As much as we yearn for a good love story, tragic love stories of unrequited love, the premature death of a lover, or couples separated fascinate us. Shakespeare knew this when he penned his classic tale of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. While we know that Shakespeare’s play is fiction, many historical figures suffered tragic love stories of their own. Many of the couples in this list will be familiar to us, the major players in creating history as we know it. Others may not be as familiar, but that doesn’t mean their stories are less important.
20. The Successful Poet Elizabeth Barrett Died Before Her Husband Robert Browning Became a Respected Victorian Poet in His Own Right
In 1844, the reclusive, partially-crippled 39-year-old Elizabeth Barrett found literary success with the publication of her poetry. The volume impressed a 32-year-old struggling writer, Robert Browning. When Browning wrote Barrett in January 1845, he admired her work. Elizabeth responded, beginning months of correspondence with him. The couple fell in love after they met in May 1845, but Elizabeth’s domineering father forbade them to marry. They secretly exchanged love letters, and Elizabeth penned several love sonnets, inspired by her relationship with Browning. Over one year after their first meeting, in September 1846, the couple eloped and settled in Italy.
Elizabeth’s health improved, and she tried to reconcile with her father for many years. He returned all of her letters without reading them, and they never spoke again. During their marriage, Robert convinced Elizabeth to publish her love sonnets to him. The Sonnets of the Portuguese feature lines that every lover knows: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Elizabeth died in Robert’s arms on June 29, 1861, before her husband earned his own fame. After her death, Browning found success as a Victorian poet, and his work is still studied today.
19. The Doomed Adulterous Love Affair Between Prince Rudolf of Austria and Baroness Marie Alexandrine von Vetsera Ended in a Double Suicide
In one of the greatest mysteries of the late nineteenth century, the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his mistress Baroness Marie Alexandrine von Vetsera committed suicide together. When Rudolf didn’t show up for a hunting trip, his friend went to the prince’s lodge, Mayerling, where he discovered the bodies. The case became a sensation: the 30-year-old prince was married, and his mistress was only 17-years-old. For over one hundred years, the incident continues to fascinate historians, as they try to piece together the day of their deaths.
Original investigations concluded that the Crown Prince shot his lover before killing himself. When Marie’s remains were exhumed and studied in the 1950s, the authorities could not find a bullet hole in her body. Several theories suggest that Marie died some other way, and the Prince shot himself out of grief. However, Marie’s final letters, discovered in a bank vault in 2015 tell a different story. She planned the suicide with her lover, writing to her mother in her last letter, “Please forgive me for what I’ve done, I could not resist love…”
18. Bloody Mary’s Desire for an Heir with Her Uninterested Husband Philip II of Spain Led to False Pregnancies
King Henry VIII of England left his throne to his only surviving son, Edward VI, when he died in 1547. After a brief six-year reign, the Protestant Edward died, passing the throne to his fervently Catholic sister Mary I. Determined to return Catholicism to the country, Mary outraged the nation by marrying her second cousin Prince Philip of Spain in July 1554. The 37-year-old Mary desperately loved her husband, and she quickly needed to produce an heir. Unfortunately, Philip, 11 years younger than her, only saw the union as a political advantage.
Three months after her marriage, Mary thought she was pregnant, but she never gave birth. Conflicts in Europe kept Philip away from England, sending Mary into a deep depression. When her husband returned in 1557, she believed that she was pregnant again. Suffering another false pregnancy, Mary’s health deteriorated. She died in November 1558, at age forty-two, most likely from ovarian or uterine cancer. Although previous studies of their relationship indicate that Philip hated his wife, evidence from his correspondence shows that he respected her and he regretted her passing.
17. When Clark Gable’s Wife Carole Lombard Died in a Plane Crash, He Joined the Air Force
The star of films, It Happened One Night and Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable was one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors throughout the 1930s and 1940s. When he met actress Carole Lombard on the set of No Man of Her Own (1932), they were both married to other people. He thought she was high-strung and dramatic until he ran into her at a party four years later. Fascinated by the newly-divorced Lombard’s frank honesty which originally turned him off, Gable fell completely in love with her.
In 1939, after finalizing his own divorce, Hollywood’s most notorious ladies man married the screwball comedy actress while he was on vacation from filming Gone with the Wind. When the United States entered World War II, Lombard joined the war effort, encouraging her husband to do the same. In January 1942, returning to California after a war bond tour, Carole Lombard died in a plane crash at age 33. The devastated Gable, honoring his wife’s wishes, joined the Air Force. Although he married two more times, Clark Gable was buried next to Carole Lombard when he died in 1960.
