All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest

Natasha sheldon - October 17, 2017

Incest is a taboo in many cultures today. Relationships between cousins may sometimes be frowned upon, but are legal. However, society counts marriage or sexual relations between brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles as too close. This stance is not just for moral reasons. It is born of an awareness of the dangers of limiting the gene pool, increasing the likelihood of congenital disabilities and disease in any children produced by an incestuous union.

Today, incest usually occurs accidentally, among individuals who do not know about their close family relationship. History, however, provides us with the most examples of deliberate incest – and shows us the variety of motives behind this socially undesirable practice. In the past, incest has occurred as part of an elite tradition, designed to keep the bloodline of ruling families pure.

In the past, incest has occurred as part of an elite tradition, designed to keep the bloodline of ruling families pure. However, incest has also manifested as a form of abuse or manipulation. It has also arisen from or led to genuine bonds of love and regard – despite the risk to any resulting children. Here are just eight cases of incest from history.


Egyptian royalty favored very close family ties. Brother and sister marriages were a convenient means of keeping the bloodline pure. However, incest had the opposite effect, weakening rather than strengthening royal dynasties by increasing the risk of malformation and health problems. The Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, was both a practitioner and a product of incest. His remains show the tragic consequence of family ties kept too close, for too long.

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
Digital Reconstruction of Tutankhamun’s Body. Google Images

King Tutankhamen reigned about 3,300 years ago. He was the last Pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom. Tutankhamen became Pharoah at the age of nine, after the death of his father, the infamous apostate Pharaoh, Akhenaton, who briefly abolished the Egyptian pantheon. The young Pharaoh’s reign only lasted ten years, and in 1324BC, with no apparent direct successor to the throne available, a new dynasty arose.

Tutankhamen had been an indifferent Pharaoh-but his tomb, rediscovered in 1922, ensured his immortality. In 2009, the Egyptian government permitted the human remains in the tomb to be analyzed. DNA from various mummies from across the Valley of the Kings revealed at least two generations of incest in Tutankhamen’s family. The mummy previously designated KV55 has now been identified as Akhenaton, as its DNA corresponds to Tutankhamen’s paternal line. Another unknown mummy, The Younger Lady has been established as his mother. She was also Akhenaton’s full sister.

The effect of this incestuous relationship is clear from Tutankhamen’s body. The young King was frail and suffering from deformities- the most significant being in his left foot. Necrosis, a disease that causes the bone tissue to degrade, caused the foot to deform. The necrosis itself was brought about by Kohler’s disease, a rare genetic disorder that manifested in Tutankhamen because of the close genetic links between his parents. The deformity meant Tutankhamen would have had difficulty walking without a stick: a fact confirmed by the many canes found in the Pharaoh’s tomb.

Tutankhamen himself continued this family tradition for incest by marrying his sister, Ankhensenamun. They produced two baby daughters. The two children died soon after their births and were buried with their father. The pernicious effects of their incestuous birth were even more marked than on Tutankhamen. Both girls had spinal deformities, and the eldest suffered from Sprengel’s deformity, which leaves one shoulder higher than the other, as well as spina bifida and scoliosis. These spinal deformities, coupled with their short lives show the complications of incest.

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
Agrippina the Younger. Google Images

Agrippina the Younger

The Romans, unlike the Egyptians, frowned upon incest, regarding it as nefas “against divine law.” No Roman was supposed to marry or have sex with anyone closer than a cousin- although concessions were made later for provincials such as the Egyptians. However, incest was never acceptable for any respectable Roman- unless you happened to be a member of the imperial family. Julia Agrippina or Agrippina the Younger was the sister, niece, and mother of emperors. She is also reputed to have had sexual relations with her brother and son- and married her uncle.

Agrippina was born into a complicated family, the Julio-Claudians. Her great Uncle Tiberius exiled her mother, Agrippina, the Elder, and her father, Germanicus, a general and brother of the future emperor Claudius, died when she was a child. In 37AD, Agrippina’s brother, Caligula became emperor.

Bad or mad, Caligula reputedly had sexual relations with all three of his sisters. The unprecedented honors he awarded them and his known depravity make it likely. Caligula gave his sisters the same rights of the Vestal Virgins. They appeared on the same coins as Caligula, and he added their names to loyalty oaths sworn to him

After Caligula’s death, Agrippina’s uncle, Claudius, became Emperor. After Claudius executed his wife, Messalina for treason and adultery, the race was on to find a suitable replacement. The palace freedman, Narcissus proposed Agrippina as a likely match -despite the fact she was the emperor’s niece. Claudius agreed and changed the law so that he could marry his brother’s daughter and so the marriage went ahead.

