The saying goes "Well-behaved women rarely make history," but the opposite is true as well. Some women live lives so filled with scandal and tragedy that history does its best to erase them. Luckily, it's hard to keep a good story hidden—and these stories are absolutely filled with controversy, intrigue, and devastating twists and turns. From royal mistresses to freedom fighters, these are the stories of history's lost women.
Mata Hari’s execution took place on October 15, 1917. According to the testimony of journalist Henry Wales, Hari refused to be blindfolded as she faced the firing squad who were about to take her life. She did not flinch as the men opened fire, and even after she’d been struck, her face did not change expression. She also blew a kiss to her executioners in her final moments.
When it comes to bold moments though, the notorious royal mistress Nell Gwyn had a few of her own...
Though King Charles II's mistress Nell Gwyn ended up wealthy and popular, it was a long road to get there. She did everything in her power to catch his eye, and she ended up being his chief mistress for many years—but few knew the dark grip that she held on him behind closed doors. Once, Gwyn was upset that her eldest son with the King was illegitimate. Fed up with her royal lover, the courtesan committed an utterly disturbing act.
According to some sources, Gwyn grabbed her young son, also named Charles, and dangled him out of a high window, threatening to throw him out of it if the King didn't give him an official title. A terrified Charles II blurted out, "God save the Earl of Burford!" anointing his son as an Earl, and saving his life at the same time.
Desperate times call for desperate measures! If only the Duchess of Berry had handled herself as well when it came to her lovers...
Louise Élisabeth was the most scandalous duchess in France. The tabloids couldn't get enough of this debaucherous royal who lived only to throw parties and add notches to her bedpost—with devastating results. Affair after affair led to a constant series of miscarriages, and her wild lifestyle slowly ate away at her once youthful and vibrant frame.
At 22 years old, she became pregnant for the sixth time, and her body simply couldn't hold together any longer.
After miscarrying once more, she never fully recovered. She died in agony not long after. The Duchess of Berry was just 23 years old. However, there was one final twist to this tragic tale. Doctors performed an autopsy on the deceased duchess—and they made a discovery that sent shockwaves through 18th-century France. Louise Élisabeth was a full two weeks pregnant at the time of her demise. It's unknown who the father was.
Despite all the tragedy, the Duchess's life was a walk in the park compared to the story of Queen Olympias...
When Queen Olympias had captured her wayward stepson Arrhidaeus and his ambitious wife, she was not merciful in her victory. She executed Arrhidaeus in a straightforward manner in order to be rid of him—but Adea Eurydice suffered a much darker fate. Olympias famously sent her a cup of poison, a noose, and a sword, telling her to choose how she would die. According to the histories, Adea Eurydice chose to hang herself, though she cursed Olympias to the very end of her life.
That's just how they settled things back then—and while things in 20th century England were less violent, there was a different kind of brutality lurking in high society...
We all know about the massive scandal that Edward VII caused when he abdicated the English throne to marry his American divorcee paramour, Wallis Simpson. But few remember the woman who came before her: Thelma Furness. And sadly, the repercussions of her affair with the royal and the heartbreak and controversy that ensued would haunt her for the rest of her life.
When Thelma Furness collided with Edward, it wasn't love at first sight. But as they began to spend more time together, she fell hard. They began to spend long weekends together, despite the fact that Thelma was married. They spent many happy months together, but the arrival of another infamous woman abruptly ended her joy. In fact, Thelma claimed that she was actually the one to introduce Edward to Wallis Simpson.
Although she didn't know it at the time, she'd doomed herself.
When Thelma decided to leave her husband, she told Edward. The two were incredibly joyful—but there was also an undercurrent of sadness. Edward would, one day, be the king, and would bear an incredible amount of responsibility along with the title. Obviously, he wouldn’t—couldn’t—marry her. In the moment, though, she was just happy to be with someone who loved her and whom she trusted.
Unfortunately for Thelma, she trusted Edward perhaps a little too much.
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In January 1934, Thelma’s twin sister invited her to California for a visit. The trip would take roughly five or six weeks. She immediately prepared for the trip, but Edward was less than happy to be away from her for so long. That’s when Thelma had a stroke of genius: she asked her good friend Wallis Simpson to keep Edward company.
Well, when she came back, it didn't take Thelma long to realize that her lover and her friend had betrayed her. And although Thelma put on a brave face, there's evidence that her heartbreak reverberated through the years...
On January 29, 1970, at the age of 65, Furness’s life came to an end while she was on the way to see her doctor. According to her niece, Gloria Vanderbilt, “In [Thelma’s] bag was this miniature teddy bear that the Prince of Wales had given her, years before, when she came to be with my mother at the custody trial, and it was worn down to the nub.” Her grave is next to her twin’s in Culver City, California.
See, she still had a soft spot for him—something our next subject could relate to.
In 1960, the CIA pressured Fidel Castro’s mistress into killing him. According to the plan, the woman, Marita Lorenzo, would proffer Castro poison pills that she had hidden in her jar of face lotion. Unfortunately, the pills dissolved in the cream—and then things got even worse: Castro got wise to her plot. But there was a surprising twist.