16. Napoleon Divorced His Wife Josephine Because She Couldn’t Give Him an Heir
When she met the 26-year-old General Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie-Josephe-Rose de Beauharnais was a widow with two children. The ambitious Napoleon immediately liked her, but she didn’t find him to be that impressive. Marie had the social prestige that he needed for his ambitions. Without any other prospects, Marie married Napoleon in 1796. Within days, the general left on the campaign, leaving his wife – whom he nicknamed “Josephine” – in Paris. In his absence, Josephine had an affair. Although he threatened to divorce her, Napoleon eventually forgave her. During their marriage, Napoleon’s star rose, and he crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804.
Josephine remained devoted to Napoleon, but her inability to conceive concerned him. To produce a legitimate heir, Napoleon divorced Josephine to marry again. In what was probably the most peaceful divorce in history, the couple read each other love letters during the proceedings. Promising each other eternal devotion, the couple never stopped loving each other. After Napoleon’s downfall, Josephine died before she could join him in his exile on the Island of Elba. When he returned to power, the brokenhearted Napoleon visited her grave, picking violets that he would keep with him until his death in 1821.
15. Andrew Jackson’s Beloved Wife Died Three Months Before His Inauguration
While living in Nashville in 1788, Andrew Jackson met the ravishing daughter of his landlord, Rachel Donelson Robards. The couple fell in love, even though she was in an abusive marriage at the time. When she separated from her husband in 1790, Rachel immediately moved in with Jackson. They lived together as husband and wife until their marriage in 1791. There was one problem: Rachel’s divorce from her first husband was not official. When the couple discovered that they were not legally married, they finalized her divorce, remarrying in 1794.
In 1828, Jackson was a war hero and a politician who had his eye on the presidency. During the campaign, supporters of the current president, John Quincy Adams, publicly attacked Rachel’s marital history to ruin Jackson’s reputation. In December, Rachel died of a heart attack – less than three months before her husband took office. Many speculated her heart could not handle the stress of the mudslinging. The hysterical Jackson desperately tried to revive her, and witnesses physically removed him so that the undertaker could prepare her body for burial. Jackson never remarried before his death in 1845.
14. After Prince Albert Died Unexpectedly, Queen Victoria Mourned Him for 40 Years
What happens when the most powerful woman in the world proposes to you? When the future Queen Victoria of England met her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in 1836, the handsome and charismatic Albert charmed her. The feeling was mutual, and Victoria adored his company. The following year, she ascended to the British throne. As a reigning monarch, no man could ask her to marry him. At their next meeting in October 1839, Queen Victoria proposed to Albert. By the time of their marriage in February 1840, the Queen of England had fallen deeply in love with her husband.
While his wife was busy running the largest empire in the world, Albert devoted himself to the welfare of the British people. In 1861, after twenty-one years of marriage, he died of typhoid fever. The loss had a profound effect on Victoria. She remained in seclusion for three years after his death, severely damaging the monarchy’s reputation. Although she emerged from her isolation, Victoria was never the same. Wearing black for the next forty years, she grieved for Albert until her death in 1901.
13. Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s Love Affair Led to Civil War
After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, his general Mark Antony and his heir Octavian split the Roman Empire between them. When Antony met the powerful and alluring Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra several years later, their political alliance became one of history’s most legendary love affairs. Captivated by the Egyptian queen, Mark Antony lived with her until his relationship with Octavian suffered. Returning to Rome, Antony married Octavian’s sister to strengthen the alliance. He returned to Egypt in 36 BCE, renewing his affair with Cleopatra. Furious over the Roman marriage, Cleopatra demanded that Antony marry her, too.
The news infuriated the Roman people: Octavian used political propaganda, labeling his sister as the jilted wife and Antony as a weak man under the power of the Egyptian queen. Declaring war on Egypt in 31 BCE, Octavian’s forces decimated Antony and Cleopatra’s navy at the Battle of Actium. Receiving false news of Cleopatra’s death, Antony committed suicide. Octavian invaded Egypt, and the grieving Cleopatra tried to negotiate for the sake of her children. She killed herself when she realized that Octavian planned to humiliate her by making her part of his triumph when he returned to Rome.
