Romantic scandals of varying severity have challenged the British royal family since its inception. Some of these partly remain shrouded in mystery, but many have had a wide-ranging impact on British society, religion and culture.


With the modern royal family a source of endless and distinct fascination in the public eye, we unpack seven defining scandals of love and lust across royal history, from the reigns of medieval monarchs to the modern day.

King Eadwig’s ménage à trois

‘Scandalous’ is a word that could summarise Eadwig’s short-lived and disruptive reign as king of the English from 955–7, and ruler of Wessex from 957-9. While his uncle, King Æthelstan, is now considered to be one of the most successful and dominant kings in British history, it’s fair to say that Eadwig is noted by historians for different reasons. He instead chose to devote his attention to petty disputes and chasing his personal desires – namely women.

Most infamously, Eadwig – who ascended the throne at the age of 14 before his death five years later – excused himself from his own coronation in order to intimately acquaint himself with two women at once.

Eadwig had a short-lived and disruptive reign as king of the English from 955–7, and ruler of Wessex from 957-9. (Image by Alamy)

While the precise details of this legendary ménage à trois are murky across several contradictory accounts, it’s highly possible that these women were his future wife Ælfgifu – to whom he was closely related – and her mother, Æthelgifu.

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As Dr Katherine Weikert explores in her chapter in The Reigns of Edmund, Eadred and Eadwig, 939-959 (Boydell and Brewer, 2024), the act was first recorded some fifty years later, and she writes that “whether or not this actually happened is less important than what the story tells us about Eadwig’s reign and its legacy”.

Whatever the precise details of Eadwig’s engagement with the two women, word of his irresponsibility spread through the royal court, fracturing his relationships with his family, experienced politicians, and leading religious figures, weakening his authority and defining him as a controversial figure.

King Edward II and Piers Gaveston

In 1308, King Edward II married Isabella of France as part of the effort to ease political tensions with the French. However, his contemporaries – and historians since – have observed that his love might have been reserved for another member of his court: Piers Gaveston, who had been his closest confidant and ally since 1300 – and potentially much more.

Whether it was platonic or, as has been speculated for centuries, romantic, Edward II consistently prioritised his relationship with Gaveston above all else. This led to ongoing conflict and friction, as well as Gaveston’s exile to France on more than one occasion.

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In the first instance, King Edward I, Edward II’s father, separated his son and Gaveston by banishing the latter to Europe in February 1307. The reasons behind Edward I’s decision aren’t recorded, but it may be that the closeness between the two men was a source of concern to the king. When the king died later in 1307 and Edward II ascended the throne, he recalled Gaveston immediately, showering him with affection and naming him Earl of Cornwall.

A year later, in 1308, Gaveston was exiled once again, this time with the unwilling consent of Edward II after Isabella’s father, King Philip IV of France, declared his anger at Edward II’s preference for Gaveston over his daughter. Yet again, though, the bond between Edward II and Gaveston remained, and by 1309 Gaveston was back in England with his earldom reinstated.

Edward II’s eventual deposition and death in 1327 can in part be attributed to the pair’s relationship, however intimate it was. The king’s all-consuming preference for his favourites – Gaveston first and Hugh Despenser later – provoked consistent outrage, ultimately turning the country’s barons, earls, and nobles against him.

Henry VIII and the death of Anne Boleyn

After the first seismic scandal of establishing the Church of England in order to divorce his first wife, Henry VIII had his second queen, Anne Boleyn, executed by beheading on 19 May 1536 on charges of treason. Boleyn had been accused (and convicted) of engaging in sexual relationships with a variety of men other than the king – including her brother.

Anne Boleyn
Anne Boleyn was accused of engaging in sexual relationships with a variety of men other than the king. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Most modern historians now believe that the accusations against Boleyn were entirely false, fabricated in order to remove her from her hugely influential position in the royal court. Varied arguments have it that Boleyn was framed either directly by King Henry VIII so that he could move on to another wife, or by the king’s scheming adviser Thomas Cromwell, who viewed her as an obstacle to his plans.

Whichever is true, the death of Anne Boleyn was one of several dramatic and fraught scandals that marked the king’s time on the throne, with his unsatiated appetite for more than what he had.

The future George IV’s rogue wedding to Maria Fitzherbert

George IV, who ruled as regent between 1811–20 while his father, George III, was incapacitated, defined the extravagance and opulence of the Regency era. His taste for wealth and prestige was only matched by his penchant for chaos and disorder. This manifested itself in his financial woes and failed marriage to Caroline of Brunswick, but also in his rogue first marriage – while he was Prince of Wales – to Maria Fitzherbert in 1785.

