18. George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, won his title by charming James I
As the second son of a minor country gentleman, George Villiers had few expectations in life. However, in 1614, he was introduced at the court of the first Stuart King of England, James I and quickly caught the King’s eye. The King’s affection for George became a scandal. James openly hugged and kissed his young favourite and began to promote him well beyond his capabilities. George became a baron, then a marquis, later an earl and finally Duke of Buckingham. In 1619, James even made him Lord High Admiral. This promotion, however, was a step too far. In 1628, Villiers was assassinated while at breakfast by an officer called John Felton. Felton murdered the Duke because he felt he had “for so long gone unpunished” for his military ineptitude.
17. Barbara Villiers won power and influence for herself and her friends — and founded several aristocratic dynasties.
Barbara Villiers was one of Charles II of England’s most long-standing mistresses, becoming the King’s lover when he was an exile in Holland. She remained a prominent figure in Charles’s life for 14 years. Barbara’s love affair made her rich and powerful, and she used her position to benefit her friends and relatives. Barbara’s husband received a peerage and became the Earl of Castlemaine as compensation for his cuckolding, and some of her friends became members of Charles’s privy council.
Charles also acknowledged five of Barbara’s seven children as his own, awarding them the surname “Fitzroy” and paying lavishly for their weddings. Those children became the founders of some of England’s major noble families.
16. Louise de Kérouaille was a Royal Mistress who reputedly was also a French spy
Louise de Kerouaille met Charles II when in 1670 she accompanied her mistress and Charles’s sister, Henrietta, Duchess of Orleans on a diplomatic mission to Dover. Henrietta died soon after the meeting, but Louise had made quite an impression on Charles. He wrote to Louis XIV of France and requested Louise come to England and serve as maid of honour to his wife, Catherine of Braganza. However, Louise was only allowed to go on the basis that she continued to serve the interests of France — by reputedly spying on the English court. The gifts and honours from Louis appeared proof Louise was indeed a spy, and she became very unpopular with the English people. However, she remained one of Charles’s mistresses until his death and bore him one son, Charles, Duke of Richmond.
15. Nell Gwyn was an orange seller turned actress who used her wit to gain her son a title.
Unlike Louise de Kerouaille, Nell Gwyn was popular with the English people — probably because she never attempted to hide her common origins, making fun of herself by dubbing herself the “Protestant whore” to differentiate herself from the Catholic Louise. Nell began her career selling oranges in the slums of London before graduating to the boards of London’s theatres. It was her she caught Charles II’s eye. Nell dubbed the King “Charles the Third” because he was the third of her lovers to bear the same name. Nell held Charles’s attention because she made him laugh — and never sought money or titles for herself. However, Nell did use her wit to gain her son by the King a title. “Come here, you little bastard” she reputedly said to the child in Charles’s presence. Charles was so horrified he immediately made the little boy Duke of St Albans.
14. When Anne Hyde became pregnant by her lover, Charles II’s brother, James, he married her. But she never became Queen.
Charles II never contemplated marriage to any his mistresses. However, his younger brother James was less prudent and married his mistress when he got her pregnant. James met Anne Hyde when he and Charles were in exile in Holland and Anne was a maid of honour to James’s sister, Mary, Princess of Orange. After Anne became pregnant, James decided he wanted his child to be legitimate. So he married Anne in secret in September 1660 — a month before the birth. Months later, Charles ascended the English throne. But he disapproved of James’s decision and so did not immediately make Anne and James welcome at court. Anne died in 1671 after giving birth to two living daughters, Mary and Anne — both of whom ascending the English throne.
13. Madame de Montespan was feared by her fellow courtiers — until she was supplanted and fell from grace.
Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart or Athénaïs de Montespan was the official mistress of Louis XIV of France for 13 years. Together, she and Louis had seven children — six of whom Louis legitimised. Louis installed de Montespan in luxurious apartments near his own from which she dominated the court, ruling with her wit and acidic tongue. De Montespan became a great patron of the arts, nurturing the careers of the actor and writer Moliere, the dramatist Philippe Quinault and the poet Jean de La Fontaine.
However,1680, de Montespan’s fading looks and terrible temper eroded the King’s interest in her, and Madame de Maintenon supplanted her. De Montespan remained at Versailles until 1691 when the Affair of the Poisons forced her from the court. She retired to the convent of Saint-Joseph in Paris where she died in 1707.