The only love or lust involved in the relationship between Uncle and niece was that of power; it is debatable whether the couple ever consummated their union. However, as far as the Roman populace was concerned, it was incest and so won widespread public disapproval.

Claudius made Agrippina’s son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, later Emperor Nero, his principal heir. Suetonius describes how Nero felt a lecherous passion for his mother but, unable to consummate it; he found a mistress, Acte, who was her very image. However, as soon as Agrippina discovered her grip on Nero slipping, she reputedly gave in and slept with her son.

Suetonius claimed when the couple traveled together in a closed litter; the emperor often emerged with ‘stains’ on his clothing. Tacitus also insinuates that Agrippina offered her son sex to control him- until he murdered her in AD 59.

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
Barbara Daly Baekeland and son Anthony as a baby. Google Images

Barbara Daly Baekeland

One mother who most certainly seduced her son was Barbara Daly Baekeland. Born in 1922, Baekeland was a model whose face graced the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. After failing to make it in Hollywood as an actress, she married Bakelite heir, Brooks Baekeland and they had one child, a son called Anthony.

The Baekeland’s enjoyed a hedonistic lifestyle of wild parties and infidelity until they eventually took to traveling the world- Anthony in tow. The boy wanted for nothing materially but was largely ignored by his self-absorbed parents.

Barbara finally became very concerned about her son when she discovered he was gay. Anthony had apparently been experimenting with boys from around the age of fourteen. In 1967, when the family was living in Spain, 20-year-old Anthony became involved with a bisexual Australian man, Jake Cooper. Anthony bought his way into Cooper’s circle of drugs, drink, and the occult – and quickly fell in love.

Barbara was horrified. She tried to get a young French girl Anthony was friendly with to marry him- only for the girl, Sylvie, to run off with Brook. Barbara then decided to ply Anthony with prostitutes, but when this failed too, she hatched a further plan to ‘cure’ him. Just before they separated, she told her husband: “You know, I could get Tony over his homosexuality if I just took him to bed,”

In 1969, during a holiday in Majorca, she seduced her drunk and high son, later boasting about it to friends. Barbara’s dubious therapy didn’t work. Tony’s already uncertain mental health began to decline rapidly. He became paranoid and angry, and doctors diagnosed him with schizophrenia. ‘I am f***ing my mother,’ he told a friend. ‘I don’t know what to do – I feel desperate.’ He began to threaten his mother, brandishing knives at her during arguments. His therapist warned Barbara that her son was going to kill her. She didn’t believe him.

In 1972, Anthony Baekeland stabbed his mother to death with a kitchen knife at their London house. He confessed to the murder and was confined to Broadmoor. In 1980 when Anthony was released, he returned home to America- only to attempt to kill Barbara’s mother, who he had initially blamed for his mother’s death. He later committed suicide in prison.

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
King Rama V. Google Images

King Rama V

King Rama V of Siam or modern Thailand was born on September 20, 1853. He was the eldest son of Mongkut or Rama IV, immortalized as the king in “The King and I.” King Chulalongkorn, as he was known during his lifetime, took over the throne in 1863, after his father’s death. He ruled through regents until he was officially crowned ten years later. Chulalongkorn quickly established himself as a fair-minded, reforming monarch who sought to modernize his country. He abolished slavery, built the first hospitals and laid the early railways. He also improved Siam’s system of government and laid the foundations of a modern state.

Chulalongkorn also engaged western tutors for all his children and sent his sons to Europe for their university education. However, there were certain customs he did not do away with- including marriage to his sisters. Overall, Chulalongkorn had 153 consorts, concubines and wives who gave him over 77 children between them. These women came from a variety of backgrounds- but Chulalongkorn’s queens had to be of royal blood: in other words, family members.

So Chulalongkorn chose three of his half-sisters as his queens. He justified his action as “due to custom.” However, his attitude to his Queen consort, his sister Sunandha Kumariratana, shows this wasn’t quite the case. For Chulalongkorn loved his sister-Queen- as was illustrated by his reaction to her death.

On May 31, 1880, the pregnant young Queen was making her way to the royal summer palace by boat when the vessel capsized. Sunandha and her child drowned- because royal protocol forbade anyone from touching the Queen under any circumstances- even to save her from death.

Chulalongkorn was grief-stricken. He built a memorial to his lost wife and child at the summer palace and punished the guard who had merely obeyed the law too precisely when he prevented anyone from touching the drowning queen. However, despite his love for Sunandha and his reforming nature, Chulalongkorn never changed the law that brought about the death of his wife.

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
Virginia Woolf in 1902. Google Images

Virginia Woolf

Not every incestuous relationship is consenting. Some occur as a type of sexual abuse, visited upon the victim by members of their own family. Such was the case of Virginia Woolf who was assaulted by both of her older half-brothers when a child and a young woman- actions which may well have been at the root of the mental health problems Woolf suffered for her whole adult life.

Virginia was born on January 25, 1882, to Julia and Leslie Stephens. Both of her parents had been previously married, and each had children from these earlier relationships. Julia had three other children besides Virginia, her sister Vanessa and their two brothers: George, Stella and Gerald Duckworth. Julia and her new husband were distant parents – which probably explains why they had no idea what was happening with their youngest daughter.

Virginia recorded her incestuous abuse in her diaries and later in her novels and memoirs. The abuse began when she was six, with her eighteen-year-old brother, Gerald. Virginia later recalled in “Moments of Being” how Gerald would stand her in front of a mirror just outside the dining room and explore her private parts. These events had a profound effect on Woolf. They stayed in her memory and left her with an intense distaste for sexual contact.

After the death of their parents, George took over the abuse of Virginia. He was then twenty-nine. She was thirteen. In ‘Reminiscences” which she wrote at age twenty-five, Virginia recalls her initial hero worship for this brother, which declined over the years, taking him from someone thought of “strong and handsome and just” to “little better than a brute.”

It was clear that Virginia felt this abuse bitterly because it made a lie of the person she had believed her brother to be, as much as anything else. She began to satirized George, likening him to a pig.

The effects of sexual abuse by her much older brothers, one at least who had been well-loved, had a profound impact on Virginia. She suffered depression from a very early age, as well as anorexia and body dysmorphia. On her marriage, the strain brought on by her distaste of sex brought about a breakdown. Such illnesses are common amongst abuse victims. In the light of her history, the mental illnesses that blighted Virginia Woolf’s life- but never her writing- can be seen as a direct result of her incestuous abuse.

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
Nahienaena by Robert Dampier (1825). Google Images


Princess Nahienaena of Hawaii was born in 1815, the only child of Kamehameha I, the chief who conquered and united the entire Hawaiian island system and his chief wife, Keopuolani. At the same time as Kamehameha was establishing himself as Hawaiian king, another authority was vying for the souls of the Hawaiian people. The first American missionaries began to arrive on the islands- and Keopuolani converted. She sent Nahienaena to a Protestant missionary school and brought the young Princess up as a Christian.

In 1823, Keopuolani died, and the nine-year-old Nahienaena now became a pawn between the missionaries and the old Hawaiian tribal chiefs. The chiefs were traditionalists. They maintained their ancestral beliefs and traditions and had no truck with the new religion. It was part of Hawaiian culture that royalty married royalty. This tradition meant brother-sister marriages. Nahienaena may have been her father’s only daughter by his chief wife- but he had sons by his other wives, and so the chiefs wanted the Princess to form a union with her brother, Prince Kauikeaouli.

Nahienaena was very fond of Kauikeaouli. However, she found herself in the middle of a cultural tug of war. While the chiefs tried to persuade her to marry her brother, her Christian tutors railed against the match. In the end, the undoubtedly confused and conflicted Nahienaena gave in and married her brother in 1834.

Tradition and perhaps her heart may have won the battle. However, they did not win the war. Nahienaena’s conscience remained a problem. As soon as she and Kauikeaouli consummated the marriage, the Princess’s church expelled her. However, although her religion had closed its doors against her, Nehienaena’s conscience was not quiet. She quickly repudiated the match and married another chieftain’s son.

However, there was no going back. Nahienaena may have loved her new husband- but she still had feelings for her brother. Her church continued to shun her. Worse yet, Nahienaena discovered she was pregnant with Kauikeaouli’s child. The Hawaiian people, who had also converted to Christianity, turned their collective back on their Princess and Nehienaena was forced into isolation until her child was born. The infant, a daughter, did not live long after the birth. Although her church finally forgave her, Nahienaena died soon afterward.

