As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Where there’s marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.” For most of recorded history, marriage was a business deal. Sexual and emotional fulfillment could be happy accidents, but they were certainly not prerequisites for wedlock. For such things, a man (and it was mostly men, sorry) had to step outside of holy matrimony. And if the partners were high-profile, such extramarital risky business could shape the face of international politics and culture. Below are 43 spicy and fun facts about women (and men) from the “wrong” side of the bed sheets.
43. Maybe She’s Born with It, Maybe it’s Gold-Poisoning
Despite being 20 years his senior, Diane de Poitiers kept the interests of Henri II of France for as long as the king lived. It was only rumored that Poitiers drank liquid gold to maintain her legendary looks. However, in 2009, French scientists examined Poitiers’s corpse and found that her hair contained gold levels at 500 times the human average.
42. Long Term
Eleanor de Guzmán was the lifelong mistress of Alfonso XI of Castile. Together, she and Alfonso shared 10 children and a prosperous partnership. That is, until the king passed, and his queen had Eleanor executed within a year.
41. All’s Well That Ends Wells
H.G. Wells authored some of the most iconic science-fiction stories in English literature, from War of the Worlds to The Invisible Man. He also founded numerous affairs and kept meticulous notes about them his diary. His wife, Jane, didn’t just turn a blind eye—she lent both of her ears. Jane was reported to have feelings that ranged from neutral to downright enthusiastic when it came her husband’s religiously delivered sex stories. Wells would often ask for Jane’s blessing to stray, at which point Jane would deliver nothing harsher than a riotous chuckle.
40. A “Mistress” by Any Other Name
The title of “mistress” was not originally associated with adultery. In fact, people of the 15th, 16th, and 17th century were just as likely to refer to a woman of high standing and authority as a “Mistress,” even if she wasn’t involved in any extramarital activity.
39. Getting Her Due
Henry VIII’s thirst for sons made him famous. But he already had a son for most of his early reign, all thanks to his lover, Bessie Blount. Henry Fitzroy was the only acknowledged illegitimate child of Henry VIII, although the boy died at the age of 17. Blount would still be greeted with the refrain, ‘Bless ye, Bessie Blount” for that proving the Henry VIII could produce male babies.
38. Pop(e) Goes the Baby
To date, 15th-century courtier Giulia Farnese is the only woman to have (publicly) mothered an illegitimate child with a pope while he served his pontificate.
37. A Career Comes to a Head
Most people know Jeanne Bécu (better known as “Madame du Barry”) as the last official maitresse en titre of French’s original experiment with monarchy. Bécu outlived her beloved Louis XV, but she nevertheless lost her head when the French Revolution brought that experiment to a close.
36. A Suave Game of Tug-of-War
Charlotte de Sauve was a French courtier whose lovers included both François, the Duke of Alençon (brother of Henri III) and Henri of Navarre (the brother-in-law of Henri III). This threesome was allegedly planned by King Henri III and his mother themselves. It was better that his male relatives fight each other for Charlotte’s affections rather than fight alongside each other for Henri’s crown, of course.
35. The Pioneer (Other) Woman
Agnès Sorel is generally considered the first influential royal mistress in French history. She was also promptly replaced by her younger cousin, Antoinette de Maignelais, upon her death by suspected mercury poisoning in 1450.
34. The Mistress Sisters
Years before Henry VIII married his second queen, Anne Boleyn, he conducted an affair with Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn. It was this sisterly(-in-law) sojourn which formed the basis of Henry’s annulment from his marriage to Anne in 1536. To Henry’s new church, his previous relations with Mary rendered his union to Anne incestuous and thus invalid. But don’t worry—the marriage was just valid enough that he still could charge and execute Anne for adultery.
33. An American Crime
As of 2017, adultery is a criminal misdemeanor in 21 of the US states.
32. Patience Rewarded
Katherine Sywnford may have “just” been the mistress of John of Gaunt, fourth son of Edward III. However, after seeing John through two marriages, the prince officially wed Swynford in 1396. This legitimized their children, whose descendants would form the royal House of Tudor—who gave us another powerhouse of mistress production, Henry VIII.
31. Consider What’s Not Being Said
Regarding her husband’s paramour, Madame de Pompadour, Queen Marie Leszczynska of France is reported to have said, “If there must be a mistress, better her than any other.” It was faint but warmly-received praise: by all accounts, Pompadour remained ever courteous and generous to the neglected queen.