12. Madame de Maintenon stole Louis IX’s from her friend and patron — and became his secret wife
The widowed Francoise Scarron first came to the court of Versailles at the behest of her friend Athenais de Montespan in 1669. She was meant to act as the governess to the children of de Maintenon and the King. Louis initially found her “unbearable” However, by 1675, Francoise had become the Marquise de Maintenon and supplanted de Montespan as Louis’s mistress. In 1683, de Maintenon became Louis’s secret wife after the death of Queen Maria Theresa.
Unlike De Montespan, de Maintenon established a more restrained royal court. She had a calmer influence on her husband and may have had a hand in some of his political decisions. On Louis’s death, she retired to Saint-Cyr, a school for girls she founded with the King.
11. Catherine I of Russia was the Russian peasant who became first the mistress and then the second wife of Peter the Great — and later Empress in her own right.
Marta Skowronska had an inauspicious start to life. Born a Lithuanian peasant in 1684, she was raised by a Lutheran minister in the town of Marienburg. When the Russians captured Marienburg in 1702, they took Marta a prisoner. Oddly, her captivity marked a change in her fortunes. For Marta fell into the hands of an Imperial adviser — and caught the eye of Tsar Peter the Great.
Marta initially became the unhappily married Peter’s mistress and was baptised into the Russian Orthodox church, taking the new name of Catherine. In 1712, the couple finally married after Peter divorced his first wife. Finally, on May 18th, 1724, Catherine was crowned Empress-consort of Russia. After Peter’s death, she became Empress in her own right.
10. Mary Hamilton was Catherine I’s Lady in Waiting and Peter the Great’s mistress — and executed for Infanticide.
Mary Hamilton was a member of a Scottish family that emigrated to Russia during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. In 1713, she became a lady in waiting to Peter the Great’s new wife, Catherine I — and then the tsar’s lover.
However, Mary’s also had another lover, Ivan Mikhailovich Orlov — who had deserted her for another woman. The desperate Mary tried to bride Orlov back to her by stealing from Catherine. Over the next two years, the unfortunate lady became pregnant twice, aborting one child and drowning the other soon after its birth in 1717. All was revealed when the authorities interrogated Orlov regarding some missing papers. He quickly informed them of Mary’s abortion, and the whole story of theft and murder soon followed. Mary confessed to killing her child, and on March 14, 1719, was beheaded for abortion, Infanticide and theft.
9. Madame de Pompadour laid much of the groundwork for the French revolution.
The favourite mistress of Louise XV of France, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson is better remembered by history as Madame de Pompadour. However, de Pompadour was much more than the King’s lover. She acted as his closest adviser, instructing him over policy, making public statements on his behalf — and controlling who accessed him. People grew to resent de Pompadour extravagance and the debts she ran up. They also blamed her poor advice for France’s failure in the Seven Years War. Although she was a famed patron of the arts, Madame de Pompadour ensured that Louis’s reign was a disastrous one. She played her part in inadvertently sowing the seeds of discontent that bloomed into the French Revolution.
8. Marie DuPlessis’s tragic death became a literary inspiration
In February 1847, 23-year-old French courtesan Marie Duplessis died of tuberculosis, alone and in debt. Marie had been the lover of several famous men, including Alexandre Dumas the younger. However, her tragic death at such a young age somehow captured the imagination of Paris, and the dead Marie became a muse. Within a year of her death, her former lover Dumas had made her the heroine of his novel, La Dame aux Camelias. The book, in its turn, became a play, making Dumas a great deal of money and ensuring Marie’s immortality.
7. Another of Dumas’s ex-lovers, Lola Montez managed to lose King Ludwig of Bavaria his throne
In the 1840s, Irish dancer Elizabeth Gilbert began a tour of Europe Elizabeth decided she needed a more glamorous persona and so the “Spanish Dancer” Lola Montez was born. Lola was a great hit —,, especially with the men. Alexandre Dumas was just one of her lovers. However, King Ludwig, I of Bavaria was particularly smitten by her. He made Lola a countess and allowed her to rule Bavaria through him. Ludwig’s advisers were so enraged that they rebelled against him and forced him to abdicate. Once Ludwig was no longer a King, Lola left him.
