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The Archbishop of Canterbury's Wife Kept Falling in Love With Women. He Knew All About It

June 12, 2019 in History

By Ella Morton

In 1859, at 18, Mary Benson married her second cousin Edward, the man who would eventually become Archbishop of Canterbury. Mary wrote many passionate love letters during their 37-year marriage. “Did you possess me, or I you, my Heart’s Beloved,” read one, “as we sat there together on Thursday & Friday, as we held each other close, as we kissed.” Another: “you are in my heart of hearts…I don’t feel big enough to hold you.”

Mary did not write these letters to her husband, whose role as archbishop made him the religious leader of the British Empire. She wrote them to the women she fell passionately in love with, one of whom spent six years living in the Benson family home.

The modern perception of Victorian sexuality emphasizes prudishness and naïveté. But the idea that people of the era kept their sexual desires hidden from others is a misconception. Victorians were “used to talking about their own feelings,” says Professor Simon Goldhill, author of .

Afflicted by postpartum melancholy, Mary took a vacation with Emily. When she got home, Mary and Edward had a frank talk about the relationship between the two women. Edward didn’t forbid Mary from seeing Emily, but he “took me on his knee, and blessed God and prayed,” Mary wrote in her diary. She had been neglecting the household tasks and childcare expected of a wife. “I remember my heart sank within me and became as a stone—for duties stared me in the face.”

Edward’s approach to Mary’s same-sex attraction (discussion, prayer, and empathy) remained remarkably consistent throughout their marriage, even after he became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883. “He knew that she desired women, but they still lived together,” says Goldhill. “They had to to talk about that, they had to work their way through that in a way that very few people understand.”

Emily was hardly the only woman to capture Mary’s heart. In 1871, after the birth of her sixth child, Hugh, Mary was diagnosed with a nervous condition, and traveled to the German spa town of Wiesbaden to recuperate. There, she met Ellen Hall. In her diary, Mary wrote that “fascination possessed me.” The pair had trouble restraining themselves. “I will not even write it—but, O God, forgive—how near we were to that!” What was originally going to be a short stay in Germany turned into six months away.

Mary Benson’s sons: (L-R) Arthur …read more


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