13. Clara Ward was an American socialite who married into European royalty, shocking the upper classes but entertaining readers of gossip magazines
She may be largely forgotten today, but for a short time in the 1890s, Clara Ward was one of the most famous (and infamous) people in the whole world. And all because of a chance encounter with one of Europe’s lesser royals. Clara was born into a wealthy industrialist family in Detroit. As a young lady, she would sometimes pay visits to the family mills. And it was on one such visit that she caught the eye of the Prince of Caraman-Chimay. The Belgian was in Detroit as part of a trade mission. However, he left Michigan with a wife.
News that an ‘ordinary’ American girl had married into royalty spread fast. The self-styled Clara, Princess of Chimay made headlines around the world. She relished the attention and loved showing off her new wealth and social status. Inevitably, Clara became a fixture in the gossip columns of the time. While some people loved and admired her, many others were envious and the ‘American Princess’ soon became a hate figure. In the end, the marriage turned out to be a short one. After just 6 years, Clara eloped with a Hungarian gypsy musician. Her Prince divorced her and Clara was forced to turn to glamour modelling to get by.
12. Princess Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba was destined to rule, though she needed to fight her usurper half-brother before she could claim her throne
Princess Nzinga was born into the royal family of the Ndogo and Matamba kingdoms – parts of modern-day Angola – in 1583. Her father, the king, Kia Simba, ruled with an iron fist. However, he doted on his daughter. Of the three of them, Nzinga was his favorite. According to the legend, she had been born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. This was taken as a sign that she would be a fiercely-independent young woman, and might even reign as queen one day. Certainly, her father believed this. He groomed her for power, taking her to war and having her by his side when decisions were made.
When Kia Simba was deposed in around 610, his illegitimate son took power for himself, forcing the princess into exile. However, she skillfully used diplomacy and influence to win her way back. While the exact methods are lost to history, the records do show that she went from princess to de-facto queen by 1624. For some 40 years, she negotiated with the Portuguese, using diplomacy rather than force to get what she wanted. To this day, Nzinga is credited with saving Angola from being fully colonized by Europeans.
11. Princess Joan of Kent was the most beautiful woman in all of 14th century England and ended up married to two men at the same time
According to contemporary observers, Joan of Kent was almost certainly “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving”. Such natural beauty and kindly disposition helped earn her the nickname ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’, plus it won her the hand of Edward of Woodstock, the son and heir of King Edward III of England. Despite this, their marriage in 1361 shocked many. For, while Joan was undeniably attractive, plus she was of aristocratic stock, she was 31 years-old at the time of the wedding. Plus, she was a mother of four. But above all, she had not only been married before, but she had been married to two different men at the same time!
Joan was just 12 when she married for the first time. She fell in love with a knight by the name of Thomas Holland. He was 26 and had no great personal wealth. Since her parents would have been against their union, the pair wed in secret. Soon after, Thomas went away to war. Shortly after that, the son of the Earl of Salisbury asked for her hand in marriage. Perhaps believing Thomas would be killed in battle, she accepted. Thomas did return, however, prompting a legal tussle over who was Joan’s legal husband. In the end, Thomas won, and he and Joan went on to have four children. Thomas died young and, despite her history of bigamy, Joan won the heart of the prince, becoming the first-ever Princess of Wales.
10. Princess Olga of Kiev is said to have killed hundreds of her enemies, burning some alive and poisoning many others, but she was still named a Saint
The story of Olga of Kiev has undoubtedly been embellished over the centuries. But even if tales of the Ukrainian royal’s wicked temper and blood-lust are only partly true, they still make her one of the most bad-add princesses of all time. Though hardly anything is known about her early years – save for the fact she was born in city of Pskov, most probably in 879AD – she enters the history books from 903AD, the year she married into royalty. Her husband, the future Igor or Kiev, ruled over the Kievan Rus. Unsurprisingly for those times, he made many enemies, including the Drevilans. And it was the Drevilans who killed Igor in 945, leaving Princess Olga in charge.
Believing that Olga was naturally weak, the Drevilans asked her to marry their own Prince Mal. According to the legend, she asked her enemies to send 20 of their best men to make the case for an arranged marriage. When they arrived, she offered them use of her best bathhouse. Then, when the men were inside, she locked the doors and burned them all alive. She also invited 5,000 Drevilans to a feast. Olga got them all drunk and then had her soldiers butcher them all in cold blood. At the same time, however, Olga also worked tirelessly to promote Christianity throughout modern-day Ukraine and was even made a saint for her efforts.
9. Joanna of Castile was mean, moody and unpredictable, and she even became known as ‘Joanna the Mad’ in her native Spain
In many ways, Joanna of Castile appeared the ideal princess. Born in the city of Toledo in 1479, she was the daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. Not only was Joanna a pretty young girl, she was also well-read and fluent in several languages. However, from an early age, she preferred the company of books to the company of people. By all accounts she was moody and withdrawn. What’s more, she also rebelled against her mother’s strict Catholicism. This may have meant that Johanna was tortured by men of the Inquisition, adding to her foul mood and distrust of others.
