Elizabeth Woodville was probably the most famous for being Queen of England (depending on whose side you were on) during the Wars of the Roses, but how she got there is the stuff of legend. Unlike the other women on this list, she withheld sex to get what she wanted: a crown.
Elizabeth was the oldest daughter of an unimpressive genteel family that had connections to the British and French royal families on her mother’s side. She was married and widowed young to a Lancastrian noble who died in battle, leaving her with two young sons. The story goes that after petitioning the new Yorkist king Edward IV for her dead husband’s lands, he fell instantly in love with her and wanted her to become his mistress. Elizabeth refused to fall into that trap, knowing the young king’s lusty reputation, and she insisted that he marry her first.
Edward IV wouldn’t take no for an answer, but Elizabeth held out. He realized he didn’t have any other choice but to marry her. He was so in love with her by this point that it didn’t matter and they married in secret at her home in 1464. When word got out that Edward IV had married a Lancastrian widow with two young sons instead of making a diplomatic marriage like he should have done, the whole kingdom was in an uproar. Indeed, this was only the second time since 1066 that a king of England had made a love match with one of his subjects, and the first time that that subject had become Queen of England. Elizabeth knew that her position wasn’t strong, so she married off her many family members into the British aristocracy.
When Edward IV died of fever in 1483, she was left powerless. Edward IV’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became the Lord Protector and took control over her sons, the heirs to the throne, placing them in the Tower of London to await her eldest son’s coronation. Elizabeth’s sons, the famed Princes in the Tower, disappeared soon afterward, some say murdered by Richard III himself, leaving the way for Richard to ascend the throne. To protect herself and her family, she allied herself with Lady Margaret Stanley (nee Beaufort), whose son Henry Tudor, was the last Lancastrian claimant to the throne. His victory against Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and further marriage to Elizabeth’s eldest daughter (also named Elizabeth) established the Tudor line.
5. Diane de Poitiers (September 3, 1499-April 25, 1566)
Diane de Poitiers was the longtime mistress of Henry II, the son of King Francis I of France. Initially serving in the court of Francis I, Diane served as Queen Claude’s lady-in-waiting, so she knew Henry as a young boy. A major player in the courts of both kings, Diane used her role as Henry’s mistress to gain power and influence, even out shadowing his queen, Catherine de Medici.
In 1525, Francis I was captured in the Battle of Pavia by Charles V. Francis had to send Charles his two young sons, Henry and Francis, as hostages in exchange for his freedom. Queen Claude had died, so Diane stood in for her and gave Henry a farewell kiss when he was sent to Spain as a prisoner. Henry was a young teenager when he first became enamored with Diane de Poitiers; she was nearly 20 years older than him, but that didn’t stop him from being completely devoted to her for the rest of his life.
When Henry married Catherine de Medici, Diane was already his mistress. She used his devotion to her to make Henry fulfill his duties in having a family with Catherine, having him consummate his marriage frequently. Even though their marriage was initially childless, Henry and Catherine eventually had ten children together. Diane even educated Henry and Catherine’s children herself. She used her role as the king’s mistress to gain influence and favors in the royal court, which won her many enemies, including the Queen herself. Even though Diane had no official position except for as the king’s mistress, she was sharp and intelligent, and Henry trusted her to write much of his official correspondence.
Henry’s devotion to Diane and the power he allowed his mistress to wield over the French court incurred the wrath of Queen Catherine, but as long as they were both alive, there was nothing that the Queen could do. When Henry died in a jousting accident in 1551, Diane’s fall from power was instant. Catherine became the Queen Mother and forced Diane to relinquish her estates and her position, banishing her from the court. Diane lived out the rest of her life in exile from the French court, where she died in 1566.
Gabrielle d’Estrées, a French noblewoman and mistress to King Henry IV, wielded much influence during the French Wars of Religion. Henry was next in line to the French throne, but the Catholic French were reluctant to accept a Protestant king. Gabrielle was a Catholic, and she used her position to convince him to convert to Catholicism to prevent more religious tension. She became one of his most valuable advisors and considerably contributed to smoothing over the religious tensions that characterized his reign.
