10 Toxic Royal Unions

10 Toxic Royal Unions

D.G. Hewitt - June 28, 2018

Royal marriages are the stuff of fairy tales: a rich, dashing prince weds a beautiful princess and they live happily ever after in a big castle. Except the reality is often much, much different. For centuries, royal engagements were usually not the result of love, but instead they were often driven by political concerns. Unions would be cynically arranged so that families held onto power, or even gained more of it. And sure, in many notable cases, love did indeed blossom in such arrangements. But in other cases, even when the couple started off happily and in love, the regal unions turned sour.

While everyday folk can separate with relatively little fuss, it’s different for royals. In modern times, the breakdown of a marriage can lead to paparazzi intrusion and being talked about in gossip magazines. But in centuries past, strained personal relations could lead to violence, murder or even war. So, here we have ten toxic unions; royal weddings that prove that, even when great wealth and power are thrown into the mix, there’s often no such thing as a ‘happy ever after’…

10 Toxic Royal Unions
Eleanor of Aquitaine spent 15 years under house arrest after her marriage went sour. British Heritage Travel.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

It had all the ingredients of a fairy tale: he was dashing prince due to inherit the throne of England, she was a beautiful young lady with impeccable family credentials. But the marriage of King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine had no happy ending. Instead, it’s gone down in the history books as a classic example of a seemingly perfect royal union breaking down completely, and of love turning into complete contempt.

Eleanor was far from young and naïve when she caught the eye of England’s future king in the mid-12th century. In fact, she had already enjoyed great power and privilege. She was born in 1122 to William X of Aquitaine, possibly the richest and most powerful man in modern-day France. By the age of 15, she had been married to King Louis VII of France. While this was a shrewd move, politically, uniting the two large kingdoms, it was not such a good romantic match. And it got even worse when, after giving him two daughters, Eleanor was unable to provide Louis with a male heir. So, when malicious gossip started spreading about Eleanor’s behaviour on her travels (she even went to Jerusalem as part of the Second Crusade), Louis had the marriage annulled in 1152.

Two months later, however, the 30-year-old beauty was wed again. Henry Plantagenet may have been 11 years her junior, but he was heir to the English throne and their union made excellent sense. Together, their kingdom stretched from the edge of Scotland right down to the foot of the Pyrenees. Moreover, it seems like Eleanor was the ideal queen. Not only was she bright and engaged, taking on matters of court in Henry’s absence, but she gave the king seven children! This was not enough to keep him happy, however. And so, like many monarchs before and after him, he took many lovers – conducting his extra-marital affairs in plain sight of his humiliated wife.

Things came to a head in 1173. Henry’s sons had ambitions of their own and had been plotting against him. When they openly revolted and tried to take the throne, Henry hit back. But rather than backing her husband, Eleanor sided with her children – a big mistake. She tried to hide from Henry’s anger, but he caught up with her in France. The ruthless king brought her back to England and placed her under indefinite house arrest. She would then spend the next 15 years of her life confined to a castle in Salisbury, patiently waiting for her husband to die. When he did indeed pass away in 1189, Eleanor was finally free. She would go on to enjoy a further decade of power and intrigue – though that’s a completely different story.


10 Toxic Royal Unions
Isabella of France and her husband had a toxic royal marriage – that ended in his death. Luminarium.

Edward II and Isabella of France

In England’s rich, often bloody history, perhaps no single royal marriage has been as so dramatic and violent as that of Edward II and his bride Isabella. While this was hardly the first – or indeed the last – marriage to be based on politics instead of love, it seemed doomed from the start. Edward was a ‘complicated’ sort, with complex issues, while Eleanor was as ambitious and ruthless as Lady Macbeth. That they were officially together for the best part of two decades was, in this respect, quite an achievement.

The young couple were set up in order to bring the kingdoms of England and France together. To outsiders, it must have seemed like the young Isabella was marrying well. After all, Edward was tall and ruggedly handsome. He was also, by all accounts, also weak-willed and cowardly. What’s more, it’s likely he was homosexual, turning to drink and gambling to deal with his general unhappiness. Famously, some of those lucky enough to be invited to Edward’s wedding to Isabella on January 25, 1308 gossiped that the king appeared to be more interested in his closest advisor, Piers Gaveston, than he was in his bride.

Despite Edward’s perceived (or indeed real) lack of sexual interest in his wife, the couple nevertheless had three children, the eldest a boy and the future Edward III. But Isabella was not content with staying at home and keeping out of the way. Seeing that her husband was being undermined by ambitious aristocrats, she grew to resent his lack of ruthlessness. Before long, she was plotting his removal too. By the early 1320s, she had taken Roger Mortimer of Wigmore as her lover, and the two started plotting to have Edward deposed.

In 1325, Isabella sensed her chance. When her husband sent her on a mission to France, she arranged for their eldest son, Prince Edward, to join her. Now she got him on the conspiracy, too. After months of careful planning, the coup went ahead in 1327, Isabella had Edward killed as he took refuge in Mortimer Castle. But whether she gave the explicit order for him to be gruesomely dispatched by a red-hot poker will never be known. She definitely did, however, request that Edward’s embalmed heart be sent to her, and she was sure to make a public show of mourning her dead husband.

For a short while, Isabella ruled England alongside her lover Mortimer. But her eldest son had inherited her ambitious ways. The prince declared himself King Edward III of England. Upon taking the throne, he immediately had Mortimer executed. His mother, however, was spared and allowed to live in comfort right until her death in 1358, her unhappy and twisted marriage by then a distant memory.

10 Toxic Royal Unions
Caroline of Brunswick hated her royal husband – and the feeling was definitely mutual. Historic UK.

George IV and Caroline of Brunswick

Some of the worst royal marriages in history actually started out as happy unions, only to descend into bitter acrimony amid political intrigue and concerns over inheritance. The marriage of George IV and Caroline of Brunswick does definitely not belong in this category. This was a match that was doomed from the start. Neither of them wanted to wed the other, and so neither of them made any effort to make it work. Quite the opposite in fact; both man and wife were guilty of such unreasonable behavior that it seems safe to conclude that, not only were they inconsiderate spouses, but they were both most likely mentally unwell.

The future George IV was still Prince Regent when the union was arranged in 1795. Significantly, at this point, he was already married. However, he had made the mistake of not only marrying for love but of marrying a Catholic. According to the Royal Marriage Act, that made the secret union illegal. His father, George III, ordered him to marry a Protestant. Fortunately, the Prince Regent’s first cousin, the 27-year-old German Caroline of Brunswick was free and single. The match was set and the wedding fixed for the day of April 8, 1795. The King even agreed to clear his son’s massive gambling debts if he went through with it.

The historical records show that George IV was drunk for his own wedding day. And he carried on drinking – brandy being his favourite tipples – and was unable to consummate the union that night. While his bride was not ugly, she was no beauty either. What’s more, she was widely regarded in English society as being ill-mannered, with poor personal hygiene. For her part, she felt no real attraction to the future King of England. He was overweight and clearly a drunkard and a womaniser. Nevertheless, the wedding went as planned (even if the groom constantly looked at his mistresses) and, before long, the union was indeed consummated, with Caroline giving birth to Princess Charlotte more or less nine months after the disastrous wedding day.

When the Prince Regent ascended to the throne and became George IV in 1820, the couple had long been living completely separate lives. They simply couldn’t stand to be in each other’s company. He barred her from attending his coronation, a humiliating experience which saw the doors of Westminster Abbey slammed in Caroline’s face. Just weeks after becoming monarch, George attempted to divorce his wife. He accused her of infidelity (she had taken a lover but he had taken many more) but public opinion was on her side. Caroline would be Queen of England, but only for a few months. She died on August 7, 1823, aged just 53. As per her wishes, her body was buried in her native Brunswick. The tombstone read: “Here lies Caroline, the injured Queen of England.”

10 Toxic Royal Unions
After a happy start, the marriage of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden turned very sour very quickly. People Magazine.

Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden

They defied the odds – and convention – to get married. But what started out as a happy union eventually turned sour. What’s more, the increasingly dysfunctional relationship between Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden was played out in full view of the papers and ended in divorce – the first to be granted to a princess for several hundred years.

When Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister wed Antony Armstrong-Jones, hopes were high that theirs would be a happy, long-lasting love. Certainly, it had all the marks of a fairy tale. Far from being a royal relative, Armstrong-Jones was a ‘commoner’. He was a society photographer, a charming gentleman at the start of the Swinging Sixties in London. But despite his relatively lowly status, the Queen agreed to their match. Their marriage on May 6, 1960 was the highlight of the year, bringing together all the traditions of royalty with the glamour and excitement of the new age.

Before long, however, cracks started to appear in the seemingly happy union. Both husband and wife were fiercely independent and stubborn. What’s more, neither was willing to back down and they both had hot tempers. While he became Lord Snowden, he was not happy to give up his own life and carried on with his artistic career, while Margaret was expected to take on responsibility for the children. His work in the world of fashion meant he travelled a lot – and had lots of contact with glamorous women, including models. Within just a few years of their marriage, Lord Snowden was being serially unfaithful, and he was not trying too hard to keep this a secret from his wife.

While Princess Margaret was, by all accounts, deeply upset by her husband’s philandering ways, she was no saint herself. In fact, she had several affairs of her own. Most notably, it emerged that she had been seeing Roddy Llewellyn, a gardener almost 20 years her junior. Increasingly, this undercurrent of mutual distrust and resentment boiled over. It became known that the couple would leave each other ‘hate notes’ instead of love notes. By the mid-1970s, the marriage had broken down completely. In 1976, Kensington Palace announced that the pair had separated. Any hopes of a reconciliation were soon dashed for good. It was announced that the toxic marriage was to end in divorce – the first royal divorce since that of King Henry VIII back in 1540!

However, despite their troubled years, divorce was good for the couple. After some time apart, they became friends again. Indeed, they were close right up until Margaret’s death in 2002. Lord Snowden carried on with his womanising ways, marrying and divorcing twice more before finally passing away at the start of 2017.

10 Toxic Royal Unions
There was never going to be a happy ever after for Charles and Diana. Daily Mail.

Prince Charles and Princess Diana

The marriage of Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and Lady Diana Spencer, was supposed to end happily ever after. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s fairer to say that it was almost certainly doomed from the start. As Diana herself stated in an explosive TV interview, there were three people in the marriage – the husband, wife and a third woman, the woman who Charles saw as the true love of his life and who he would eventually take as his bride several decades later.

Lady Diana was just 20 years old when she walked down the aisle in Westminster Abbey in July of 1981. The British public, as well as people around the world, were ecstatic. Their future king had found himself a perfect bride. Not only was Diana beautiful, she also had excellent aristocratic credentials and, despite it being the 1980s, she seemed to be happy to play the dutiful, subservient wife. So, when two children, Princes William and Harry, came along, it seemed like a match made in heaven. But soon, issues that had been there from the very start came to the fore.

Diana soon grew tired of the strict rules placed on her by tradition and protocol. She tried to bend, even break these rules and, in turn, the Royal Family saw her as troublesome. By the late 1980s, Diana learned that her husband was not being completely true to her. While a mistress or two might have been acceptable, the fact that he was once again seeing his former love, Camilla Parker-Bowles, was too much. Diana took lovers of her own and, by 1992, the couple had formally separated.

What made the marriage of Charles and Diana so toxic was that, rather than airing their grievances behind closed doors as previous generations of royals might have done, the breakdown of the relationship took place in the full glare of an insatiable media. Diana would make clear that she regarded her wedding day as the worst day of her life. She portrayed Charles as a cruel, uncaring husband. Newspapers and gossip magazines were only too happy to print such revelations. In fact, now, more than 20 years after Diana died in a car accident in Paris – and 22 years after she and Charles divorced – the public appetite for insights into the doomed marriage shows no sign of being satisfied anytime soon.