It appeared that Castro was more heartbroken than mad, as he offered Lorenzo his own gun and told her to finish him off herself. She still loved him and couldn’t do it. They ended on good enough terms for her to visit one last time in 1961. That’s love, folks!
Strong, intelligent, and best known as Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta led an extraordinary life. Her experiences, however, were far from idyllic. Born an African princess and captured as a slave,she was later raised as the queen’s ward in English high society, But if her time in England revealed anything, it’s that any cage, no matter how gilded, is still just a cage, especially when Queen Victoria is in charge...
Queen Victoria acted like she'd saved Sarah Forbes Bonetta, but she also forced her into countless uncomfortable situations. However, one was worse than the others. When Sarah was just 19 years old, her 31-year-old former classmate, James, expressed his desire to marry her. She was not interested—but he went over her head and asked Queen Victoria. Despite Sarah's protestations, Victoria acquiesced.
Given no other choice, Sarah went along with it. While they did go on to have three children, Victoria somehow still had mixed feelings for her goddaughter's husband...
Oddly, despite the fact that it was the queen who urged Sarah to marry a man whom she presumably knew resided in Lagos, Queen Victoria feared that her goddaughter might not actually be safe there. So much so that she felt compelled to arrange an emergency escape plan for Sarah via the Royal Navy, which allegedly had standing instructions to rescue her in the event of anything bad happening (like, say, a political uprising). Um, thanks?
However, Sarah’s inevitable return to England wasn’t motivated by the fear of losing her life—although unbeknownst to her, her life would soon be in jeopardy for an entirely different reason.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta discovered she had tuberculosis, but did everything in her power to treat it. Sadly, she passed on August 15, 1880, in Funchal, Madeira Island. She was only 37 years old. Her godmother Queen Victoria mourned her in public—but one passage from the queen’s private diary reveals the darker truth. She (at least in part) blamed Sarah’s widower, James, for her untimely passing. There's meddling, and then there's Queen Victoria...
Sadly, Sarah Forbes Bonetta had to go through life on the Queen's terms. Wu Zetian, however, did things her way at all times.
You don’t become China’s only ruling empress by playing by the rules. Wu Zetian was the favorite concubine of Emperor Taizong, and she refused to just retire when he died. Instead, Wu hooked up with her dead lover’s son, the new Emperor Gaozong, stayed in power, and even claimed China for herself upon his death.
Living by her own rules is something that Veronica Franco could relate to—though she didn't quite get the happy ending she wanted.
History hasn’t always been kind to strong, intelligent women, and Veronica Franco was no exception. In 16th century Venice, most courtesans were trained by their mothers, themselves retired courtesans, and Franco was no exception. Despite the odds against her, she managed to carve out a half-decent existence on her own terms. But she wasn't just a courtesan.
A poet, a feminist, a witch…these are just a few of the hats that Franco wore during her time on earth. And her story isn't for the faint of heart.
Franco married young—and to a respectable doctor, at that—but hey, if her story ended there, we wouldn't be talking about her right now. After an affair with a merchant, Franco got pregnant, but instead of just passing it off, she told her husband the truth and asked for a divorce. Since he didn't return her dowry, she had to support herself—and you can take a guess about what career path she took...
You may think “courtesan” was a fancy word for sex worker, but you'd be gravely mistaken. Venetian courtesans, or cortigianas, were at the top of their career ladder. The word “cortigiana” came from “courtier,” and so these women had to be worthy to keep the company of wealthy and powerful men. They could own property, get an education, learn about science, art, and politics, and mingle with writers, artists, and learned men.
And that's exactly what Franco did...
Franco was an extremely popular courtesan. She had affairs with the likes of King Henry III of France, and in her spare time, became a prolific poet and published her works. But the world is rarely kind to successful women, and Franco faced the wrath of several Venetian prudes and detractors. One even came from within her own household. After she caught one of her son's tutors stealing, he shifted the blame by accusing Franco of witchcraft.
Unfortunately, people took this kind of thing pretty seriously in Venice...
When Franco went to court to defend her name against accusations that she was a witch, she had a confident answer for each question the inquisitor asked of her. Eventually, Franco won her case—but then she made a devastating discovery. The verdict may have been in her favor, but the damage to her reputation was already done. By the time she passed at the age of 45, it seemed like history would forget Veronica Franco—but luckily, her legacy burned bright.
Her writings resurfaced in the 18th century and she became the subject of a book and movie in the 1990s. And as good as they are, my vote for "best potential biopic subject" might go to Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen...
Coming into the world as the daughter of King James VI, the beautiful Elizabeth Stuart was the pride and joy of her noble family. So how did it all go so very wrong? Elizabeth may have started as her county’s precious crown jewel, but her life ended in bitterness and brutality. Here are just a few tidbits from the twisted life of the so-called "Winter Queen."
On June 20, 1646, Elizabeth’s son Prince Philip slew the notorious French lover Colonel Jacques de l’Epinay in a duel, and his reasons were scandalous. According to rumor, l’Epinay had provoked Philip by claiming he had not only slept with his sister Princess Louise, but also with his mother, Elizabeth herself. Man, I really hope that rumor isn’t true.
