History is full of extraordinary couples – some are remembered for their long-lasting romances, while others are defined by their tragic downfalls. But who were the best? Here we round up seven of the most memorable couples in history, as voted for by History Extra readers...
Arguably the most famous lovers in history, the story of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra VII has been retold for more than 2,000 years. Popularised by Shakespeare, the lovers were later portrayed in the 1963 film Cleopatra by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Antony and Cleopatra’s affair took place amid a power struggle in the Roman republic. In 41 BC Antony, who was in dispute with Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, over the succession to the Roman leadership following Caesar’s assassination, began both a political and romantic alliance with Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. Cleopatra bore Antony three children – two sons and a daughter.
In 31 BC Antony and Cleopatra joined their armies to tackle Octavian’s forces in a great sea battle at Actium, Greece. Beaten by Octavian, the couple fled to Egypt. Octavian pursued them, and the following year captured the Egyptian capital, Alexandria.
With his soldiers deserting him, Mark Antony took his own life. He was followed by Cleopatra, who committed suicide on 12 August 30 BC.
The course of love ran considerably smoother for the next couple in our list.
Meeting briefly at a ball in 1904, Winston Churchill was “transfixed and tongue-tied; Clementine [Hozier] unimpressed”, according to the official website of the wartime prime minister. The pair did not meet again for another four years.
In August 1908, just four months after meeting for the second time, Churchill invited Clementine to his birthplace, Blenheim Palace, and as they took shelter from a rainstorm in an ornamental Greek temple during an afternoon walk, he proposed. The pair married on 12 September.
The announcement devastated Violet Asquith, to whom Churchill later admitted he was “practically engaged to” before proposing to Clementine.
According to WinstonChurchill.org: “Churchill could be very charming but he also was known to be quite difficult at times. He had such a presence and reputation that there were very few men who would stand up to him. There was however one very strong willed woman who always would – his wife.
“They wrote to one another whenever apart, and sometimes communicated important feelings by letter even when under the same roof.
“Theirs was a great romance but, as importantly, Clementine would dispense wise advice on all of the matters of the day. He relied heavily on her for her unwavering support and for her always-sage advice.”
Churchill famously told Clementine: “I do not love and never will love any woman in the world but you.”
Victoria and Albert
Queen Victoria married her German first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, at St James’s Palace on 10 February 1840. It was the first wedding of a reigning queen in England since 1554.
Over 17 years, nine children were born: four boys and five girls. But historian Jane Ridley explains that while to the outside world their family seemed the embodiment of domestic bliss, the reality was quite different.
Writing for History Extra, Ridley says: “Behind the closed doors of the private apartments, Victoria was often irritable and moody. She bitterly resented what she called ‘the shadow side of marriage’, meaning pregnancy and childbirth, and she suffered from postnatal depression. She disliked babies, who she thought were ‘mere little plants for the first six months’ and ‘frightful when undressed’ with their ‘big body and little limbs and that terrible frog-like action’.”
Albert “began his quest for power immediately after the marriage,” says Ridley. “This was not a marriage of equals. It was as if the only way the couple could live with the anomaly (as they saw it) of Victoria being a woman on the throne and superior in rank to her husband was by making her feel that she was Albert’s inferior in every other respect. This artifice imposed unbearable stresses upon them both.”
Nevertheless, it is said that Victoria never fully recovered from Albert’s death in 1861, and she remained in mourning for the rest of her life. She withdrew from public life shortly after his passing, and did not return until the late 1870s and 1880s.
In 2014 Julia Baird announced that, while working on a biography of Queen Victoria, she had found evidence of a later affair between the queen and her servant. In an unpublished diary extract of the monarch’s trusted doctor, Sir James Reid, held by Reid’s descendants, the doctor recalls how on Thursday 22 March 1883 he opened the door to Victoria’s room to find her flirting with John Brown as she “walked a little”. Brown says to her, lifting his kilt: “Oh, I thought it was here?” She responds, lifting up her dress: “No, it is here.”
Writing for the New York Times, Baird says it is unclear from the note exactly what “it” might be, but that the diary entry reveals an extraordinary level of intimacy that exceeded not just what was normal for a lady and her servant — let alone a queen — but also for male and female friends.
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
No list of famous couples would be complete without mention of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: two of history’s most captivating figures whose romance-turned-tragedy is known the world over.
When Anne first joined the English court in 1522 (as lady-in-waiting to Henry’s wife, Catherine of Aragon), the king had in his sights another Boleyn girl – Anne’s elder sister, Mary. It wasn’t until four years later that his attention turned to Anne, but, as Tudor historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb explains, Henry “wouldn’t have been bowled over by her good looks. The surprising thing about Anne is that she wasn’t considered to be a great beauty.” It was her “character, intelligence and charm” and her “cosmopolitan glamour” that drew the king to her.