10 Toxic Royal Unions
Robin Hood wasn’t the only one who hated King John – his wife did too. Pinterest.

John of England and Isabella of Angoulême

King John I of England regularly appears at the top of lists of the country’s worst rulers – and for good reason. He was a terrible combination of tyrannical and incompetent. Not for nothing was he represented as the bad guy in all the Robin Hood stories. What’s more, King John was as bad at being a husband as he was at being a monarch. Indeed, it’s hard to say which of his two wives he treated the worst. However, given her youth, his union to Isabella of Angoulême makes for especially uncomfortable reading.

The youngest son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine – who had a very troubling marriage of their own, resulting in the queen having her husband murdered – John came to the throne in 1199 after the death of Richard I. His first marriage, to his cousin Isabella of Gloucester, was far from idyllic. While it was acceptable for a monarch to have mistresses – in fact, it was pretty much expected that a king would not stay loyal to his wife for the rest of his life – John went about satisfying his sizable lust in an unacceptable manner. He would seduce the wives of noblemen, sometimes even fathering illegitimate children with them.

After a decade, John grew bored of Isabella of Gloucester. He pretended that he never knew they were related and so had the union dissolved. He then turned his attentions to Isabella of Angoulême. This made sense politically as it would give John control of large parts of France. But it was more than that. By all accounts, John had grown infatuated with Isabella despite the fact that she was engaged to another and, more importantly, was 20 years his junior. He had her taken from France and brought to England, effectively kidnapping her. The pair were then wed. John was almost 40 and his wife was, at most aged 12, though some scholars believe she was as young as nine.

John showed cruelty in having his ex and his current wife live together. It’s also believed he carried on being unfaithful. To his credit, the king did show some concern for his wife when she – finally, after many years of trying – fell pregnant. But again, once she had delivered him an heir, Henry, he grew to be cold and distant. When he died in 1216, Isabella was just 30 years old and a mother of three. In a final act of cruelty, John had made no mention of his Queen in his last will and testament. She was left with no money or official title. She was forced to leave her son and returned to France. She died in 1246, having spent the final few years of her life serving as a nun.

10 Toxic Royal Unions
Cousins George I of Great Britain and Sophia Dorothea never got on as children – or as husband and wife. Royalty Magazine.

George I of Great Britain and Sophia Dorothea

In centuries past, there was undoubtedly one rule for men and another for women. And nothing quite shows this than the story of George I and his very unhappy marriage to Sophia Dorothea of Celle. What at first looked like it could be an ideal union or two very-well-bred young people, turned into something far nastier, ending in abuse, imprisonment and possibly ever royally-sanctioned murder.

It was in 1682 that the first cousins married. They had known each other as children and never really got along, and this didn’t change with the marriage of political convenience. While it was a success insofar as it produced two children (the desired ‘heir and a spare’) it was a dysfunctional relationship to say the least. By 1687, George had given up pretending to even enjoy the company of Sophia Dorothea. Instead, he spent increasing amounts of time with his favourite mistress. Sophia Dorothea, meanwhile, met Count Philip Christopher von Konigsmarck, a Swedish colonel in the Hanoverian army, in 1790. The two became lovers.

Much to the annoyance of George, news of his wife’s extramarital affair got out and soon it was pretty common knowledge. His advisors had warned him against pursuing liaisons of his own lest it bring the royal house into disrepute. Her advisors had similarly warned her against seeing the dashing Swede. But still, the two carried on with their dalliances, antagonizing one another until, by the summer of 1694, George could stand it no more. While he, as a man, was allowed his extra fun, Sophia Dorothea was expected to remain faithful. He had to act.