Though Philip was quick to step up, Elizabeth actually ended up estranged from most of her children. That is, the ones who survived. Her issue did not have great luck—but neither did Elizabeth.
Because her reign with Frederick in Bohemia lasted just one year, Elizabeth Stuart is famous today as “The Winter Queen,” alongside Frederick’s “Winter King” moniker. This lasting yet ignominious claim to fame hardly could have pleased the ambitious Elizabeth. Ironically, though, it was winter that felled the exiled queen at last.
In the bitter early months of 1662, Elizabeth had only been back in England for mere weeks when her health took a violent downturn. The aging queen caught a nasty case of pneumonia, and on February 10, she succumbed to a hemorrhaged lung and passed. All the glories of her life were long gone, yet there was one final indignity at her end. Only one of her sons, Rupert, showed up to carry her coffin into her final resting place of Westminster Abbey.
Elizabeth's "Winter Queen" moniker didn't come because of her icy beauty, but instead because of her brutally brief reign. But when it comes to short and eventful reigns, it's an entirely different Elizabeth who may just take the cake...
Cross Game of Thrones with Cinderella, and you'll get Elizabeth Woodville's life story. Despite her lowborn roots, she used her beauty to catch the eye of King Edward IV and become the first common-born Queen of England. Unfortunately, her marriage royally ticked off one of the king's advisors, who then turned on him and put his enemy on the throne.
In a matter of months, Elizabeth went from the queen of England to desperate, pregnant, and alone. But just because she was down didn't mean she was out...
In May of 1471, King Edward staged a legendary comeback. With her husband back as king, Elizabeth Woodville re-entered the real-life game of thrones. But peace never lasted long in Wars of the Roses-era England, of course. After a few tussles for power, Elizabeth's husband passed under ambiguous circumstances at just 40 years old. Some say that he had "a chill"; others insist that his debauched ways had finally caught up to him.
No matter what caused the king to keep over, his demise left Elizabeth Woodville a widow and single mother to the future king. During the turbulent 1400s, this was a very dangerous position to be in. Elizabeth knew that to ensure her safety—and the safety of her family—she'd have to act fast.
Before he passed, King Edward IV had appointed his brother Richard as Lord Protector of Prince Edward, Elizabeth's son and the heir to the throne. However, Elizabeth smelled his bad intentions from a mile away. She hid at an abbey with Edward and her other son, but Richard eventually cornered her and forced her to give him the boys. Big mistake.
See, while we may not have heard about Elizabeth Woodville in the history books, it's likely you've heard about her sons.
Despite all his promises to the contrary, Richard imprisoned Elizabeth's beloved sons, Prince Edward and his little brother, in the Tower of London. Yup, they were the infamous "Princes in the Tower." Richard claimed that Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville's marriage was illegitimate, deposed their son, and essentially disappeared the two boys. No one knows for sure what happened to them, but for centuries, people have believed that Richard executed the brothers.
Even when the Tudor King Henry VII defeated Richard, the drama didn't stop for Elizabeth.
After 55 years of nonstop drama, Elizabeth Woodville breathed her last breaths. The royal family said goodbye to their mother and prepared for her funeral at Windsor Castle. But when they arrived at the ceremony, their jaws dropped. Her funeral was downright shabby. A mere five attendants carried Elizabeth's coffin, the bells did not toll in her honor, and she didn't even receive the traditional funerary rights. Her coffin was basically buried as soon as humanly possible.
This was a huge slap in the deceased queen's face—but why?
Some people took the drabness of Woodville’s 1492 funeral as evidence that the new Tudor dynasty really hated her. But, in 2019, a historian uncovered a letter that confirmed that Woodville had perished of the strange plague often called the "sweating sickness." In an effort to avoid spreading the disease, the royal family decided to bury the Dowager Queen as quickly as possible and get the heck outta there.
As endings go, it's pretty twisted—and Queen Barbara of Poland's was just as disturbing.
Queen Barbara of Poland’s sweeping tale is supposed to be a “love conquers all” romance—but few people know her whole, heartbreaking story. This cunning queen used her wits to gain power, had a passionate affair with a king, and feuded with a vicious mother-in-law, with all her efforts culminating in an utterly brutal end. Hold onto that crown and strap in for a wild royal ride: Queen Barbara’s life was no fairy tale.
By December of 1542, Barbara had fully settled into her life as an attentive wife—then tragedy swooped in. After a short but ravaging illness, her husband Stanislovas perished. Oh, but that wasn’t all: Since she was now a childless widow, all of Barbara’s wealth went to the King of Poland, Sigismund the Old. It sounds like rock bottom for our girl Barbara, but when one door closes, another one opens.
In October 1543, the King sent his son Prince Sigismund to Barbara’s home so he could claim the estate and rip it out of Barbara's hands. Instead, it was a date with destiny. The young heir and the beautiful widow fell passionately in love with each other on this very trip, beginning a tryst that would lead to infamy and legend. There was just one problem…the Prince was already married.
Not only did the Prince not seem to care about that, but he was also extremely heartless when it came to his wife's epilepsy. When it took her life at just 18, his mourning period was...brutally short.