Things didn’t really improve when she got married, even if her husband was Phillip the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy. The Prince was routinely unfaithful, and his infidelities drove Johanna into a deep depression. From her mid-20s onward, the Princess became known as ‘Johanna the Mad’, a name which could never escape, even in death. As a result, when she was named Queen of Castile – quite unexpectedly and only because of a series of royal deaths – she was kept under house arrest so that she couldn’t wield any real power. Even when Prince Phillip died, her own father took over as regent, never trusting his ‘mad’ daughter with control of the newly-united kingdom.
8. Tamar of Georgia was no quiet, retiring princess; in fact, she made history by serving alongside her father, King George, and then ruling on her own
In 1178, King George III of Georgia made a shock announcement. He decreed that, from then on, his own daughter, Princess Tamar, would rule alongside him. She was just a teenager and, moreover, medieval Georgia was a highly sexist society. Men were supposed to rule through strength alone, and women were supposed to be subservient, even if they were of royal blood. But the King’s decision was a wise one. Tamar was not just any princess. She had been raised to be a warrior and groomed for power from an early age. From 1178 onward, she was required to put all that knowledge to good use.
Between the ages of 18 and 24, Princess Tamar ruled as co-monarch. Then, in 1184, her father died. She became Queen of Georgia. Not surprisingly, many powerful clan leaders were against the idea of being ruled by a woman. However, Tamar was just as ruthless a queen as she had been a princess. Despite her young age, she quickly asserted her dominance. Even when she gave in to nobles’ requests to marry a political ally, she quickly tired of her husband and sent him into exile. In partnership with her second husband, Tamar crushed all potential opposition and ushered in the ‘Golden Age’ of Georgian history – not bad for a young princess whose reign looked doomed from the start.
7. Princess Margaret was the ultimate ‘rock and roll royal’, partying with rock stars and paparazzi in London during the infamous Swinging Sixties
The Queen’s younger sister, Margaret, came to be known as England’s ‘Rebel Princess’ – and for good reason. For decades, she was seen as the most controversial member of the Royal Family. Her antics, mainly in London’s bars and nightclubs, filled gossip columns all over the world, and her love life continues to be the subject of much rumor and speculation. Inevitably, since her death in 2002, Margaret’s life has been pored over by historians and by TV and movie scriptwriters, with her colorful antics in London during the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties’ continuing to fascinate – and titillate – to this day.
As a young woman, Margaret shocked the rest of the Royal Family by falling in love with a divorced Air Force pilot. They planned to marry, but the Princess was warned it could undermine the monarchy. In the end, Princess Margaret married well, with her husband becoming the Earl of Snowdon. However, soon after their 1960 wedding, rumors of Margaret’s extra-marital dalliances started to emerge. Over the years, numerous music and movie stars have been linked to the party-loving princess, even if the Royal Family have preferred to remember Margaret for the work she undertook to support arts charities and cultural organizations.
6. Agrippina the Younger was just as ruthless as her male relatives and her lovers, helping her stay at the very top of Roman society for decades
Agrippina the Younger wasn’t just one of the most influential people in the Julian-Claudian dynasty than dominated Ancient Rome in the 1st century AD. She was also one of its most infamous. Indeed, while the cruelty and perversions of Tiberius and Caligula may be better-known, she was every bit as cunning and ruthless as the men. She was born into Roman royalty – and intended to stay at the top, whatever it took. For many years, she succeeded in her goal. In fact, when it came to negotiating power and rivalries in Ancient Rome, there was probably nobody better than Agrippina the Younger.
Born into Roman royalty in the year 15 (though she was not technically a ‘princess’ since Rome had long since got rid of its old kings), she married at just 13. A few years later, her brother, Tiberius, became Emperor. He quickly went mad, and Agrippina tried, and failed, to have him assassinated. However, marriage to Claudius in 49 once again made her one of the most powerful people in Rome. She convinced Claudius to adopt her son, Lucius. When the Emperor died – possibly killed by Agrippina herself – that son became Emperor Nero. Whether Nero then had his own mother killed is debatable. Either way, she was soon exiled and died in the year 57.
5. Princess Urraca of Zamora was the only one of the King’s children to stand up to the tyrannical Prince Sancho, and she managed to hold onto her city against the odds
As he was dying, King Ferdinand I of Castile (in modern-day Spain) divided his kingdom up into five parts. He gave his five children one part each to rule over. The wise king expected – or perhaps just hoped – that the brothers and sisters would live in peace. However, he didn’t count on the greed of his eldest son, Sancho. Though he inherited the most important part of Castile, Sancho wanted it all. And he would have got it too, had it not been for his sister, Princess Urraca. She had been given the city of Zamora by King Ferdinand, and it was here where she made a courageous stand against her tyrannical big brother.
