A Royal Affair

From illicit love affairs to ‘happily ever afters’, history is full of royal romances – here is our pick of the top eight

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A Royal Affair

1. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Arguably the greatest royal romance of all time, the love affair between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg has fairytale qualities. Upon meeting for the first time in 1836, on the occasion of Victoria’s 17th birthday, they became infatuated. Over the next three years they wrote to each other often, and when they met again in 1839, it was clear that Victoria was falling for him; she wrote in her diary on 11 October, “My heart is quite going!” After proposing to Albert four days later, the couple were married in early 1840. Their love endured through their marriage, and Victoria was inconsolable at Albert’s premature death 21 years later.

Albert and Victoria with their nine children
 

2. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford

A tale of unwavering love, the adulterous affair between John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III, and Katherine Swynford, governess to his children, began after the death of Gaunt’s first wife around 1368. Continuing until 1381, when the couple were forced to part due to the turbulent political situation of the age, the couple had four illegitimate children, whose descendants would be major players in the Wars of the Roses and eventually kings of England. In January 1396, after the death of John’s second wife, the two were finally married in Lincoln Cathedral.
 

3. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

Shaping the form of the current British monarchy, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson's is perhaps the best-known royal romance. Meeting in 1931, the couple fell in love, and despite her marriage to Ernest Simpson, Wallis became Edward’s mistress. Upon becoming king, Edward announced his intention to marry Wallis, which provoked outcry from Parliament, as she was a divorcee. Forced to choose between love and duty, Edward renounced the throne, declaring he could not be king “without the help and support of the woman I love”. The couple married in 1937, but Wallis was never accepted as part of the royal family. 

Edward and Wallis on a skiing holiday in Austria, 1935
 

4. Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley

Heralded ‘The Virgin Queen’, Elizabeth I was not as virtuous as her title infers. Robert Dudley, her childhood companion, captured her heart, and the two spent much time together hunting, dancing and conversing. Gossip soon became widespread among her household that they were lovers, and rumours only intensified when Elizabeth became queen as she moved his bedchamber next to her private rooms. Although they never married, Dudley’s letters, which Elizabeth kept alongside a portrait of him beside her bed, testify to their great love. 
 

5. Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend

The stolen glances and hidden embraces between Princess Margaret and Captain Peter Townsend in the 2016 Netflix series The Crown are far from fiction. 1947 marked the beginning of the affair, when Townsend accompanied the Royal Family on a tour of South Africa. However, it only became public when Margaret was recorded affectionately brushing fluff off Townsend’s lapel at the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Although the couple announced their intention to marry, parliament refused to accept their proposed marriage, as Townsend was a divorcee. Threatened with losing her royal title, Margaret had little choice but to break off the marriage.

Peter Townsend (left) and Princess Margaret

6. Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville

Like his future namesake, Edward IV scandalised the royal court by marrying a social inferior. He first met Elizabeth Woodville, daughter of a minor baron, when she petitioned him for his help on his way north. A notorious womaniser, Edward was immediately taken with Elizabeth, and asked her to become his mistress. Maintaining that she would rather die than live unchastely, Elizabeth refused and so Edward secretly married her on May Day, 1464. The news of the match was kept secret for five months, and when it was revealed the nobility were aghast.
 

7. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Despite its gruesome ending, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s love affair must be considered an all-time royal great. Appointed as lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon in 1522, Anne soon caught Henry’s eye with her wit, charm and intelligence. Infatuated, he wrote to her, declaring himself her servant and pressing her to become his mistress. Anne refused, settling for nothing but marriage. Around New Year 1527, Henry proposed to Anne, and after divorcing Catherine by breaking with the Catholic Church, he married her secretly in 1533. Famously, Anne was executed only three years later, accused of adultery, incest and treason.

Henry and Anne in a Victorian engraving
 

8. Antony and Cleopatra

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra firmly cemented the love affair between Mark Antony, powerful triumvir of Rome, and Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, in history. Although the play is largely fictional, the two were indeed lovers and first met in 41 BC. Captivated by Cleopatra’s charm, Antony remained in Alexandria until early 40 BC, and later that year the pharaoh gave birth to twins. After four years absence, Antony returned and married Cleopatra according to Egyptian rite. Sadly, their happiness was brief, as Rome declared war against Egypt and Antony’s armies deserted him. Both committed suicide, Cleopatra by putting an asp to her breast.

 

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