These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History

D.G. Hewitt - May 4, 2019

Breaking up is hard to do for almost everyone. But for certain prominent figures from centuries past, the end of a romantic relationship led to more than just heartbreak. Some break-ups changed history – sometimes for the worse, often for the better. Amicable splits have set Presidents on the path to greatness or inspired some of the greatest works of art of all time. Less-amicable splits, however, have often caused significant rifts between countries or cultures. And, in a few extreme cases, relationship break-ups have even led to all-out war.

In one case, American might have missed out on its greatest-ever President had he chosen to honor a romantic engagement rather than follow his heart. Or then there’s the curious case of the European Emperor who walked away from his one true love in order to preserve his political legacy. And, of course, there are the break-ups that paved the way for equal rights, making it clear that women aren’t the property of men and so shouldn’t be made to stay in a union against their will.

So, here we present 16 of the most significant break-ups in history:

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Mark Anthony’s decision to leave his wife led to all-out civil war in Rome.

16. When Mark Anthony left his wife Octavia, he caused Civil War in Rome, and paved the way for the rise of the first Emperor

When Mark Anthony took Octavia as his fourth wife in October of 40BC, much of Rome looked on in approval. After all, she was not only praised for her natural beauty, loyalty and noble grace, the union also made political sense. Relations between Mark Anthony and Octavian had become strained, threatening the three-man dictatorship of Rome, known as the Second Triumvirtae. It even looked like the two men would fight, forcing the third dictator, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to take sides. By marrying Octavian’s beautiful sister – and then having two children with her – Mark Anthony kept the peace.

His decision to leave Octavia for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, then, caused more than heartbreak. Above all, the breakdown of the relationship – and with Octavia being the wronged party – meant that the people, and most importantly, most of the Roman elite, sided with Octavian in the feud. The two men clashed and Octavian defeated Marc Anthony at the Battle of Actium. Cleopatra and her new partner fled to Egypt, where they both committed suicide. And Octavian declared himself Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Henry and Catherine’s separation led to England’s split from Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

15. Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s separation famously led to the creation of the Church of England

As King of England, Henry VIII, wielded almost unlimited power. But what he lacked the power to do was to separate from his wife, the Spanish Catherine of Aragon. The King’s sole gripe was that she had failed to give birth to a healthy boy, thereby giving him the male heir he so desperately craved. This alone was not sufficient grounds for separation, at least in the eyes of the Church. So, Henry tried a different tactic. Since Catherine was his brother’s 17-year-old widow when they wed, he turned to the Bible, citing the Leviticus passage, “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing.”

Henry’s case was somewhat weakened by the fact that he had petitioned the Pope to be allowed to marry Catherine in the first place. What’s more, when he wanted the union ended, the same Pope was being held under house arrest by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles. A Papal blessing for a divorce looked unlikely. So, Henry decided he didn’t need one. He set up his own church. Out of the marriage breakdown came the Church of England and the protestant faith, and the English monarch continues to be head of that Church to this day.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
The Earl of Castlehaven’s divorce was a landmark in English legal history. Pinterest.

14. The end of the Earl of Castlehaven’s marriage finally challenged the idea that a wife’s body was her husband’s ‘property’

The 1631 trial of Mervyn Tuchet, the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, remains to this day one of the more unpleasant episodes of English history. It laid bare the abusive nature of many marriages, as well as the abuse that was rife in the houses of the rich and powerful. The case centered around Lord Castlehaven and his second wife, Lady Anne. The marriage was an unhappy one. She was significantly older than he was and the pair had little in common. According to some eyewitness accounts, they were both selfish and cruel. So it was no surprise when, in 1630, Castlehaven was accused of raping his wife and having ‘unnatural’ relations with his male servants.

In a trial by his peers, Castlehaven argued that a wife’s body was her husband’s property, and therefore he could do with it what he saw fit. Ultimately, the court convicted him of rape, as well as of ‘sodomy’, and he was sentenced to death. Significantly, the case was the first instance of an injured wife being allowed to testify in court against her husband. It may have only been a tiny step towards gender equality, but the Castlehaven case finally gave women in abusive marriages the right to prosecute their husbands under English law.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
In England, a wife could divorce her husband if he was impotent – but it took a lot of time and money. Smithsonian Magazine.

13. Willmott Bury and John Bury’s separation was like something from a soap opera, but with added historical significance

Getting a divorce in the Middle Ages was no easy matter, especially if you were a woman. Which is what made Willmott Bury’s petition for a separation from her husband, John, way back in 1561 all the more remarkable. She went to the local court in the county of Devon to request an annulment. According to the aggrieved wife, her husband was physically incapable of consummating the marriage. She argued she was therefore entitled to an annulment. The court had midwives examine Mrs Bury. They confirmed she was indeed a virgin.