In the autumn of 1072, Sancho’s troops arrived at the outskirts of Zamora. What’s more, Sancho had teamed up with the legendary warrior El Cid. The pair decided to besiege the city. They felt that Princess Urraca, being a weak-willed woman, would soon cave in. However, she was far more cunning than they believed. She sent one of her own best men out to pretend to negotiate with Sancho. Then, when his guard was down, he assassinated him. With her brother duly dispatched, Urraca was left in peace. Another brother, Alfonso, had taken over as King of Castile – and he knew better than to pick a fight with his sister!
4. Chilonis, like many princesses before and after her, was married young to a man many years her senior – but she was prepared to pay the ultimate price for true love
Very few princesses ever married for love. In most cases, their husbands were chosen for them by their families. Young women would be paired up with men many years their senior and expected to play the dutiful wife. And, of course, they were expected to provide their husbands with children, no matter how badly the men behaved. This was certainly the case with Chilonis, a Spartan princess who lived in the 3rd century BC. The daughter of Leotychidas, she was forced to marry Cleonymus for political reasons. He was many years older than Chilonis. What’s more, he was a brute of a man, and he was even barred from inheriting his father’s throne due to his violent temper.
The unhappy princess found solace in the arms of Arcotatus, the son of King Areus I. Then, in around 272BC, the armies of her husband and her lover clashed. Princess Chilonis was forced to make a choice. She decided she would prefer to die than be with her husband. According to Plutarch, the princess was on the point of hanging herself when she received news that her husband had been defeated in battle. The princess lived happily ever after, marrying her lover. He would reign as King Aerus II, with Chilonis beside him as his queen.
3. Truganini was the princess of a persecuted people, but she fought back to become an indigenous Australian legend
Truganini was the daughter of an important chief, one of the native Palawa people of Tasmania. However, she was never able to enjoy the pampered life of a princess, even when she married another indigenous tribal leader. That’s because she was born 1812 and grew up at a time when European settlers were persecuting the aboriginal peoples of modern-day Australia. The Palawa people were killed in their thousands, royals included. Truganini’s own mother was brutally murdered by settlers, and her sister was taken as a sex slave. To save herself, and the rest of her people, Truganini agreed to work with the Englishman George Robinson, though her cooperation came at a price.
At first, the union went smoothly. Robinson wanted Truganini’s help in re-settling the Palawa people on a smaller, uninhabited island. However, when the English became even more brutal in their methods, the native princess became an outlaw. She recruited a gang to help find and rescue her kidnapped sister. She was captured and charged with stealing from, and even killing, white settlers. Luckily for her, at her trial, Robinson spoke in her defense. Only the Palawa men were hanged for their alleged crimes. Truganini was exiled to Flinders Island, where she lived out the remainder of her days, a princess without a kingdom.
2. Princess Chiomara was supposed to be a pawn in an ancient power struggle, but brutally slayed the Roman soldier who violated her – and took his head home with her as a trophy
As every student of history knows, the Roman Empire could be brutal in suppressing its enemies. And it wasn’t just enemy soldiers who felt the power of Rome. Countless innocent men, women and children also suffered. Only a few were able to hit back. And one woman who did was Chiomara, a princess of the Tectosagi tribe and one of the ancient Galatian people who lived in modern-day Turkey. In 189BC, the forces of Rome attacked and defeated the Galatians. Princess Chiomara was taken prisoner. The centurion tasked with guarding her attempted to seduce his royal prisoner. When she turned down his advances, he raped her.
Perhaps feeling guilty, or maybe fearing he would be punished for his actions, the centurion offered Princess Chiomara her freedom back. He agreed to release her – for a ransom, of course. When her fellow Galatians came to pay the ransom, Chiomara ordered them to attack the Romans instead. She then ordered the centurions execution. The soldier was beheaded. The princess then wrapped the severed head up in her dress and took it back to her home town, presenting it to her husband and pledging that only one man who had been intimate with her would ever be allowed to live.
1. Princess Pingyang defied gender expectations in 7th century China and fought alongside her own ‘Army of the Lady’ to make her father the Emperor
At her funeral in the year 623, mourners were told that Princess Pingyang was “no ordinary woman”. This was a massive understatement. At a point in history when women, even female royals, were supposed to be quiet and subservient, she was the exact opposite. Famously, she played a pivotal role in helping her father claim the throne and so found the Tang dynasty. Pingyang volunteered to go behind enemy lines, into the castle of her father’s enemies, the Sui Dynasty. Initially, she was just supposed to spy on the Emperor Yang of Sui. However, once inside his stronghold, she used her female initiative – and made history.
Realising that Yang’s men were not completely loyal to their Emperor, Pingyang used her considerable wealth to start buying their loyalty. Before long, she had persuaded hundreds of soldiers to switch sides. What’s more, she then used her charm and social status to convince agrarian rebel leaders to join her father’s cause. Eventually, it’s believed that she gathered a force of some 70,000 men. They became known as the “Army of the Lady” and in 617, helped overthrow Yang and bring the Sui Dynasty to an end. When she died six years later, Pingyang was granted a full military funeral – a first for a woman in Imperial China.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: