Sure, the kings, emperors, and princes of Europe took lovers galore, but, as men, that was seen to be their prerogative. What about their female counterparts? Royal women took plenty of lovers, but many of them paid the ultimate price for daring to adore their monarchical mistresses. Here are the stories of five men who died for the women they loved…and served.
1. Bernardino Antinori
Here’s a young woman who, unhappy in her marriage bed, got it on with a hot, young thing. Leonora (a.k.a. Dianora) di Toledo, wife-cousin of Pietro di Medici, a Renaissance prince, wasn’t into her creepy husband. He treated her like a piece of dirty salami, so she looked elsewhere…to dire consequences. Leonora’s man of choice was war hero Bernardino Antinori, who wrote her love poems from his prison cell when he was thrown in jail for fighting. The two fell in for one another, but Pietro’s retribution was swift. On June 20, 1576, Antinori was strangled—with a priest present!—on the orders of Francesco di Medici, head of his lover’s family. Around the same time, Leonora died; her passing was reported as an “accident,” but, in true Medici fashion, was probably cold-blooded murder.
Leonora strikes a pose. Image via Raucous Royals.
2. Philip Christoph von Königsmarck
A German princess, Sophia Dorothea of Celle had a cute guy she fell for…but not in the marriage bed. Born the child of a German duke and his noble mistress-turned-wife, Sophia Dorothea, beautiful and fond of luxury, was forcibly wed to her pigheaded cousin, George Louis of Hanover (later King George I of the Great Britain), sullen and reticent. When she was informed of the news, Sophia Dorothea allegedly shouted, “I will not marry the pig snout!”
Sophia Dorothea with her two young children.
Although S.D. and her husband had two kids, George had a wandering eye, which his wife soon picked up. Her attention soon turned to handsome courtier Philip von Königsmarck, who served in her husband’s army. The two exchanged love letters through third parties, but their affair did not remain secret for long, as they plotted for a future together. When Königsmarck went to visit Sophia Dorothea one evening, he was murdered, perhaps ordered by George. The king divorced Sophia Dorothea and ordered her to be imprisoned for the rest of her life.
3. Walter and Philippe d'Aunay
Queen Isabella, the "She-Wolf of France," sexually liberated mother of Edward III of England, had equally independent female relatives. For one, her sister-in-law, Margaret of Burgundy, who may have taken a lover and was herself strangled. As medieval chronicler Geoffrey Le Baker wrote, “Also his queen, the daughter of the count of Burgundy, was accused of adultery with the knight Philip d’Aunay and put to death by suffocation.” But the deaths didn’t stop with the murder of the Queen. In fact, it wasn’t even with just d’Aunay brother!
This whole issue was what historians call the “Tour de Nesle Affair.” Two daughters-in-law of Philip IV of France were accused of adultery in 1314, with a third called being their go-between. One lady was the aforementioned Margaret, wife of the future Louis X; her sister-in-law, Blanche (spouse of the future Charles IV) supposedly had sex with Philip d’Aunay’s brother, Walter. The couples had their liaisons in the Tour de Nesle, allegedly facilitated by another woman: Margaret’s sister, Joan, wife of a third royal brother, the future Philip V.
Henrik Mommers's seventeenth-century representation of the Tour de Nesle. Image via Art Renewal.
All three women were imprisoned for their supposed crimes. Margaret died in jail, possibly strangled, while Blanche kicked the bucket in a convent. Joan alone was found innocent, perhaps because she just kept mouth shut. Both d’Aunay brothers were said to have been castrated, then drawn and quartered. But who made these possibly false accusations against these royal wives? Perhaps none other than Isabella of France, who had just given birth to the future Edward III; maybe she thought casting aspersions on her brothers’ wives would give her son a better chance of eventually ruling France (cue the inspiration for the Hundred Years’ War).
4. Gaius Silius
Few women in recorded history messed around more than Messalina, the young and beautiful wife of the old, doddering Roman Emperor Claudius. Ancient Roman chroniclers exaggerated Messalina’s licentious ways, but it seems she did have a thing for one guy in particular: Gaius Silius.
Messalina and Silius get frisky.
Tacitus called Silius the “most handsome of Roman youths” and claimed that Messalina was so in lust with him that she drove his wife out of their house. Silius couldn’t say no “since refusal was certain death.” So he just enjoyed the (literal) ride, and Messalina came over to his house all the time for parties and all things sexy. She gave him wealth beyond measure and even transferred the trappings of the imperial palace to her lover. Unaware, Claudius kept on keeping on.
Eventually, Messalina got sloppy with her boyfriend; she bigamously wed Silius when Claudius was out of town! But once the Emperor found out, he came storming home; Messalina tried to beseech him for mercy, but to no avail: Tacitus reported that she stabbed herself at the same time a tribune ran her through. Silius was also killed. Poor guy!
5. Thomas Culpepper
After ending his marriage to his fourth wife, Britain’s Henry VIII wanted a new wife…and he was infatuated with young Catherine Howard, a lovely cousin of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Henry put a ring on it quite fast, but he didn’t do his background research: Catherine was already in love with a gentleman named Thomas Culpepper.
The ill-fated Catherine Howard, courtesy of History Royal Palaces.
Even after Catherine wed Henry in 1540, she continued to see Culpepper in private. Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford—Catherine’s attendant and widow of Anne Boleyn’s executed brother, George—facilitated their meetings. Eventually, Henry found out about Catherine’s sensual seductions, both with Culpepper and Francis Dereham...and a few other guys before that. Both men were tortured and killed, while Catherine was stuck in the Tower of London. She steadfastly denied she cheated on her husband, but no one believed her, and she and her BFF Jane were executed in 1542.
Feature image of Los Amores de Messaline via Benito Medela.