LGBTQ+ Voices in history – the story of John / Eleanor Rykener

Published
28.05.2021

June is Pride month: a time to celebrate LGBTQ+ identities and lives.  It's good to look back and see the progress that has been made by individuals and organisations' protest and campaigning: during the lifetime of John / Eleanor Rykener a loving relationship between two men could result in the death penalty.  

Image of Richard Puller von Hohenburg and Anton Mätzler, who were burned at the stake, Zürich 1482

We have no images of Rykener; this is a depiction of a similar case from Zurich, in 1482: Richard Puller von Hohenburg and Anton Mätzler, who were burned at the stake.

Here at Buckinghamshire Archives we are at the start of our journey to discover LGBTQ+ stories in our collections; for Pride 2021 we will be reflecting on historic queer lives from other counties.  This first story is from the City of London.  

On the first Sunday of December 1394, between the hours of eight and nine at night, John Rykener, who was a prostitute and dressed as a woman going by the name of Eleonor, was looking for business in Cheapside, London.

John Britby, a Yorkshireman in London, supposedly mistook Rykner by his dress for a woman and the two men adjourned to a side street to become better acquainted, where they were found and arrested.

We know about this incident that took place over 620 years ago because of an unusually full account of Rykener’s appearance, still dressed as a woman, before the mayor’s court.

Its narrative of cross-dressing, male prostitution, gay sex and clerical promiscuity offers a rare window onto late medieval constructions of sexuality. It is believed to be the only legal process document from late medieval England on same-sex intercourse.

According to the court record, before being arrested, Rykener had sex with both men and women, including priests and nuns. After spending part of summer 1394 in Oxford, working both as a prostitute and an embroideress, Rykener moved to Beaconsfield and had a sexual relationship with a woman. Rykener returned to London via Burford in Oxfordshire, working there as a barmaid and continuing with sex work. On returning to London, Rykener had paid encounters near the Tower of London.

No records have survived detailing any punishment Rykener’s may have had. Records show, however, that someone with the same name was imprisoned, and escaped, in 1399, but we cannot be certain it is the same Rykener.

Historians continue to debate Rykener’s role in the history of gender and sexuality.

The original archival documents relating to this case are contained in the London Plea and Memoranda Rolls, which are written in Latin and held by London Metropolitan archives.

 

Further information: Internet History Sourcebooks Project (fordham.edu)

 

 

 

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