One of the most fascinating women of the medieval period, Eleanor of Aquitaine was Queen of France for 15 years before annulling her marriage to Louis VII on the grounds of consanguinity in 1152. Almost immediately she became engaged to Henry Duke of Normandy – later Henry II of England. This raised eyebrows as the bride was 11 years older than her husband. It was said to be a somewhat argumentative but genuine love match and the couple produced eight children over the next 13 years. However, the two soon became estranged with Henry embarking on a notorious affair with the ‘Fair Rosamund’ (Rosamund Clifford) which certainly didn’t help relations between the two. Henry also imprisoned Eleanor when she supported their eldest son’s revolt against his father. She was immediately freed on his death by their second son Richard the Lionheart who succeeded after his elder brother predeceased their father.
Marrying young (Isabella was 12 to Edward’s 24) in 1308, Edward was already king by the time of the marriage and devoted to his favourite, Piers Gaveston. Isabella was astute and intelligent and initially supported her husband, bore children and found a way to work with her husband’s favourite and be a go-between between England and her native France. This accord was not to last; Gaveston was soon to meet his end at the hands of the barons, leaving Edward distraught. Soon enough, he found a new favourite in Hugh De-Le Spencer, someone with whom Isabella could not work with in the same way she had with Piers. It was this new ‘relationship’ that ultimately broke the marriage and, at one point, Isabella publicly went down on her knees and asked her husband to banish Hugh and his family. He did, but not for long with the Despencers coming back with vengeance, even carelessly putting Isabella’s life in danger by leaving her unguarded and too close to the Scottish army which were advancing south. Eventually Isabella embarked on an affair with Roger Mortimer using the young future Edward III as bait between his warring parents and eventually forcing Edward II to abdicate the throne. He was later murdered in Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire.
John of Gaunt was the third surviving son of Edward III and in total had three wives. His first wife, Blanche, brought much of the wealth to the marriage and their son went on to become Henry IV. Blanche predeceased her husband after providing a number of children. His second wife was Constance of Castile and provided him with a claim to the crown of Castile, which he would endeavour to pursue but never fully grasp. Throughout this second marriage he started an affair with Katherine Swynford who was governess to his daughters. This affair resulted in four children – the Beauforts. After the death of his second wife, he controversially married Katherine and had their children legitimised on the proviso that they would never inherit the throne. Due to the number of people in front of them in the succession, perhaps they never thought this would need to be considered, let alone put into legal documents, but history proved otherwise. The Beaufort line culminated down to Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII and the Tudors.
Edward first sighted his future queen as she waited by the roadside in 1464 to petition him over a pension from her deceased first husband. Was it love at first sight? Who knows. Edward was not known for his fidelity. What was unusual about this marriage was that the bride was not from a royal house and was a ‘commoner’. We do know that the two were married in a ‘private’ ceremony with Edward fully acknowledging the marriage to his court and both regarded their children as legitimate. After Edward’s death and the ascension of his brother Richard III, the children were declared illegitimate from a pre-contractual agreement Edward had made early in life with Eleanor Butler. If true, it would certainly have meant that his marriage to Elizabeth was not valid.
Not that Henry VIII needs much introduction as we all know the famous rhyme of ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’. For the first part of Henry’s reign there was no matrimonial conflict as he married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, who was much loved and revered by the people of England and by Henry himself. However, as time wore on with no prospect of a male heir, Henry began to look elsewhere and this was where Anne Boleyn stepped into the spotlight and launched the controversial matrimonial career of Henry VIII. We all know the rest…
Initially a second choice after Charles’s failed attempt at brokering a marriage deal with Spain, he stopped off at the French Court after being rejected and Henrietta Maria was proposed as a bride instead. Charles and Henrietta Maria were married shortly after his accession to the throne. She wasn’t particularly popular with the English as she was unapologetically Catholic and didn’t speak the language. Even towards her later years she still struggled to speak and write English. She was also never crowned as she refused an Anglican service and the King and court were not keen on the idea of a Catholic one. The early years of Charles and his Queen’s relationship were difficult as the King had his favourites and the Queen continued to surround herself with French courtiers. It was only after the death of the King’s primary favourite, the Duke of Buckingham and the ejection of most of her French companions that the two grew close and they conceived a child. The loving and peaceful marriage was not to last with the looming crisis between monarchy and parliament resulting in the English Civil War, the execution of Charles I and the exile of Henrietta Maria to France.
His first marriage was only controversial at the start as Anne was a ‘commoner’ and the daughter of a minister. The marriage was a success and both were supportive of one another. Anne died young at the age of 34, survived by her husband and their two daughters. As time wore on with the increasing prospect that Charles II and Queen Catherine would not produce any heirs, it became apparent that the Duke of York would one day become king. This was controversial because James has converted to Roman Catholicism and there was much anti-Catholic feeling throughout the kingdom. His second marriage to 15-year-old Catholic Mary of Modena drew further paranoia due to her faith. Mary would, over time, be devoted to her husband. Upon James’ ascension to the throne, all seemed calm for a number of years until he began to fill important posts with Catholics and began alienating a largely Anglican populace. Opinion quickly swung against him after a series of disastrous political decisions and even more so with the birth of a Catholic male heir – James Francis Edward Stuart, kick-starting the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and his son-in-law William of Orange’s invasion.
George’s matrimonial career would start with a bigamous and invalid marriage to twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert – a Roman Catholic (Catholics were barred from the throne at this point). The marriage was deemed invalid as he had not sought permission from the King as per The Royal Marriages Act. It was this same rebellious and carefree streak that led the Prince to drink heavily and gamble culminating in an astonishing amount of debt throughout the years. At one point the debts were so large his father, King George III, agreed to pay them off if his son would marry Caroline of Brunswick. The marriage was doomed from the start and was not a happy one; both sides disliked the other and they eventually separated after the birth of their one and only child, Princess Charlotte, a year after the wedding.
Probably the most infamous marriage of the 20th century, Wallis grew up in the United States and was married to her second husband when she was introduced to the Prince of Wales by his then mistress Lady Furness. Wallis soon took over this role (whilst still married) and they conducted their affair with some secrecy in the early stages. However, it soon came to the public’s attention when his father died and the Prince became King Edward VIII. By October of 1936, Wallis applied for a divorce from her second husband and the scandalous affair was by then well known throughout the UK and the world. The relationship between the two and Edward’s determination to marry Wallis triggered a constitutional crisis, culminating in Edward abdicating the throne on 10 December the same year. In part of his abdication speech he said he ‘found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love’. By the following May, Wallis was granted her divorce and married Edward (now the Duke of Windsor) a few weeks later.