30. Ninety-Nine Problems and a Nun Is One
In the 17th century, several memoirs dared to imply that the famous Black Nun of Moret—Louise Marie Thérèse—was a secret love child between Queen Maria Theresa of France and a Moorish courtier. Of course, historians treat this story as incredibly suspect. A few of these memoirs were authored by the King’s mistresses, including Madame de Montespan (who herself mothered 7 kids by the queen’s husband).
29. She Earned Every Ruby!
As Edward III lay on his deathbed, his young mistress, Alice Perrers, stayed with the king right until the end. Here, “The End” translates to “Long Enough to Pull the Rings Off His Dead Fingers and G.T.F.O. With Her Swag.”
28. A Side Chick Is Not Sufficient Evidence
The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 opened a brave new world for English wives, who could finally use adultery as grounds for divorce. However, the wives had to prove the adultery in addition to a series of other cruelties (violence, rape, incest, etc.) if they wanted their separation.
27. Mistaken Identity
When Nell Gwyn found herself besieged by an anti-Catholic mob (who mistook her for the other mistress of Charles II, Louise de Kérouaille), she cheerily assured the crowd, “Pray good people be civil, I am the Protestant whore!”
26. From Nanny to New Wife
Late in life, the lusty Louis XIV of France fell into extreme piety and love. The woman in question was the religious Madame de Maintenon, who was governess to his children. Louis eventually made an “honest woman” of Maintenon. Their marriage was an open secret at court, but Maintenon was never formally crowned before the people. It appears that openly bedding your children’s nanny was less of a scandal than making her a queen.
25. Better Late Than Never?
In Romania, adultery has only been decriminalized from the books since 2006.
24. Let’s Cool Things Down
Edward VII of England allegedly dumped his mistress, Lillie Langtry, because she jokingly dropped a piece ice down the back of his shirt and then refused to apologize.
23. I’d Rather Die Than Let You Out Those Jeans!
In a pre-emptive strike, Marcia Demetrias poisoned the customary pre-bath drink of her lover, the Roman Emperor Commodus. She had no choice: Commodus was planning to execute Marcia herself for insulting his choice of dress.
22. From the Boudoir to the Nunnery (and the Printing Press)
Louise de La Vallière was one of the chief mistresses of Louis XIV. However, after a good friend soon took her place in the king’s heart. A devastated La Vallière shut herself in religious exile, became Carmelite nun, and went on to author of numerous moral writings and letters, such as Réflexions sur la miséricorde de Dieu and Réflexions, lettres et sermons.
21. Eat Your Heart Out, Dad!
The future King Peter I of Portugal was deeply in love with Inês de Castro, to point where he neglected his own wife and endangered the international alliance. Infuriated, Peter’s father sent three men to decapitate Inês. In revenge, Peter found two of her killers and had their hearts ripped from their bodies. #Subtle.
20. Beheading with a Cherry on Top
When Dyveke Sigbritsdatter—the mistress of King Christian II of Denmark—suddenly died, the rumors spread at court about poisoned cherries. A formal inquiry by Emperor Maximilian I failed to turn up a culprit, or even a confirmation of foul play. Of course, none of this stopped Christian from executing a nobleman named Torben Oxe for Dyveke’s death.
19. Drowning His Sorrows
Agnes Bernauer was a beloved 15th-century paramour to Albert III, the future Duke of Bavaria. These feelings were not hereditary, as Albert’s father absolutely hated Agnes. Threatened by her vast influence, the Duke Sr. drowned Agnes in the Danube River. Fears of civil war between father and son never materialized, because Alfred soon ascended to the throne. He quickly endowed a yearly memorial celebration at the “Straubing Carmelite Cloister” to commemorate Agnes and her pre-aquatic life.
18. Big Love: International Edition
International pilot Charles Lindbergh had three different families across the world with three different women. Two of the mistresses, Bridget and Marietta, were sisters.
17. Is This Equality?
Iconic for her paintings and her eyebrows, Frieda Khalo had a ten-year, mutually unfaithful marriage to Diego Rivera. Khalo’s personal list of lovers included high-profile names such as revolutionary Leon Trotsky and painter Georgia O’Keeffe.
16. The Scarlet Reality
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was based on something. Early Puritans really did sentence adulterers to bear their shame with sewn letters on their clothing (they also used whipping, which was at least as bad).
15. A Surviving Song
As of writing, one of the last lovers of Egypt’s last king, Farouk I, is still alive and well. And of course, she also the Italian opera singer, Irma Capece Minutolo.