Whether or not George gave the order remains a subject of fierce debate to this day. But what is known is that on one day in July 1694, Count von Konigsmarck, his wife’s lover, was brutally murdered by four hired killers and his body thrown into a river. The other man out of the way, George then moved to punish his wife. Their marriage was dissolved, not due to their mutual infidelities but because she had ‘abandoned’ her husband. George had Sophia Dorothea imprisoned in Ahlden House, a mansion in Lower Saxony, Germany. What’s more, her own father agreed to the arrangement. She was out of his life for good.

Sophia Dorothea would end up under house arrest for more than 30 years. She was even forbidden from seeing her own children, even if the castle was comfortable and all her needs were met. George, meanwhile, shamelessly carried on seeing his favourite mistress, and they even had three children together. He ascended to the throne and ruled as King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1714 until his death in 1727.

10 Toxic Royal Unions
Princess Caroline Matilda married a mentally ill Scandinavian monarch. Pinterest.

Christian VII of Denmark and Princess Caroline Matilda of Great Britain

It’s fair to say that, by the time she died in 1775, Carline Matilda of Great Britain was tired of men. Not only was she the sister to ‘Mad’ King George III of Great Britain, but she was also the wife of Christian VII, one of the worst monarchs in the history of Danish royalty. Her marriage to the mentally unfit Dane might have produced a healthy daughter but it was, by every other measure, a tragedy. And it was Caroline Matilda herself who was the real victim in the whole affair.

Caroline Matilda enjoyed a sheltered childhood. While she was the youngest daughter of Frederick, Prince of Wales, she grew up away from the royal court. So it would have been a huge shock for her when she was married to her first cousin, King Christian VII of Denmark and Norway at the age of 15. Not that an older bride would have been able to deal with the king’s ways. While they were perfectly suited in some ways – they were both Protestant and of similar social rank – it’s clear it was doomed from the start. In fact, they married ‘by proxy’ in St James’s Palace in London on October 1, 1766. Christian’s place at the altar was taken by her own uncle and she didn’t meet her groom in person for another few weeks.

When she did meet and started to get to know Christian, she would have been dismayed. While Caroline Matilda was criticised as being plain, plump and even pushy, her new husband was mentally unstable. He was consistently cold and indifferent to his young wife. Once Caroline Matilda had provided an heir, Crown Prince Frederick, in 1768, Christian preferred to spend his time in Copenhagen’s brothels than with his family. With time, he became increasingly paranoid. He hallucinated and became delusional. The king even mutilated himself. And then he publicly declared that he didn’t love his wife and could never love her.

Driven by Christian’s ways, Caroline Matilda took solace in the arms – and bed – of Johann Friedrich Struensee, a Germany physician to the royal court. Thanks to this relationship, Struensee became increasingly influential, even dictating court matters. Before long, Christian’s own stepmother and his own brother conspired to put an end to the threatening affair. In the spring of 1772, the doctor was arrested and found guilty of the ‘crime of familiarity’ with the Queen and was executed. Caroline Matilda was also found guilty of adultery. However, with British ships waiting off the coast of Denmark, it was decided that she should be allowed to live. She moved to Celle, close to Hanover, and lived in exile. She died of scarlet fever in 1775.


10 Toxic Royal Unions
Peter the Great hated his first wife Eudoxia so much he exiled her to a monastery. Pinterest.

Peter the Great and Eudoxia

The greatest ruler Russia ever had was indeed ‘great’ in many ways, but he was a pretty lousy husband to his first wife. Their short-lived, youthful union was doomed from the very start and should probably never have been arranged. However, in 17th century Russia, political and dynastical considerations trumped any ideas of love and compatibility – so both the Tsar and his bride had to endure an unhappy nine years. Once the marriage was over, however, her unhappiness would only continue.

Peter the Great was born in 1675 and from the very start of his life, his family was on the lookout for a suitable match. His mother, Natalia Naryshkina, identified a young girl by the name of Eudoxia as ideal marriage material. So, at the age of just 16, Peter was wed, very much against his will. Unlike many royal unions, the groom’s unhappiness didn’t stem from a lack of physical attraction to his bride. Rather, he was actively contemptuous of her personality and, more importantly for this well-read polymath, of her mind.