12. Alexander I of Serbia Outraged the Country – and his Parents – When He Married Draga Mašin, a Widow Twelve Years Older Than Him
In 1889, King Milan of Serbia abdicated his throne in favor of his only son, Alexander. Two years before the expiration date, Alexander overthrew the regency of his mother, taking control of the government. Like any young man given absolute power at an early age, Alexander did not regard anyone’s opinion except his own, especially when it came to his choice of wife. In 1894, the king fell in love with his mother’s widowed lady-in-waiting, Draga Mašin. After Alexander married Draga in 1900, the king banished his mother for her disapproval.
The Serbian people saw the 36-year-old queen and her ambitious siblings as poor influences on the young king. After a false pregnancy, Alexander tried to secure the succession by elevating one of Draga’s brothers as heir-apparent. The people turned on the couple, and the army stormed the palace in June 1903. Finding Alexander and Draga hiding in a wardrobe, the soldiers shot Alexander and Draga, mutilated their bodies, and threw them out the window into a pile of manure. The assassinations outraged Europe, and Serbia’s allies refused to negotiate with the new interim government until it prosecuted the murderers.
11. Professional Success and Personal Tragedy Surrounded Mary Godwin Shelley and Percy Shelley’s Adulterous Affair
Daughter of the famous proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin was only a teenager when she eloped with the very married poet, Percy Shelley. The couple left England to escape the scandal, traveling Europe together. Devastated that her husband abandoned her, Shelley’s pregnant wife Harriet committed suicide in 1816. Without regard to the consequences, Percy and Mary married. Not that it mattered: Mary was already calling herself “Mrs. Shelley” before the previous title was vacant.
With such a scandalous beginning, fate delivered Percy and Mary Shelley success and tragedy. Their union scandalized England, forcing them to live abroad for the rest of their lives. The couple had multiple children, but only one son survived to adulthood. While Percy’s progressive politics and unique style negatively affected his career, Mary found success with her groundbreaking novel, Frankenstein. In 1822, six years after they married, Percy drowned in a boating accident in Italy. The devastated Mary returned to England with their son, forging a successful literary career for almost thirty years before she died in 1851.
10. John Keats’ Love for Fanny Brawne Inspired One of His Most Famous Poems, “Bright Star”
When the young John Keats fell in love with his neighbor Fanny Brawne, it produced one of his most famous poems in an otherwise short literary career. The socially awkward Keats scorned marriage, generally avoiding women until he met Fanny Brawne in the autumn of 1818. Although she initially didn’t impress him, her bubbly personality and coquettish allure captivated him. Throughout their love affair, Keats wrote her dozens of letters, some of them passionate and some of them rife with jealousy over her flirtatious behavior. By October 1819, Keats proposed to Fanny, promising to marry her when he became a successful poet.
Desperate to marry Fanny, Keats wrote poems that the public would not recognize for their brilliance until after his death. Inspired by his beloved, he wrote “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art,” which became one of his most famous sonnets. In February 1820, he suffered a coughing fit, the first signs of tuberculosis that killed his family members. Breaking his engagement with Fanny, Keats moved to Italy in November 1820 to help his condition. Three months later, he died, requesting Fanny’s last letters to him be placed in his coffin.
9. The Roman Emperor Hadrian Constructed a City in Egypt For His Lover Who Drowned in the Nile River
The well-traveled second-century Roman emperor Hadrian spent most of his twenty-one-year reign outside of Rome, rebuilding the empire’s infrastructure. Although Hadrian married Vibia Sabina, his predecessor Trajan’s grand-niece for political reasons, she never had his heart; that belonged to Antinous. In 123, Hadrian arrived in Claudiopolis (modern-day Bolu, Turkey) on one of his royal visits, where he met the twelve-year-old youth Antinous. The boy must have charmed Hadrian – the emperor sent Antinous to Rome for education while he finished his tour. Within five years of their first meeting, Hadrian’s love for Antinous bordered on obsession.
Hadrian returned to Italy in September 125, demanding the boy’s presence all the time, making him part of his royal retinue. Antinous joined Hadrian on another royal tour from 128-130. While visiting Egypt, Hadrian and his entourage sailed down the Nile River, where Antinous mysteriously drowned. Never before had a Roman emperor grieved for his lost companion as Hadrian mourned Antinous; the emperor deified Antinous, and he established the Egyptian city of Antinopolis on the Nile River in his dead lover’s honor. The loss of Hadrian’s great love affected his poor health, and he died eight years later in 138.
8. Shah Jahan Built the Taj Mahal As a Mausoleum for His Favorite Wife, Mumtaz Mahal
In 1612, the beautiful and intelligent Arjumand Banu Begum married Prince Khurram, the son of the Mughal Emperor. Overshadowing his other wives, the royal bride held the prince’s full attention. Nicknaming her Mumtaz Mahal – “the Jewel of the Palace” – Khurram relied on his wife’s political advice, and she accompanied him on military campaigns. In 1628, Prince Khurram became the Emperor of the Mughal Empire – Shah Jahan. The couple reigned over a flourishing court, funding an architectural revolution in India. They ordered several new constructions, including the Red Fort of Agra, which would become Shah Jahan’s prison.
In June 1631, Mumtaz Mahal died from childbirth complications. The loss devastated the Emperor. Using his love of architecture, he built the most beautiful mausoleum in the world to honor his beloved wife’s memory. For the next two decades, 20,000 workers used 1,000 elephants to construct Mumtaz’s final resting place – the Taj Mahal. In 1657, the elderly Shah Jahan’s health failed. His son Aurangzeb imprisoned him in the Red Fort of Agra, taking the throne for himself. Remaining under house arrest, Shah Jahan spent his last years in full view of the Taj Mahal, until his death in 1666.
7. When Peter Abelard Had an Affair With His Student Heloise, Her Uncle Castrated Him
In 1115, the philosopher and teacher Peter Abelard met Heloise d’Argenteuil, the niece of one of his contemporaries, Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame. In her late teens to early twenties, Heloise was nearly twenty years younger than Abelard, with a keen intelligence that intrigued him. Convincing Fulbert to hire him as Heloise’s live-in tutor, Abelard had an affair with Heloise. When she became pregnant, the couple married in secret to protect Abelard’s career. When Fulbert announced the marriage, the couple denied it, much to the canon’s embarrassment. To protect her from Fulbert, Abelard sent Heloise to a convent.
The move convinced Fulbert that Abelard abandoned Heloise. He hired men to break into Abelard’s rooms and castrate him. Humiliated, Abelard became a monk, devoting the rest of his life to education and scripture. Persuaded by her husband to take holy orders, Heloise became a well-respected prioress. The couple did not speak for many years, and he publicly assumed responsibility for their relationship. They never saw each other again, exchanging letters that would remain relatively unknown until the seventeenth century. After his death in 1142, Heloise tended Abelard’s grave until she died in 1163.
6. Juana the Mad Refused to Bury Her Adulterous Husband Philip the Handsome
When she was sixteen years old, the Infanta of Spain, Juana, married Philip of Flanders in October 1496. The daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the beautiful and intelligent Juana fell passionately in love with her husband. Philip did not return her affections, and his infidelity threw Juana into violent, jealous rages. Juana inherited the throne of Castile when her mother died in 1504, and Philip spread exaggerated rumors of her behavior to label her mentally unfit. Claiming the throne of Castile for himself, he battled with his father-in-law over Juana’s – and his – right to rule.
The struggle over her territory – as stories of her mental state became public knowledge – earned her the nickname “Juana the Mad.” Despite their stormy relationship, Juana remained devoted to Philip. When he died of typhoid fever in 1506, she clung to his body, refusing to let anyone near him. Juana kept Philip’s coffin with her, reportedly having dinner with it as if he was still alive. In light of her behavior, Ferdinand and her son Holy Roman Emperor Charles V kept her under house arrest, ruling in her name until she died in April 1555.
5. In Her Diary, Renia Speigel Documented Her Love for Zygmunt Schwarzer Before the Nazis Executed Her
When Renia Speigel was 18 years old, the Nazis invaded Poland. For three years, she kept a diary of her experiences – living in the Polish ghetto, going into hiding, and falling in love. In April 1939, she fell in love with a fellow student, Zygmunt Schwarzer, and Renia documented their love story under Nazi occupation. The couple consummated their relationship by 1942, and Zygmunt escaped the ghetto with Renia and her sister. A Christian family offered to hide Renia’s sister, and Zygmunt placed his beloved with his parents, who were hiding in his uncle’s attic.
Zygmunt’s uncle was a Judenrat, Jews who reported other Jews in hiding and supervised the ghetto so they wouldn’t have to live there. Although no one knows whether or not Zygmunt’s uncle turned them in, the Nazis found Renia and Zygmunt’s parents and executed them on July 30, 1942. When Zygmunt arrived the following day, he discovered the fate of his loved ones. He added his own passage as the final entry to her diary, lamenting, “…My life is done. All I can hear are shots, shots… Shots! My dearest Renia, the last chapter of your diary is complete.”
4. Pedro I of Portugal’s Father Murdered His Pregnant Mistress Ines de Castro
In 1340, Prince Pedro of Portugal married Princess Constance of Castile to solidify the alliance between their two countries. Unfortunately, Pedro only had eyes for his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Ines de Castro. Pedro and Ines had a lengthy affair, which resulted in the birth of three children. The couple never hid their relationship, and it caused a scandal at the Portuguese court. Pedro’s father King Alfonso banished Ines to a monastery, but the lovestruck prince continued to see her in secret. When Constance died in 1345, Pedro made Ines the center of his life.
For ten years, Pedro and Ines lived together as husband and wife. King Alfonso refused to permit them to marry: he arranged other dynastic marriages for his son, who rejected every one. Realizing Pedro would never give up his mistress, Alfonso sent assassins to murder Ines. When they found her, they decapitated her in front of one of her children. The enraged Pedro declared war on his father, but neither Alfonso nor Pedro claimed victory. When Pedro ascended the throne in 1357, he exacted his revenge. He tried and executed Ines’ assassins by ripping their hearts from their bodies.
3. A Bomb Detonated in Civil Rights Activists’ Harry Tyson Moore and Harriette Simms Moore’s Living Room On Their 25th Wedding Anniversary
Their love story led to a life of public service, but their violent deaths made history as the first targeted assassinations of the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1925, Harry Tyson Moore and Harriette Simms Moore met when Harry was an elementary school teacher, and Harriette worked for an insurance company. Within a year, the couple married, and they had two daughters together. In 1934, the Moores joined the first chapter of the NAACP in Brevard County, Florida. In their work, they pushed for equal pay for African-American teachers.
By 1941, Harry became president of the Florida NAACP, bringing the couple’s activism to the state-wide level. He initially limited his involvement to sending letters to government officials who supported their work. When Harry started investigating crimes against the African-American population, he endured attacks by the police. On Christmas Day, 1951 – the couple’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary – an unknown assailant threw a bomb into their bedroom as the couple slept. Harry died immediately, and Harriette lingered for nine days before she passed away. Their murders remain unsolved, but investigators suspected Ku Klux Klan involvement.
2. The Nazis Executed Edward Galinski and Mala Zimetbaum After Their Failed Escape Attempt From Auschwitz
The Holocaust doesn’t seem like the proper setting for a love story, but Edward Galinski and Mala Zimetbaum fell in love during their imprisonment at Auschwitz-Birkenau. With the help of a sympathetic guard, Edward and Mala walked out of Auschwitz together, disguised as an SS guard transporting a prisoner. Their short-lived freedom ended when a Nazi border patrol arrested them as they tried to cross into Slokavia. Instead of killing them on sight, the Germans returned the fugitives to the death camp. Throughout their torture, neither Edward nor Mala revealed who helped them escape.
The guards held the couple in different cells on the same block, and Edward communicated with Mala by whistling a love song out of his window. During his imprisonment, he carved her image on the wall, with the date they were arrested: July 6, 1944. On September 15, 1944, the Nazis condemned Edward and Mala to separate public executions – Edward in front of the men’s camp and Mala in front of the women’s camp. The defiant couple had other plans: she slit her wrists before her execution, and he kicked away the bench under his feet to hang himself.
1. 19th Century Argentinian Dictator General Juan Manuel de Rosas Executed Wealthy Socialite and Family Friend Camila O’Gorman For Eloping with a Priest
In the nineteenth century, civil war plagued Argentina, and the dictator General Juan Manuel de Rosas ruled with an iron fist. His daughter Manuelita befriended Camila O’Gorman, the descendant of Irish immigrants to the country. In 1847, Camila’s brother introduced her to his friend from seminary school, Father Ladislao Gutierrez. An outspoken critic of the dictator’s totalitarian rule, the young priest befriended Camila. The couple soon fell in love. Assuming new identities, Camila and Ladislao eloped, settling in Goya, in northeastern Argentina. To prevent further scandal, Camila’s father reported to Rosas that Ladislao raped and kidnapped Camila.
When a family friend recognized Camila, he reported her true identity to the governor of Goya. Unwilling to defy Rosas’ orders, the government deported the lovers to Santos Lugares. The pregnant Camila refused to betray Ladislao, claiming she ran away with him willingly. Ignoring the pleas of his daughter Manuelita, Rosas condemned the couple, disregarding the law that delayed death sentences for pregnant women. The dictator executed Camila and Ladislao by firing squad on August 18, 1848. The heinous murders outraged the nation, and Rosas eventually lost his hold over the country.
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