A new century, a new monarch, but memories of the old century linger on. Edward VII is far more homophobic than his mother Victoria, who had a particular fondness and friendship for effeminate, homosexual, kinky men.
Her first Prime Minister, whom she was so infatuated with there were rumours of marriage, had a fondness for spanking; her later favourites were the flamboyant Disraeli, whose companionate marriage may have masked homosexual feelings, and the Earl of Rosebery, whose affair with Lord Alfred Douglas’s brother led to his suicide.
Victoria mothered him rotten, and told him to wrap up warm when he went out in winter.
Among her favourites were Lord Ronald Gower, who appears here. He was one of the very few non‐family members she called by their first name.
Gower, ten years older than Wilde, was extremely well connected ‐ four of his sisters married Dukes. Bertie, Victoria’s eldest son, couldn’t stand him, accused him of unnatural practices, but was forced to withdraw the accusation for threat of a court case.
Gower subsequently fled the country at the time of the Cleveland Street Scandal which embroiled Victoria’s eldest grandson, Bertie’s son Victor Albert.
Gower’s practices are somewhat mysterious, but John Addington Symonds, a gay rights pioneer, accused him of ‘urningthum [homosexuality] of the rankest, most diabolical kind’. Symonds himself had a dogged devotion to a Venetian gondolier, so it may be simply a reference to a penchant for casual sex. Or it may be something more in the S/M style.
Either way, he gathered round himself a gay circle, a community, which was defiantly active while society was still reeling from the Labouchère amendment, Cleveland Street, and the Wilde trials.
His one redeeming feature was his devotion to his brother, the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, for whom he tried to raise money.
Shackleton has been described as a ‘go-between’ between Dublin Castle and Lord Ronald. Why they should need a go‐between historians have not paused to enquire.
My guess is that promising Irish lads were given an introduction to London queens, with Frank vouching that they were not blackmailers.
In return he brought back gossip, especially court gossip, and possibly money. The historians who have written about the case show remarkably little knowledge of, or interest in, the way gay society works.
And so to the case itself. The Irish Crown Jewels was the rather grandiose name given to a couple of nondescript cast‐offs from William IV, which were nevertheless worth a few million in today’s money.
They were kept in Dublin Castle under the guardianship of Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King at Arms, an alcoholic queen who was potty about heraldry.
Largely self‐taught, he loved it for the opportunities it gave him to dress up, and to invent rituals which made him important.
There had been a gay scandal in Dublin Castle in 1884 ‐ one of the people involved was Jack Saul, who also turns up in Cleveland Street, and authored a major work of Victorian gay porn, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain.
Vicars kept the gay tradition alive and well by appointing other ‘nancies’ to such invented positions as Athlone Pursuivant, Cork Herald, and Dublin Herald (Frank Shackleton).
In 1907 Vicars contrived to lose the jewels, and they have never been recovered. It was a time of fervent nationalism, and anti‐nationalism, and to this day various motives are ascribed to the thieves.
Edward VII demanded they be caught, there was an incompetent investigation which was abruptly halted, probably when it appeared that it might turn up scandal which would implicate the Royal Household - yet again.
For Edward VII this was particularly galling because England was not the only country buzzing with gay scandal.
The court of his nephew Wilhelm had been blown apart two years previously by a libel case which led to a series of resignations from the German Court. In this trial, it was revealed one of the Kaiser’s close chums, Prince Eulenberg, and his lover the military commander of Berlin, were both in the habit of calling the Kaiser liebchen [darling].
This brought a blistering ticking off from Edward about the importance of keeping the imperial nose clean. Imagine the Kaiser’s glee when his overbearing uncle was seen to be equally compromised. Pots and kettles? Cue howls of Hunnish laughter.
And yet, when it comes down to it, nobody knows who stole the jewels, why they sold the jewels, what became of the jewels, why the investigation of the theft was so cack‐handed, or why it was called off. When the whole outline of what actually happened is so hazy and contested, art can slip through the cracks, and may even contain the germ of truth.
Following the rather stately and formal Prologue, which lays out the parameters of the whole cycle, I wanted a strong contrast in the way of pace and variety. Much of The Jewels is, frankly, silly, because the whole case is silly. I have used more rhyme and formal versification, and describe it as a vaudeville. It has strong elements of commedia del arte and silent film, with Keystone Cop chases and absurd props (sausages for the Crown Jewels). I could imagine it performed on the stage of Dan Lowry’s Palace of Varieties in Dublin.
I hope it brings to the case of poor wronged Oscar a kind of poetic justice. Even so, the spirit of Oscar will linger through the cycle, as will the ghost of Victoria.
Note: Sound Files are created in Sibelius and are only intended to give a rough idea of the opera, so are for reference only and give little idea of what the vocal lines sound like.
All work is copyright of Peter Scott‐Presland and Robert Ely. Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email firstname.lastname@example.org