Even though Henry IV was married to Margaret of Valois, he openly acknowledged Gabrielle as his mistress and the mother of three of his children. They were fiercely loyal to each other, and Gabrielle followed him on his campaigns, even when she was pregnant. She was extremely intelligent, and Henry sought her out for much political advice during his reign. He frequently wrote her letters, even when they were separated.
Gabrielle’s role as Henry’s mistress helped him significantly. She used her social rank to help smooth over the disquiet among Catholic nobles when Henry granted Protestants rights in the Edict of Nantes in 1598. She had many friends among the Catholic nobles, and she helped convince them to see the wisdom of the edict and how it could bring about peace in the kingdom. In gratitude for saving his country over more tension, he proclaimed of his mistress, “My mistress has become an orator of unequaled brilliance, so fiercely does she argue the cause of the new edict.”
Henry wanted to marry Gabrielle, so he annulled her marriage and legitimized their children together. He tried to obtain an annulment from his first wife Margaret of Valois through the pope, but unfortunately, Gabrielle died before he could get the annulment. She died from eclampsia after giving birth to a stillborn baby. Henry grieved tremendously over her death, and he buried her with all honors due for a queen.
7. Madame de Pompadour (December 29, 1721-April 15, 1764)
Madame de Pompadour was raised in a wealthy family, but they didn’t have any noble blood. Extremely intelligent and well-educated, she was trained to be a royal mistress at a young age to raise the family’s fortunes. After making an advantageous marriage, she frequented the salons of Paris, where she met many important Enlightenment figures, such as Voltaire and Montesquieu, perfecting her sharp wit and the subtle art of conversation.
After meeting France’s King Louis XV while he was out hunting, he invited her to a masked royal ball in 1745, and she became his chief mistress very soon after that. The king gave her a title, the marquise de Pompadour, which allowed her to be presented at court. She secured her position by cultivating and maintaining good relationships with the royal family and declaring her loyalty to the queen, being careful not to alienate her. At Versailles, Madame de Pompadour had her own quarters and was one of the privileged few who had alone time with the king.
With her new position, Pompadour became one of the king’s most influential advisors. She rose through the ranks at court, eventually becoming the queen’s lady-in-waiting, the highest noble rank that a woman could hold at court. She also was responsible for appointing and dismissing people in positions. She became a benefactor of the arts and sciences, enhancing French culture at Versailles by developing relationships with Enlightenment scholars. She became a patron of the arts by encouraging the production of porcelain and introducing the Rococo style of architecture in the residences she maintained with Louis.
Pompadour ended her sexual relationship with the king in 1751 due to her poor health. Even after they did not maintain a sexual relationship, she still kept her role as his chief mistress, and he still approached her for all of his political matters. Madame de Pompadour is unique in that her power and influence never faded, even after she stopped being the king’s lover. She retained her power and influence over the French court, and the entire court of Versailles mourned when she died in 1764.
Mary Anne Clarke knew that she was destined for greatness. Born the daughter of a modest tradesman, she married young to a stonemason who went bankrupt soon after their marriage. Mary Anne left her husband and became a courtesan to help support her family. By 1803, she became well-established enough to attract the attention of Frederick, Duke of York, eventually becoming his mistress.
Frederick was quite the catch: he was the second son of King George III and the commander-in-chief of the British Army. While he lavished attention and material goods on her, he eventually ended the affair in 1806. Clarke proved the adage, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” She was so devastated that she decided to get even. She claimed that while she was Frederick’s mistress, men would approach and bribe her for military appointments, and she kept the money. What was worse, Frederick knew about it! The accusation led to an investigation in the House of Commons in 1809. At the time, England was at war with France, so the inquiry resulted in a national scandal, and Frederick had to resign his post.
