Thursday, 5 March 2009

History's Greatest Lovers

by Derry Nairn & Kathryn Hadley

History has taught us that love and power can be both a scandalous and lethal combination. Choose any decade or royal household and you will likely turn up extra-marital excursions of some sort. Witness the lasting furores over president Sarkozy's alleged tryst a minister, over Princess Diana's various liasons, and over Bill Clinton's impeachment, and it is clear that these alliances continue to exert influence over public affairs. Here, we have selected just a few of the most interesting encounters from the past pages of History Today magazine...

Edward, & Mrs Simpson upset the apple cart

In 1936, Edward VIII abdicated on account of his relations with Mrs Wallis-Simpson, thus scandalising British society.
After a period of self-imposed censorship was brought to an abrupt halt, newspapers of the day devoted reams of print to the alleged 'intimacy', as they put it, between the king and his mistress, an American catholic two-time divorcee. George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, had successfully predicted such a crisis in his 1929 playlet The Apple Cart, in which a fictional British king of the future causes ructions by insisting on marrying an unsuitable mistress. Stanley Baldwin's cabinet threatened to resign if the king went ahead with the marriage and a full-scale political crisis seemed imminent. In the event, the king stood by 'the woman he loved', and went into exile in Paris.

Read text from Shaw's play here, and about how it influenced the matter in this 2006 History Today piece. More on the background to the topic is to be found in this 2003 article

Edward II & Piers Gaveston - brothers of the flesh?

Gaveston was a close friend of Edward II, first as prince and then as king. J.S. Hamilton, in this article from History Today, argues that the close relationship between the two extended beyond the borders of 'brothers-at-arms'. Instead, says Hamilton,
Edward and Gaveston entered into 'illicit and sinful unions'. This homosexual tryst compromised the young king's relationship with his wife, Isabella, and indirectly, England's relationship with the French kingdom of her father, Philip the Fair. Although uncertainty still surrounds the nature of Edward and Gaveston's ties, one thing is definite: their close bonds were only brought to a halt upon the latter's execution in 1312 by the Earl of Lancaster.

The Prince Regent & Mrs Fitzherbert's dirty weekends.

Wallis-Simpson was certainly not the first nor the last less-than-suitable relationship that befell the English monarchy. George IV, as the young Prince of Wales, fell for Maria Anne Fitzherbert. After an affair that spanned years and took place primarily in Brighton, away from prying eyes (hence the origin of the phrase 'dirty weekend'), the Prince Regent allegedly wed his mistress in secret. This marriage was invalid owing to the would-be bride's catholic religion and status as a widow. Despite this, in the wake of George's death in 1830, Fitzherbert was offered the opportunity to become a duchess. She was not the flamboyant monarch's only affair, but she certainly seems to have been the most high profile.

Napoleon's many and various

In 1796, Napoleon I married Josephine de Beauharnais, a widow who had two children. She was six years his elder and was unable to bear him a son. In 1809, he divorced her and remarried to Marie Louise, the Archduchess of Austria, the following year. During his Egyptian campaign, Napoleon was known to have had an affair with Pauline Bellisle Foures, the wife of a junior officer, who became known as 'Cleopatra'. Napoleon’s illegitimate children were testimony to his other numerous mistresses. He acknowledged two of his illegitimate sons:

  • Charles Leon, by Louise Catherine ElĂ©onore Denuelle de la Plaigne, who came from a middle class family and became Napoleon’s mistress in 1806, shortly after she divorced her husband, a former army officer who was sentenced to prison.
  • Count Alexandre Joseph Colonna-Walewski, by Countess Marie Walewska, a Polish Countess and wife of Count Athenasius Walewski.

Napoleon may have had at least three other unacknowledged illegitimate children. Victoria Kraus bore him a son and Albine de Montholon, the wife of Charles Tristan, marquis de Montholon, who stayed with Napoleon during his final years of exile on St Helena, bore him another daughter. He allegedly had another son, Jules Barthelemy-Saint-Hilaire, whose mother remains unknown.

For more information on Napoleon’s friendship with Betsy Balcombe on St Helena, read our article Betsy Balcombe and Napoleon.

For information on how Napoleon brought Europe to a pinnacle of monarchism, notably by placing members of his family on thrones across the continent, read our article Napoleon the Kingmaker

Alexander's orientalism

Alexander the Great married polygamously at least two ‘barbarians’, or non-Greeks. He married Roxane, the daughter of a Bactrian nobleman Oxyartes, from the region of Greater Iran, in 327 BC, and then married Stateira, a Persian princess and the daughter of Darius III of Persia, in 324 BC. Alexander allegedly also married a third wife Parysatis in Persia, although very little is known about her. He had at least one child with his Sogdian wife, Roxane. Upon the death of Alexander, Roxane allegedly murdered Stateira and her sister in 323 BC in Babylon, throwing their bodies into a well of cannibals.

Alexander married no Macedonian or Greek women and it has been argued that his marriages may have been motivated primarily by realpolitik, in an attempt to promote a policy of orientalisation, the promotion of a Greco-oriental political and cultural mix.

Alexander the Great is also believed to have had at least two male lovers: Hephaestion, a Macedonian noble and friend from boyhood, who held the position of second-in-command of Alexander’s forces, and Bagoas, a ‘barbarian’, Persian, and eunuch. The relationship between Hephaestion and Alexander has notably led to considerable historical speculation.

For further information on the legends and realities surrounding Alexander’s bride Roxane, read our article Alexander the Great's Little Star

For an insight into the personality of the man, who is remembered as one of the worlds’ greatest heroes, read our article Alexander the Great: Hunting for a New Past?

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