The Prince's mother was, understandably, extremely mad about her son's dalliance with a widow. She did everything in her power to break them up, but the pair couldn't be discouraged. Barbara and Prince Sigismund walked to very the edge of reason. It wasn’t long before they did something supremely rash. Around the summer of 1547, the passionate lovebirds wed in a ceremony so secret that no one even knows exactly when or where it happened.
His family was apoplectic, and on top of that, Sigismund was supposed to have got the Polish parliament's permission to marry. And it was about to get even more complicated.
On April 1, 1548, Sigismund’s father passed, making him the new King of Poland and Barbara the presumptive Queen Consort. It should have been a happy moment—but Barbara’s elation quickly turned to terror. Now that she was actually set to be queen, the Polish parliament threatened to start a full-blown revolt so that Barbara couldn't take the throne. Sigismund was having none of it. For three years, he stood his ground, and eventually, got his wish.
Barbara became Queen of Poland...but it wasn't exactly happily ever after.
Finally, Queen Barbara had it all: Her man, her crown, her country. Yet she was doomed to a heartbreaking end. Practically the minute the Archbishop placed the crown on her head, Barbara’s always-frail health took a turn for the worse. Her stomach pains became searing, she developed a fever, and she lost all her appetite. But before long, it got much worse than that. One of the most chilling symptoms of Barbara’s sickness happened where almost no one could see.
Confined to her bed, attendants discovered that a lump was slowly growing on the soft skin of the queen’s stomach, and that the monstrosity was filled with pus. It was the first true sign that the end was coming, and that it wasn’t going to be pretty.
On May 8, 1551, just five months after her coronation, Barbara succumbed to her mysterious illness and passed at the tender age of 30. King Sigismund was more than just beside himself; the mourning lover followed Barbara’s coffin on foot the entire journey to her final resting place. But there was still the mystery of what had taken her life...
Strangers and relatives alike thought Barbara’s illness had something to do with her reproductive organs, and they weren’t that far off from reality. Modern historians now believe that Barbara likely passed from cervical or ovarian cancer. People didn't understand these diseases well at the time, but they could explain the series of painful miscarriages that Barbara had suffered.
Barbara went against convention to find happiness—just as Queen Victoria's daughter Louise would, centuries later.
Born on the eve of Europe’s first wave of Revolutions, Queen Victoria knew that her daughter Princess Louise was bound to be special. And special she was. Princess Louise was a precocious child who matured into a controversial, mysterious revolutionary. Grab a cup of tea and prepare to learn about the scandalous woman that the British royals have tried to hide.
In the 1860s, Queen Victoria's doctor adopted a little boy named Henry Locock. It sounds like a dull fact—but nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout his life, Henry claimed that he was no regular adoptee, but the illegitimate son of Princess Louise and her lover Walter Stirling. To this day, no one knows if Locock was telling the truth because the royal family has barred two of the family's attempts to get DNA tested.
That wasn't the only scandalous rumor involving an affair...
Louise didn’t care what people thought about her, and she didn’t care much for appearances. So, when she struck up a close friendship with her sister's husband Prince Henry of Battenberg, she didn't try and hide it. Since their bond was out in the open, rumors abounded that they were lovers. No one knows the truth about their potential love affair, but when Henry passed in 1896, Louise remarked that “he was almost the greatest friend I had—I, too, miss him more than I can say.”
Because of the rumors that Louise was secretly romancing her own sister's husband, it's not hard to believe that Princess Beatrice would get angry and lash out. According to Louise, her sister got revenge by spreading a dark rumor. Beatrice claimed that Louise was romantically involved with Queen Victoria's private secretary, Arthur Bigge. Louise struck back by spreading a rumor of her own. She said that Beatrice made the whole thing up because she was jealous. And then Louise poured salt in the wound.
After Princess Beatrice's handsome husband (and Princess Louise's rumored boy toy) Prince Henry passed, Louise claimed that she and Henry were much closer than Henry and Beatrice. She even went so far as to say that Beatrice "meant nothing" to her husband. Ouch. But what about Princess Louise's husband? Well, he was getting into trouble himself...
What helped the rumors about Louise and Henry was that Louise was not getting along well with her husband. They often lived separately for long periods, and Louise preferred the company of other men. What went wrong between Louise and the husband that she specifically chose? Strap in.
One of the most circulated rumors about Louise was that her husband was in fact gay. Louise didn’t seem to mind her husband’s bedroom preferences, many of these royal marriages are of convenience anyway. What she did mind, however, was his night prowling. Apparently, Louise tried to stop Campbell from going cruising during the nights by closing off the windows to their apartment. However, he wasn't the only one stepping out...
Louise spent a lot of time away from her husband, who was growing ever more eccentric and believed that he had second sight. This gave her space to live her life on her own terms and engage in affairs that fulfilled her. While living in Canada, she had a love affair with an Indigenous man who was modeling for her art. To say this caused a great deal of gossip would be an understatement.
If you thought Queen Victoria was overly concerned with morals and appearances before, just imagine what she’d have thought about this.
Princess Louise left a lasting impact on Britain and the royal family. How much so, however, we may never know. Over the years, the royal family has rescinded, locked away, or destroyed many of Louise’s papers and files. The estate has even kept prize-winning biographers in the dark and straight-up ignored their requests to research the life of Prince Louise.
