Gay History: John “Eleanor” Rykener, 1395.

Eleanor Rykener

“We can say that even if we do not know anything about Rykener’s self-identification, hir life as a male-bodied woman was “transgender-like.” — Ruth Mazo Karras and Tom Linkinen

There is a fine line historians must walk between being thoughtful in using contemporary language for historical figures and erasing queer people from history. While someone from ancient Sumer wouldn’t have used the word “bisexual”, for example, we can discuss how their sexuality and experiences fit this modern term. We walk that line with every article, and we try to do so respectfully. There are, however, those who act under the guise of historical accuracy only to deny queer persons our history, particularly those stories of trans women.

Eleanor Rykener is often presented as, well, John Rykener. Little is known about her before her arrest in 1395; everything we know comes from her interrogation. Some years before her arrest, Rykener met a woman named Elizabeth Brouderer. Whether Eleanor was approached by Elizabeth or sought her out is, like many aspects of her life, unknown. There she was given her name and taught embroidery; that’s also where she got into sex work.

Elizabeth had developed an elaborate ruse in which she would trick the men her daughter slept with into believing they had slept with Eleanor. It’s likely that though she forced both women into this work, Elizabeth did not want her daughter to have the poor reputation of a sex worker. That reputation instead went to Eleanor. Another sex worker named Anna later taught Eleanor to have sex “as a woman”, as Eleanor called it.

Eleanor eventually left London for Oxford where she tried to find work as an embroideress. It’s important to note that embroidery was traditionally women’s work; Eleanor continued to dress, work, and live as a woman after leaving London. After finding less embroidery work than she had hoped, she focused on sex work. After a time, finding little to keep her there, she moved on to Burford.

There she found work as a barmaid, another profession held almost exclusively by women. While she continued doing sex work, we know that she was only paid by half of the men she slept with in Burford. Whether she expected payment or had a relationship with any of the men is, again, unknown.

We must pause here to mention how her relationships here have been read by modern historians. Often, we find the issue of straight historians erasing queer identities out of discomfort. Eleanor’s relations with these men cannot be denied—she herself talked at length about several of the men she slept with—so instead they are used to invalidate her gender. She is just a gay man who crossdressed.

Of course, the other side of the coin still exists, and we see that after Eleanor’s move to Beaconshire. Though she slept with two men there, she also slept with a woman named Joan. Though she undoubtedly slept with more men than women, their claim is that she only slept with men for work. Eleanor Rykener is then, in fact, a straight man who crossdressed.

Historians are quick to say that she was a crossdresser and a sex worker, though they aren’t as averse to using slurs when they describe her. They do, however, find the term bisexual problematic. Not because Eleanor didn’t have sex with men and women; we know for a fact that she slept with enough men and women that she wasn’t sure of the number. If we apply this modern label—bisexual—we may then have to acknowledge that in today’s language Eleanor would be called a trans woman. The idea that Eleanor was actually a man who tricked people into sex falls more in line with the idea that trans women are just men in dresses, that they are threats. Her sexuality is leveled against her to prove that she is a man, and that is still very much an issue for trans women today.

These historians also ignore the very real possibility that she presented herself as Eleanor, as a woman, to both the men and women she slept with. The original text of the interrogation mentions “ut vir concubuit cum” and ” concubuerunt ut cum femina”. While it explains that Eleanor had sex with Joan (active), it is careful to say that the two men had sex with her (passive). It’s assumed by most historians that Eleanor had sex with Joan as John, as a man, and had sex with the men as a woman. We don’t actually know this. There is, in fact, very little of the details of her relations that we do know. The interrogation is in Latin, having been translated from Middle English she would have spoken, and therefore does not contain quotes from her as she said things. Because Eleanor didn’t give her testimony in Latin, the intricacies of her testimony are lost.

In December of 1395, bundled against the frigid London winter, Eleanor caught the eye of one John Britby. He propositioned her, and the two made their way behind a nearby church. They were then caught by city officers and taken in for interrogation. She introduced herself as Eleanor Rykener. She readily admitted to everything, agreed with Britby’s account of the events, and hid nothing. She told them of her time with Elizabeth and Anna and her many moves throughout England. She told them of the many men and women she slept with; some married, some nuns and priests. She held nothing back, and she introduced herself as Eleanor.

There is a danger in applying modern labels to historical people. To call Eleanor Rykener a gay man is just as harmful as calling her a straight man. Erasing a queer person’s identity, even for the sake of another queer identity, is harmful. The case of Eleanor Rykener was actually revisited in recent years with the admission that transgender may be a more accurate term for Ms. Rykener. To simply call Eleanor Rykener a crossdresser is reductive; it ignores her life as she lived it. Often, we cannot say exactly how someone would describe themself, because we aren’t able to ask them. Eleanor, however, was asked over and over again. The only document of her life is her take on her womanhood and sexuality. Eleanor Rykener slept with both men and women, she worked as an embroideress, barmaid, and sex worker, and she was a woman.