6. Caroline Lacroix was the teenage mistress of the King of Belgium who became his wife on his deathbed
Caroline or Blanche Lacroix was a sixteen-year-old barmaid and part-time prostitute when she met the elderly Leopold II of Belgium in Paris in 1900. The sixty-five-year-old monarch was charmed by Caroline and immediately set her up as his mistress. The couple caused a scandal because of the age difference and the perception that Caroline controlled her elderly lover. She was nicknamed “Queen of the Congo” as the press blamed her love of luxury for the money Leopold brutally extracted from the colony. However, Leopold’s reign — and his relationship with Caroline survived. The couple had two sons, and in 1909, when it was apparent the King was dying, he married Caroline. She died in France, comfortably provided for by her husband.
5. Daisy Greville was the aristocratic mistress of Edward VII who ran as a labour MP
Frances Evelyn Daisy Grenville could have married Prince Leopold, the youngest son of Queen Victoria. Instead, after marrying Francis, Lord Brooke, the Future Earl of Warwick in 1881, Daisy became the mistress of Leopold’s brother, the future Edward VII. Daisy was Edwards mistress for nine years and the inspiration for the music hall song “Daisy, Daisy.” Also, despite being a landed aristocrat, she was a socialist who favoured nationalisation and invested vast sums of money on good works. Daisy attempted to involve Edward in her schemes, but he grew weary of her efforts and discarded her. However, Daisy was not put off. In 1923, she stood as a Labour candidate in Warwick and Leamington. She didn’t win, but she did at least loose to Anthony Eden, a future British Prime Minister.
4. Alexander Zoubkoff ruined Queen Victoria’s granddaughter
Princess Victoria of Prussia was the sister of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. Her first marriage was an arranged one with a German Prince, Alexander of Schaumburg-Lippe. However, when her husband died, Victoria was determined to marry for love. Then she met a Russian waiter and dancer called Alexander Zoubkoff. Victoria embarked on an affair with him and in November 1927, the couple married, despite her family’s disapproval. Victoria was 62 and Alexander 27. Unsurprisingly, there was no happily ever after for the princess. In November 1929, Victoria served her toyboy lover divorce papers after he left her for a barmaid — having cleaned her out financially.
3. Eva Braun was “the unhappiest woman in Germany” according to Hitler’s Chauffeur.
Quite what Eva Braun saw in Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler is uncertain. Today, Hitler is notorious for his policies of death and genocide. But on a personal level, it seems he didn’t treat his young mistress particularly well. Eva had met Hitler when she was 17 years of age, and over time, the pair formed a relationship. However, Hitler frequently ignored and sidelined his mistress, banishing her from the room when he had guests. Eva was left to eat alone, with only Hitler’s photograph for company. Eva’s diary was full of complaints about her lover’s neglect and Hitler’s chauffeur, Erich Kempka, described her as “the unhappiest woman in Germany.” But Eva stuck with her “Wulf” for 16 years, refusing to leave him when was clear Germany had lost the war. The couple were marrying just before they committed suicide together in 1945.
2. Like Eva Braun, Clara Petacci died with her lover, Mussolini. However, she didn’t have a choice between life or death.
Clara Petacci first became Mussolini’s lover when she was 19 and Mussolini 48. The pair separated for two years and reunited in 1936 when Clara became the dictator’s permanent mistress. Clara received private apartments, bodyguards and a chauffeur. Mussolini was no more faithful to her than he was his wife, and other women visited him daily. But Clara was his closest confidant and “amore” — in death as well as life. Clara may have chosen to stay with Mussolini after his downfall in April 1945. However, she had little choice but to die with him as Italian partisans captured and shot the pair soon after. Clara’s body was then hung upside down on public display, next to her lover.
1. Valentina Istomina survived as Stalin’s lover by staying quietly in the background.
Joesph Stalin was renowned for his cruelty to the Soviet people and his wives and children. However, there was one woman who was close to him who he spared his cruelty. For eighteen years, Valentina Istomina was Stalin’s housekeeper and his lover. The pleasant and agreeable “Valechka” navigated her life with Stalin by staying in the background. She cared for him in a quiet, unassuming way, never seeking to appear more than his employee — and keeping well out of politics. All of this could have been a simple survival technique. However, it seems Valechka did genuinely care for Stalin. When the dictator was on his death bed, Valechka came to say goodbye. She placed her head on Stalin’s chest and remained there, wailing at the top of her voice.