5 Scandalous Affairs That Changed History

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Why you should care

Not being able to keep your hands off someone else’s partner can alter the course of history. But don’t try this at home.

History is filled with great, enduring love stories, from Napoleon and Josephine to Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson. And then there are those somewhat more unseemly courtships. The ones that began in the shadows as steamy affairs or adulterous liaisons, the consummation of which has produced some of the great love children of literary, political, film and music history. Here are some of history’s most consequential trysts: 

1. Mary Godwin & Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Sordid Details: One of the great unions of literary history began in 1814, when the 16-year-old Mary Godwin and the dreamy, but very married, 21-year-old romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley met in secret at the grave of Mary’s famous suffragette mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. There, as Mary later recounted, the two touched each other with the “full ardour of love,” an ardor that would eventually leave the aspiring writer pregnant and Shelley estranged from his wife.

The Fallout: The lovers were married a few years later after Shelley’s pregnant wife drowned herself in Hyde Park, but their tumultuous partnership ended when the poet drowned a few years later. Still, it would produce some literary masterpieces, including Mary’s classic Frankenstein, which she conceived while on holiday in Switzerland with Shelley and Lord Byron in 1816.

2. Catherine the Great & Grigory Potemkin

The Sordid Details: Every great empress needs a counselor, military strategist, soul mate and boy toy, or, in the case of Grigory Potemkin, one man capable of wearing all of those hats. Catherine the Great first encountered the dashing Potemkin when the young commander (10 years her junior) helped the 33-year-old overthrow her disappointing (in more ways than one) husband, Czar Peter III, in 1762. Their steamy though unadulterous affair, thanks to Peter’s untimely end, was likely consummated in the basement sauna of the Winter Palace.

The Fallout: The coupling produced a powerful political alliance for decades. Yet even as Potemkin’s role at court expanded, he grew more marginalized in Catherine’s bedroom, increasingly relegated to the third wheel of a ménage à trois or consigned to the role of pimp, acquiring younger male specimens for one of the most powerful women in history.


3. Charles Dickens & Nelly Ternan

The Sordid Details: Even literary giants are not immune to the midlife crisis. By 1857, the 45-year-old Victorian novelist was at the height of his powers, a literary superstar — who was also married with nine children and living, by all appearances, a virtuous family life. Then he began an adulterous affair with Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, a gifted young actress in his employ who was just a year older than his 17-year-old daughter.

The Fallout: The affair proved the best and worst of times for the writer. Dickens’s marriage fell apart, but his 13-year relationship with Nelly continued until his death, though his tireless (and successful) efforts to keep his double life a secret may have hastened his demise. Nelly is believed to have inspired the dark secrets characteristic of his later novels and several of their characters, including Estella in Great Expectations.

4. Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn

The Sordid Details: This historic pairing, portrayed in countless films, books and television shows, has long captured the public imagination, though the precise details of the courtship remain fuzzy. It seems likely that despite years of chaste courtship, Anne and Henry’s sexual relationship had indeed begun before they were wed and the king’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon had been annulled.

The Fallout: Henry’s attempt to legitimize his marriage to Anne would famously lead to England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church, while Anne’s brief stint as Henry’s second queen would lead to the birth of the future Elizabeth I and Anne’s ultimate beheading.

5. Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton

The Sordid Details: It seems fitting that the famous Hollywood duo met while playing another famously doomed couple in Cleopatra (1963). Both Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were married to others at the time but the attraction was epic (Burton once said Taylor’s breasts were “apocalyptic, they would topple empires”) and a ferocious affair ensued.

The Fallout: The couple’s 10-year “marriage of the century” became the closest thing to reality television in the 1960s, a constant magnet for gossip and hordes of paparazzi. They would divorce in 1974, remarry the following year and divorce again shortly after that.

The list goes on. John Lennon’s peaceful affair with the Japanese artist Yoko Ono not only helped break up the Beatles but his marriage to wife Cynthia as well. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s six-year fling with the married Lady Emma Hamilton, a great beauty with a voluptuous body and shady past, was the scandal of its age. Johnny Cash and June Carter walked the line of their marriages to others until they finally wed each other. Then there’s Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet, or Richard Wagner and Cosima von Bülow, or perhaps Brangelina 

What other illicit historical couplings are we missing? Please tell us below.