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The Comedy of Errors

Out of Time: Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe, the Medieval Knights Who May Have Had a Same-Sex Union

11 July 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Natalie Owen

During the 1913 renovation of a mosque in modern-day Istanbul, a fourteenth century tomb was rediscovered bearing the names of two men. The first was Sir William Neville, a former Constable of Nottingham Castle, while the second was Sir John Clanvowe, the man said to have penned the Robin Hood ballad upon which all later iterations of the legend are based. But the nature of the tomb, and other recorded evidence, suggests that Neville and Clanvowe could have been bonded in an early example of a same-sex union

Graphic of two knights and a castle

Sitting inside the Archaeological Museum at Istanbul is a tomb slab that, amongst the treasure trove of Byzantine-era artifacts, might at first glance go unnoticed. The rectangular block of whitish, grey-ribboned Prokonnesian marble had been rediscovered during the 1913 renovation of an Istanbul mosque where it was examined for the first time in centuries. Beneath the faded inscriptions lay two facing helmets, visor tips almost touching, above two shields inclined toward one another, insignia entwined. 

Inscribed were the names of two men, Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe, who died within days of one another in 1391. The men’s titles are matched by their war crests: a bull’s head for Neville, and Clanvowe’s blooming crest of feathers – each atop a shield bearing a combination of the two families’ coat of arms, half Neville’s fleur-de-lis within a diagonal cross, half tri-star on six vertical lines that represented the Clanvowes. While English knights being buried on foreign soil was rare, though not entirely unprecedented, the manner in which these two men were laid to rest was rarer still; the combining of their two family crests was a tradition usually representative of a marriage. Was the bond between them a brotherly connection or, as many have speculated (and evidence supports), something closer still?

Both Neville and Clanvowe were distinguished knights, experienced in war, administration and diplomacy. Sir John was of mixed Anglo-Welsh heritage, a skilled poet and writer and a member of an established, if modest, Hertfordshire family. Sir William belonged to a much grander family line, and served as Constable of Nottingham Castle between 1381-88, as well as knight of the chamber to King Richard II. They fought alongside one another in the Hundred Years War, as well as a North African crusade against an ‘infidel’ uprising, which the pair had caught wind of whilst participating in a joust in Calais. In fact, so entwined were their lives, and so close their bond, that the pair are rarely mentioned separately in contemporary sources.

Both men were close friends of Geoffrey Chaucer, and were witnesses during a bizarre 1380 trial where the poet was in trouble over an act for rape. They were also followers of the Lollard movement – a Proto-Protestant religious association that demanded reform of Western Christianity and, despite counting several high-ranking influential courtiers amongst their number, were widely condemned as heretical during the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV. Clanvowe even went as far as penning The Two Ways, which offered a contemporary insight into the Lollard belief system. 

Clanvowe died first on 17 October… Neville died just days later, so disconsolate at his companion’s demise that he refused to eat or drink

An accomplished writer, Clanvowe also penned The Jest of Robin Hood, a ballad written to honour the visit of King Richard II to Nottingham Castle, which is said to have been based on Clanvowe’s own close relationship with Neville. His best-known work, The Book of Cupid, God of Love, was a debate poem influenced by (and originally incorrectly attributed to) his friend Chaucer. In the poem, Clanvowe praises love, while simultaneously mocking it for causing more trouble than it is worth. Could this have been written in reference to his relationship to Neville, who was married to a woman named Elizabeth?

No sooner had Neville and Clanvowe returned to England from their North African crusade, they were petitioning their King for permission to travel abroad once more. Englishmen travelled to the East as envoys, missionaries, pilgrims and, when not fighting the French, crusading soldiers. Maybe the pair had read the description of an English knight fighting in the lands beyond the Mediterranean in the prologue of their friend Chaucer’s Tales, allegedly written a decade or so before their voyage? Perhaps, given their religious beliefs, they were on a pilgrimage destined for Rhodes or Jerusalem, the destination of many distinguished pilgrims of the late fourteenth century? Or, as was also fairly common at the time, were the pair, being trusted and proven knights, sent to either Jerusalem or Constantinople with royal permission under the guise of a pilgrimage in order to disguise what were really espionage missions? While the exact nature of their voyage is lost to history, we know that on 10 May 1391, Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe were granted protection for a journey abroad on unexplained royal business. It would be the last time either of them would set foot on English soil. 

Both Neville and Clanvowe died in Galata or Pera, the Latin suburb just across the Golden Horn from Constantinople in October 1391. Clanvowe died first on 17 October, either from fighting an unknown enemy or the plague that was rampaging across the Peloponnese peninsula through which they would probably have passed on their journey. According to the Westminster Chronicle, Neville died just days later, so disconsolate at his companion’s demise that he refused to eat or drink. 

Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe were faithful to one another unto death, and their legacy survives as a testament to that love

Rather than their bodies being transported back to England, as was the tradition of the day, both Neville and Clanvowe were buried where they died. And it is on their tomb in modern-day Istanbul that we can learn the most about their relationship. 

“To marshal the arms of two gentlemen thus impaling one another,” writes Maurice Keen, “is quite exceptional.” So exceptional, in fact, that only one other contemporary English example exists. Despite Neville having a wife, the tomb suggests that the men had a relationship beyond that of a brotherhood and could well have been lovers. Nottingham historian Tony Scupham-Bilton even goes as far as saying that “it’s commonly accepted now that they were a gay couple”. It is likely that Neville and Clanvowe were engaged in an adelphopoiesis – a ceremony practiced in the Christian tradition in order to unite two people of the same sex. Often referred to as a wedded brotherhood (which is mentioned in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale), the extent of the ceremony ranged from a siblinghood to a romantic involvement. Given the nature of their relationship, and the rarity of their shared tomb, the latter seems far more likely. 

It’s easy to see why their story is somewhat lost to history. The harmful trope of gay men being weak, or less ‘masculine’ in the old-fashioned sense, has long been perpetrated, with its origins buried deep in a religious practice of discrediting homosexuality as sinful and unnatural. But dig beneath the dogmatic Christian pedagogy that has plagued LGBTQI+ communities for centuries, and you’ll find a deep tradition as old as recorded history itself. Take The Sacred Band of Thebes, for example: made up of 300 men - 150 pairs of male lovers - the troop of soldiers were the elite force in fourth century Greece, ending a lengthy period of domination by the Spartans. Though the power dynamics within the pairs is rightly considered highly problematic by modern standards - the couples consisted of an erastes (an older male), who would educate in the art of war his eromenos (a younger male) who in turn would clean and repair his partner’s armour - the bond that formed between the pair was deeper and stronger than any Ancient Greece, a landscape dominated by centuries of internal and external conflict, had ever seen. And as a result, The Sacred Band of Thebes were the most devastatingly effective military force of their day. 

While so much of Neville and Clanvowe’s story is lost to the sands of time, their love – be it brotherly or, as the evidence suggests, romantic – has survived. Such was their bond, carved clearly into the very tomb that holds their remains, that the centuries could not erase it, nor lessen its impact. It survived countless conflicts, regional turmoil and religious dogma to serve as an example of the impact love can have on two people, regardless of their gender. Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe were faithful to one another unto death, and their legacy survives as a testament to that love.

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