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
Maria I, Queen of Portugal by Giuseppe Troni. Google Images

Maria I of Portugal

Traditionally, many European royal families have kept close ties with each other, with cousins intermarrying for generations. However, few have practiced incest in quite the same way as the Portuguese royal family in the eighteenth century. Maria, I of Portugal was born on December 17, 1734, the daughter of King Joseph I. Attractive and well educated, Maria was also extremely devout. When doctors saved her from a life-threatening illness, she believed it the result of divine intervention. The Princess even expressed a desire to become a nun. On the face of it, she was an unlikely candidate for incest.

When court officials were suggesting marriages for the Princess, Maria could have had her pick of European Princes. Instead, she settled on her father’s 43-year-old brother, Pedro. On June 6, 1760, the pious, 25-year-old entered into incestuous wedlock with her uncle. By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one. The royal couple was devoted to each other – despite their age gap and close family ties.

Maria became pregnant several times. She also lost several children to miscarriage but managed to successfully provide a son and heir, Joseph, as well as several spares. It was Maria’s son Joseph who continued with the incestuous tradition established by his parents, by marrying his aunt- Maria’s sister- when he was fifteen and the lady in question thirty. Fortunately, this marriage produced no children!

In 1776, Joseph I had a stroke and Maria became the first Queen regent in Portugal’s history. On her father’s death, she became Queen Maria I with Pedro as her King consort. However, on May 25, 1786, Pedro died suddenly, and grief sent his widow (and niece) into a spiral of depression that drove her mad. By 1790, she was in a deep state of melancholia. She took to roaming the palace moaning and wailing incoherently and declaring herself damned. In 1799, the Queen’s mental state was so sorry that Portugal’s officials installed Joseph as regent.

However, Joseph did not have to bear this burden for long. In 1807, Napoleon invaded Portugal. The royal family, complete with all the wealth they could carry and the mad queen fled to Brazil. There, on seeing the welcoming natives, Maria truly believed she had entered hell. While the rest of her family settled on a country estate, Maria I was cared for in a convent where she died in 1816.

All in the Family: 8 Cases of Historical Incest
Gorgos of Sparta. Google Images

Leonides and Gorgos, Queen of Sparta

King Leonides of Sparta is known for his doomed but heroic standoff against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. What is not so well known, is that his wife, Gorgo, was also his niece: the daughter and only child of his half-brother, the former King, Cleomenes I. People do not usually associate the Greeks with incestuous unions. So why did the match occur?

Firstly, unlike its Roman counterpart, Greek law was not against all incestuous marriage. There were restrictions: it was illegal to marry a sibling sharing the same mother, for instance. However, brothers and sisters with different mothers but the same father could marry- and so could uncles and nieces. When Leonides succeeded his brother after Cleomenes suicide in 489 BC, his decision to marry his teenage niece was not so outrageous. Gorgo was her father’s only child. Thus Uncle and niece were merely establishing a strong claim to the throne.

This motive aside, Leonides was marrying a canny woman and one well able to manage Sparta while he was at war. Gorgos is one of the few women considered worth a mention by name by the historian Herodotus- a clear indicator of her worth. According to Herodotus, her political acumen existed at a young age. When Gorgos was a child, her father, Cleomenes, was visited by a foreign diplomate intent upon persuading Sparta to support a revolt against the Persians. Gorgos advised against it- and Cleomenes listened to her.

Gorgos also proved her wisdom during the Persian invasion of 480BC. Herodotus tells the tale of Demaratus, a Spartan in exile at the Persian court, who warned his homeland of Xerxes’ impending invasion. To disguise the message, Demaratus wrote it on a wooden tablet- and then covered it in wax. On arrival in Sparta, the tablet perplexed everyone but Gorgos who saw through the ruse and ordered the wax melted away.

Gorgos was also loyal. She knew that Leonides was going off to inevitable death when he set off for Thermopylae. Despite the fact that she would never be answerable to him again, she still asked him for instructions on what to do once he was gone. Leonides told her to marry a good man, have more children and live a good life. Whether Gorgos did marry again is another matter. What is relevant is she ensured Pleistarchus, her son with Leonides, grew to manhood to rule Sparta until his death around 458BC.