Thursday, 3 December 2015

Champions of Justice

“Champions of Justice” is the title of my newest guided tour of lgbt Nottingham. I did the full tour for a paying client for the first time a week ago and it went very well. I usually try out parts of new tours on my established tours to see what works. I tried out the last part of the new tour in summer when I did my Robin Hood tour for a group of teenagers.

So, who are the Champions of Justice, and how do they fit in with Nottingham’s lgbt heritage? Here are the basics.

There’s no way you can talk about Champions of Justice in Nottingham and not mention Robin Hood. The first lgbt connection is my theory that the ballad which forms the basis of the legend and stories familiar to us today was written by Sir John Clanvowe who was married to Sir William Neville, Constable of Nottingham Castle. There’s no room to go into the details here, but if you put “Sir John Clanvowe” into the search box you can find out more.

Robin Hood was used by the lgbt community in Nottingham as the subject of a play by a gay street theatre group in the 1970s. Of course they put their own distinctive slant on the legend. Robin was transformed into Robina, Maid Marian was a man in drag, and someone else dressed up as the Major Oak. They put on their play outside the city Council House where a reception was being held for a Soviet trade delegation. When the delegates left the reception and saw the performance outside they were impressed that the council had arranged a special performance for them by the Robin Hood Society. A passing dog was also fooled, at least by the actor dressed as the Major Oak because it peed up her leg! The council wasn’t impressed and got the security guards to chase the actors away. Just how they explained that to the Soviets isn’t known!

203 years ago this week the British government sent hundreds of troops into Nottingham to quash the rioters known as the Luddites. These were hand-weavers who had been put out of work by newly invented weaving machines. They lost their jobs, their only income, and became destitute. Hundreds of them went around smashing the new machines and attacking their ex-employers’ homes. Parliament then passed an act which meant that anyone found guilty of rioting would be hanged. It didn’t stop the rioting.

A few weeks later the 24-year-old Lord Byron stood up in the House of Lords to make his maiden speech. He had spend that Christmas in the Nottingham area and undoubtedly knew about the riots. He said that it was wrong to hang the Luddites because they had no other choice but to smash the machines and reclaim their livelihoods. His words made him a hero in Nottingham.

By 1823 Byron was known throughout Europe because of his poetry (and his pansexual antics!). He was persuaded to join the Greek fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire. He was treated like a war-hero when he arrived in Greece, even though he hadn’t seen any military action. They were so in awe of him that he they virtually offered him the throne.

Unfortunately Byron died of a fever before he saw any action. But he was – and still is – treated as a national hero in Greece. His body arrived back in Nottingham for burial. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people came to see and pass by his coffin as it rested in a city centre inn overnight. Many were there to remember him as a great poet, but many more were there to remember him as a champion of the unemployed Luddites.

These two men were among the first members of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) founded in Manchester in 1969. Nottingham was one of the first branches formed and Ray and Ike were members. Ray was also one of the city’s youngest – and first openly gay - councillors in the 1960’s and was Vice-President of the CHE. He later became a very popular radio and tv broadcaster. Ike was a former RAF officer and a university law lecturer who wrote the CHE’s constitution.

In 1977 they persuaded the CHE to hold their annual conference in Nottingham. Several city hotels hosted discussions, workshops and events, but one event created the biggest stir in the CHE’s existence thus far. One discussion was on the subject of the psychological origins of paedophilia led by a Dutch doctor and MP who had been imprisoned in Holland for having sex with underage boys. The public and the media in 1977 were outraged. Several protest meetings were held outside the hotel, and the hotel (quite understandably regarding the violent anti-gay climate at the time) cancelled the events for fear of attacks on the hotel and its staff. The event was moved to another venue (from which the media was banned). In spite of this controversy the conference was deemed a huge success.

Freedom from state censorship in the UK owes a lot to the trial in 1960 in which Penguin Books was prosecuted for obscenity for publishing local novelist Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.


This couple have appeared on this blog many times (again, enter their names in the search box). Both men were members of the Lollard Knights, a group of knights who supported the right to worship without interference or persecution from the Vatican (long before Henry VIII created the Church of England).

The Archbishop of Canterbury was very anti-Lollard and excommunicated all Lollard preachers. One carried on preaching and came to Nottingham in 1387, whereupon he was arrested. Sir William Neville, as Constable of Nottingham Castle at the time, suggested the preacher be held in the castle cells as they were more secure. The authorities agreed.

What no-one noticed after a few months was that the preacher had disappeared from the castle and was found in hiding under the protection of another Lollard Knight over a hundred miles away. It’s obvious that Sir William Neville’s Lollard sympathies had something to do with the escape. Fortunately, being one of the king’s closest courtiers, he wasn’t punished. Eventually, the Archbishop declared all Lollards heretics and had them burnt at the stake. Sir William and Sir John escaped this punishment also, both having died some years previously.

And those are just a few of Nottingham’s lgbt Champions of Justice.

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