs (several noteworthy schoolfellows of his became prominent Marxist thinkers), and at the outbreak of the Second World War, when Fascism and Marxism were pitted against one another on a global stage, Communist sympathies ran high in the UK, which was allied with Russia against the Germans.

Donald Maclean

Donald Maclean

After graduation, Burgess went to work first as personal assistant to a Conservative MP, before moving on to the BBC as a producer. Just before the war he was recruited by MI6 as a propaganda specialist.

Maclean had already become an agent for the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, even before graduating from Cambridge. Under their instruction he applied for the Civil Service, and in 1935 began work as a diplomat in the Foreign Office, where he was involved with a committee charged with monitoring the involvement of the USSR in the Spanish Civil War. By 1938, he was considered experienced enough for an overseas posting, and was assigned to the Embassy in Paris, where he was to meet his future wife, Melinda Marling, daughter of a Chicago oil executive. They married in June 1940, three days before the evacuation of the Embassy as German troops approached. Their marriage began with them running for their lives.

Upon graduating, Kim Philby went to work for¬†World Federation for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism, based in Paris,¬†operated by the German¬†Willi M√ľnzenberg, a former member of the Reichstag who had fled to France in 1933. Philby was also introduced to Communist International (Comintern) underground network in Vienna. He moved there and worked for an aid agency providing relief for refugees of the Nazi regime. It was also where he met his future wife,¬† Litzi Friedmann, an Austrian Communist of Hungarian Jewish descent. They married in February 1934, the same month as the Austrian Civil War (“February Uprising”) and¬†fled the country to England that April. It has been suggested that it was upon Philby’s return to London he was recruited as a Soviet agent via a Vienese-born friend, although the Cambridge 5’s ex-KGB¬†controller later stated it was Philby’s wife who recruited him. One of Philby’s first tasks was to compile a list of Cambridge contemporaries who might be useful to the Soviet government. His list of seven included Maclean and Burgess.

Blunt’s first role for the Soviets was to remain at Cambridge as a talent spotter for future recruits (which isn’t as absurd as it sounds; most of the British intelligence officers were also recruited by spotters at Oxbridge universities). In 1939, he joined the British Army, initially serving in the Intelligence Corps in France, and was later evacuated at Dunkirk. In the same year, he was recruited to MI5, which gave him access to the top secret Ultra programme; the code name for military codebreaking intelligence gained from Bletchley Park, where Alan Turing and his colleagues had decrypted Enigma.

John Cairncross

John Cairncross

Ultra was so significant to the war effort that its full details were known by only four people. Information relating to the programme was transmitted in parts via a separate protocol to any other military intelligence. None of the links in the chain of information knew anything other than their particular section. Nobody outside Bletchley Park knew the source. In order to get that information and pass it on to the Soviets, Blunt recruited the fifth member of the spy ring, John Cairncross, who was posted at Bletchley by MI6. Another Trinity College graduate, Cairncross entered the Civil Service after university and joined the Foreign Office, before being assigned to Bletchley Park in 1942. He had joined the Communist Party in 1937.

The information supplied from Bletchley detailed German spy rings operating within the USSR, as well as radio transmissions from the Russian front. Any of these details, if suspected by the Germans of having been compromised, would have resulted in the settings of Enigma being changed and all the work at Bletchley being undone.

Blunt also worked as a spy for the British government throughout the war. During the latter period in 1945, he made a successful trip to Germany to recover sensitive letters from the Duke of Windsor (the former King Edward VIII, the title was created following his abdication in 1937) to Adolf Hitler and other leading members of the Nazi Party. George V personally asked him to escort the Royal Librarian to liberate more letters sent between Queen Victoria, her daughter the Empress Victoria, and Kaiser Wilhelm.

The fact the five men were spying for the Russians seems to have been known or suspected in certain circles long before they were exposed publicly. In 1948, an army officer was attending an interview at Buckingham Palace when he passed Blunt in a corridor. The King’s private secretary pointed him out, saying “That’s our Russian spy.”¬†It was reported to MI5 as early as 1950 that Blunt was a member of the Communist Party, but the information was ignored.