14. Just Take Her to Disneyland Next Time?
Travel outside of Los Angeles, and you’ll find a luxurious castle property called San Simeon, which was designed in 1919 as a retreat for William Randolph Hearst and his mistress-turned-wife, Marion Davies. Also known as “Hearst Castle,” the residence was host to Hollywood stars, millionaires, and you can visit it today as a public landmark.
13. Kiss and Tell
Harriette Wilson was a retired mistress with a backup plan. When ex-lovers refused to pay her a pension, Wilson published her Memoirs. Her writing gave every salacious detail of her steamy affairs with British Regency-era elites. The book was both a historic sex scandal and a historic lesson in keeping your financial promises.
12. The PM’s Royal Connection
Queen Victoria’s son, the future Edward VII, was renowned for his extramarital partners. One of these ladies is believed to have been Lady Randolph Churchill, the mother of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
11. Big Advice from Honest Ben
Benjamin Franklin was the author of many wise words. He was also the pen behind a famous letter titled, “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress.” The founding father sings the praises of an older woman as your paramour. Older women will nurse you when you’re sick, they’re clean, they’re harder to impregnate, and (his words) there’s ultimately little difference between them and a younger lady in the sexy cover of darkness.
10. Put a Bow on Top
In early Japanese art, the courtesan is identified by her specific code of dress: super-high clogs, layers of robes, fanciful hair, and (most importantly) a sash with a large bow tied at the front.
9. Putting the “Ew” in “Hugo”
The French author Victor Hugo was a notorious philanderer—but he was also a dad trying his best. These two roles came together when his son’s partner, the actress Alice Ozy, began seeing other men. In response, Hugo slept with Alice himself, thinking that the embarrassing affair would “avenge” and cheer up his son. The boy was shockingly ungrateful towards Hugo’s efforts.
8. Partners in Holy Mischief
Hortense Mancini wasn’t just a leading lover to Charles II. As a young woman, Mancini conducted an affair with a girl named Sidonie de Courcelles. To quell their “sin,” Mancini’s abusive husband sent both ladies a convent. Shocker: his plan backfired gravely, as Mancini and Courcelles spent most of their time pulling pranks on the nuns before they escaped by climbing up a chimney.
7. Bibliographic Friends with Benefits
When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley starting hooking up with Frankenstein author, Mary Godwin, he wasn’t exactly unattached. In fact, Shelley was married. Shelley and Godwin did, eventually, tie the knot to each other—some three weeks after Shelley’s very pregnant wife was found very self-drowned in a river.
6. That’s One Way to Keep Warm
Catherine the Great of Russia most likely consummated her long-time relationship to Grigory Potemkin right in the Winter Palace’s basement sauna room.
5. Hollywood Love by the Numbers
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fell in love on the set of Cleopatra while they were both married to other people. Together, the power couple went on to make 11 movies, earn several Oscar nominations, and divorce each other twice—once in 1974 and again in 1976.
4. The Mayerling Incident Ends a Decade, an Affair, and a Royal Bloodline
In 1889, the 17-year-old Baroness Marie Alexandrine von Vetsera was found shot to death alongside her lover, the married Prince Rudolph of Austria, at their Mayerling country lodge. It was an apparent murder-suicide; but to this day, the sequence and chain of events leading up to their deaths remain ambiguous. Although some assumed the prince murdered his lover, recently discovered letters from the Baroness to her mother indicate that she was planning to commit suicide alongside the prince “out of love.”
3. A Presidency Comes to a Close
Sadly, “Death Pump” is not the name of a rockin’ heavy metal band. Instead, it’s the cruel nickname waged upon the grieving mistress of French President, Félix Faure; the 58-year-old Faure had died in the middle of a sex act with his 30-year-old paramour.
2. Was He Really That Bad?
Madame de Pompadour was the chief lover, political advisor, and best friend to King Louis XV of France. She also stopped having sex with the king just five years into their almost 20-year long relationship. The reason: her poor health and aversion to sex in general.
1. Family Status: It’s Complicated
Elizabeth “Jane” Shore is mostly renowned her tenure as Edward IV of England’s mistress, and for her “walk of shame.” The new king, Richard III, forced his late brother’s mistress to make her way through the streets in nothing but a thin nightshift, as “penance” for her promiscuity. What you might not remember: Shore also slept with her late king/lover’s stepson, Thomas Grey the First Marquess of Dorset, who just happened to be one of Richard’s enemies. Shore’s mortifying walk formed the basis for Cersei Lannister’s own walk of shame in Game of Thrones. During Shore’s time, this punishment would taint walkers for the rest of their lives.
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