George IV
George IV ruled as regent between 1811–20 while his father, George III, was incapacitated. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Twice widowed and a Roman Catholic (the 1701 Act of Settlement precluded any monarch from marrying someone of that faith), Fitzherbert was decidedly not a prime candidate for the role of would-be queen through a marriage to the future George IV. However, a marriage was precisely what he wanted.

Despite her unsuitability for the position of royal consort, her charm and allure as a leading figure within London’s high society attracted the attention of the prince, who exacted a campaign of pressure on Fitzherbert to marry in secret.

Maria Fitzherbert
Maria Anne Fitzherbert, unofficial wife of George IV. Based on a painting by Thomas Gainsborough, 1784. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The marriage, though officially overseen by a Church of England clergyman, was not publicly recognised as it contravened two laws; one that would have seen Prince George have to forfeit his place in the line of succession due to Fitzherbert’s Catholicism, and one that stated that the king had to consent to any royal marriage.

Prince George would go on to ‘officially’ marry Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, who would become queen, though he continued his complicated relationship with Fitzherbert on and off throughout their life until they separated for a final time in 1811.

The abdication crisis

The position of the monarchy is inextricable from its many links to the Church of England. In Britain, historically the sovereign’s right to rule was divine, expressed by the Church of England as being the direct will of God. In other words, the next person in the line of succession does not choose to become the country’s monarch; they are chosen.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor seated outdoors with two small dogs. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

In 1936, King Edward VIII ignited a constitutional crisis, and rocked these abiding principles, by deciding to abdicate from the throne to marry Wallis Simpson – a divorcée from the USA. The fact of Simpson’s two divorces meant that the British establishment, including the Church of England, viewed her as an entirely unsuitable and untenable partner for the king, given his position as ‘Defender of the Faith’.

Within that context, and with concerns about the reaction of the British public, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin advised that the king would have to make a choice. He could either remain in his position as king and not marry Simpson, or abdicate and marry her.

Edward VIII chose the second option, announcing his abdication via a BBC radio broadcast on 11 December 1936. His reign had lasted for less than a year, and he was replaced by his brother, George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II.

Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend

The romantic endeavours of the royal family have been a source of great tension throughout its history. Perhaps none are quite so evocative as the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, Princess Margaret, and Peter Townsend, a former equerry of their father, George VI.

Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret
Peter Townsend (foreground) and Princess Margaret. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

After Townsend divorced his first wife in 1952, his relationship with the princess began in earnest. When an eagle-eyed journalist spotted the princess affectionately plucking a piece of lint from Townsend’s jacket during the Queen’s coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1953, their relationship inevitably hit the press. Enamoured by each other, the two decided to marry.

However, with her ties to the Church of England and her sister’s role within it, the princess’s desire to marry Townsend was blocked by both the royal establishment and British government, due to concern about the potential social impact of being seen to sanction the marriage.

Princess Margaret
Princess Margaret released a rare public statement in 1955 explaining that she had given up the relationship with Peter Townsend. (Photo by Derek Berwin/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

With mounting pressure, and a dawning realisation of the reality of the situation, Princess Margaret released a rare public statement in 1955 explaining that she had given up the relationship in order to prioritise her “duty to the Commonwealth,” though she reportedly was never able to reconcile with her lost, forbidden relationship.

Queen Elizabeth II’s “annus horribilis”

The year 1992 was perhaps the single most challenging 12-month period of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, testing the strength of the royal family and her position at the head of it, amid the background context of an evolving Britain. In a speech given on 24 November 1992, commemorating her Ruby Jubilee, she described it as an “annus horribilis” – a horrible year, in reference to the particular struggles faced by the royal family.

Queen Elizabeth II makes her annus horribilis speech
Queen Elizabeth II makes a speech at Guildhall on her 40th Anniversary in 1992, in which she references her 'annus horribilis'. (Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images)

These struggles primarily concerned the romantic relationships – and scandals – of the queen’s children: Princess Anne had divorced Captain Mark Phillips; Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson had separated; and the collapsed relationship between Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, was further exposed.

Charles and Diana, photographed in 1992
The collapsed relationship of Charles and Diana was further exposed in 1992. (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

Each of these turbulent relationships, with their twists and turns, became headline-making news, much to Elizabeth II’s dismay, with salacious details of affairs and separations being unveiled throughout the year. In turn, this piqued the public interest in the private lives and romances of the royals – the precise thing that Queen Elizabeth II, and those around her, had so determinedly sought to avoid.


This was capped off by a destructive fire at Windsor Castle, one of the queen’s private personal residences, four days before her gloomy – and now famous – acknowledgement of the year’s woes.


James OsborneContent producer

James Osborne is a content producer at HistoryExtra where he writes, researches, and edits articles, while also conducting the occasional interview