In 1951, Maclean fell under suspicion of transmitting¬†American intelligence to the Russians, and he defected to Moscow, accompanied by Burgess. Why Burgess went with him is unclear, as he wasn’t himself under suspicion. Several years earlier, Burgess had suffered multiple skull fractures falling down a flight of stairs, from which he had never fully recovered. He needed supervision thereafter (Kim Philby lived with him for a time in order to look after him), and it could have been because Burgess had been working with Maclean on passing American intelligence that it was thought safer he defect as well.

Kim Philby

Kim Philby

“The affair of the missing diplomats,” as it was known in the press before Burgess and Maclean surfaced in Moscow, was a disaster for Kim Philby. Burgess had been living with him for much of the previous year, implicating him in everything the Secret Service had gleaned about Maclean. He returned to London and was interrogated by MI5 under suspicion of being the “third man” in Maclean and Burgess’s spy ring.He resigned from MI6 in July 1951. Struggling to find employment, and cut off from the intelligence services which made him valuable to the Soviets, he outlived his usefulness as a secret agent and was abandoned by the Russians. In 1955, he was officially cleared by then Home Secretary Harold Macmillan, who concluded¬† “I have no reason to conclude that Mr. Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country, or to identify him with the so-called ‘Third Man’, if indeed there was one.” The following month Philby gave a press conference reiterating his innocence.

In 1956, he got a job as Middle East correspondent for¬†The Observer¬†and¬†The Economist, and was stationed in Beirut, a position which served as a cover when he was re-employed by MI6. Philby embarked upon an affair with the wife of the¬†New York Times¬†correspondent, and the following year his own wife was found dead. Friends suspected suicide; the coroner recorded heart failure due to alcoholism, tuberculosis, and influenza; but her psychiatrist insisted Philby had her murdered because she knew too much. Whatever the cause, Philby’s lover divorced her husband and in 1959 the pair were married.

In 1961, a KGB director defected to the US and provided the CIA with a list of names of spies and double agents working for the Russians in the American and British intelligence services. Philby’s name was on the list, and an MI6 officer was dispatched to secure a confession. Late in October 1962, Philby admitted everything to the agent, but asked for more time before he signed a full confession. Another meeting was scheduled for the end of January 1963. Philby fled to Russia before it could take place. His defection was officially confirmed on 1st July, and the Soviet government announced on 30th July they had granted him political asylum and citizenship. The reason for the delay which allowed him to escape has been suggested to be a strategic move either to prevent an embarrassing public trial, or because Philby had turned double-agent and intended to spy on the Russians for the British. Perhaps suspecting the latter, Philby was kept under virtual house arrest in Moscow, and didn’t even visit the KGB headquarters in his first decade in the country.

Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt

Cairncross first confessed to spying in 1951, after which he was terminated by the Civil Service and moved to America to work as an academic, becoming an expert on seventeenth-century French authors. In 1963 the file into Maclean, Philby, and Burgess was reopened, looking for accomplices. Cairncross was re-interviewed, provided another confession, and named Blunt as a fellow Soviet agent. He was allowed to go free, and moved to Rome, where he worked as a translator for the UN.

Confronted with Cairncross’s accusation, Blunt made a full confession in exchange for immunity from prosecution and his actions being kept an official secret for fifteen years. Various interviews from the security services aside, his life was little affected. He was exposed publicly when he tried to prevent the publication of¬†Climate of Treason, a book which represented his actions under the pseudonym Maurice (from the EM Forster book of the same title). The magazine¬†Private Eye¬†reported Blunt’s attempts to halt publication, which raised questions about his involvement in the spy ring. In November 1979, then Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher confirmed Blunt’s involvement. Surrounded by a media frenzy, Blunt was stripped of academic honours and titles, and Queen Elizabeth II rescinded his knighthood.

Following Blunt’s public outing, a journalist confronted Cairncross and asked him directly if he was the “fifth man.” His third and final confession became¬†front-page news, and Cairncross quit the UN and retired to the south of France. In 1995 he returned to England, and died of a stroke that October.

Burgess hated life in Moscow, where he felt stifled by the regime, even though he still defied the law to live openly with a male lover. He never learnt Russian, imported all his clothes and furniture from London, and died of complications from alcoholism in 1952.

Philby died of heart failure in 1988. He was awarded a hero’s funeral and numerous medals by the USSR.

Maclean died in exile in Russia in 1983. His ashes were returned to Britain to be scattered.