When they made Princess Louise, they broke the mold—but there have definitely been other British nobles who became just as scandalous as she did, if not more...
Edwina Mountbatten knew better than anyone that behind the glittering, softly lit ballrooms of high society, there were dark, twisting corridors full of secrets—after all, behind closed doors, Edwina had more than a few secrets of her own. From her scandalous marriage to her tragic twist ending, this beautiful socialite lived ten lives in one.
When Edwina was just 19 years old, she met Lord Louis Mountbatten, a relative of the current British Royal Family and a great-grandson of Queen Victoria in his own right. Translation: He was one heck of a catch. Lucky for Edwina, Louis—nicknamed “Dickie” by his family—only had eyes for her, and they struck up a whirlwind romance. It seemed like a fairy tale, but soon after their lavish wedding, the cracks started to show.
After the birth of her daughter Patricia, Edwina Mountbatten went off the deep end. One day while Louis was away in the Navy, she packed up her babe with a nanny and sent her off to the coast so she could have some Mommy alone time. Only, she wasn’t so alone. Edwina proceeded to spark up a string of affairs with society’s most eligible bachelors. And somehow, this wasn’t the most scandalous detail.
Once Edwina decided to jump the Good Ship Fidelity, she really went for it. She not only took lovers, she took them near-simultaneously, hopping around town with a Lord Molyneux in the morning, the dashing polo player Laddie Sandford in the afternoon, and newspaper editor Mike Wardell in the evening. It wasn’t long before it got messy.
When Louis first realized the extent of Edwina’s double life, he was “devastated,” but he also had to think practically. As a member of the royal family, he could hardly divorce her without causing an uproar. So instead, they came to a scandalous and very secret agreement: They would have an open marriage. You know, some would say this wasn’t the best idea.
As she reached late middle age, Edwina had completed her transformation into a stalwart symbol of Britain. Yet few knew her biggest secret—and it’s contained in an FBI file. Dating from 1944, the file deems the Mountbattens “persons of extremely low morals.” See, although the affairs of their younger days shocked polite society, there were more dangerous proclivities that they kept locked very, very tight…
In the government files, there is evidence that both Edwina and Louis Mountbatten were bisexual—a boudoir taste that was considered utterly depraved for their time. Indeed, there are suggestions that the husband and wife would have threesomes together with their clandestine lovers. Sadly, though, there are much darker allegations.
The final blow of these documents are the harrowing—and infamous—accusations against Edwina’s husband. Although there’s no evidence she was involved, sources now claim that Louis Mountbatten sought out the company of young boys in some of his affairs. It’s a black mark on the scandalous Mountbattens that no amount of today’s progressive morals can erase.
Still, as twisted as their story is, it's almost tame compared to that of Rebekah Harkness, whose dark end is as disturbing as it is unforgettable...
For a time in the 1950s, socialite Rebekah Harkness was true American royalty. Wealthy, elegant, and beautiful, Harkness seemed to have it all—from her oil baron husband to her notoriously raucous parties. Harkness was the extravagant woman who inspired Taylor Swift's song "the last great american dynasty." But behind her perfect façade lies a chilling history.
Rebekah had always been well-off as a child—as you might guess from the string of nannies who raised her—but marrying William Harkness thrust her into an entirely different tier of high society. By 1956, she had even snagged a photo spread in Vogue, appearing in a neat, black Mainbocher dress with a white satin apron at her back. In a matter of years, her life would go from classy to just plain messy.
As she aged, Rebekah started to live off of “champagne and injections,” including testosterone and an assortment of pain medications. This had devastating consequences. People reported that Harkness’s lavish marble bathrooms were often splattered with blood, and that her muscles had begun to calcify. The train wreck was now chugging along, and it wouldn't stop until Harkness took her last breath.
The end came swift, fast, and brutal for Harkness. Though her children Edith and Terry rushed to her bedside, the scene was anything but heart-warming. According to Bobby Scevers, her much younger lover, ''It was complete chaos…everybody running around signing wills and trying on different wigs.'' And when Rebekah actually died on June 17, 1982, things only got weirder from there.
Harkness had to do everything in style—even when it came to moving on to the next life. Before she passed, the socialite spent $250,000 to commission a bedazzled urn from none other than Salvador Dali. Ironically nicknamed “The Chalice of Life,” the morbid monument stood right at the intersection between tacky and lavish, just like Rebekah herself. And when the time came to put Harkness into the Chalice of Life, the plot thickened.
Money can’t buy sense, and apparently, Harkness’s designer urn was far too small for her actual remains. As Rebekah’s friend said, “Just a leg is in there, or maybe half of her head, and an arm.'' So instead of giving her mother a dignified end, Rebekah’s daughter Terry had to carry the rest of her ashes home, bound up loosely in a humble supermarket bag. What an unseemly end for the last great American dynasty.
Of course, long before Harkness, a socialite of a different sort made waves for all the wrong reasons...
Virginia Oldoini—known better to history as the Countess of Castiglione—was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. The Italian aristocrat’s legendary beauty and photographic misadventures turned her into the world’s first model, but that’s not what made her INfamous. From her bedroom exploits to her tragic downfall, the Countess of Castiglione is one historical figure worth knowing.