It’s a wonder the marriage lasted as long as it did. While Peter was a scholar, Eudoxia was anything but. By all accounts, she was poorly-read, ignorant and generally stupid. What’s more, while Peter was diplomatic, his wife was naturally argumentative. Initially, their two personalities clashed. Within a couple of years, however, they were living entirely separate lives. Peter regularly took lovers, often in full sight of his wife. And, though they had three children together – though two would died in infancy – by 1696, Peter had had enough. He wanted out of the unhappy marriage.

Peter asked his advisors to find a way to ‘persuade’ Eudoxia to leave the royal court voluntarily. Eventually, two years later, she agreed and entered a monastery. Peter had the marriage dissolved. Before long, he wed again, this time to Catherine. Though he saw her as an equal and adored her, he was consistently unfaithful throughout their 23 years together, though Catherine accepted his ways. Peter the Great died in 1725. In 1727, Peter III came to the Russian throne. One of his first acts as Tsar was to free his grandmother, Eudoxia from her exile. The former unhappy wife was welcomed back to Moscow with great fanfare and lived in luxury for the remaining four years of her life.

10 Toxic Royal Unions
Queen Tamar of Georgia had her good-for-nothing husband exiled from the country for good. The Culture Trip.

Queen Tamar of Georgia and Yury Bogolyubsky

In 1178, George III of Georgia announced he was to make his daughter, Tamar, his co-ruler. She was just 18 and, what’s more, a woman. Since the monarchy was battling unruly royals at the time, many thought this was a bad idea. But, she soon proved the doubters wrong. So much so, in fact, that when George died in 1184, Tamar took on the role on her own. She became the first – and only – female monarch of Georgia, and not even an ill-advised marriage could dethrone her.

While they were happy enough to have a lady as King, Georgia’s nobles would not tolerate her being head of the army. Nor would they be happy until their King produced an heir. Quite simply, they ordered Tamar to take a husband. Getting married through necessity rarely works out well, and this was most definitely the case here. The nobles chose for Tamar and the man they chose was Rus Prince Yuri, otherwise known as Yury Bogolyubsky, the son of an assassinated prince. The groom did have some desirable qualities. Above all, he was a skilled fighter and a smart military tactician. However, he was not suited to marriage and, before long, the differences between Yury Bogolyubsky and Tamar started to show and soon become untenable.

According to the records of the time, Yury was a raging alcoholic. He was also serially unfaithful and, some said, perverted. There were even rumours that he was homosexual. What’s more, Yury was ambitious and, after he got a sniff of power through his marriage to Tamar, he was hungry for more. Tamar, for her part, became increasingly confident in her position as ruler. And so, after just two years of a hugely unhappy marriage, she divorced her husband.

Like many divorced couples, they both wanted to get back at one another. Yury aligned himself with a small band of Georgian nobles and then proclaimed himself King of Georgia. Though she was once married to him, Tamar showed no mercy: she crushed his armies and, in 1191, he was expelled from Georgia. What happened to him after that is a mystery. Tamar ruled until her death in 1213, marrying again and enjoying a happy union. Over the centuries, tales of her doomed first marriage have been re-told countless times in Georgia, often becoming grossly exaggerated and usually focusing on the sexual deviancies of the ruler’s inadequate husband.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“On this day in 1152: Eleanor of Aquitaine marries Henry II.” Dominic Selwood, The Telegraph, May 2017.

“Edward II marries Isabella of France.” Richard Cavendish, History Today, January 2008.

“A Brief History of Georgia’s Only Female King.” Baia Dzagnidze, The Culture Trip, February 2018.

“The True Story of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones’s Love Affair.” Katie Frost, Town and Country Magazine, December 2017.

“Isabella of Angoulême – Queen of England.” History of Royal Women, June 2017.

“Caroline Mathilde.” The Danish Royal Collection. Rosenborg Palace.

“A Royal Affair: one to remember.” Alex von Tunzelmann, The Guardian, July 2012.