by Bethan Davis
Princess Seraphina, whose real name was John Cooper, was the first recognisable drag queen in English history, who took Thomas Gordon to court for stealing his clothes in 1732. The trial of Princess Seraphina was a captivating and enigmatic moment in LGBT+ history; sodomy was a capital punishment, and whilst Gordon outed Cooper as a sodomite in his defence speech, Cooper was never persecuted for his sexuality.
In fact, we can infer Cooper’s sexuality was relatively accepted, as he’s referred to as ‘Princess’ and Her ‘Highness’ by witnesses. Whilst the trial of Seraphina is extraordinary, it is limited – it cannot account for the experiences of all ‘mollies’ (gay men), Princess Seraphina serves as a microcosm of the bustling molly subculture in eighteenth-century London, and sheds light on those in the past and present who are proud of their sexuality in a judgemental society.
Cooper, alongside many other working-class men at the time, was a member of an undercover molly subculture of houses and clubs, that were popular with men exploring and expressing homosexuality throughout Georgian London. The men used covert forms of address, clothing and gesticulation to identify each other, Cooper, in the trial, was described as a messenger for the mollies and oversaw the molly events, indicating he was at the heart of the movement. The secrecy of the subculture meant men often drifted in and out as they pleased; many were fathers in a patriarchal household or worked predominantly manly jobs like miners. It’s hard to discern for sure whether these men believed they were part of any homosexual culture. Because of its fluidity, Historian Tim Hitchcock contends that ‘molly culture’ was more of a budding society rather than fully fledged movement, this might be rightly so, as Cooper’s experience is not holistic to all mollies, but the way Cooper was blackmailed at knife-point by Gordon on the night in question, to hand over his clothes or be accused of sodomy, shows how homosexuality was feared of and was seen as a developed and growing way of life.
The secrecy and permeability of the molly clubs are also of interest – was sexuality in eighteenth-century Britain performed or innate? Princess Seraphina’s behaviour and actions are reflected in Cooper’s own effervescent personality. One of his witnesses’ Marry Poplet remembers him curtsying so well at Masquerades, “that you would not know her from a woman.” Despite Cooper appearing as a man in court, he is still referred to via female pronouns. However, whilst his sexuality might be accepted by his neighbours, it was not accepted by the law or wider community. Gordon’s assault on Cooper; threatening him at knifepoint to hand over his clothes, besides accusing him of sodomy in court, shows the danger associated with being gay. Because of this, it is not surprising sexuality in the molly culture looks performative, as these men publicly took on heterosexual lives for protection. Ultimately, the trial shows Princess Seraphina was an integral part of Cooper’s life. So special he took a heterosexual man to court, knowing he was risking his life if he was charged with sodomy.
All in all, the trial reached a disappointing conclusion. Gordon was acquitted for robbing Cooper, yet, Cooper was not prosecuted for sodomy afterwards. As written above, Princess Seraphina was an innate part of Cooper. The trial is rich with accounts of peer witnesses who identify Cooper as Princess Seraphina, seeing her out and about town, doing everyday
activities in the eighteenth-century; going to the market, having a drink with friends. Whilst the trial sits on the cusp of the nineteenth century’s ‘height of domesticity’, where gender roles became rigid and the separate spheres crystallised, it’s important to remember figures like Princess Seraphina, who undermined the gender binary of their time, and were textually unfazed by it. Who stood up to those who targeted them, and were very much alive and proud of who they are.