The court also ruled that physicians examine Mr Bury. And, again, they concluded that his wife was correct. A kick from a horse whilst still a boy had indeed rendered him incapable of sex. In a landmark case in English law, the marriage was dissolved. But then there was a twist. John married again, and had a son! The law was changed again to stipulate that if an impotent ex-husband ‘found’ his potency in another union, any past annulment would be ruled invalid.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
The Addison divorce papers are kept in Britain’s Parliament to this day. Parliament UK.

12. Jane Addison’s decision to leave her cheating husband was a landmark case in the fight for women’s rights

The name Jane Addison may not appear in many history books but she was responsible for a landmark case in English legal history. Until she decided to break-up with her husband back in 1701, wronged women could, at best, be granted a legal separation from their spouses. This meant that, though they could live apart, they would be required to remain ‘chaste and obedient’ to their husbands, even if they had been cruel, violent or unfaithful. The Addison case changed all this.

Jane Addison went to the church courts arguing that her husband had been unfaithful. This in itself would not have been enough for her to obtain a divorce. But then she also revealed that he had cheated on her with her own sister. While allegations of violence or rape within a marriage were not enough to get a divorce granted, this inclusion of ‘incest’ did the job. Parliament stepped in to grant Ms Addison a divorce. From then on, it became easier for a woman to sue for separation on the grounds of adultery. However, the process remained hard, lengthy and thus expensive, so few women could ever afford to free themselves from cruel and abusive unions.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Napoleon didn’t want to break up with Josephine but felt he had to. Wikimedia Commons.

11. Napoleon never wanted to break-up with Josephine, but their split changed the course of European history

The romance between Napoleon and his beloved Josephine is often held up as one of history’s greatest love stories. The military genius clearly adored his partner, as the many letters he wrote to her attest. They wed in 1796, when he was 26 and she was a 32-year-old widow. And, even though both of them had affairs on the side, they remained in love for 13 years. However, in 1806, Napoleon petitioned for a divorce. He decided that they needed to break-up as Josephine was unable to provide him – and, therefore, France – with a male heir.

With a heavy heart, Josephine agreed to the request. Napoleon even arranged a ‘divorce ceremony’ to mark the occasion. Here, the Emperor thanked his ex-wife for 13 happy years. Before long, Napoleon had married again. His new bride, 19-year-old Marie Louise of Austria, did indeed provide him with a son, guaranteeing that the bloodline would be continued. That boy would grow up to be Napoleon II. However, he would only rule over France for a few weeks in the summer of 1815, and even then he was just the titular head of state.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Charlemagne’s messy love life had a real impact on European history. Wikimedia Commons.

10. Charlemagne and Desiderata’s break-up led to war – and laid the foundations for the Papal States

Over the centuries, the breakdown of romantic relationships has caused whole families to fall out, and even fight. And so it was with the end of Charlemagne and Desiderata’s love affair. The pair married in the year 770, probably more out of political expedience than love. Charlemagne was King of the Franks, while his bride was the daughter of Desiderius, King of the Lombards. Since the Lombards and the Franks had been enemy states for many years, the union was seen as an effective way of ensuing peace.

Quite why Charlemagne and Desiderata got divorced remains something of an historical mystery (indeed, some scholars even debate whether they actually got married or if they only planned to). Nevertheless, the annulment of the union in 771 brought relations between the Franks and the Lombards to a head. The animosity and mistrust boiled over for months. Then, in 773, the two rivals met at the Battle of Pavia. Charlemagne won that fight and from then on, he was King of the Franks and the Lombards. Notably, he recognized the authority of the Pope, laying the foundations for the Medieval Papal States.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Only after her divorce could Eleanor of Aquitaine go on to make history. Wikipedia.

9. The break-up of King Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine changed English history forever

It’s one of the great ‘what if?’ moments in English history: What if King Louis VII of France not broken up with his first wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine? After all, it very nearly didn’t happen. The French King was married to his older wife for 15 years. She had attempted to get the union annulled but Pope Eugene II rejected her request. Only when she gave birth to a second daughter in 1152 did Louis agree to an annulment, annoyed that she had yet to produce a male heir. Though she was a divorced mother-of-two, Eleanor was still one of Europe’s most beautiful – and richest – women.

Before long, she had caught the eye of the Duke of Normandy, the future King Henry II of England. The pair wed in May 1152 and she had 8 children over the next 13 years. One of those children grew up to be Richard the Lionheart, who would assume the throne upon his father’s death. What’s more, her youngest son, John, would later be crowned King John of England and it was he who signed the Magna Carta, the document that restricted the powers of the monarch and guaranteed the rights of the people.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Munch used his heartbreak to create some of his best works. Wikipedia.