When Virginia was just 17 years old, her parents rushed to marry her off to Francesco Verasis, the Count of Castiglione. The count was 12 years older than the girl, and not much of a looker. There was one, and just exactly one, bright spot in Virginia’s marriage to her fuddy-duddy count: Their son together, Giorgio.
Oldoini doted on the boy as only a rich mommy can, pouring all her own frustrated hopes and dreams into him. Giorgio, in turn, adored her. Which makes the countess’ infamous act of revenge all the more savage.
The Countess famously had a high-profile affair with Emperor Napoleon III of France. Between that and other unpleasantries in their marriage, her husband eventually initiated a split. And then, during her separation proceedings, the Countess of Castiglione’s estranged husband decided to ramp up the bitterness and do something truly horrific.
He tried to claim custody of their only son Giorgio, using his wife’s lavish lifestyle as proof of her bad mothering. The countess’s response was swift and brutal.
When Francesco tried to claim custody of her only beloved son Giorgio, the Countess of Castiglione didn't take it lying down. Instead, she sent her ex a “present” in the mail. When he opened it, he was horrified. It was a seemingly innocent photograph of the beautiful countess dressed up in a luxurious gown—but when the count looked closer, his blood ran cold.
Oldoini's photograph was a warning shot to her estranged husband: In the portrait, the well-dressed countess was also holding a knife in her hand, half-hidden in the folds of her dress. The best part? She titled the photo “La Venegance,” just to make her message extra clear. Wouldn’t you know, she got custody of Giorgio for the rest of his life.
Pretty ruthless, right? Almost makes me wonder if she'd learned a thing or two from the story of Empress Irene...
Beauty, brains, and an iron will: Irene of Athens used all of these to stay in power in the cut-throat world of the Byzantine Empire. Officially, Irene may have first been empress consort and then a regent for her son the Emperor, but unofficially? Everyone knew that she called the shots.
Are you even an emperor if you don't have power-hungry relatives trying to kick you off the throne? Almost immediately after Irene's husband Leo became the head honcho of the Byzantine Empire, he learned that the job had other, let's say, interested applicants. His own half-brothers challenged his reign, forcing Irene and Leo to fight fire with fire.
Some sources claim that Irene suggested a vicious punishment: Under her guidance, Leo sentenced his own relatives to exile. Unfortunately for the royal couple, this wouldn’t be the last they saw of their would-be usurpers.
After a period of marital strife over...religious differences (okay, it was a different time), Leo refused to sleep with his wife. He was so disappointed in her lack of regard for his policies and beliefs that the relationship became extremely strained from that point onwards. Luckily for Irene, though, Leo just so happened to drop dead suspiciously soon after she fell out of favor with her husband. Was his demise just good fortune...or something more sinister?
There are many theories about just how and why Emperor Leo passed. The simplest blamed his demise on poor health and stress (hey, being Emperor isn't easy). But there was a much more scandalous theory floating around. It claims that Irene knew the tide was turning against her. To get out of an uncomfortable situation, she poisoned her husband. With that, Irene's road to power was cleared of its main obstruction.
Once Leo was out of the picture, his nine-year-old son inherited the title. However, because Constantine was just a kid, his mother generously offered to act as his co-regent. This basically meant that Irene was the de facto ruler of the entire Byzantine Empire. Her son meanwhile was more of a token figurehead. However, he was growing up fast...
As he reached adulthood, Irene's son (remember, the real emperor) was craving independence. Irene began to realize that he might not be content playing second fiddle for too much longer. Mother and son were already clashing on certain ideas (Irene loved icons; Constantine hated them). Oh, and Irene had also recently forced him to dump his potential fiancee, Rotrude. Irene had to think a way of bringing him to heel, fast. Unfortunately she...did not.
Irene may have imagined that she could keep Constantine in her shadow forever and continue to reign in his place. Of course, that plan went south. Constantine decided he’d had enough when mommy dearest declared that her name should precede the Emperor’s name in official documents. This was the last straw; Constantine hatched a plot to depose and banish Irene.
Purely by accident, Irene happened to discover her son's plan. His betrayal infuriated her and she lashed out with a deranged gesture. Irene had Constantine confined to the palace until he swore an “oath of fidelity to her.” If you think that strong-arming your Emperor-son into an unconvincing pledge of loyalty sounds like a recipe for disaster, you’re not wrong!
Unfortunately for Irene, her method to retain rule didn’t work too well because the army liked Constantine way more than Irene. They stood by him and proclaimed him to be the sole ruler of the empire, leaving Irene with no choice but to step down. An uneasy truce was struck between mother and son, according to which Irene could retain her title of “co-ruler,” but gave her little more authority than that of a figurehead.
Karma is real, people. But Irene? Yeah, she wasn't about to let that stop her.
Irene waited until Constantine’s popularity was at an all-time low. When she was sure that public opinion was completely against her son, she took her revenge. Constantine realized that his mother was about to lash out, so he fled the palace, only to realize that he couldn’t go far. Irene’s men captured him and returned him to his furious mother. Irene decided that she’d had enough of Constantine's disloyalty and the ordered her men to gouge out his eyes. The blindness and humiliation affected him so badly that he perished soon after the incident.