In January 1533, with Anne pregnant (with the future Elizabeth I), she and Henry were married in a secret ceremony and Henry broke with the Catholic church. Anne was crowned queen of England in a lavish ceremony at Westminster Abbey in June.
Historian Elizabeth Norton explains: “Within months of their wedding Henry was unfaithful, informing Anne that ‘she must shut her eyes, and endure as well as more worthy persons, and that she ought to know that it was in his power to humble her again in a moment more than he had exalted her’.
“When Anne miscarried a son shortly after Catherine of Aragon’s death in January 1536, Henry declared ominously that ‘he would have no more boys by her’. He had already fallen in love with Jane Seymour, and was soon looking to end his marriage.
“On 30 April 1536, under torture, a musician named Mark Smeaton confessed to a sexual relationship with Anne. Two days later the queen was arrested for adultery and incest, and taken to the Tower of London. Anne, her brother, Smeaton and three other men were convicted on trumped-up charges, with the men executed on 17 May. That same day, the royal marriage was annulled.
“On 19 May 1536, Anne Boleyn walked to a scaffold on Tower Green. After making a short speech, she knelt as a French swordsman – sent for as a small act of mercy by the king – stepped up behind her and severed her head with one blow.”
Napoleon and Josephine
They met at a dinner party in Paris in October 1795: Josephine de Beauharnais a 32-year-old widow, and Napoleon Bonaparte a short, marginalised Corsican soldier six years her junior. Yet they went on to become a power couple. As historian Kate Williams explains: “Josephine, the fabulous hostess and skilled diplomat, was the perfect consort to the ambitious but obnoxious Napoleon. With her by his side, he became the greatest man in Europe, the Supreme Emperor; and she amassed a jewellery box with more diamonds than Marie Antoinette’s.”
But while Napoleon famously wrote Josephine passionate love letters during their partings, their relationship was marred by affairs – reportedly on both sides – and “as his fame grew, Napoleon became increasingly obsessed with his need for an heir and irritated with Josephine’s extravagant spending”.
In 1810 Napoleon had his childless marriage to Josephine annulled and married Marie Louise, the daughter of the Austrian emperor. A son, Napoleon (who became known as Napoleon II), was born a year later.
With their good looks, charisma and charm, JFK and his wife, Jackie, brought glamour to American politics in the 1950s and 60s. To the outside world their relationship looked nothing short of perfect. But in reality the president had numerous affairs including, most famously, with Marilyn Monroe.
Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek describes JFK as a “compulsive womaniser” who had an insatiable urge for sexual conquests. In 2014, the authors of a new book about Jackie claimed the couple were heading for divorce when the president was shot dead in November 1963.
In Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: A life Beyond Her Wildest Dreams, Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince from Blue Moon Productions said the first lady, fed up with her husband’s philandering, told her confidantes that she wanted out. Her anger had intensified after Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ performance on 19 May 1962.
Richard III and Anne Neville
The last Plantagenet king is probably one of the world’s best-known monarchs following the discovery of his skeleton underneath a Leicester car park in 2012. But what of his wife, Anne Neville?
Anne was made a widow at just 15 after her husband, Edward of Westminster, the only son of Henry VI, was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471 – a clash that saw the Yorkists reign victorious over the Lancastrians. The following year, Anne married Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III.
Expert Philippa Gregory says: “Some people like to think that Richard of Gloucester [who was around five years older] added to his many apocryphal crimes by kidnapping the young widow and forcing her to marry him. Some like to think that their childhood friendship blossomed into love.
“I think it most likely that Anne judged rightly that nobody could protect her from the greed and jealousy of the House of York but a brother of the House of York, and wisely and bravely ran away from her sister’s house to marry Richard. [Her sister Isabel was married to Richard’s brother, George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, who opposed the marriage – most likely because he didn’t want to divide his wife’s inheritance with his brother. Clarence and Isabel therefore ‘scooped up the girl (Anne) and took her into their keeping. It was probably a form of house arrest’]”.
Anne was crowned alongside her husband on 6 July 1483. Two years later, on 16 March 1485, just 28 years of age and heartbroken after the death of her only child (a boy), Anne died, perhaps from TB. Richard was killed just five months later, on 22 August, at the battle of Bosworth.
Professor Michael Hicks offered a fascinating insight into the pair’s relationship when, writing for History Extra, he said: “While we might argue that Richard wanted to be buried at Westminster with his queen, there is some evidence that he tried to replace her before she died.”
Emma Mason is Digital Editor at BBC History Magazine.
This article was first published by History Extra in 2015 and has since been updated