8. Edvard Munch used the grief over his break-up with Tulla Larsen to make some of his best-known paintings

Throughout the course of history, countless artists have found inspiration from heartbreak. And Edvard Munch was no exception. Indeed, according to several of the Norwegian’s biographers, he was driven to create his most famous work, ‘The Scream’, in the wake of a traumatic break-up. Munch was, after all, an intense man. He lived life hard, drinking too much and falling in love too easily and too deeply. So, when Tulla Larsen broke up with him in 1902, he poured his grief out onto the canvas.

That Larsen was as unstable as Munch himself didn’t make the break-up any easier. According to one account, they agreed to split after an on-off affair of several years when she shot one of his fingers off during a heated argument. Even though he could have been killed, Munch was devastated. At first, he was grief-stricken, but then he was simply angry – emotions that helped him paint his celebrated work ‘The Dance of Life’. To make matters worse, Larsen went on to have a relationship with another painter, while Munch went on to have a full mental breakdown.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Poppaea Sabina is credited with sending Emperor Nero over the edge. Wikipedia.

7. Emperor Nero and Poppaea Sabina’s break-up might have been the one event that pushed the Emperor over the edge and into insanity

The Emperor Nero was a married man when he first set eyes on Poppaea Sabina. She was regarded by some ancient historians as the most beautiful woman in Rome at the time. Naturally, the Emperor was smitten and soon took her as a mistress. The contemporary sources also noted that Poppaea Sabina was highly ambitious. She had married another man simply to get close to Nero. So, when she became his lover, he persuaded the Emperor to have his own mother Agrippina the Younger murdered. With her out of the way, Nero could divorce his wife and marry Poppaea Sabina.

When they fell out of love, it was brutal – and violent. In the summer of 65, Poppaea Sabina was pregnant with her second child. However, she was determined to leave Nero, some ancient sources say, as the Emperor was spending more time at the chariot races than at home. Nero didn’t take this well. According to one popular account, he attacked her, leading to her death. The end of the relationship pushed Nero into a deep mourning – and some historians believe sent him over the edge into madness. Before long, he was out of control and had transformed into the monstrous tyrant most people known him as.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
The Jacksons marriage was long haunted by her past relationship. Pinterest.

6. Rachel Donelson and Lewis Robards’s break-up was to haunt a President for years

Lewis Roband doesn’t feature in many history books. But he arguably had a key role to play in American history. Indeed, if he never ended his relationship with Rachel Donelson, Andrew Jackson might never have become President. As it was, the way he broke-up with her and left her life for good almost scuppered the former soldier’s chances of making it to the White House. And even when Jackson became President, that break-up hung over his head all the time. The reason? Roband never finalized the divorce process between him and Donelson – so when she became Mrs Jackson in 1794, she was technically still married.

The messiness of the break-up meant that Jackson’s opponents could target his wife, accusing her of bigamy. It was just one factor in John Adams winning the 1824 election. And even when Jackson finally won the vote in 1828, his opponents continued to brand his marriage as immoral and illegal. Tragically, the stress of it all took its toll on Rachel. She fell ill at the end of 1828 and then died just before Christmas. Jackson was sworn in as President 10 weeks later and he never forgave Adams for digging up the dirt and branding his beloved wife a bigamist.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Lincoln broke up with Mary Owens by letter and then went on to greatness. Pinterest.

5. Abraham Lincoln split with Mary Owens by sending her a letter – and then went on to greater things

What if Abraham Lincoln never became President but instead lived a quiet life as modest family man and lawyer in New Salem, Illinois? American history would have turned out very different indeed. And it nearly happened, too. While still a young man, Lincoln agreed to a potential match with a lady called Mary Owens from Kentucky. He had told her sister that he would be open to marriage if Mary ever made it to New Salem – some say Lincoln was half-joking when he agreed to this – and, sure enough, she arrived in the sleepy town at the end of 1836.

Lincoln, being a true gentleman, agreed to see her. The pair even dated for a while. However, ‘Honest Abe’ couldn’t continue with the pretense for long. By the summer of 1837, Lincoln had moved to Springfield to move ahead with his law career. He decided the right thing to do was to break up with Mary. Lincoln sent the young lady a letter claiming she would not like the state capital. He even said that he would not blame her if she walked away from the relationship herself. Lincoln never received a reply. He threw himself into his work and then in 1839, he met Mary Todd, his future wife and mother of his four children. She would be by his side as he embarked on his legendary rise to the top.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Caroline Norton was a pioneering feminist before it became cool. Wikipedia.