Irene was definitely one of the most ruthless historical figures out there. The ladies who spent time around Henry VIII should've taken a page out of her book...maybe they wouldn't have had such dire fates.
Bessie Blount entered the Tudor court as a maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's wife—and immediately caused a stir. Henry couldn't hold back his attraction to the young Bessie—and we mean young. Historians estimate that he was 23 and she was 13 when their romance began. Did this stop Henry? Uh, no. There’s also another reason their relationship was unusual.
Generally, kings took mistresses who were already married, so that if they did happen to get pregnant, they could always pass the baby off as their husband’s child. Bessie had no such protection, and it would come back to haunt her.
As Catherine of Aragon tried desperately to conceive a male heir for Henry VIII, Bessie Blount enjoyed the fruits of their affair—and then, she got pregnant too. She was still incredibly young, so it was risky. But, when she finally managed to push out the child, the babe shocked all in attendance. It was everything Henry had been longing for: A healthy baby boy. And proof that his wife was the problem, not him.
It was the beginning of the end for Catherine—and thought she didn't know it, for Bessie too.
During Bessie’s golden months with King Henry VIII just after the birth of her son, the monarch stopped at almost nothing to bestow honors on her. But soon after the birth, Henry dealt Bessie a brutal betrayal. Very quickly after Bessie went through the trouble of pushing out his whole child, the King suddenly ended their relationship. The reasons behind their split are still mysterious.
It might have had something to do with the fact that since Bessie had proven he could have sons, Henry no longer needed her. However, some historians point to an even crueler reason.
According to one historian, Bessie’s childbirth may have suddenly made Henry feel repulsed by his mistress. To the king, babies were for wives, not mistresses. Oh, and to add injury to that insult, there was the aftermath of the breakup. Henry quickly tried to marry her off to one of his courtiers—and he picked one whose family had a history of insanity.
Once she'd been pawned off, she was forcefully separated from her son Henry FitzRoy, since he had to be raised within the Tudor household. And then, of course, there was the woman that came after her...
After her ousting from Henry's bedroom, Bessie eventually suffered the loss of her husband and her son by Henry. She even made a brief-but-disastrous return to court before falling ill and dying in her early 40s. At first, it seemed like a mystery, but historians speculate that she lost her life in the same tragic way her son did: from tuberculosis.
In her final years, she had to watch as Henry took on other wives and mistresses—but it was her immediate replacement that probably stung the most: the notorious "Other Boleyn Girl," Mary.
One historian famously declared that all we know for certain about Mary Boleyn could barely fill up a postcard. Truly, the mysterious “Other Boleyn Girl” will go down in history for her relation to bigger names in Tudor England. She was the sister of Anne Boleyn, the aunt of Elizabeth, and one of only two publicly acknowledged mistresses to Henry VIII.
When her husband died, his loss left her high and dry, despite her somewhat recent affair with Henry. And then, of course, there's the scandalous act that led to her famous exile...
Mary Boleyn's love life had been tumultuous since the beginning—from her early days as the mistress to a king to her time as a widow. Her sister Anne's marriage to Henry VIII had actually worked in her favor when Mary's husband died, despite the awkwardness of the whole situation. She knew the advantages (and downsides) to making political matches, but in 1534, something completely unexpected happened to Mary Boleyn. She fell in love—but there was just one problem.
His name was William Stafford, and he definitely wasn’t rich or prestigious enough to openly be with a king’s sister-in-law. Regardless, Mary was determined to be with him—and she'd sacrifice it all to do it.
Due to her status—and his lack thereof—Mary Boleyn and William Stafford only saw one option. They eloped in 1534. What should've been a glorious and happy day for the couple instead set off a brutal chain reaction that would ruin their life together before it even began. At first, they kept their marriage a secret...but soon enough, the truth came out.
Mary got pregnant, and she couldn't hide it. When the king and Anne noticed, the consequences were dire.
The truth was out. Not only had Mary Boleyn secretly married a man beneath her station, she was also pregnant by him. The condemnations were swift and brutal. Anne instantly turned on her sister. Then, her parents disowned her—but the nightmare didn't end there. Her actions had flagrantly disregarded the king's authority over her as a courtier, and he was furious. In the end, Henry VIII had his ex-lover and current sister-in-law Mary Boleyn banished from court.
Of course, banishment is way better than what eventually happened to Anne Boleyn not long after. The story of Mary Boleyn's second marriage is a case of good intentions gone horribly wrong—something that the last of the Russian royals, including Elizabeth Feodorovna, could definitely relate to.
Few can claim to possess the inner beauty of Princess Elizabeth Feodorovna. Strong of spirit, with a deep belief in her convictions and a penchant for kindness, Feodorovna touched the hearts of all who knew her. Despite the jaw-dropping tragedies that life threw her way, Feodorovna remained strong, even in the face of her horrific and grisly end.
Her story started out as a fairy tale, with her playing the part of a real-life Cinderella…only to devolve into a saga just as twisted and heartbreaking as that of Joan of Arc.
