CAMBRIDGE AND OXFORD
Residential colleges have dominated England's two ancient universities sometimes verbally merged as "Oxbridge" which trace their origins to the twelfth century. Royal and aristocratic patronage, accentuated by the richly endowed,exquisite colleges in which fellows slept and dined, gave them an elite character often, though not always, conducive to academic excellence.
Early Indications. Following the clerical tradition of the Middle Ages, the dons were (until Gladstone's liberal reforms in 1877) forbidden to marry. Temptation beckoned in the form of an endless supply of highborn and attractive undergraduates. After 1500 most trained academically and (homo)sexually at the aristocratic public [i.e., private boarding] schools like Harrow and Winchester on a curriculum of Greek and Latin classics which, despite careful selection, could not be purged of pederastic motifs.
On early sodomites the curtain of silence lifts only occasionally. In 1739 the Rev. Robert Thistlethwayte, who had served as warden of Wadharn College at Oxford for fifteen years, was charged with making a "sodomitical attempt" on William French, an undergraduate. As depositions to the grand jury revealed, Thistlethwayte had shown a previous pattern of homosexual activity, and he fled to France, fearing mortal consequences. John Fenwick, known to have had homosexual relations as a student at Oxford, but not charged until 1797, when he had become a clergyman, also fled to the continent. At Cambridge George Gordon, Lord Byron, already in love at Harrow, had a relationship with a choirboy named John Edleston and formed lifelong friendships with John Cam Hobhouse, the dissipated Scrope Berdmore Davies, and the irreverent Charles Skinner Matthew-his correspondents and defenders when, having discovered a more open homosexuality in Italy and Greece, Byron went into exile.
Reformers and Aesthetes. The Victorians (1837-1901) strove to raise the . standards of Britain's decayed educational establishment. In addition to the the universities, the feeder system of the elite public schools had to be restructured. Unbeknownst to the reformers, public school boys fashioned a thrivinghomosexual subculture, with its social hierarchies and special vocabulary, and passed it on to the universities.
The mid-nineteenth century also saw a crisis of faith. Some like Cardinal Newman resolved this by converting to Roman Catholicism. Gravitating toward aestheticism, a creed with strong homosexual overtones, others-unlike the Oxford don Walter Pater, the pontiff of aestheticism, who was most discrete about his sexual longing-became notorious, Oscar Wilde met Alfred Douglas when the latter was a handsome undergraduate at Oxford, and the Chameleon-which played a fateful role in Wilde's trial-was an Oxford undergraduate magazine whose single issue, cloyingly tinged with homoeroticism, appeared in December 1894.
The Cambridge Apostles. A remarkable example of intrainstitutional continuity is the Society of Apostles founded by students at CambridgeUniversity in 1820, whose members gathered once a week to hear papers on controversial topics. The first recruits to this distinguished intellectual club were mainly clergymen, apparently of impeccablemoral character. By the 1840s) however, intimations of homosexuality begin to emergethough sometimes only in the form of the "Higher Sodomy," that is, nonsexual male bonding.
Later in the century apicturesque, bibulous, socialite don, Oscar Browning, nourished a special homosexual atmosphere at Cambridge. In 1862 he began almost annual visits to Rome with an undergraduate in tow. As the novelist E. M. Forster, another Cantabrigian, was later to demonstrate, Italy played a special role for cultured Englishmen in search of sexual freedom.
The influence of the Cambridge Apostles radiated into the larger community. William Johnson, later Cory (elected in 1844), became a leading member of the Calamite group of pederastic poets. At the end of the century, the Cambridge atmosphere was determined by the philosopher G. E. Moore (who was not homosexual) and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (who was). Then, in the early years of the present century, homosexual graduate Apostles, notably LyttonStrachey and John Maynard Keynes, formed a kind of adult branch in London, which became known as Bloomsbury. Most of the members of this literary and artistic group were connected with Cambridge through family ties if not by direct attendence.
The Oxbridge Heyday. Adistinctive feature of Oxbridge is the social contact between dons and undergraduates, who daily drank sherry together and dined together in "commons" at the college where they had their rooms, on terms of familiarity that would be almost inconceivable at an American college. Until the Edwardian era, the two universities were by and large socially closed institutions that drew their student body from the cream of the upper classes, especially from the graduates of the public schools where adolescent homosexuality was rampant. Also, from the decline of medieval scholasticism until modern higher education policy opened its doors to scholarship holders from impecunious but talented families, Oxbridge offered far more a "playboy" than an intellectual setting, where the future politician, public servant, or member of the House of Lords passed a stage in his cursus honorurn. All these circumstances, together with intense and prestigious competition in sports if not in learning, made for homosexual contact between the dons and students and for the sort of bonding among undergraduates that readied Oxbridge alumni for their life roles as builders and administrators of the British Empire.
But not all ran smoothly in the creation of future public servants. At Cambridge in the 1930s Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, and Donald McLean, all homosexual Apostles, converted to Marxism and became secret Soviet agents. Their unmasking during the Cold War occasioned speculation about a connection between the upper classes, homosexuality, and espionage. After the war, however, the homosexual complexion of the Cambridge Society of Apostles faded.
During the interwar years Oxford became more prominently identified with the homosexual sensibility. Figures such as Evelyn Waugh succumbed to it only for a time, but the poets W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender forged a lifetime comradeship. In the depression of the 1930s many undergraduates converted to Marxism, as at Cambridge. Toward the end of his life, Audenreturned to live at his Oxford college but found the atmosphere too much changed for his taste. The more democratic emphasis of education after World War II, sparked by Labor governments, eroded both the privileges and mystique of Cambridge and Oxford. Moreover, gay liberation in the 1970s diffused homosexual life and the need for special redoubts of privileged hemophilia at the universities and public schools receded.
Alfred L. Rowse, claiming to be unbiased, and Sir Kenneth Dover, professing that he is straight and happily married, broke the taboo against writing on homosexuality which John Addington Symonds thought had barred him from a chair in classical scholarship and on which Sir Maurice Bowra never dared write a book or even an article. After World War II British universities proliferated. At Essex and Sussex, institutions on a new model, gay studies have emerged under auspices that encourage rethinking of established gender patterns.
Richard Deacon, The Cambridge Apostles, London: Robert Royce, 1985.
William A. Percy