Frederick eventually regained his post, and he paid Mary Anne off so that she wouldn’t publish any of the letters he wrote to her during their relationship. The resulting scandal ruined Mary Anne’s reputation, and she had to leave London. She was prosecuted for libel in 1813 and spent nine months in prison. When she was released from prison, she left England for France, where she spent the rest of her life.
The scandal involving Frederick, Duke of York made Mary Anne infamous. She wrote memoirs about her life as a courtesan, but it did nothing to help her financial situation. When she died in France in 1852, she was broke and alone. Still, Mary Anne’s fame continued into the 20th century. Her great-great-granddaughter, the famous British novelist Daphne DuMaurier, wrote a novel about her, Mary Anne, in addition to her best-seller, Rebecca.
9. Harriette Wilson (February 22, 1786-March 10, 1845)
Harriette Wilson became one of the 19th centuries England’s most famous courtesans. She was one of fifteen children and one of four sisters who pursued careers as concubines. After her older sister Amy introduced her to the lifestyle, Harriette became the mistress of Lord William Craven, a young aristocrat who served in the British army. She moved to London high society, becoming the mistress of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Lord Canning, and George IV. She made sure that her former lovers were a checklist of powerful men she could use in the future.
Instead of relying on them, Harriette blackmailed them. When she needed money, she wrote her memoirs detailed every sordid detail of her life, including the names of all of her former lovers and details of her interactions with them. To have their names removed from her memoirs, which she intended to publish, her former lovers had to pay up.
Her threats had the exact reaction that she was hoping for. The 1st Duke of Wellington infamously replied, “publish and be damned” when informed of her intentions. George IV got very nervous and would “do anything to suppress what Harriette had to reveal of [his mistress] Lady Conyngham” so that she wouldn’t find out. Harriette’s memoirs also reveal that Frederick Lamb, 3rd Viscount Melbourne assaulted her because she refuses him, a scandalous issue in Georgian England. Her scheme worked: many of her former lovers were willing to pay to keep what happened between them a secret.
Harriette claimed that she needed the money and that her former lovers had promised to provide for her later in life, but they never followed through. Her threats to publish her memoirs bring to light the failings of men who promised to care for their mistresses and never did. While Harriette Wilson may have used sex as a weapon in her relationships with very powerful men, her pen was just as effective.
The Irish actress and dancer Lola Montez became a courtesan and the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. She was the daughter of an Irish MP, and she was raised in India, Scotland, and England before eloping with a lieutenant when she was 16 years old. Five years later, she abandoned her husband and became a professional dancer under a stage name in Calcutta. Moving to London where she made her dancing debut as Lola Montez, she was recognized as a married woman, which resulted in a scandal. The notoriety ruined her reputation, so she moved to Europe.
When she arrived on the continent, she performed in various European capitals while openly accepting favors from a few wealthy men, earning a reputation as a courtesan. She had a disappointing debut as a dancer in Paris in 1844, where she met and had an affair with Franz Liszt. He introduced her to the circle of George Sand. She settled in Paris, where she was known in the Bohemian literary circle of the time.
In 1846, Lola moved to Munich, where she met Ludwig I of Bavaria and soon became his mistress. He lavished her with attention and gifts and set her up in a palace in Munich. Lola was incredibly arrogant and had a bad temper, which made her very unpopular with the Bavarian people. She also used her influence on Ludwig to get what she wanted from him: respectability. She wanted a title; he made her the Countess of Landsfeld in 1847.
Lola used her new power and titles to institute liberal reforms in the Bavarian government. Ludwig indulged his mistress, letting her do whatever she wanted. By 1848, Lola’s influence didn’t help Ludwig’s popularity. The revolutions that were sweeping across Europe that year made Lola flee the country and Ludwig abdicate his throne to his son Maximilian. Lola spent the rest of her life traveling around the world telling her stories and died from syphilis in 1861.