Upon her marriage to Sergei, the son of the Russian emperor, Princess Elizabeth took on the grandiose title of “Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia.” And, to Feodorovna’s credit, she made sure to earn that title by winning the love of Sergei’s family and the love of the Russian people—at first. As the political situation turned more and more unstable, Sergei and Elizabeth found themselves in dire danger.
On a cold, winter day on February 17, 1905, Elizabeth’s worst nightmare came true. A revolutionary named Ivan Kalyayev took the life of Elizabeth’s beloved husband Sergei by blowing up his carriage. The aftermath of the explosion was absolutely horrific—it completely mutilated her husband’s body, and scattered his remains across the snow. Upon hearing of the explosion, Elizabeth rushed to the grisly scene, and her reaction was totally unexpected.
At first, Elizabeth remained eerily calm as she gathered what she could find of her husband's remains from the street. Then, when she returned home, she broke down so hard that her loved ones worried she may never recover. However, afterward, Elizabeth turned to religion in a big way, spending full days in constant prayer.
Eventually, she sold all her possessions and opened a convent. If she couldn’t make her people’s lives better as a Princess, she was going to do it as a nun. Unfortunately, being a nun didn’t let her escape the drama of the royal family.
When the Bolsheviks came to power, they called for Elizabeth's capture. Then, in the middle of the night on July 17, 1918, Elizabeth's captors in Alapayevsk roughly woke her and the other prisoners, and forced them into carts. The drivers took Elizabeth and the rest of the group up a road, before stopping at an abandoned iron mine with a pit 66 feet deep.
Suddenly, the drivers dragged Elizabeth and the others off the carts, and beat them into submission. After, they hauled Elizabeth towards the edge of the pit…And hurled her into the darkness.
Elizabeth Feodorovna fell for what must have seemed like forever, before landing with a bone-crunching thump at the bottom of the pit. She survived the initial fall, but that was just the start of her nightmare. Very quickly, the bodies of her fellow prisoners followed after her. After the Cheka threw everyone into the pit, they tossed in a hand grenade to finish the job.
They were sure it would work—but Elizabeth refused to give up.
Whether by divine intervention, sheer determination, or dumb luck, only one prisoner fell victim to the grenade. Elizabeth Feodorovna, along with some of the other prisoners, still lived. In full defiance of her captors, Elizabeth began singing an Orthodox hymn from within the darkness of the pit. Soon, the voices of the other survivors joined her.
The Cheka, completely unnerved, threw another hand grenade in…And once again, Elizabeth refused to give up.
Elizabeth Feodorovna’s singing continued. As her voice floated up from within the iron mine, the Cheka threw large bundles of brushwood over the pit, set it alight, and left Elizabeth and the other victims to their fate. And still, this didn’t manage to end Elizabeth’s life. Instead, she eventually succumbed to her wounds from the fall, but not before tending to the injuries of another person in the shaft with her.
Elizabeth had been greatly beloved by her niece, Princess Alice of Battenburg. And sadly, like her aunt, Alice's attempts to help people couldn't save her from tragedy and hardship.
She may be best known as Prince Phillip's mother, but that's just one small part of Princess Alice of Battenburg's story. She may have been born into privilege and position, but she lived one tumultuous existence. Surviving through conflicts, poverty, and involuntary institutionalization, Alice came out the other side a changed and twisted woman. And for Alice, things truly turned for the worst in 1928...
Princess Alice was Queen Victoria's great-granddaughter, and her life was basically set up to be a fairy tale come true. Sadly, one twist of fate after another messed that up completely. When she tied the knot with Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, it was a match made in heaven—but thanks to WWI and the political situation in Greece, Alice and her family had to flee their home not once, but twice.
And that's where things really went wrong.
The stress of it all led to a nervous break, which landed Princess Alice in a series of institutions and sanitariums. Despite her claims that she was completely fine, doctors kept her institutionalized. During this period, her husband abandoned her, as did her only son, Prince Phillip. On top of that, all four of her daughters went off to marry German princes, many of whom did not pick the right side in WWII—something that horrified Princess Alice.
Left to her own devices after years of mistreatment by doctors and her family, Princess Alice could've simply retreated—but she did nothing of the sort.
Princess Alice kicked up quite a fuss in Greece during WWII for the resistance, even sheltering Greek Jews. But, sadly, the hardships of WWII left Princess Alice impoverished. By the time the occupying forces left Athens in October 1944, she was living in “squalid conditions.” One of her letters reveals the full, heartbreaking truth. She confessed to her son that she hadn’t eaten meat in several months, and only had bread and butter left for the week before the liberation.
Despite the difficulties in her life, Princess Alice did live to the ripe age of 84, passing at Buckingham Palace, her son's home. Unfortunately, not all WWII heroes were as lucky...but there were many who showed great bravery even as they faced death, like Hannie Schaft...
During WWII, the Germans captured Resistance fighter Hannie Schaft and sentenced her to a horrible end. Still, she faced the firing squad without fear—and when the men failed to kill her in the chaos of the first round, her response was truly chilling. Unable to back down even if her life literally depended on it, she scornfully declared, “I could shoot better!”
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
My mom never told me how her best friend passed. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
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