For most of recorded history, marriage was all business.
Physical 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 the bounds of holy matrimony. And if the partners were high-profile, such extramarital risky business could often shape the face of international politics and culture. Some pages in the book of history were written by characters engaged in some extremely bad behaviour.
Below are some truly spicy and fun facts about women (and men) from the “wrong” side of the bed sheets.
Historical Mistresses Facts
1. Mega Mom
By far the most powerful harem mistress in history was Kösem Sultan. After the death of Ahmed I’s mother, the Greek-born slave concubine rose to become the chief consort of Ahmed I when she and her “husband” were barely 15. Kösem was regent to her young sons, Murad IV and Ibrahim I, and her grandson, Mehmed IV, and lived to be about 62—her career in politics spanned over 40 years and she was mourned as "Vālide-i Maḳtūle" (murdered mother) when she died, assassinated by the mother of Sultan Mehmed IV in yet more intrigue.
2. Death of a Mistress
Mary Hamilton was the royal mistress to Peter the Great, and lady-in-waiting to Empress Catherine I, when she was executed for the theft of Catherine’s jewelry, abortion, and the killing of her own infant. After she was decapitated, Peter held her head up to the crowd and, being the learned man he was, gave a lesson on anatomy before kissing her goodbye.
3. 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.
4. 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.
If you ever wondered kind of power an old-timey monarch could wield, just remember that. King Henry broke the rules of his own church to marry the sister of a woman he'd already bedded... and then pinned everything on his wife. That's an abuse of power it's hard to even imagine.
5. 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 carried on 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.
6. 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.
Obviously, nowadays, the "title" is a little less savoury.
7. Getting Her Due
Henry VIII’s thirst for sons made him famous. But he already had a son for most of his early reign—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.
8. Pop(e) Goes the Baby
What do you think of, when you think of a Pope?
Flowing white robes? Check.
Very impressive hat? Check.
Renowned lover... Wait, what?
In the 15th-century, courtier Giulia Farnese acted as mistress to Pope Alexander VI. Her nickname in Italian was "Giulia la bella"... which means Julia the Beautiful. Suffice to say, she was quite the stunner.
She also holds a pretty, uh, surprising distinction: to date, Farnese is the only woman to have (publicly) mothered an illegitimate child with a Pope while he served his pontificate.
9. 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 France'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.
It's like your mother always said: it's all fun and games until someone loses their head...
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10. 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.
11. 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.
Hmmmmmmm. I'm not a suspicious person, but that does seem a little bit convenient...
12. 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.
So far so good, right?
It was... until the king passed. After his death, the Queen had Eleanor executed within a year. Apparently, she was just biding her time.
Remember: adultery just doesn't pay.
13. An American Crime
As of 2019, adultery is a criminal misdemeanor in 20 of the US states.
Ooof. You would think that would stop some people, no? Although if embarrassing your spouse/partner publicly isn't enough to hold a person back, maybe there's really nothing to be done.
14. 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.
15. 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.
Which is... nice, I guess? I mean if you're going to have your husband run around your back, I guess it's easier if you get along with your replacement. But then again... not really.
16. 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).
17. 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 Get Out With Her Swag.”
Awwwwwww. So romantic! We should all be so lucky as to shuck this mortal coil in the company of someone just waiting to steal our stuff.
18. 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.
So essentially, it wasn't really grounds for divorce at all. It's a bit like adding a judge adding a jaywalking charge on top of someone's conviction for manslaughter. At that point, it doesn't really change much, does it?
Shows you how far we've come.
19. Mistaken Identity
When you're confronted by an impossibly hostile situation, sometimes the only move is to be incredibly snarky.
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!”
20. 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.
21. Better Late Than Never?
In Romania, adultery has only been decriminalized from the books since 2006.
We can only assume that before 2006, there was absolutely no one stepping outside the bonds of marriage in Romania whatsoever. Right? I mean people don't break the law...
22. Let's Cool Things Down
Edward VII of England allegedly dumped his mistress, Lillie Langtry, because she jokingly dropped a piece of ice down the back of his shirt and then refused to apologize.
That's cold. I guess every great love has its limits. For some people that could be death... or maybe some calamitous disease. For others, it's a wet back and no sorry.
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.
It seems that the ability to take a joke was a relatively recent invention. People in the old days seem to have had as much tolerance for playful jokes as a rabid raccoon.
24. 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.
25. 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.
Funny how relationships that start with philandering seem to end in philandering. There must be some sort of pattern here...
26. 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.
27. 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.
28. Big Love: International Edition
International pilot and daredevil had Charles Lindbergh had three different families across the world with three different women. Two of the mistresses, Bridget and Marietta, were sisters.
Clearly, Lindbergh really wasn't afraid of anything. Even the inevitability of a callous double-life collapsing around him.
29. Is This Equality?
Iconic for her paintings and her eyebrows, Frida Kahlo 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.
Side note: Imagine the power couple she could have made with Anthony Davis. The eyebrows on their children might've wrapped around their heads.
30. 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).
31. 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 is also the Italian opera singer, Irma Capece Minutolo.
32. 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.
33. 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.
34. 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.
35. Big Advice from Honest Ben
“Where there’s marriage without love, there will be love without marriage."
- Benjamin Franklin
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.
36. 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.
That is quite an outfit. Makes me thankful for how easy it is for me to get dressed in the morning.
37. 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.
38. 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.
39. Bibliographic Friends with Benefits
When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley starting hooking up with Frankenstein author, Mary Godwin (later to be Mary Shelley), 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 self-drowned in a river.
That's got to put some kind of damper on the wedding.
40. 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.
Then again, given the other rumours about her love-life (which we won't mention here), this is likely the best possible case scenario. Maybe search the web for what we mean...
41. Eat Your Heart Out, Dad!
The future King Peter I of Portugal was deeply in love with Inês de Castro, to the 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.
He then exhumed his wife’s body, placed her on a throne, and forced his entire kingdom to bow before her corpse and kiss her hand. Creepy, but touching!
42. 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."
43. 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.
44. 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.
That's an interesting list of qualities to have for someone considered a primary lover to a King. Guess it's almost inspiring. Remember: don't let a lack of natural ability stop you from doing what you love. Or loving what you do...
45. 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.