4. Caroline Norton and George Norton’s messy divorce had a lasting impact on women’s rights in Britain

The messy end to the marriage of George and Caroline Norton was to have a major impact on women’s rights in Britain, and across the wider world. Caroline, who was born in 1808, married lawyer and politician George when she was just 19-years-old. She was clever and beautiful, while he was an ill-tempered brute, a drunk and a professional failure. He would take his anger and frustration out on his young wife. What’s more, George pushed Caroline to make the most of her beauty and charms to improve their standing in society. By 1836, Caroline had had enough. She broke up with George and demanded a divorce.

George didn’t take the break up well. He took the couple’s three sons and refused to tell Caroline where they were. According to the letter of the law, the children were his ‘property’. What’s more, he even took the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to court, charging that he and Caroline had been having an affair. The court threw out the case. However, Caroline still needed to fight for custody of her children. She even petitioned Queen Victorian herself. Eventually, she succeeded in getting Parliament to pass the Custody of Children Act in 1839 and then, later in life, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1857. Both were landmark pieces of legislation.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Pompeia dropped out of the history books after her break from Caesar. Wikipedia.

3. Julius Caesar and Pompeia’s separation is still an example many modern-day power-hungry politicians follow to this day

Over the centuries, many famous or powerful figures have decided to ditch their partner rather than run the risk of embarrassment. Far from ‘standing by your man (or woman)’, they are ready to break off a relationship if it looks like their partner’s actions might harm their own ambitions. And, as with many things, Julius Caesar led the way. His brutal separation from his second wife Pompeia set a precedent, illustrating how ruthless leaders don’t let love or loyalty get in the way of the pursuit of power.

Caesar wed Pompeia in 67BC, just a year after his first wife had died in childbirth. For a while, it looked like a good union, especially in political terms. But then in the year 62, Pompeia served as the hostess for the annual Bona Dea festival. This was a female-only religious festival to give praise to the ‘Dear God’. This time, however, a young man, a known prankster called Publius Clodius Pulcher, snuck in disguised as a woman. According to the rumors of the time, he was there to try and seduce Pompeia. When he heard of this, Caesar divorced his wife straight away rather than try and defend her reputation. He argued that ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion’ – implying that the partner of an ambitious politician needs to be squeaky-clean or risk getting dumped.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Byron had many lovers, but his break from Caroline Lamb really hit him hard. Wikimedia Commons.

2. Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb’s break-up may have caused the great poet to flee England – and go to his death in Greece

George Gordon Byron is widely-acclaimed as one of England’s finest-ever poets. But he might have produced an even greater body of work had it not been for his break-up with Lady Caroline Lamb. The pair had enjoyed a torrid affair throughout 1812, even though Lamb was married to William Lamb, the future Prime Minister. She famously described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, and he made no secret of their affair. Neither did Byron keep his decision to break-off their relationship a secret. Lam was heartbroken and humiliated.

Byron didn’t take the break-up well, either. In 1816, he fell into a brief, ill-advised marriage to William Lamb’s cousin. However, by this point, his reputation was in tatters – due in no small part to the malicious rumor his angry former lover had been spreading. Byron saw no option but to leave England, especially when Lamb published a novel based on their affair. He soon ended up in Greece and was killed in 1824 while helping the country fight for freedom from the Ottoman Empire. Byron was just 36 when he died – a remarkable life cut tragically short.

These 16 Romantic Break-ups Changed History
Julius Caesar never let love or loyalty get in the way of his ambition. Pinterest.

1. Julius Caesar cold-heartedly broke up with Cossutia as he began his rise to the top

It’s never been entirely clear whether Julius Caesar married and then divorced Cossutia or they were simply engaged when he broke the relationship off. What is clear, however, is that Caesar was still technically a boy when the pair met and embarked on a romantic affair. He had yet to wear the toga of manhood, while she was a young girl from a good, if not great, family. According to some ancient sources, as soon as Caesar assumed his manly toga, he moved to make her his wife.

In 84BC, Caesar suddenly split up with Cossutia. His father had just recently died and he was looking to the future. Moreover, he was assessing his chances of gaining power while married to a girl from a family that was not novi homines, that is, one which didn’t have at least one Senator to its name. Caesar abruptly ended the union and married Cornelia soon afterwards. Since she was the daughter of four-time consul of the Roman Republic Lucius Cornelius Cinna, the union made much more sense politically and set Caesar on the path to greatness.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Abraham Lincoln, Mary Owens and the accidental engagement.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

“Julius Caesar.”

“Mark Anthony.” McGill University.

“Lady Caroline Lamb.” The Daily Telegraph, April 2001.

“Meet Caroline Norton: fighting for women’s rights before it was even cool.” January 2016.

“Rachel Jackson Biography.” National First Ladies Library.

“The Heartbreaking History of Divorce.” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2014.

“A brief history of divorce.” The Guardian, September 2009.

“Eleanor of Aquitaine.” BBC History.

“Edvard Munch: Beyond The Scream”. Smithsonian Magazine. Arthur Lubow. March 2006