The Questioning of John Rykener, A Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395

This document was brought to light by David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras in 1995 .  It is apparently the only legal process document from late medieval England on same-sex intercourse. Since copyright law precludes presentation of such a recently published text, it was necessary for this web text to secure a copy of the manuscript source, transcribe it, and newly translate it.  This has presented an interesting opportunity to show how historians acquire documents: here are presented: first, a translation; second, a transcription of the document; third a facsimile of the document itself.

Karras and Boyd recount how this text escaped notice.  A. H. Thomas’ Calendar of Select Please and Memoranda of the City of London A.D. 1381-1412. 3 Vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924-32) is the standard reference work on these particular records. It is a detailed calendar with a massive amount detail about each case.  In Vol 3. Thomas began recording only “select pleas and memoranda”, but no longer records, for example, small debt actions.  For the Rykener case Thomas recorded only “Examination of two men charged with immorality, one of which implicated several persons, male and female, in religiou orders” (p. 228). This is the only case in which anything but a will or formulaic document is summarized so briefly. And, of course, Thomas succeeds in hiding the homosexual subject matter of the case. Thus this case stands not only as a rare source for the history of tranvestite and homosexually active people in late  Medieval England, but as evdience of the suppression of that history by scholarly historians in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As to the outcome of this case, it is not known. Nor is it know if the case was also prosecuted as sodomy in Church courts (since no records survive from the period). It is not even clear that a formal charge was made. For a discussion of the context, see the longer article by Karras and Boyd in Premodern Sexualities.

I: The Questioning of John Rykener 1395: Translation

On 11 December, 18 Richard 11. were brought in the presence of John Fressh, Mayor. and the Aldermen ofthe City of London John Britby of the county of York and John Rykener., calling [himself] Eleanor, having been detected in women’s clothing, who were found last Sunday night between the hours of 8 and 9 by certain officials of the, city lying by a certain stall in Soper’s Lane” committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice. In a separate examination held before the Mayor and Aldermen about the occurrence, John Britby confessed that he was passing through the high road of Cheap on Sunday between the abovementioned hours and accosted John Rykener, dressed up as a woman, thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her. Requesting money for [his] labor, Rykener consented, and they went together to the aforesaid stall to complete the act, and were captured there during these detestable wrongdoings by the officials and taken to prison. And John Rykener, brought here in woman’s clothing and questioned about this matter, acknowledged [himself] to have done everything just as John Britby had confessed. Rykener was also asked who had taught him to exercise this vice, and for how long and in what places and with what persons, masculine or feminine, [he] had committed that libidinous and unspeakable act. [He] swore willingly on [his] soul that a certain Anna, the whore of a former servant of Sir Thomas Blount, first taught him to practice this detestable vice in the manner of a woman. [He] further said that a certain Elizabeth Bronderer first dressed him in women’s clothing; she also brought her daughter Alice to diverse men for the sake of lust, placing her with those men in their beds at night without light, making her leave early in the morning and showing them the said John Rykener dressed up in women’s clothing, calling him Eleanor and saying that they had misbehaved with her. [He] further said that certain Phillip, rector of Theydon Garnon, had sex with him as with a woman in Elizabeth Bronderer’s honse outside Bishopsgate, at which time Rykener took away two gowns of Phillip’, and when Phillip requested them from Rykener he said that [he] was the wife ofa certain man and that if Phillip wished to ask for them back [he] would make [his] husband bring suit against him. Rykener further confessed that for five weeks before the feast of St. Michael’s last [he] was staying at Oxford, and there, in women’s clothing and calling himself Eleanor, worked as an embroideress; and there in the marsh three unsuspecting scholars – of whom one was named Sir William Foxlee, another Sir John, and the third Sir Walter – practiced the abominable vice with him often. John Rykener further confessed that on Friday before the feast of St. Michael [he] came to Burford in Oxfordshire and there dwelt with a certain John Clerk at the Swan in the capacity of tapster for the next six weeks, during which time two Franciscans, one named Brother Michael and the other Brother John, who gave [him] a gold ring, and one Carmelite friar and six foreign men committed the above-said vice with him, of whom one gave Rykener twelve pence, one twenty pence, and one two shillings. Rykener further confessed that [he] went to Beaconsfield and there, as a man, had sex with a certain Joan, daughter of John Matthew, and also there two foreign Franciscans hall sex with him as a woman. John Rykener also confessed that after [his] last return to London a certain Sir John, once chaplain at the Church of St. Margaret Pattens, and two other chaplains committed with him the aforementioned vice in the lanes behind St. Katherine’s Church by the Tower of London. Rykener further said that he often had sex as a man with many nuns and also had sex as a iman with many women both married and otherwise, how many [he] did not know. Rykener further confessed that many priests had committed that vice with him as with a woman, how many [he] did not know, and said that [he] accommodated priests more readily than other people because they wished to give [him] more than others.

