10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon

Jennifer Conerly - August 11, 2017

History remembers two kinds of women. Good wives and mothers who do what society expects of them and they live good, virtuous lives. When women try to live a life or pursue opportunities outside what society expects of them, they are given horrible labels: bad girls, loose, immoral, etc. The truth is, society has always wanted women to play the virtuous woman, but what happens when they don’t? Are these women truly “bad girls,” or are they reaching outside of the box, trying to live a life outside of the confines that society has given them?

These are the stories of ten women in history who refused to play by society’s rules. They used sex as a weapon or a tool to get what they wanted, using their roles as mistresses, wives, and courtesans to secure political power or social rank, give themselves a more comfortable life, or use their power to help others.

1. Cleopatra (69-August 12, 30 BCE)

If there ever was a woman who used sex to achieve political power, it was Cleopatra. She was the original—the first historical woman that comes to mind when we think of the idea. That is perhaps putting too simple of a twist on what she did, but she became the mistress of two of the most powerful men in ancient Rome: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, using her relationships and her children with both men to preserve her hold on power.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Cleopatra and Caesar. Jean-Leon Gerome, 1866. Wikipedia Commons

Cleopatra used her seductive charms to secure her hold on her throne of Egypt against the might of Rome. Although she needed Rome’s help at first to attain power, she wanted to rule in her own right. Using this to her advantage, she seduced two of the most famous Roman men into liaisons with her to get what she wanted. Cleopatra was engaged in a civil war with her brother Ptolemy XIII, and she became Julius Caesar’s mistress so that he would support her claim to the throne. Caesar used his clout to help her become the sole ruler of Egypt. She made her son with Caesar, Caesarion, her co-ruler in name only to solidify her hold on power.

After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra joined forces with Mark Antony and Caesar’s legal heir Caesar Octavian against the Roman senators who killed Caesar in the Roman civil war. Cleopatra and Mark Antony became lovers, even though he was married to Octavian’s sister, and peace between the two men broke down. To help protect her hold on the throne and her son by Caesar from Rome’s growing influence, Cleopatra eventually married Mark Antony and had three children with him. It didn’t protect her throne the way that she wanted.

In 30 CE, the tensions between Mark Antony and Octavian had finally come to a head. Octavian declared war on Egypt and faced Antony and Cleopatra’s forces in the naval Battle of Actium. After a humiliating defeat by Octavian, Antony and Cleopatra fled and Octavian invaded Egypt. As Octavian approached Alexandria, Mark Antony’s forces deserted him to Octavian’s side. Refusing to be taken as spoils of war, the two lovers committed suicide.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Agrippina the Younger. Wikipedia Commons

2. Agrippina the Younger (15-59 CE)

Even if you don’t know her name, Agrippina the Younger was one of the most famous women of ancient Rome. She was related to ancient Roman emperors: Caesar Octavian Augustus was her great-grandfather, Claudius was her uncle (and later her husband), Caligula was her brother, and Nero was her son. Like the famous men she was related to, she was destined to become a household name.

Agrippina was scandalous even by today’s standards. When her uncle Claudius became emperor of Rome in 41 CE, he was married to the infamous and ruthless Messalina. After her execution, Claudius considered marrying again. Agrippina had become the mistress of one of Claudius’ advisors, the former Greek freedman Marcus Antonius Pallas. Claudius’ advisors were discussing at the time which noblewoman he should marry, and Claudius had a reputation for being easily persuaded. Claudius did approach the Senate and persuaded them that marrying his niece was in the public interest, but Romans highly criticized the marriage.

Agrippina’s reasons for marrying Claudius are unknown. Whether she was grasping for power or trying to protect herself and her son, or both, what we do know is that she had enough influence at the time to reject the marriage if she wanted to. There had to be a reason to enter into such a scandalous marriage, since marrying her father’s brother was a marriage too close in blood relation to be considered proper and scandalized Roman society.

Considering Agrippina’s actions afterward, we can assume she married Claudius to plot her rise to power. She eliminated all of her political rivals, including supporters of Claudius’ former wife Messalina, and anyone who didn’t support her son’s political career. She successfully manipulated and influenced Claudius into adopting Nero and making him Claudius’ successor. She denied Claudius’ son Britannicus access to his father and refused to allow her husband to groom him to become the next emperor.