Blunt died of a heart attack at Westminster in 1983.

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guy burgess

The History of Homosexuality: Blackmail and Espionage

guy burgess

Guy Burgess

Ever since the law criminalised homosexual acts and identities, it has been open to abuse from blackmailers. When I examined the Burney Collection, almost a quarter of complaints concerning sodomy related to blackmail, the threat of “swearing sodomy” against an innocent party. If discovered, the blackmailer was subject to the same punishment as somebody convicted of the crime they claimed (generally standing in the pillory up to three times, and paying a fine of 50l, or ¬£10,000/$15,000 in today’s money).

While obviously a serious problem for those who found themselves blackmailed, or convicted of blackmailing others, these were private dramas; tragedies for individual families, but not nations. Following the Second World War, all that was to change.

As the global landscape shifted, and the secrets of nations were held more and more in private hands — the individuals working for the intelligence services — any trait which could leave an intelligence operative open to blackmail became a matter of national security. The discovery of the Cambridge 5, a Soviet spy ring drawn from graduates of one of England’s most illustrious universities, and¬†first discovered when two members defected to Moscow in 1951, put intelligence agencies across the west into high alert. Donald Maclean was a violent drunk and philanderer; Kim Philby had affairs (and children) with a succession of women, and was thrice-married by 1956; Guy Burgess was openly, defiantly queer, and in later life became an alcoholic; Anthony Blunt was also queer, and as second cousin to the Queen Mother his¬†close connection to the royal family became a matter of national embarrassment when he was exposed. Only John Cairncross, the shadowy “fifth man”, who first admitted spying in 1951 but wasn’t publicly exposed until 1979, seemed to have lived a relatively quiet personal life.

Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt

Queerness became synonymous with¬†being untrustworthy, deceitful, and susceptible to blackmail. In the UK, it led to the “gay pogrom” of the 1950s; in America, Undersecretary of State John¬†Peurifoy announced in 1950 that 91 homosexuals had been “allowed to resign” from the State Department to protect national security as the Cold War rumbled on. The same year, the Republican National Chairman said¬† “sexual perverts who have infiltrated our Government in recent years [are] perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists”. While McCarthy aggressively pursued suspected Communists across America, J Edgar Hoover’s FBI were rounding up homosexuals in government employ. In 1953, the State Department reported it had fired 425 employees alleged to have been homosexual.

It was a period which became known as the “Lavender Scare”. Hoover (himself widely suspected of being queer), made the responsibility for identifying queer employees the responsibility of their colleagues:¬†‚ÄúEach supervisor will be held personally responsible to underline in green pencil the names of individuals ‚Ķ who are alleged to be sex deviates,‚ÄĚ he wrote in a 1951 directive. Names were often supplied anonymously, and the named employees dismissed without hesitation or recourse. It’s easy to see how such a system could be abused to settle old scores. Not only did the named person lose their employment, in 1950s-1960s America, to be identified as queer frequently meant losing your home, the support of your friends and family, and any possibility of finding new employment elsewhere.

Informal J. Edgar Hoover Smile 1940

J. Edgar Hoover

Over a twenty year period, more than 360,000 files on gays and lesbians were collected, occupying nearly 100 cubic feet in FBI headquarters. Many of them were filed under the category ‚ÄúSex Perverts in Government Service.‚ÄĚ Agents gathered names from a variety of sources, including police records and anonymous informants. Even unwittingly befriending somebody the FBI knew was queer was enough to place you on their register. The FBI also worked covertly with¬†Confidential¬†magazine, a publication which made its name by outing high-profile celebrities from the world of entertainment; and even went after the son of a senator whom Hoover disliked.

The Cold War paranoia on both sides of the Atlantic surrounding homosexuality extended far beyond the ranks of government employees. Queer emancipation groups, just beginning to get off the ground, were often infiltrated by spies, their activities reported back to governments who, rather than liberate them from the law and remove the threat of blackmail which had left them vulnerable to begin with, doubled down on their efforts to quash their fledgling organisations. Caught in a catch-22 between being declared criminal through no fault of their own, and then treated as a national threat precisely because of their criminal status, queerfolk began to fight back. The LGBT emancipation movements in the UK and US came about, in large part, precisely because of the relentless persecution which the community suffered as a result of being forced to live beyond the law.

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