II: The Questioning of John Rykener 1395: Transcription 

Corporation of London Records Office, Plea and Memoranda Roll A34, m.2 (1395)

Undecimo die Decembris anno regni regis Ricardi secundi decimo octavo, ducti fuerunt hic coram Johanne Fressh maiore et aldermannis civitatis Londoniensis Johannes Britby de comitate Eboracum et Johannes Rykener, se Elianoram nominans veste muliebri detectus. Qui die dominica ultimo preterita per quosdam dicte civitatis ministros noctanter inter horas octavam et nonam super quoddam stallum in venella vocata Sopereslane inventi fuerunt iacentes, illud vitium detestabile, nephandum, et ignominiosum committentes, pro seperali examinatione coram dictis maiore et aldermannis super premissa fienda et audienda etcetera. Qui quidem Johannes Britby inde allocutus fatebatur quod ipse per vicum regium de Chepe die dominica inter horas supradictas transiens, dictum Johannem Rykener vestitu muliebri ornatum, ipsumque mulierem fore suspicantem fuerat assecutus, petens ab eo, tanquam a muliere, si cum ea libidinose agere possit. Qui ab eo argentum pro labore suo petens sibi consentiebat, invicem transeuntes ad illud complendum usque stallum predictum. Ipsi tamen tunc ibidem per ministros predictos in eorum maleficiis detestabilibus capti fuerunt, carcere vero mancipati hucusque, etcetera. Et predictus Johannes Rykener in veste muliebri hic adductus de materia predicta allocutus cognovit se fecisse in omnibus prout idem Johannes Britby superius fatebatur etcetera. Quesitum fuit ulterius a prefato Johanne Rykener quis ei docuit dictum vitium exercere et quanto tempore, in quibus locis, et cum quibus personis masculis sive feminis illud actum libidinosum et nephandum commisit. Qui in animam suam sponte iuravit et cognovit quod quaedam Anna, meretrix quondam cuiusdam famuli domini Thome Blount, primo docuit ipsum vitium detestabile modo muliebri exercere. Item dixit quod quaedam Elizabeth Brouderer prius vestivit ipsum veste muliebri; quae etiam conduxit quandam Aliciam filiam suam diversis hominibus luxuriae causa, ipsam cum eisdem hominibus in lectis eorum noctanter absque lumine reponens et eandem summo mane ab eisdem recedere fecit, monstrando eis dictum Johannem Rykener veste muliebri ornatum ipsum Alianoram nominantem, asserens ipsos cum ipsa sinistre egisse. Item dixit quod quidam Philippus, Rector de Theydon Gernon, concubuit cum eodem Johanne Rykener ut cum muliere in domo cuiusdam Elizabeth Brouderer extra Bisshoppesgate, quo tempore dictus Johannes Rykener asportavit duas togas ipsius Philippi. Et quando idem Philippus illas petiit a prefato Johanne Rykener, ipse dixit quod fuit uxor cuiusdam hominis, et si ipse illas repetere vellet faceret maritum suum versus ipsum prosequi. Item dictus Johannes Rykener fatebatur quod per quinque septimanas ante festum santi Michaelis ultimo elapsum morabatur apud Oxonium et operatus est ibidem in veste muliebri in arte de brouderer nominans ipsum Alianoram. Et ibidem in marisco tres scolares ignotos, quorum unus nominatur dominus Willielmus Foxlee, alius dominus Johannes, et tertius dominus Walterus, usi fuerunt sepius cum ipso abominabile vitium supradictum. Item fatebatur prefatus Johannes Rykener quod ipse die veneris proximo ante festum sancti Michaelis supradictum venit apud Burford in comitate Oxonium. Et ibidem fuit commorans cum quodam Johanne clerc atte Swan in officio de tapster per sex septimanas proximas sequentes, infra quod tempus duo fratres minores, quorum unus nominatur frater Michael et alius frater Johannes Barry, qui sibi dedit unum anulum aureum, et unus frater carmelitus et sex diversi homines extranei commiserunt cum illo vitium antedictum. Quorum quidem fratrum et hominum supradictorum quidam dabat dicto Johanni Rykener .xii. d, quidam .xx. d, quidam .ii. s. Item fatebatur idem Johannes Rykener quod fuit apud Bekenesfeld et ibidem idem ut vir concubuit cum quadam Johanna filia Johannis Mathew, et etiam ibidem cum ipso concubuerunt ut cum femina duo fratres minores alienigenae. Item fatebatur dictus Johannes Rykener quod post eius ultimum adventum Londoniae quidam dominus Johannes quondam capellanus ecclesiae sanctae Margaretae Patyns et alii duo capellani in venellis retro ecclesiam sanctae Katerinae iuxta turrim Londoniensem commiserunt cum illo illud vitium antedictum. Item dixit dictus Johannes Rykener quod ipse sepius concubuit cum quampluribus monialibus ut vir, et etiam concubuit modo virili cum quampluribus mulieribus, tam maritatis quam aliis, quarum numerum ignorat. Item fatebatur dictus Johannes Rykener quod quamplures presbiteri fecerunt illud vitium cum illo ut cum muliere, quorum numerum ignorat, et dixit quod citius cepit presbiteros quam alios quia plus vellent sibi dare quam alii.


David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras, “The Interrogation of of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London”. GLQ 1 (1995), 459-465

David Lorenzo Boyd and Ruth Mazo Karras, “`Ut cum muliere”: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth Century London”. In Premodern Sexualities. Edited by Louise Fradenburg and Carl Freccero. (London: Routledge, 1996), 99-116

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