The story goes that Claudius later repented making Nero his successor and began to favor Britannicus and began to prepare him to become Emperor, which gave Agrippina a motive to remove him. The rumors are that she poisoned her husband, but more modern sources claim that Claudius died from natural causes. Claudius’s death couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment for Agrippina or for Nero.

Agrippina’s marriage to Claudius changed the face of Roman history. Whether she seduced him, or she simply didn’t fight it, or she saw the marriage as a path to power, it didn’t matter. She married him for her own reasons, whether it was to protect the life of her and her son, or for her lust for power. In the process, she changed the succession and made her husband adopt her own son Nero, instead of grooming his son Britannicus to become Emperor. After Claudius’ death, Nero became Emperor, just like his mother wanted.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Empress Theodora. 6th century mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. Pinterest

3. Empress Theodora (c. 500-June 28, 548 CE)

For a woman who eventually became the most powerful woman in the Byzantine Empire, Theodora began her life from the humblest beginnings. While there is some dispute on her early life, most sources agree that she was an actress and a prostitute (the two were interchangeable in the Byzantine empire). Known for her charm and charisma, she had attached herself to wealthy men of influence before renouncing her lifestyle and settling down in Constantinople.

Even though she wasn’t an actress anymore, her beauty and wit had earned her a reputation, capturing the attention of one of the most influential men in the empire: the heir to the Byzantine throne, Justinian. By 522 CE, Justinian was madly in love with Theodora and wanted to marry her. One small problem: he couldn’t. Byzantine law made it illegal for actresses to marry men in the public eye, probably because of their fluidity into the world of prostitution. This was particularly true for the Emperor’s nephew and the heir to the throne.

Justinian’s uncle, Justin I, was the reigning Byzantine emperor, and his wife, Empress Euphemia, was extremely against the marriage, even though she was extremely fond of Justinian. After the Empress died, Justinian was so enamored with Theodora and her charms that he convinced his uncle to change the law so that he could marry Theodora. Justin I was fond of her, so he repealed the law, and Justinian and Theodora were married. When Justinian became emperor in 527 CE, Theodora became Empress of the Byzantine Empire. Not bad for a former prostitute.

If Theodora used her sex appeal as a weapon to attain power, she used her powers for good. Justinian trusted her counsel above all others, and she even saved his throne during the Nika riots in 532. There were two political factions in the empire, and when one of them rioted against the royal family, Theodora convinced everyone, including her husband, to stay and put down the rebellion. Their army defeated the demonstrators and Justinian never forgot that Theodora saved his life and his throne.

After the Nika riots, Justinian and Theodora rebuilt Constantinople into one of the most beautiful cities in the world, including the famous Hagia Sophia, which still stands to this day. Theodora helped pass protections for prostitutes, women, and children, helping protect them from being forced into that life. Even though Justinian and Theodora didn’t agree on religious reforms during her lifetime, after she died from what was probably cancer in 548, he honored her by bringing religious harmony to the Byzantine Empire.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Elizabeth Woodville, c.1472. Wikipedia Commons

4. Elizabeth Woodville (c. 1437-June 8, 1492)

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.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Diane de Poitiers. Pinterest

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.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Gabrielle d’Estrées. Wikipedia Commons

6. Gabrielle d’Estrées (1573-April 10, 1599)

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.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Madame de Pompadour. By Francois Boucher, 1759. Pinterest

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.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Mary Anne Clarke. Wikipedia Commons

8. Mary Anne Clarke (April 3, 1776-June 21,1852)

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.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Harriette Wilson. Wikipedia Commons

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.

10 Women From History Who Used Love Making as a Weapon
Lola Montez, by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1847. Wikipedia Commons

10. Lola Montez (February 17, 1821-January 17, 1861)

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.


Keep Reading:

ThoughtCo – Biography of Empress Theodora, Byzantine Feminist

Smithsonian Magazine – Did Elizabeth Woodville, England’s ‘White Queen,’ Die of the Plague?

Medium – Henry and Diane: A Love/Sad/Fantastic Story Illustrated with The Character’s Real Portraits

History of Yesterday – The Meteoric Rise and Fall of 19th-Century Spiderwoman Lola Montez

Factinate – Scandalous Facts About Lola Montez, The Spider-Woman